Info the Woods

Notes on InfoCamp

December 29, 2009

Joseph Janes

As anyone who knows me well will testify, I am not by inclination the outdoorsy type. I mean, it’s fine for those who like that sort of thing, but I’ve always maintained that civilization is here for a reason, and I see no reason to go back to a time before grocery stores and flush toilets.

I was, however, induced to go camping this fall—sort of. I went to my first InfoCamp, an unconference founded and led by a couple of dynamos named Aaron Louie and Rachel Elkington. Unconferences are fascinating; for those of us used to highly structured, years-in-the-planning conclaves with elaborately prepared presentations, it’s quite bracing to experience an unconference’s unstructured, off-the-cuff nature, because nobody knows what’s going to happen.

There are lots of ways to do an unconference. InfoCamp starts off with a keynote each day and then multiple sessions that are entirely up to the participants to imagine, create, and lead, often on the fly and spur of the moment. They don’t all work, naturally, but my experience was very positive. I learned a lot, and I think the conveners did too.

It’s also, by the way, the only time I’ve actually found Twitter useful—reading tweets from people sitting in other sessions (or my own) gave me a fuller view of what was going on. The InfoCamp wiki kept updating too, as people worked up the courage to sign up to give a session. (Have a look at and plan your own!)

Maybe the coolest part was the breadth of participants—lots of librarians as well as specialists in user experience and web design, and other keen folks. Lots of cross-pollination and diversity, which is all to the good. Fox talks Being the search geek that I am, I was particularly taken with the keynote by search-engine expert Vanessa Fox. Here are a few random snippets from her fast and audience-friendly hour:

  • About a quarter of web searches are one word, another quarter two words; 3% are eight words or more, and that category is rising quickly.
  • For 20% of queries, the search engine hasn’t seen that search in the previous month, and that category is growing too.
  • There’s a growing “search divide”: More people are getting more experience with search and search technique, and more people are joining the party with little or none.
  • The percentage of traffic to websites (especially in the automotive and sports fields) coming from search engines as opposed to links or direct navigation is rising.
  • 85% of searchers go directly to the organic results, bypassing sponsored results.
  • Brand perception is higher for Google than other tools; give people the same results with the Google name on them and they’ll rate them more highly regardless of what engine actually produced them.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of all that, other than to observe that search clearly continues to evolve, even after most of us have become quite familiar with it. It’s still a moving target and as such presents opportunities and challenges to those of us in the information biz.

A few weeks later, I got to participate in another unconference, this time a session at the annual meeting of the Washington and Oregon chapters of ALA’s Association of College and Research Libraries. This was one big group that gave just 15 minutes to each topic, spontaneously ranging from sustainability to federated searching to advice for someone just starting out on a first job. I was glad to be there and help out my dear friend Jan Hartley. Even if it was held at a conference center in—the forest. . . . But that’s another story.


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