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Reading between the lines: Information literacy in engineering education standards

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the annual LILAC conference about some work I’ve done as part of my PhD literature review, comparing the UK accreditation standards for engineering degree courses (the Engineering Council’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes, or AHEP) with the SCONUL and ACRL standards/frameworks for information literacy.

The abstract of my talk is on the LILAC conference website, and you can view my slides below.

I found the exercise of examining the AHEP documents for mentions, explicit or implied, of information literacy incredibly illuminating. It was the first time I’d looked at these standards in detail – I would highly recommend other subject librarians do the same, for any subjects you support. I’m planning to use the results of my analysis to start conversations with academics in the department about the implicit expectations on students for their information skills, and how we can better support students to develop these.

See my slides for more detail, but my main takeaway from this exercise is that information literacy is seen within this discipline as something that “just happens”, rather than something that needs explicit support and scaffolded development. Interestingly, after giving this talk I came across this 2016 paper (Bury, 2016) which makes a similar point, finding that academics in STEM fields considered information searching/finding as a “lower order” skill which they did not prioritise, but still lamented students’ lack of skills in this area. I have certainly come across similarly conflicting views among academics!

Another point which came up in the discussion after my talk was, what can we as librarians do about this? AHEP used to include information retrieval as an explicit learning outcome for students on engineering courses, but this wording was removed for the publication of the most recent edition. Is there an opportunity for librarians or information professionals to be involved with any future revisions of AHEP, to ensure that information literacy doesn’t get forgotten about? We know from research into the professional practice of engineers (e.g. Leiss & Ludwig, 2018; Robinson, 2010; Waters et al., 2012) that efficiently seeking, filtering, and evaluating information are key professional competencies. So shouldn’t engineering courses in higher education place higher value on these skills?

One member of the audience mentioned that in the US, the equivalent accreditation standard for business schools has been under revision, and the professional organisation for business librarians is involved with this process. I think that sounds amazing, and I would love to see similar efforts within the UK! Unfortunately I’m not sure how we would go about this, as there isn’t a professional body specifically for engineering/STEM librarians in the UK. There is USTLG, but this is really a networking group rather than a professional body. Perhaps we need to start our own organisation? Or perhaps there is a role for CILIP here?


(you know you’re a PhD student when you start to include reference lists in your blog posts…)

Bury, S. (2016). Learning from faculty voices on information literacy. Reference Services Review, 44(3), 237-252. https://doi.org/10.1108/rsr-11-2015-0047

Leiss, C., & Ludwig, P. (2018). Engineering graduates at work: Reality check for information literacy. IATUL Annual Conference Proceedings, 1-10. https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/iatul/2018/infolit/3/

Robinson, M. A. (2010). An empirical analysis of engineers’ information behaviors. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 61(4), 640-658. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.21290

Waters, N., Kasuto, E., & McNaughton, F. (2012). Partnership between engineering libraries: identifying information literacy skills for a successful transition from student to professional. Science & Technology Libraries, 31(1), 124-132. https://doi.org/10.1080/0194262x.2012.648104

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My experience of starting an LIS PhD

I gave a short talk this week at a CILIP Library & Information Research Group (LIRG) event, on “Routes and experiences of doing an LIS* PhD“. There were several other speakers there, all far more experienced and knowledgeable than me! The aim of my talk was simply to share a little of what my experience has been so far, to hopefully help others who are considering a PhD, or at the start of this journey themselves.

*Note for non-library folks reading: LIS = Library and Information Science.

Before the event I had asked on Twitter and Mastodon if anyone had any particular questions they would like answering in a session like this. I got a surprising amount of responses, including from people who weren’t able to attend and wanted to know if it would be recorded. The event wasn’t recorded, so I said I would post some version of my talk here. So here, more or less, is what I said…

A forked path leading into some trees. It's a heavy-handed visual metaphor for the start of my research journey!
Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

I’m Laura, a subject librarian at the University of Huddersfield, and as of April this year, also a part-time PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research is into the information behaviour of women engineering students. 

I’ve worked in libraries since 2007, starting with a graduate traineeship in a law library, followed by my Masters at City University London in 2008-09. I worked in law libraries for a while, then moved to a role in the charity sector, and then to my current role at the University of Huddersfield in 2014.

So it’s been a fair old gap between my Masters and my PhD! A question that comes up a lot is: why did I want to do this, and why now? It was something I’d been considering for a long time. I have a lot of friends and colleagues who either have or are pursuing PhDs, and in my role at Huddersfield I support PhD students amongst all other levels of study. So having that vantage point first of all gave me research envy: I was forever talking to people doing incredibly interesting research! And secondly, it made me start to think: I could do that…

I’d always imagined that a PhD was something only the cleverest of the clever could do, and certainly wasn’t for mere mortals like me. Talking to others who were going through the process themselves or had recently done so started to demystify it for me. It still seemed very challenging, but no longer felt completely out of my reach, so long as I was able to put the work in.

What I didn’t have at first was a research topic. That changed when I was involved in some UX research at Huddersfield, investigating how computing undergraduates in particular used the library and other support services, and how they went about seeking help at various points in their assignments. And this was fascinating, and started off the spark of an idea that there could be a bigger topic here that might work for a PhD.

I should explain here: my role as a subject librarian at Huddersfield involves me supporting students from the School of Computing & Engineering. As a woman, I’m always extremely conscious that when I teach information literacy to students from this School, frequently I am the only or one of the few women in the room. And in observing the few women students I did see, I got interested in the ways they talked about their research topics, or sought help from me or other librarians. So that sparked an idea: could I look into the information behaviour of minoritised genders in a very masculinised environment such as an engineering classroom? So my research topic was informed both by my own values, my feminism, and also my professional experience as a librarian and what I had observed in that role.

That idea developed gradually, it didn’t pop into my head fully formed! So I had plenty of time while I was considering whether I wanted to apply for a PhD programme to consider my next steps. Being a librarian, obviously my first step was to find out as much as I could! I spent a lot of time on Google and on YouTube, looking up advice on how to draft a proposal and how to choose an advisor. I also talked to lots of people. Particular thanks are due here to Bryony Ramsden, Richie Dockery, Jane Secker and Alison Hicks, who all generously gave their time and invaluable advice. Jane in particular said something that stayed with me: that people who get PhDs aren’t necessarily the cleverest, but they are the most stubborn. I’ve shared that with a few fellow PhD researchers I’ve met and I think most find it as reassuring as I did!

Of all things, the covid lockdown gave me the push to actually get moving with this! Like many people, I suddenly had lots more time and space to think and reflect, and consider what I wanted to be spending my time on. It also helped with the financial side: I knew I would have to self-fund, and the money I saved from not commuting or travelling during lockdown is basically financing my PhD. (Kirsty Wallis also mentioned money saved from commuting as funding for her PhD in her talk at this event, which is rather a damning indictment of public transport in the UK when you think about it…)

I’d read conflicting advice on whether you should draft a full proposal before or after contacting potential supervisors. I decided to do it first, largely to see if the vague ideas I had at this early stage would actually make a coherent research proposal. I ran it by a few people for feedback, some of those mentioned earlier and also Charles Oppenheim, who when I tweeted that I was writing a PhD proposal messaged me to offer to look it over if I wanted an external opinion. I am extremely grateful to Charles for this professional generosity, and for the constructive feedback and encouragement he sent me in response.

In the meantime, I was also looking at where I could apply and who I could approach as potential supervisors. I did some research into library schools around the country with PhD programmes, and looked at their departmental web pages and researcher profiles. From this I drew up a list of people with similar research interests who might be potential supervisors. I ended up contacting two people, at different institutions, for an informal chat about my research ideas and about their PhD programmes. For various reasons I decided on Sheffield, and have ended up with the dream team of Sheila Webber and Pam McKinney as my supervisors.

Not much to say from there: I applied to Sheffield, and was accepted for a place starting October 2021. Unfortunately a spanner in the works arrived in the form of covid: I got ill in June 2021, and developed long covid. By October I was still experiencing severe brain fog as well as various other physically-limiting symptoms, so made the difficult decision to defer my start date to April 2022. Luckily for me, my long covid turned out to be shorter than most, so by spring 2022 I was pretty well recovered and ready to start my PhD that April.

So how has my experience been so far? First of all, I am loving it. It’s one of the most challenging but rewarding things I’ve ever done. But it is certainly challenging, particularly to do part-time alongside working.

I have recently decided to reduce my working hours. Starting in April, I began my PhD journey during the quietest part of the year for an academic library, so was able to spend some work time on PhD work. But I always knew that when the autumn term came around I would have less time to spend on study. So from September, I have dropped to 0.8 FTE, meaning I now work four days a week instead of five.

I’m managing my time so far by being extremely strict around boundaries. I have set days and times when I study, and I stick to those. That means saying no to social and family stuff sometimes, so I’ve talked to all those nearest and dearest to me to help them understand why I’m making the choices that I am. 

I also want to acknowledge my own privilege here: I don’t have caring responsibilities, I have a well-paying, permanent job, I could afford to reduce my hours, and I can choose what time I dedicate to studying without having to work around other people’s needs. I know people who are doing part-time PhDs while also working full time and also raising a young family, for example, and I am full of awe for how they make that work. So I don’t really have any advice for anyone doing the PhD on “hard mode”, so to speak, other than that I think you have to decide what to prioritise and stick to that.

I am fully self-funding, and again I am aware of the financial privilege in that being an option for me. But although my employer isn’t funding me, they are supportive and willing to give me the flexibility to pursue this while working. While I don’t have any official research time from work, my line manager is happy for me to do things like attend online CPD training or research group meetings during work time, so long as they don’t conflict with any specific work requirements.

So that’s my experience so far! I am now seven months into the process, which as I am part-time equates to around three and a half months of full-time progress. What I’ve found most challenging so far is probably understanding research methodologies. Although this was something I covered in my Masters, that was a long time ago, and the practitioner research I’ve been involved in most recently did not have the kind of robust research design that is expected at PhD level! But my supervisors have been great in helping me identify what I need in order to develop, and I am slowly getting there.

My top tips for anyone considering or just starting a PhD would be:

  • Take your time, do some research into who is working/publishing in your field and who you could potentially approach for supervision.
  • Ask for help! The great thing about librarians is, we love to help. There are lots of librarian-researchers out there who are always generous with their time and advice. Including myself: if anyone is considering applying for a PhD and wants to chat about it, please do give me a shout!
  • Spend some time before you start getting a workflow set up. Decide when and where you will work on your PhD, and find out what options are available to you for flexible working, for example.
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Professional skills for my PhD

Since starting my PhD last month, I have been very conscious of myself as a mature PhD student. I know there is nothing unusual in this: I have met many PhD students at Huddersfield pursuing a research degree later in life, and in fact my own grandpa started his PhD aged 60! So at 37, I don’t think I’m “too old” to be doing this. But it has made me think about the advantages and disadvantages to pursuing a PhD at this stage of my life and career.

Firstly, the disadvantages: I have been out of formal education for a long time. I completed my undergraduate degree in 2005, and my Masters in 2009. Since then, I have also achieved a PG Certificate in Higher Education, but that was a few years ago (completed in 2018). So it is fair to say that my academic skills are a little rusty!

Obviously in the meantime I have been employed in HE, and I try to keep an eye on the academic literature (via attendance at conferences like LILAC, reading interesting things I see on Twitter or on JiscMail mailing lists, and keeping reasonably on top of journals like JIL). So I’m not quite so far removed from academic research as I would have been if I’d still been working in corporate or special libraries and hadn’t had such good online professional networks. But there is having a general interest in research, and keeping up with odd bits and bobs when I have time, and then there is actually immersing myself in the field and really grappling with complex ideas. Those are mental muscles I haven’t stretched in a while, and I can tell!

That leads me on to one of the major the advantages though: my well-developed professional skills. As a librarian, I am extremely experienced in finding and managing information: searching specialist databases, keeping track of my research materials, and keeping up to date with new information. I teach PhD students how to do this as part of my job, so it’s something I know how to do for myself pretty well! I already have keyword and citation alerts set up for the various topics I am interested in, and my EndNote library is, frankly, immaculate.

Getting started with my own research has brought home to me just what an advantage these skills give me. Thinking back to the classes and one-to-one appointments I have had with PhD students, it strikes me just how much there is to learn at the start of a PhD. There is so much new conceptual information to take in, how much harder must it be if you are also trying to learn how to use reference management software, or search a database you have never used before, or even just understand the scholarly information landscape if these concepts are new to you?

As well as my information skills, I also have a range of professional skills I can draw from. As I started my PhD, I completed a Training Needs Assessment (TNA), which was mapped against the Vitae Research Development Framework (RDF). If I was coming to the PhD directly from my undergraduate and then Masters degrees, there are lots of areas I would have had little or no experience of. As I have more than a decade of professional experience under my belt however, there were lots of areas (such as time management, communication and collaboration, and career development) for which I had plenty I could talk about and point to as evidence for my existing skills.

Finally, I am also a reflective practitioner. Although this blog has been neglected for a few years, I have kept up reflective practice in other ways, e.g. my writing a reflective diary after each teaching session. Reflection has been central to my practice for a long time, and I think it will be really beneficial to my development as a researcher.

I have found it useful to consult the RDF “Getting started in research” lens, which is aimed at those starting out in doctoral research, to identify what skills are most relevant to focus on at the start. There are some areas within this which I feel I am already well-versed in, but others which I will need to focus on developing in the coming months. A short reflection on each development need is below.

Subject knowledge: This is a big one! My Masters in Library and Information Studies was more than ten years ago, and although I have kept my knowledge up to date as a practitioner, my grasp of the theoretical frameworks and their developments is pretty rusty. I used the time before I started my PhD to start reading up on some of the foundational works in my field, something I am continuing to do now. This is aided by my skills in information seeking, another of the RDF priorities in the “getting started” lens, but one which I can confidently say I’ve got down!

Critical thinking and problem solving: This is something I already highlighted in my TNA as a development need. Although I do have critical thinking and problem solving skills from my professional experience, and of course I did successfully complete a Masters so must have demonstrated these skills at that time, I don’t have a lot of experience of applying these skills in a research setting.

Project planning and delivery: I have done a fair amount of small-scale project planning in my day job, but never anything of the scale of a PhD, and I’ve never trained in any formal project management techniques. I don’t know whether that level of training is something I need to seek or not, but I am interested in learning more about managing long-term projects, to see if there are any techniques I can usefully apply.

Research ethics & integrity: I’d like to think I am a fairly ethical person! But the area of research ethics is something I’ve engaged with only briefly, as a Masters student and more recently in conducting small-scale UX projects in my day job. I’ve been reading through the research ethics policies and training materials available from the University of Sheffield and there are certainly issues I’ve never considered before. There is a compulsory training session on this coming up in May, I’m sure I’ll have further reflections on that soon!

Overall, although I’ve certainly got a lot to learn, I think I have a pretty good base to start from. I also think my development as a researcher will benefit my professional practice – part of the reason I am doing my PhD part-time whilst still in my day job as a subject librarian is I see the two roles as very much informing each other.

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Relevance and perceptions of information literacy

The final theme I want to reflect on from LILAC is the ways in which information literacy (IL) is perceived and understood, not just by librarians but in the wider community.

Karen Kaufmann’s talk on factors influencing the relevance of IL to students in higher education was fascinating. Through her doctoral research, Karen has identified a number of factors, but the one overarching “uber factor” is students’ existing knowledge. She also found that most students agreed that IL is relevant to them, but only once they knew what it was! Most don’t have the language to describe this, so providing a definition, along with some real-world examples, can help students to see the relevance of what we teach.

This theme continued in two sessions, scheduled back-to-back (I don’t know if this was deliberate, but it helped!). The first was from Charles Inskip, Alison Hicks, Pam McKinney and Geoff Walton, all members of the Forum on Information Literacy (FOIL), who discussed how IL concepts and research were used across other disciplines. They found that several disciplines, such as management, discuss what are clearly IL concepts in their literature, but do not use this terminology or cite the LIS literature. IL is most adopted within professional disciplines such as nursing and education. It has strong links with evidence based practice for nursing in particular, and some nursing research does cite LIS literature and use IL terminology.

This session led neatly on to Karen Kaufmann’s second presentation, which was on “Information Literacy: Elements of a maturing discipline”. Karen actually cited the paper currently in press from the previous session! She talked about what makes a discipline, and argued for the status of IL as a “maturing” discipline. We had a lively discussion about the impact on our practice of considering IL as a discipline in itself. We discussed the impact it would have on our professional and academic credibility, as well as how it might inform our teaching practice. 

The question of relevance and perceptions of IL came up in some practitioner research sessions as well. Anne-Lise Harding, in her talk about information literacy in the House of Commons, noted that she has called her IL course for select committee researchers “information scrutiny”, as this mirrors the language used by Parliament rather than introducing a term that her audience may be unfamiliar with. 

In one of the most interesting sessions I attended, Ed Wilkinson and Christa McCartney discussed “Pestalozzian principles in post-covid praxis”. Not having any idea what “Pestalozzian principles” were, I didn’t know what to expect from this session! Pestalozzi was a Swiss educational theorist, 1745-1827, who founded schools based on a holistic approach to teaching. His approach was based on engaging the Heart, Ear, Mind and Hand (or feeling, listening, thinking and doing): all four work together and are necessary for transformative learning.

Ed and Christa linked these principles to the concept of critical literacy. They also discussed Kondratiev waves, cycles in history and economics that are prompted by crises, and/or when the availability or type of information changes (e.g. the industrial revolution). They noted that critical pedagogy also comes in waves, it rises and falls. As it becomes widespread it loses its criticality and becomes establishment. The same principles are then rediscovered in the next cycle! E.g. John Dewey used the same principles as Pestalozzi’s Heart/Ear/Mind/Hand, but used different terminology. 

All of this made my brain buzz, and I think I need to sit with it a little longer to make sense of it! Overall, these sessions all combined in my head to make me think about how we discuss IL, and what it means to others not in our field. The question of whether IL is a discipline is an interesting one: I’d always assumed that it is, but that view wasn’t shared by everyone in the session. A comment came up in the FOIL discussion about the use of IL in other disciplines that I think also applies here: LIS is a feminine-coded field and profession. Does that impact how seriously it is taken in masculine-coded fields such as management? 

The discussions about what terminology we use, and do we call it “information literacy” or borrow terminology from other disciplines to make it more relevant to our audience, feels like something we’ve been grappling with for as long as I’ve been in the profession (and I’m sure long before I started my career!). I go back and forth on this: on the one hand, I think it’s important to stake our claim, set out our expertise and define our own terms. On the other hand, on a practical level it is hard to engage learners who don’t always see the relevance of “library stuff”, so using terminology that is familiar to them may be a useful shortcut.

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Understanding library users to support change

I went to several sessions at LILAC which focused on ways to understand library users. I am very interested in this – my PhD research is going to focus on information behaviour because I really want to better understand the students I work with! So I was keen to see the methods and insights that other practitioners had developed. Understanding our library users is a necessary first step to making any changes to better support them.

There were two sessions that focused on reading: Elizabeth Brookbank’s talk on leisure reading in academic libraries, and Jane Secker and Elizabeth Tilly’s presentation on academic reading during the pandemic. Both gave an illuminating view on something that is usually quite hidden: we know how many books are checked out, but we don’t know if/how students are reading them – reading is usually a fairly private activity! 

Elizabeth found that 94% of students interviewed said they do read for fun! Most preferred to read in print, usually exclusively. She found some interesting things about genre and recommendation preferences, which I am planning to incorporate into my work on our leisure reading collection at Huddersfield.

Jane and Elizabeth’s presentation on academic reading also found a heavy preference for print. Which begs the question: why are most libraries pursuing a digital first strategy, when this doesn’t suit most students’ reading preferences? It is a bit more complicated than that though: students’ choices of when to read print and when to read online are context-dependent. Students may prefer online when looking for factual information, or when reading shorter extracts, but print when doing long-form, in-depth reading.

We also discussed how we support students with academic reading. Print usage trends have been going steadily downwards for a long time, but use of ebooks hasn’t had a corresponding rise, so it’s likely that students are simply reading less overall. If they come to university without much experience of academic reading, can we support them by, for example, training on how to use an ebook? And on technology to make reading online more comfortable (e.g. coloured screen overlays, read aloud software)?

One of my favourite sessions from the conference was Ellen Neirenberg’s presentation on the results of her almost-complete doctoral study into the development of students as information literate individuals. Ellen is conducting a longitudinal study into the relationship between knowledge, skills and interest (or knowing, doing and feeling), and how this changes over time. It was fascinating to hear her speak, as I am considering a longitudinal study approach for my own PhD research! One key point that I thought was very interesting was that students’ level of interest in being information literate is a higher motivating factor than their perceived need to learn. In other words, intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation.

On a practical level, I really enjoyed Sheila Webber and Pam McKinney’s workshop on using Theory of Change to evaluate information literacy initiatives (and I am not just saying that because they are my PhD supervisors and might read this!). Theory of Change is an approach to planning and evaluating projects that creates links between goals, activities, and outcomes. This was a hands-on workshop where we had a brief go at completing a Theory of Change framework for a project. Using the table headings below, the idea is you start with an aspiration for the long term impact (1), then articulate the current situation (2), then work backwards through the other columns to align outcomes, activities, and enablers. I can see this approach being beneficial to think through projects before they start, and have a framework for evaluating them from the beginning.

Current situation (2)Enablers (5)Activities/ Processes (4)Outcomes (3)Longer term impact (1)
What is the current situation that has prompted this project?
What needs to change?
Who are the stakeholders and what is their involvement in the project?
What help and support is needed to make sure each process happens?What needs to happen to achieve each of the outcomes listed?
What does each stakeholder group need to do?
What are the achievable concrete outcomes that can be measured at the end of the project?
What will be different for each stakeholder (group)?
The “Blue skies thinking – what do you hope to ultimately achieve through this project?
In 5-10 years time what will be different?
Table 1: Theory of Change framework, as shared by Sheila & Pam in their workshop

I also attended several practitioner research sessions, to see what kinds of user research and evaluation were taking place at other institutions. I enjoyed Ruth Jenkins and Christine Love-Rodgers’ account of how they are evaluating online student appointments at the University of Edinburgh – we are also doing this at the moment at Huddersfield so it was interesting to compare the approach we are taking. At Huddersfield we are asking questions (or sending an online survey if the student doesn’t have time to answer questions) immediately after each appointment, to find out things like how they discovered the appointment service, how easy/difficult they found booking the appointment and joining it on Teams, etc. At Edinburgh they are trying to learn more about the actual impact of the appointments, so are sending the survey several weeks after the appointment rather than immediately. I was curious as to how this impacted their response rate, although unfortunately they didn’t have data on this – but it looked like they’d collected a decent amount of responses!

Catherine Peppard and Alan Chalkley from the Royal College of Nursing described a small-scale UX study into the effectiveness of their online support guides. Interestingly, they found a real mix of preferences: guides are produced as video guides, PDFs, and interactive tutorials, and the participants were all split between which they preferred. All said they wanted to find the information they needed quickly, but what that actually meant for them in terms of which type of guide suited was different for each person. A good reminder of the need to produce guides in multiple formats!

The final session I attended was Rebecca Maniates, from Singapore Management University, talking about evaluating her students’ responses to the One Minute Paper (OMP) exercise. Typically an OMP is completed at the end of a class, and asks two questions: what did you learn, and what questions do you have? (Wording may vary!). Rebecca found that most student responses showed surface learning, but some included more reflective comments and questions. She is using this evaluation to develop her teaching, and find ways to encourage deeper reflection.

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Social justice: the LILAC keynotes

Social justice was a key theme running throughout the conference. Not least in the three keynotes, which were all excellent! I really enjoyed the way the keynotes were run this year, which was using a flipped model. All delegates were sent videos to watch beforehand, recorded by the keynote speakers, and asked to watch these and submit any questions online. So the actual keynote sessions were discussion-based, rather than lecture-based. I thought this was a great way of doing it, and the fact that the speakers had all seen the questions in advance and were able to consider their responses made it a much richer discussion. More of this at conferences please!

The first keynote was a panel discussion with four current LIS students from Manchester Metropolitan University, who were discussing wellbeing in libraries. I was incredibly impressed by their poise and eloquence, I couldn’t have done that as a student! 

One point that resonated with me during their discussion was about how library workers (particularly in education sectors) are often expected to take on wellbeing work such as holding wellbeing workshops or creating resources to support mental health. Whilst this is important work, and I would argue that it is core to the library’s mission to support all learners as whole people, library workers may feel unprepared and unsupported to do it. There was a suggestion that, for example, hosting a mindfulness workshop in the library may suggest a level of expertise that library workers do not necessarily have. (As an aside, I recently read this paper on wellbeing initiatives in libraries which argues persuasively for thinking critically about the kinds of activities we host and how these are aligned with the library’s goals and expertise – this was in my head a lot during the discussion!).

I had a few conversations with other people at the conference about this, and I think where I’ve landed is that all student-facing services at a university (I’m using this as an example as it’s the sector I know best, but I’m sure this could apply in other sectors too) should be prepared to act as an entry point for students seeking mental health support. Students may be more likely to approach the library for help as it is less intimidating than asking their academic tutors, and less stigmatising than approaching any central wellbeing or disability services directly. If a student reaches out for help and is turned away because they didn’t ask the right person, they may never ask for help again. But the other side of that is, all staff must be trained and supported to deal with such occurrences, which requires investment in staff development.

The second keynote was Marilyn Clarke from Goldsmiths, talking about “Decolonisation as a means to creating an equitable future”. This was a wide-ranging and insightful discussion, taking as a starting point the Liberate our Library initiative at Goldsmiths, and covering topics such as the difference between diversifying and decolonisation, allyship and how we as librarians can leverage our power in different ways, and how certain types of knowledge (e.g. peer reviewed papers in prestigious journals!) are elevated in academic settings, perpetuating existing power structures.

If you were watching the hashtag on Twitter when Marilyn was talking, you may have seen some reactions to That Question. One of the pre-submitted questions was a textbook example of white fragility. I don’t remember the full question (it was quite wordy and detailed!), but the gist was essentially: why should it matter if a black student isn’t taught by someone with the same colour skin as them? Shouldn’t we move past thinking about skin colour at all, and just allow progress to happen naturally?

Marilyn addressed this with incredible grace and compassion, while also leaving no doubt about the harm of it! She discussed her own experience of having no black teachers until well into university, and how important representation is to enable black children to imagine themselves in positions of authority. I would also add that the racial disparity in academia (there are very few black women professors) gives the message that the source of education and authority is whiteness. The point about “ignoring” skin colour was profoundly ignorant of the history of social justice! “Colour blindness” simply ignores the complexity and history of systemic racism and allows this to be perpetuated. 

I understand Marilyn had seen the questions in advance and agreed to address that one: I wanted to note that as some commenters on Twitter expressed concern that it was unfair to put her in the position where she had to defend herself like that if it was unexpected. I am grateful to Marilyn for her compassion in answering that question, and I hope the person who asked it is able to take the response on board and learn from it. It was an uncomfortable moment, but I think also an important one. It can be easy, in our lovely woke Twitter echo chamber, to assume that such opinions are a thing of the past, so it was good to have a reminder that not everyone in the profession is on the same page, and to address these attitudes head on.

The final keynote was Emily Drabinski, who since LILAC ended has been announced as the new president of the American Library Association! Massive congratulations to Emily on this 🙂

Emily talked about issues of structure and power in information literacy. This was a fascinating take on where our power and expertise lies as librarians: in understanding how knowledge is produced, disseminated and structured. As librarians we have power in that context, and we also have the knowledge to make visible the power structures inherent in scholarly information that our students may not recognise without help. Emily made the excellent point that it isn’t as simple as power=good or power=bad, it’s about acknowledging power and choosing how to wield it. 

The main point that has stuck with me from the discussion was a question about what to do when no matter how hard we work to educate students about other sources, they just return to Google! Emily pointed out that we all use Google. Rather than try to dissuade them from using it, it’s better to talk about how it works and why. E.g. Emily asks the question: what are you searching when you search Google? Most students don’t know. She will also talk about how scholarly databases work and how understanding how they work enables you to get better results, but because Google’s algorithms are proprietary data, “capitalism prevents me from sharing that”! 

I couldn’t agree more with Emily on this point, and it’s something I’ve also tried to apply in my own teaching practice. I see my role as not to warn students away from Google, but to help them understand when it is a good tool to use and when they’d be better served by something else. I have also tried talking a little about how Google works compared to how library databases work, as Emily describes, as well as discussing Google Scholar. Scholar is basically a pet project for a handful of people at Google. It doesn’t earn any money, so if those people leave Google has no incentive to keep it going. Students are always shocked to hear this, and it’s a good way of highlighting how capitalism affects what knowledge is available and discoverable (although I must admit I rarely describe it explicitly as an effect of capitalism – inspired by Emily, perhaps I should!).

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LILAC 2022: Reflections

*blows dust off blog* Wow, it’s been a while since I last posted here! My last blog was in May 2020, and the last before that was July 2018! 

I haven’t blogged regularly for a very long time, for a variety of reasons. I miss it though, and I’d like to start blogging on a regular basis again. Not least because I am just starting a PhD at the University of Sheffield, and I need to get back into the habit of regular writing! Hopefully I will manage more than a post every two years… 

I’m just back from this year’s long-awaited LILAC conference, so this seems like a good way to restart my blogging habit.

I don’t intend to recap every session I attended at LILAC, but I would like to share some reflections. If you are interested in what was actually discussed, the various slides will be available soon on the LILAC website, and there are excellent live-blogged summaries of many sessions on the Information Literacy Weblog.

Last week at LILAC was genuinely one of the most joyful, affirming and inspiring experiences of my professional life. I don’t think I’d realised before going just how much I’d missed LILAC! Through the pandemic, I’ve attended lots of online events and conferences, many of which have been very good (shout out to CALC and FestivIL as two online conferences that really made the most of the online format). However even the best online sessions are challenging: there is the ever-present distraction of work and email, and concentrating for long periods online is really difficult. And although some events (like CALC and FestivIL) worked hard to enable the kinds of informal conversations and knowledge-sharing that happen at in-person events, it’s just not the same thing.

I don’t know if this was just because we’ve all been deprived of this community for so long, but LILAC last week felt packed to the brim with interesting conversations, interesting ideas, fascinating people! I joked that the standard of talks was so high, I suspected everyone had just been saving up their best ideas for the last couple of years.

On a personal level, it was also a relief to find that my mental capacity for engaging with professional and academic discussions has returned. I was unlucky enough to develop long covid after a covid infection in June 2021, which I am now mostly recovered from but left me with serious brain fog and reduced mental and physical energy for many months. I was worried before LILAC about whether I would be able to cope with the demands of a three-day conference, so I was careful throughout to pace myself (including spending less time at the social events than I usually would – was sorry not to join the heaving dance floor at the conference dinner!). Fortunately, although I have had a slight flare up of my neurological symptoms since the conference ended, I am still mostly fine – and they are easing off again after a couple of day’s rest.

I also really appreciated attending this conference pretty much immediately after officially beginning my PhD at the start of April! It was inspiring to see so many people talking about their in-progress or recently completed doctoral research, and I am grateful to the many people who took the time to offer me advice. Plus, I got a chance to actually meet my PhD supervisors, the wonderful Sheila Webber and Pam McKinney, in person!

I’m going to write more about the key themes I picked up on from the conference in the next few posts, in the coming days. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts! Were you at LILAC, and if so did you find it as joyful as I did? If you weren’t there, any thoughts on attending conferences in covid times, either online or in person?

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Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference, May 2020

Last week, I attended the first ever Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference (CALC). This was meant to have been hosted at Coventry University, however due to lockdown, the event was shifted to be fully online.

This was my first ever online conference, and I thought it was brilliant! The organisers (the ever-awesome Michelle Bond and Darren Flynn), did a phenomenal job setting up the online conference, reorganising everything to enable it to take place online, and moderating the whole day.

I took copious notes throughout the day, and have plenty to follow up on. Recordings are now available on the conference website. So I’m not going to recap the content of the presentations here. Instead, I thought I’d share my overall impressions and key takeaways from each presentation I attended.

Opening keynote: Quinn Roache

The opening keynote was from Quinn Roache, Policy Officer for LGBT+ and Disabled Workers at the Trades Union Congress. H discussed the research the TUC has conducted into workplace discrimination experienced by disabled workers and LGBT+ people. The findings shared were sobering, if not surprising! I won’t recap them here, but I strongly recommend reading both reports:

One of the things that struck me most from Quinn’s talk was his mention, early on, of the concept “nothing about us, without us”. This is a key slogan of the disability rights movement, and it emphasises the importance of involving marginalised communities in both research and decision making. Quinn mentioned that whenever he sees research conducted about disabled people, for example, and no people with disabilities are represented on the research group, that raises questions.

I think this is something that we in libraries would do well to remember. Librarianship as a profession is overwhelmingly white and middle class. There is always a risk that we fall into the trap of being well-intentioned white ladies imposing “solutions” on a community that we haven’t consulted and can’t speak for.

The other thing that stood out for me was the importance of unions! I’ve been a member of Unison since starting work at the University of Huddersfield, but this is the first workplace I’ve been at where there was a recognised union that I could join. The difference in working in a unionised workplace is striking – the pay, benefits and job security are miles ahead of anywhere else I’ve ever worked. We’re in for some rough times ahead, in probably every workplace and sector, so there’s never been a more important time to join a union, and get actively involved to help stand up collectively for better workplace protections.

Ageism and Libraries – Sheila Webber

The first parallel session I attended was Sheila Webber’s excellent talk on ageism in libraries. Sheila noted that although people can experience ageism at any age, drawing from personal experience she would focus on ageism experienced by older people.

Sheila noted how easy it is to slip into negative stereotypes about age, particularly about older women. She noted that information literacy and media literacy initiatives tend to focus on the information needs and habits of young people. Where older people are discussed it tends to be using a deficit model, and casual ageism is common in discussions about fake news (e.g. assuming technical illiteracy).

In discussing ageism in the workplace, Sheila noted that because the powerful people in an organisation tend to be older, that can lead us to assume that all older people are powerful. In fact, older people can be discriminated against for not having “moved up” the hierarchy. It’s assumed that as you get older you should have moved into management positions, so if you haven’t done this then it must be because you are lazy/incompetent.

It strikes me that this must be an issue for libraries, which tend to have flat hierarchies and little room for progression! I’ve certainly seen unpleasant, thoughtless comments about older librarians “blocking” posts that could be held by younger, newer professionals.

Read at Leicester – Heena Karavadra

Unfortunately Heena was unable to deliver her presentation in person due to illness, but thankfully she’d been able to record it in advance, so during the session we watched the video and then had a short discussion amongst ourselves. I was really interested in this presentation as I am jointly responsible for the leisure reading collection at Huddersfield, HudReads, so am really keen to learn from other academic libraries who have leisure reading collections.

The Read at Leicester collection grew out of an initiative that had been running for a few years, where the University had provided a copy each of the same book for each new first year student, to provide a shared reading experience. When the funding for this scheme ran out, Heena wanted to keep the interest in leisure reading going by setting up a permanent collection within the library.

Heena started by repurposing fiction that was already in the library (and not on any reading lists) and moving this into a new, prominent location. However, she quickly found that this did not result in a diverse, representative collection! So she approached the alumni association to request funding to allow the library to purchase some more diverse books for the collection. As the funding had to be spent by the end of the academic year, she did not have time to consult library users for suggestions, so selected the stock herself.

However, she was able to argue successfully for additional funding for the 2019/20 academic year, which enabled her to set up Represent, a scheme which collected suggestions for diverse literature from students and staff at the University (Heena noted the inspiration from Huddersfield’s Broaden my Bookshelf campaign, which made me happy – we’re very proud of this scheme!).

It was interesting to hear that Heena had experienced many of the same challenges with Read at Leicester as we have experienced with HudReads. In particular, the challenges of promoting the collection: despite a prominent location, a survey of library users found only 42% were aware of the collection. We found something similar with a survey of our own users last year!

Heena also discussed some ongoing challenges with format, such as deciding whether or not to buy foreign language materials, or ebooks or audiobooks (the latter two being particularly important now that physical collections are inaccessible due to COVID19!).

At Huddersfield we made the decision to only buy print for HudReads, due to the cost and availability of fiction in digital formats. Instead, we promote the online collections available from the local public library service, which has a much larger online fiction collection than we could hope to build! It will be interesting to see if Leicester, or any other academic libraries with fiction/popular reading collections make a different decision on this.

Sick systems: is cruelty the point of HE? Hannah Hickman

My last session of the morning was Hannah Hickman’s excellent discussion forum about “sick systems” in the context of Higher Education. I hadn’t come across the concept of sick systems before, but having now explored this concept a bit, I can absolutely see how it applies to HE! Sick systems are defined by four criteria:

  1. Keep people too busy to think
  2. Keep people tired
  3. Keep people emotionally invested
  4. Reward people intermittently

(I should note that I can also think of at least one former workplace that was not in HE where all these criteria applied, so I don’t think any of these problems are exclusive to HE!)

Hannah discussed the fact that value in education is tied to constant assessments, both for students and staff. For students, your grades are linked to your future employability, but this is undermined by a combination of grade inflation and a depressed job market. She referred to this as “cruel optimism”: attachment to outcomes that are either toxic, or simply impossible to meet.

For institutions, there is the tyranny of metrics! E.g. the REF and TEF. These exercises remove all human factors from research and teaching, and boil success down to easy to measure, but ultimately meaningless (and easily manipulated) factors. I recently came across the concept of the McNamara fallacy, which this seems a perfect example of!

After Hannah’s initial overview of the topic, we were split into breakout rooms to discuss the topic, and if we could see a way forward for HE institutions. From our group’s discussion, two main points stick out in my memory. The first is about 24/7 library opening, which Hannah had mentioned in her opening talk. It’s arguable that 24/7 availability of libraries upholds the idea that work, study and productivity are and should be your main priorities, and there is never a reason not to be working.

I have often wondered this myself: does 24/7 library provision enable unhealthy study habits, e.g. all-nighters? However, I am also well aware that for many students (e.g. those with caring responsibilities, shift workers, etc.), overnight may be the only time they have available to study, and many do not have the space (physical or mental) to be able to do so from home. So would removing this option be a paternalistic attempt to manage our students’ health for them, while also disadvantaging those who were already marginalised?

This made me think of the situation we were in just before the initial UK lockdown was announced, where in many cases university libraries were remaining open (albeit with reduced staff/hours) while the rest of the campus was closed. The rationale sometimes given for this was that without libraries, many students would have no way to complete their work. This was certainly true, but it struck me as reinforcing the impression that even in the face of a global pandemic, there was no reason to miss a deadline or prioritise something other than work or study.

The other point was about the effect we can have as individuals within the system. On a personal level, I know I have in the past tried to reassure scared and worried students that their worth is not tied to assessments or grades – but then they’re immediately spat back into a system (HE, but also CAPITALISM) that will and does judge them on this basis. So is there much we can really do on an individual level when we’re all inside a broken and cruel system?

Needless to say, we didn’t actually come up with any answers to any of this! But it was an excellent discussion, and I’ve found the concept of sick systems to be a helpful way of framing some of the aspects of HE that I find troubling.

Afternoon keynote: Dr Zainab Naqvi

The title of the afternoon keynote was “Academic libraries: a critical postcolonial feminist perspective”, which got my attention straight away! And the talk more than lived up to the title.

Dr Zainab Naqvi is Senior Lecturer in Law at Leicester De Montfort Law School. She started her keynote by talking about how her feminism and her antiracist practice informs her legal scholarship (she is editor of the journal Feminist Legal Studies). She said something great near the start of her talk about tending to go and research things that make her annoyed!

She said far too much for me to recap in enough detail to do justice to here, so I strongly recommend watching the recording. This twitter thread is also a good summary of the key points.

My key takeaways from the session: we need to remember that libraries are historically sites of colonisation, rooted in harmful ideologies, enforced assimilation and oppression. Education and knowledge production were key tools of colonisation, used to divide communities and instil the belief that white, western knowledge was logical, objective and neutral, and therefore the only acceptable form.

Citation is a political act, and the focus in academia on citing peer-reviewed scholarship excludes marginalised voices. If students look outside of conventionally published academic work and seek out marginalised voices, is this critical work recognised by lecturers, or will they be penalised for it?

Libraries themselves are often intimidating spaces. The architecture and the ways in which historical power structures are commemorated (e.g. by naming the buildings after powerful white men) can reinforce the view of libraries as places of elitism, exclusivity and class privilege. Zainab ended her talk with a plea: to think about the trauma and violence suffered through encounters with the library, both historically and into today.

How witches use the libraries: The information behaviour of contemporary Pagans and ritual magicians – Joanne Fitzpatrick

After the keynote was Joanne Fitzpatrick’s fascinating talk on the information behaviour of contemporary Pagans and ritual magicians. I know a little about contemporary Paganism from some exploration of Wicca when I was a teenager (yes, I know, along with every other teenage girl in the 90s…), but I had never thought about the information literacy implications of this kind of practice.

Joanne argued that IL is fundamental to most Pagan practice. There is no authority, no sacred text, no official theology in Paganism (which term covers a wide range of beliefs and practices), so all practitioners are reliant on their own self-education.

Joanne gave a brief overview of the ways of knowing and information seeking within Paganism, including “non-rational” ways of knowing such as divination, intuition, gnosis. These would typically be dismissed within an IL framework as “just guessing”, but Joanne challenged us to consider these as important and valid forms of knowledge. She talked quite a bit about the importance of serendipity and coincidence within Paganism, which made me think about browsing behaviours and how we try (not always successfully!) to replicate and enable these kinds of knowledge encounters in online settings.

Coventry University Decolonisation Read, Reflect and Discuss Group

The final session I attended was a discussion group. We’d been asked in advance to read this paper:

White, H. (2018). Decolonizing the Way Libraries Organize. IFLA WLIC 2018, Kuala Lumpur. Retrieved from http://library.ifla.org/2221/1/207-white-en.pdf

As a non-cataloguer, I found this really interesting but challenging to discuss. I’m used to using Dewey in my library, and am more than familiar with its problematic aspects, so it was interesting to discuss what practical effects this has.

In the comments, someone also shared the documentary “Change the Subject”, about student activism to challenge the use of the term “illegal aliens” in Library of Congress subject headings. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet but it looks really interesting and useful, so I’m leaving the link here as a reminder to watch later!

One of my main takeaways from the article and discussion is that tackling the legacy of fundamentally colonialist and racist classification schemes like Dewey is reliant on having staff who are a) trained in cat & class, and b) have the time and the power to do something about it. Sadly, in my own library (and I suspect many others), we have neither. We buy our catalogue records ready-made, so we are reliant on the classification decided by the supplier, which isn’t always suitable or appropriate for our users or collection. We can amend this at order point if needed, but we usually don’t have the time (or knowledge, certainly in my case!) to do this for every order.

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Visit to Fujian Normal University, Fuzhou, China

Last month, I was lucky to be able to visit China as part of a work trip. The University I work for is preparing to run one of our degree courses via a partner institution in China, so I was part of a validation visit aimed at assessing the resources of the partner institution.

It was a fantastic trip, if a little short! We only had one full day there: we arrived in Fuzhou on a Wednesday lunchtime, spent Thursday at the University, and flew home Friday evening. So the whole visit is a bit of a blur in my mind really!

I wanted to blog about my impressions of the library. My role in the trip was to assess the library resources and facilities, and I was really excited to see how a university library in another part of the world functions. I was really impressed by the library at FNU. In particular I think they’ve done a fantastic job of using their special collections and archives in an engaging, public-facing way.

The main library building at Fujian Normal University

The main library building

The library itself is an impressive, modern building. We saw one of two main campus libraries – I understand that the one we were shown around was the larger of the two. Each faculty also has its own satellite library.

The entrance to the library as very wide and open, with various displays which I will talk about in more detail below.

Wide, open library entrance at the main library of Fujian Normal University

The library entrance

Archives & special collections

In the entrance to the library are various displays showing some of the University’s special collections. The first we were shown was a large plasma screen with a digitised photo of the first graduating class of the University, in 1908. This was opposite a green screen, which superimposed you onto the photo in the middle of the graduating class. You could then download a copy of the photo with yourself in it by scanning a QR code. This display had been put in place to celebrate the University’s 110th anniversary.

Two members of staff from the University of Huddersfield stand in front of a green screen, while two members of staff from Fujian Normal University show them a downloaded photo on a phone

Trying out the green screen

I really liked this idea: it was a great way of highlighting the institution’s history, and making it accessible to a wider audience. On a similar note, there was also a display of digitised PhD theses from one of the founding institutions that merged to become the FNU. The covers of these were displayed on touch screens lining the walls. if you tapped one, you could actually page through and read the full document (if you had time!). You could also scan a QR code to download a PDF of the document to your device.

A man stands in front of a plasma screen, on which can be seen a few pages of a digitised PhD theses, and a QR code

Digitised PhD theses on a wall display

You may be sensing a theme here: QR codes were absolutely everywhere! And not just in the University: when we were taken sightseeing around the local area, tourist information signs all had QR codes on them too, as did advertising posters and shop signs. I even saw people actually scanning them! That might be worth considering, for Universities with a lot of Chinese students: they are likely to be already used to scanning QR codes, so this may be a helpful way to present information.

As well as seeing the digital displays, we were also shown around some of the physical special collections. The founder of the University, Chen Baochen, was the teacher of the last Emperor. The University holds the collection of his books, which formed the basis for the first library at FNU. These books are all held in purpose-built boxes made by the founder to fit his books. I particularly liked the miniature book boxes that he had created for travelling with: sort of a 19th century version of a Kindle!

A collection of 19th century books in custom-built wooden boxes

An archivists hands wearing white gloves hold open a miniature book, in front of a small wooden travel case.

One of the miniature books in a custom-built travel box

Digital strategy

As evidenced by the prominent digital displays in the library entrance, FNU library invests heavily in digital resources. In fact, I was surprised to discover that the library doesn’t often buy print books at all. When they showed us round the English-language print collection (the degree course is going to be delivered in English, so we needed to make sure the library resources were sufficient to support this), the books on the shelves were all very old: mostly 20+ years old at the least, from what I saw.

Our guides explained that their students are heavy eBook users, so print stock tends to go unused. I asked what they would do if a core text was unavailable in e-copy (I have been checking the reading lists for the course to be delivered in China and am aware that a significant proportion of the recommended books aren’t available electronically). The response was that they would get hold of books on request through their inter-library loans service.

This seemed really odd to me, as I can’t see how using ILLs to provide required course reading could possibly be sustainable. I was also unclear from the conversation whether the digital-only strategy was for all books, or only the English language collection. I did see students working in the library with Chinese-language books which looked newer, although I couldn’t tell if these were current versions or just in better condition, or if they were the students’ own copies that they’d bought themselves.

The provision of ebooks was excellent though, so clearly the lack of print books wasn’t considered an issue! There was also a lovely interactive ebook display in the library entrance, referred to as a “book waterfall”. This was three freestanding pillars with touch screens on them, each had ebook covers cascading down them like a waterfall. You could tap on one to stop it, and scan a QR code (again!) to open it on your device. It looked fantastic, and the two (very senior!) members of Huddersfield staff I was visiting with were equally impressed – so much so that I wonder if we might be asked to do something similar in our library!

Three tall pillars with plasma screens onthem, displaying eBook covers. Two are showing QR codes

The “eBook waterfall”

I wasn’t clear how access was managed for this: when I asked I was told that only university staff and students would be able to open an ebook, but when demonstrated it seemed like the ebook opened up instantly, so I’m not sure how they’d have prevented non-users from doing this. I could see that being a concern for our ebook vendors if we were to try something similar.

It’s possible some sort of authentication was set up in the apps they were using. They used WeChat to scan their QR codes, so I wondered if there was a way of recognising registered users via this app. The library had a WeChat account that they used to communicate with users, and had created their own WeChat app, which looked fantastic. WeChat, if you’re unaware (I was!) is the most heavily used social media app in China. It’s a combination social media, messaging, and mobile payments app.

The library uses it to post messages, take comments and suggestions from users, and the app appeared to connect with their library catalogue so you could search for ebooks without leaving WeChat. WeChat also has a built-in QR code scanner, which it has been suggested is one possible factor in the continuing popularity of QR codes in China! It looked a really useful app, and it made me wonder if we ought to consider setting up a WeChat account for our library, to connect with our Chinese students.

Library space

Despite the digital-first strategy, the physical library space was still very important. Before the trip, I asked on the SLA (Special Libraries Association) forums for anyone with experience of Chinese HE libraries to get in touch with any insight as to what to expect. One of the things I was told was that libraries in Chinese universities are seen primarily as places to work and study. One person said she remembered from her own undergraduate in a Chinese library that competition for library workspaces was always fierce!

I noticed when looking around that it certainly seemed to be busy. There was seating in pretty much every area of the library we visited, and it was probably about 50% full from what I saw. Given that we visited in mid-June, after the main exam period, that seemed like quite high usage for the time of year.

The study spaces we saw were all individual, silent-study spaces. We were told that there were bookable group study rooms available, although we didn’t see these. I have heard from Chinese students here that they tended not to do group work in their home colleges and universities, so it makes sense that individual study was the main use of FNU library. It occurred to me then that our library at Huddersfield, which has silent study spaces but is mostly set up for quiet conversation or group working, must come as a bit of a shock to our Chinese students if they are used to working individually in silent libraries.

There were a few more social spaces in the library, although I didn’t see many people using them at the time we visited. For example, there was a nice seating area to browse print magazines, journals and newspapers. It had comfy seating as well as a few desks around the sides. I’d love something like this in our library – we’re always being asked for comfy seating areas!

A section of the library with low shelving displaying recent issues of journals, magazines and newspapers. There are comfy seats and a woman in standing in the middle with her back to the camera.

Journal browsing corner

An opposite view of the journal browsing area, showing some students sat in the comfy seating and at desks around the edge.

Seating in the journal browsing area

Finally, one of my favourite things I noticed when we went around was this book steriliser. Anyone who works in a library knows that books can get pretty gross – paper absorbs everything, and I can’t be the only one who wonders about the germs from everyone who’s handled a popular library book! The book sterliser was available in the library foyer, next to the self-issue and return machines. It looked a bit like a small fridge, just with a rack inside that you could put a few books on. When you closed the door and set it going, you could see the pages being riffled through, and light shining on them – I think it used UV light to kill germs. Then after about a minute you could take your books out, freshly cleaned. They even smelled nice!

A book steriliser, with front door open and a couple of books visible inside

Book Steriliser

Final thoughts

Despite it being a real whistle-stop tour, I really enjoyed the visit. It was a fantastic opportunity to visit a part of the world I’d never seen before, and learn a bit about the experiences of Chinese students in their own universities. We have a lot of Chinese students at Huddersfield, so it’s good to know a bit more about what their expectations of a library service might be.

I’m glad I did a bit of research before I went, which gave me a bit of an idea of what to look out for. I’m really grateful to all the people from SLA who responded to my forum post and shared their recollections and experience of HE and librarianship in China.

I also did manage to do a little sightseeing while I was there, even though it was such a short trip! Our hosts kindly took us out to see some of the local area on the day before and day after the validation visit. My photos are all on Instagram (part one and part two), if you are interested!

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Reflections from LILAC 2018

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC) in Liverpool. I usually try and at least start to write up my reflections pretty soon afterwards but as I went to Spain for a week the day after LILAC (impromptu visit to see my partner’s mum), I’ve had to wait a week before getting a change to blog about it.

That’s actually worked out quite well for me, as it’s given me time to step back from the experience and let a few things swirl around in my brain for a bit before writing them down. I always feel like my brain is a a bit over-stuffed by the end of a conference, especially a multi-day conference with a packed schedule like LILAC, so it’s been good to have a chance to digest some of the new ideas and themes over the past week. Although, as much as the enforced week off has turned out surprisingly helpful, I would not recommend catching a 7am flight (requiring you to be at the airport for 5am) the day after a 3-day conference. That was in no way fun…

I’m not going to do a full recap of every session I attended at LILAC. If you want to see my real-time thoughts and impressions, all my tweets are on Wakelet (which I’m really liking so far as a replacement for the soon-to-be-defunct Storify!). You can check out all the presentation slides and papers in the LILAC conference archive, as well as watching recordings of the three keynotes (which I would strongly recommend – as usual for LILAC, the keynotes were fantastic!). My general impressions and reflections are below…

Using theory in practice

“Putting theory to work in practice” was the theme of Ola Pilerot’s excellent keynote (watch the video!!) on day 2. He spoke about models of information literacy, information seeking and information behaviour, and how these can (and should) inform our practice as librarians. I came away from that session with a very full reading list, but also with a renewed appreciation for actually using all these theory models that I sort-of remember from library school! As usual, Lauren Smith said it best:

This year I’ve been studying towards a PGCHE qualification (kindly funded by my employer!) and honestly, one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the excuse it’s given me to actually spend time reading the literature in teaching and information literacy, and immersing myself in theory again. I was having a conversation about this recently with some of my fellow students on the course: I’m the only librarian in the class, all the others are recently-hired academic teaching staff, as my institution requires all teaching staff to be HEA-accredited.

Of the other teaching staff on the course, there are varying attitudes towards the requirement to make reference to pedagogical theory in our assessment, with some considering it a bit of a tick-box exercise to pass the course. My argument, in conversation with a few of the theory-skeptics on the course, is that “theory” is really just a fancy way of saying “why I’m doing this thing in this way”. Engaging with the published literature of your discipline should ideally give you one of three things: a moment of recognition (“oh yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve always thought but couldn’t articulate!”), a new way of thinking about an old problem, or something to argue against (“that’s garbage, AND HERE’S WHY”).

Happily, LILAC has a good balance of theory-based sessions along with the practical workshops, so I went away from the conference with plenty more added to my reading list! In particular, Amanda Folk’s session Drawing on identity and prior knowledge to join the conversation in research assignments introduced me to the idea of “funds of knowledge”, which I intend to read up about. Kathleen Langan’s session on the final day, Code in the IL classroom: moving towards a trans-discipline information literacy, book-ended this nicely, by talking about code/algorithm bias and how this should be addressed within IL teaching.

Jane Secker and Emma Coonan’s workshop on the final day, on ANCIL and the Reflexive Practitioner, also provided lots of references to follow up on about how we think about teaching in libraries, and how we can map our teaching. The workshop also included lots of opportunities for discussion, which was perfect for the final day of the conference!

Recognising different ways of being information literate

The second theme that kept cropping up was about what it means to be information literate, and what expectations we have about what information literacy looks like. This first occurred to me in a parallel session with Meggan Houlihan and Beth Daniel Lindsay, from NYU Abu Dhabi, on some research they’d conducted into the research skills of their international students. They found lots of interesting and useful information about the perceptions that their students held about their own research skills, and what they came to university already knowing (see their slides for full details).

However the bit that really stuck out for me was when the authors mentioned that one of the skills their students were lacking was how to construct a Boolean search. This made me think: is this really a necessary, never mind essential, skill for most students to have? This may be librarian heresy, but I honestly don’t believe it’s useful for the majority of our students to know how to construct a Boolean search (with the possible exception of health/medicine students who may need to construct systematic reviews, but that’s quite a specialist case). This blog post and the research it refers to has informed some of my thinking on this topic. Is it a good use of time to focus on advanced searching skills that are not required for the majority of databases and search engines our students use, and will almost certainly never use after University?

Having had this first thought inspired by this parallel session, the same theme kept occurring to me later on, in unrelated talks. In particular, in Ola Pilerot’s keynote, he mentioned a paper he has currently in press about a comparison between the information literacy of undergraduates in two disciplines, nursing and product engineering design. By analysing the references from 9 theses from each discipline, it was found that nursing students were far more likely to use scholarly sources such as monographs and peer-reviewed journals, and to include more references overall. Engineering students were very unlikely to use peer-reviewed articles (only one was cited out of all nine theses!), and used four times as many websites as the nursing students. (See clipped slide below for the full results).

Clipped slide from Ola Pilerot's keynote at LILAC 2018. Table showing the reference analysis from 9 theses from Nursing undergraduates, and 9 from Engineering undergraduates.

At first glance, this is worrying. I’ve certainly fallen into the pattern previously of thinking that because Engineering students aren’t using scholarly, peer-reviewed sources, that means they’re doing research “wrong”. But as Ola went on to argue, this isn’t necessarily the case. Although the two disciplines are working from essentially the same instructions on how to write a thesis, in reality student nurses are preparing for a community of practice where the body of evidence is in published, scholarly research, and design engineers really aren’t. I tweeted a quote from Ola’s talk that struck me – I was doing this quite fast so I can’t guarantee it’s word for word, but this is what I noted:

We can’t just assume that there is only one way to be information literate, and only one way to do research. Of course, if the websites cited by the design engineering students in this study are poor quality, and not given any kind of critical appraisal by the students, then that is a problem. However I don’t believe that is is sufficient to use “number of peer-reviewed articles” cited as a proxy for information literacy.

Finally, in Barbara Band’s keynote (video link), I was struck by a point she made about schoolchildren being set assignments to “find something out online” about a topic, without being required to evaluate or summarise what they’ve found. As a consequence most school leavers over-estimate their skills in finding and evaluating information online, and are likely to believe information they find online. This made me think of anecdotes I’ve heard from many friends and family who are parents to young children:

I’d never really thought about it from that perspective, but it must actually be quite frightening to realise that something you’d always taken for granted (you can answer any question by Googling it) turns out to not be true. I can’t say I blame our students for being resistant to the idea!

Ideas to steal

As well as all the thought-provoking stuff above, I also picked up a few nice, practical ideas for teaching activities that I would like to incorporate into my own practice. Here’s a couple: