#citymash: Library and Information Science as Fluid Practice

Arts Emergency badge. Image tweeted by @philgibby

Arts Emergency badge. Image tweeted by @philgibby


The venerable Oxford English Dictionary (online) tells me that part of the definition of the word “fluid” is “having the property of flowing; consisting of particles that move freely among themselves…”; a second definition also includes “flowing or moving readily; not solid or rigid; not fixed…”

These are the parts of the definition that what we’d like to embrace when we say that #citymash, the libraries and technology unconference that #citylis has organised to take place tomorrow Saturday 13 June 2015, will be a “fluid” event. Moreover, the fluidity of #citymash is an expression of a particular understanding of Library and Information Science (LIS) as a discipline, of librarianship as a practice and of information professionals as people.

As my colleagues Lyn Robinson and David Bawden have said in several occasions, LIS has evolved and it is in ongoing evolution. It flows; sometimes it seems it does so dizzyingly fast, others frustratingly slow, but the fact remains that LIS does flow. This fluidity goes beyond the transformations that documents have undergone from the first cave paintings to the latest hybrid immersive experiences; it includes the way we as academics, practitioners and people interested in all aspects of information interact with each other socially, “in real life”.

The unconference model is part of this transformation. In theory, an unconference is a conference organised, structured and led by the people attending it. All attendees and organisers are encouraged to become participants, with discussion leaders providing moderation and structure for attendees. Indeed, unconferences have become popular as an alternative to the panel discussions and keynote speakers featured at traditional conferences. Perhaps they were once considered “radical”, but increasingly more transparent, slightly more accessible, less vertical forms of organisation are gradually becoming the norm. In practice they also make us realise that fluidity is as difficult to get as rigid structures, and that  equal participation and collective, non hierarchical leadership remains a challenge to get right.

As a PhD student (in a galaxy that seems far, far away now) I witnessed not without some envy the first wonderful appearance (in 2008) and eventually skyrocketing international success (from 2009 onwards) of THATcamp (the Humanities and Technology Camp). “An open, inexpensive meeting where humanists and technologists of all skill levels learn and build together in sessions proposed on the spot”, it was the brainchild of colleagues at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in the United States. (They are also the birthplace of Zotero). Wikipedia kindly reminds me that it was indeed in August 2009 that the first THATCamp was held outside of the George Mason campus at the University of Texas in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists.

Perhaps not coincidentally it was also in 2008 (remember we were in the midst of a serious financial crisis) that the idea of the “Mashed Library” started doing the rounds, thanks to the work of Owen Stephens. By 2010 there had been a series of Mashed Library unconference events and it had been proven that the concept went well beyond Owen sitting on his own in a room with his laptop.

Without pioneers like THATCamp and the Mashed Library events #citymash would not be taking place tomorrow. The inspiring arts and humanities advocacy organisation Arts Emergency has said it very well, “sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it yourself.” Libraries and universities can be surprisingly conservative and risk-averse. At the same time, paraphrasing Arts Emergency, LIS is a discipine that focuses on experimental thought; libraries and universities can indeed “foster thought beyond the norms of the present. Without the capacity to think beyond repetition there is no beyond to crisis.”

This post is already longer than I intended. The list of initial session leaders for #citymash tomorrow is here. The initial programme is here. There will be practical and discussion sessions on open source implementation, systems librarianship, hands-on Twitter archiving, GoogleRefine, UX, Making in Libraries, Fan Networks, past predictions of the future of the library, 3D printing, storytelling, Markdown, and more. There are also free rooms available for other sessions to be decided on the spot, and a dedicated reflection space throughout the event.

As #citymash is an unconference, timings, topics and proceedings are expected to be fluid. Participants have been asked to bring lunch to share. It is meant to be a social, fun, flexible space. Hopefully it will provide us with an opportunity to learn from each other and to make things ourselves: a space for thinking beyond repetition.

Here’s looking forward to tomorrow!

The #citymash website is at http://citymash.github.io/. Please note that registration has now closed. Follow the #citymash hashtag for live updates from the day.

SSI logo

#citymash has been supported by the Software Sustainability Institute. The Software Sustainability Institute cultivates world-class research with software. The Institute is based at the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Southampton and Oxford.

figshare logo

#citymash has been supported by figshare. figshare is a repository where users can make all of their research outputs available in a citable, shareable and discoverable manner.


About Ernesto Priego

A lecturer at City, University of London. My research interests include digital humanities, library and information science, human computer interaction design, comics scholarship, scholarly communications, open access, open data and open educational resources.
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