Reflections on THATCamp, the Franchise

I don’t remember how I first learned about THATCamp – perhaps it was from the HNN website, or perhaps it was from Twitter. I’m pretty sure the inaugural one passed me by entirely unnoticed. But when the call for participation came out for the second THATCamp in 2009 I was very eager to participate. I was at a crossroads in my own work and had decided that digital work was the direction I wanted to go. THATCamp seemed like the ideal place to discover the cutting edge work in the field. So I applied. And I was rejected. There were too many applicants for the room available. I felt terrible.

Ironically, my rejection from THATCamp 2009 meant that I was more or less present at the dawning of the “franchising” of the THATCamp brand. (A second irony is that, since I could not go to THATCamp, I decided to spend the money to go to DH2009, where I met a number of people I have come to associate with the THATCamp community.) I quickly learned from Twitter that I was not alone in being rejected. (Indeed, my personal experience of THATCamp is closely connected to my early experience of Twitter and evokes many of the same feelings today.) I recognized several despondent Twitterers as being located fairly close to me. Discussion online quickly shifted from “Oh, gee, why didn’t they want me?” to “you know, we could organize something like that ourselves.” And then Ben Brumfield, Lisa Grimm, Peter Keane, and Jeanne Kramer-Smyth did just that – organizing a THATCamp to be held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Austin just a few months after THATCamp 2009. The organizers of THATCamp Austin helpfully produced a written template for organizing a meeting on the cheap. I had already been in contact with some of the people I had encountered on Twitter about holding a similar gathering at Richard Stockton College. Now, it made sense to align it explicitly with THATCamp.

There were a handful of regional THATCamps between Austin and THATCamp “Prime” 2010. And then came the deluge. I applied for THATCamp 2010 with the explicit idea of learning “how to THATCamp” and being part of that deluge (I was reluctant to try organizing a THATCamp without ever having attended one!) in addition to learning DH. This time I was accepted. My timing could not have been better. The RRCHNM had decided to actively support the development of regional THATCamps and had received a small subsidy to encourage first time participants to attend regional camps and to support Amanda French as a coordinator of THATCamp planning (Thanks, Amanda!).

By the time THATCamp Jersey Shore took place in April, 2011, it was already the 23rd regional camp. Two more followed the next week. But THATCamp Jersey Shore was the first to be held in the Northeast of the US. It was attended by organizers of subsequent THATCamps in Philly and for Community Colleges, among others. For me, the years 2011 and 2012 were the moment of my most intensive involvement in THATCamp. The experience was new enough that it was worthwhile for me to go up to Poughkeepsie for THATCamp Pedagogy and to seriously consider (though not ultimately go) going to DePere, Wisconsin for THATCamp Small Liberal Arts Colleges. I returned to George Mason for one more THATCamp Prime. But mostly, I became more or less a regular at THATCamp Philly which ran every year from 2011 to 2016, by which time the concept had lost its energy.

Like Trevor Owen, it has now been many years since I attended a THATCamp. I guess I was one of the most vocal opponents of the proposal four years ago to dissolve the THATCamp council and archive the website. I think it was the right call then not to shut things down. Fifty-five new THATCamps were registered at the site between the proposal to close the site and today. But it makes sense to make this orderly exit now.

It is easy to underestimate how important it was that the founders of THATCamp prime responded to the idea of regional THATCamps with encouragement and support rather than circling the wagons around “their” un-conference. May this archived site serve as a fitting memorial to the wisdom of that decision.

For those who are interested. While rummaging around trying to refresh my memory, I uncovered my reactions to experiencing THATCamp 2009 vicariously via Twitter here:

Categories: General