What can be so hard about organising a monthly meeting that it turns into such a struggle?

Linux User & Developer seems to buck the trend for PC magazines shipping two months earlier than the cover date. The latest issue, 50, arrived during the week and according to the website is the May 2005 issue.

Inside, “The Lugger” (a column written at least partially by Jon Masters) writes about LUGs, specifically comparing UK LUGs with US ones. He contrasts UK LUGs (informal pub-based gatherings) with US LUGs (budgets and boards of management.) He includes enough conditionals to placate anyone who might try to be offended by the article, but in the end decides that a middle ground between the incorporated US LUGs and the informal UK ones might be the best bet. Well, I think I’m in a position to have some relevant comments. As well as having a full time job, some of you might know that I’m Chairman of Hampshire LUG. It’s one of the larger LUGs in the country (~200 members) and has been around for quite some time. We have a constitution and committee to ensure the LUG continues to meet its objectives – supporting Linux users and spreading the word. Committee members are elected every year and are accountable to the membership. We have a bank account where we save money from donations to buy equipment for the LUG – networking equipment for meetings, that sort of thing. Having defined roles designates responsbility for tasks and ensures that the LUG continues to run smoothly and is open to members of all skill levels. It also ensures that there’s a representative point of contact for external agencies. Certainly such an infrastructure might prove stiffling or just pointless for new or small LUGs, but once a community has been established around a LUG, it’s worth thinking about protecting the LUG with some formal rules. They don’t have to be called upon, but they’re there when you need them. By the time you realise you could do with some formal rules, it’s usually too late to establish them.

The Lugger describes UK LUGs as small groups gathering in pubs and community centres. As The Lugger points out this often excludes people, for example those who can’t go to pubs for religious reasons. It also excludes those who can’t get into pubs with inadequate disabled access, those who are too young, those who can’t hear where music is played, or simply those who dislike smoky atmospheres. (This was evident when our LUG had regular pub-based meetings as well as bring-a-box meetings – attendance at the pub meetings was usually less than half of the bring-a-box meetings.) The Lugger says, “those in minorities or with disabilities [can be left] feeling a little left out (since they’re not always catered for by any level of forward planning).” At HantsLUG we actively try to make our meetings as accessible to all as possible. One of the many advantages of our Southampton University venue is that it is on the ground floor and has automatic doors and disabled toilets. It’s fairly neutral territory as far as religions go and the room is air-conditioned and there’s no smoking in the building. I’m going to sound like a old fart now, but I enjoy a nice pint as much as the next man. I just don’t think that pub meetings should be at the core of a LUG’s activites. Particularly, if they are the only LUG activity, they can exclude a large number of potential members. LUGs are there to support existing Linux users and to encourage everyone to try using it. Excluding sections of society doesn’t help further the cause.

One part of the article that I do disagree with however, is where The Lugger says “I was reading a story on Newsforge recently about the experiences one guy had as a president of a local LUG and was forced to wonder: what can be so hard about organising a monthly meeting that it turns in to such a perceived struggle?” Well, struggle might be pushing it (certainly things get easier with practice,) but organising a monthly LUG meeting isn’t a piece of cake. As part of the Chairman’s role I organise monthly meetings as well as monthly InfoPoints. Organising a meeting involves weeks of planning. People require notice of events, so they have to be announced two or three weeks in advance. (We also like to have details of our next meeting to give out at InfoPoints.) This means booking and confirming the venue, arranging physical and network access. Prior to the meeting we have to arrange volunteers for the front desk, find out what problems people need fixing so that the necessary resources can be brought along and help people with transport arrangements as necessary. If there are talks being given at the meeting, speakers have to be approached, details confirmed and requirements met. The schedule then has to be finalised and announced long enough in advance of the meeting for people to arrange to be there for a particular talk they want to see. On the day itself we have to arrange for all the equipment for the meeting – hubs, network cables, 4-ways, badges, donated items for give-aways, equipment for the front desk – to be delivered and set up. Furniture needs arranging. We need to improve our signage for the meetings – this would also mean more stuff to sort out in advance and use on the day. The meeting itself is a mixture of welcoming people to the meeting, ensuring they get settled in, getting plonked in front of a system running distro you’ve never used and trying to fix it, ensuring the speakers are happy, announcing talks and trying to talk to each attendee throughout the day. (At our last meeting we had 40+). Afterwards everything has to be packed up, boxed up and loaded into cars. After the meeting, well, there’s about a week to confirm details of the venue for next time. Oh, and an InfoPoint to organise. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy doing all this for the LUG. But a walk in the park it isn’t.

So, whilst I don’t agree with everything in the article, it should certainly provoke some discussion among smaller or newer LUGs.

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