Reflections from LILAC 2016

Last week I was lucky to be able to attend the LILAC conference in Dublin. For those not in the know, LILAC is an annual information literacy conference, run by CILIP’s Information Literacy Group.

I was really excited for LILAC, as I’ve been hearing about it from the many librarians I know and follow on Twitter for many years, but I’ve never been able to attend. It was a really full-on three days, with plenty of interesting workshops, talks and some fantastic keynotes! As usual, I took notes via Twitter throughout so have gathered them all together in Storify, if anyone wants to know a bit more about what actually happened…

Here are my main learning points and reflections from the conference…

Appropriately colour-themed foliage on the UCD campus for LILAC 2016!

Learning through play

Playful learning was a key theme of the conference, most notably in the awesome keynote on Day One and the Lagadothon on Day Two of course! Playful learning is a concept I’ve been aware of for a while (I could hardly not be, working with Andrew Walsh!), but have always struggled with how to incorporate it into my teaching. I’ve had some success using games in small seminar groups, but the majority of my teaching takes place in large lecture theatres (often with students who, to put it mildly, aren’t thrilled to be there and don’t react well to being asked to do things!). I’ve always sort of assumed that trying to use creative/playful approaches in that sort of environment is a bit of a non-starter, and that they simply wouldn’t work in a lecture theatre with 100+ people.

Well, the day one keynote certainly proved me wrong there! Nicola Whitton and Alex Moseley got the whole place participating in a series of learning games – the atmosphere was great, really buzzing, and most of us got involved. I was sat pretty close to the front though, so I do wonder how much of that energy reached all the way to the back, but I’d say it was very successful from where I was sat!

There were also plenty of other playful approaches explored throughout the conference. The Lagadothon (if you’re wondering about the name, as I was, it’s taken from the fictional city of Lagado, home to a thriving if rather odd scientific community, as described in Gulliver’s Travels) was a great opportunity to explore some games for teaching – I particularly enjoyed Jenny Pacheco’s Better Informed Bibliography Game, and Kathryn Ballard’s CRAP! card game.

Eileen Wright’s talk on how she uses information literacy activities in her classes was also full of great ideas, some of which I will definitely be stealing! I particularly liked the idea of getting students to mind-map a music video, to illustrate related concepts, broader and narrower terms and get them thinking about how to narrow down a research topic.

Embedded IL

There were some great examples of information literacy being embedded within modules, assignments or within the student experience. For example, I was very impressed by Paul Verlander and Jo Kennedy’s talk about an assessment they’ve embedded within an Engineering module assessment at the University of Chester. They’ve managed to argue for introducing an assessed component as they teach four two-hour sessions on the module (impressive in itself – I’m lucky to get a single one-hour session with my students!), which accounts for 10% of the teaching on the module, so they successfully argued that they should introduce an assessment that accounts for 10% of the grade. Rather than make it a standalone assessment (i.e. just something extra that students have to do!) it forms an integral part of the overall assessment for the module. I really like this idea, and will have to think about how I could go about arguing for something similar in the modules I support.

I was also very taken by the two sessions run by the librarians and student workers from the University of Manchester, on developing a student-led program of peer support. Working with student employees to help deliver our programs is something I’ve wanted to try to introduce for a while, so it was very interesting to see how Manchester have gone about this and the challenges and successes they’ve had. It was also great to see the students themselves there participating in delivering the talk and workshop!


More than one speaker referenced the fact that YouTube is apparently the most visited destination from Google by students and graduates, who are often looking for how-to information and instructional guides. This made me realise that although at our library we do put some stuff on YouTube, we probably don’t use it as much as we could – and I’m sure we’ve got lots of out of date stuff on our channel that really ought to come down! So one project I’ve got earmarked for the summer is to “audit” our YouTube channel, see what’s being used and what isn’t, and what needs to be either removed or updated.

I’d like to start using YouTube more myself as a teaching channel. I use quite a lot of videos in my teaching, usually those created by other libraries or institutions so it’s sometimes hard to find a video that says exactly what I need to get across, so I’d like to spend some time this summer making a few of my own. I also think I could use it to answer some commonly asked questions – either through screencasts, explanation videos or maybe a regular “you asked…” video series.

I’m inspired by my colleague Jess’ video diaries from LILAC – what a great way of doing an immediate reflection! I’m not sure how well that would work for me personally as a reflection tool, as I often find I need to have a bit of distance from an event or conversation before I can really work out what I think about it (one of many reasons this blog post has taken me a week to write…), but I do think the immediacy of it would complement my approach of live-tweeting my notes.

I did have a go while at the conference of recording a quick video on my phone, as part of the Information Literacy Group’s #whyinfolit competition. It’s really easy to enter – you just need to record a one minute video explaining why information literacy is important in your sector, and either upload it to YouTube or send it to ilwebeditors@gmail.com. Entries will go into a prize draw for £100! And if you’re camera shy you don’t have to record yourself speaking like I did – there’s a couple of videos entered already that have used animation instead.

Critical literacy

The final theme that really struck me from the conference was around critical thinking and questioning skills. This came up a lot in Char Booth’s kick-ass keynote (which I’m not going to attempt to summarise here! You can see my fangirlish tweets on Storify, and I would highly recommend checking out her gorgeous slides on Slideshare), which gave me a ton of ideas including:

  • teach students to not just evaluate, but edit Wikipedia
  • introduce the concept of “information privilege” – highlight how much universities (and students!) are paying for scholarly information that’s only available within the institution
  • invest in Open Educational Resources to help share some of that information privilege around

I was also very interested in Alison Head’s talk on the lifelong learning of graduates – in particular by one finding of her research, that most graduates were surprised to find that they had to continue learning after finishing university! That was a real shock to me, as it seems obvious from my point of view that of course you don’t stop learning once you finish formal education, but then having considered it I’m not so surprised. I think our education system today is so transactional, that perhaps for students it does feel like learning is a discrete activity that only happens in educational institutions.

I was less surprised by another finding from Alison’s research, that most graduates did not feel that they had gained questioning skills from university – and I was even less surprised to find out that engineering and computing graduates were least likely to say they’d gained these skills from their studies! Alison read out a particularly telling quote from an engineering graduate, saying that at university all their work was geared towards solving problems, but the solutions were always known (either by their lecturers or within the textbooks they were using) so he felt they graduated completely unprepared for coming up with their own solutions rather than trying to find the “right” answer. This all underlined for me how vital it is that we as librarians encourage critical thinking, rather than just teaching basic database searching skills as we are often expected to do.


So those are my main takeaways! There’s loads more I could have said here but I’ve already rambled on for 1500 words so I think I’ll leave it there. LILAC was an absolutely fantastic conference, and I’m so glad I got the chance to go. Roll on LILAC 2017!

Save the date for #lilac17!



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2015: professional development review

So, I have half an hour left of my last working day of 2015, my desk is about as tidy as it’s ever going to get… So I think I’ve got time for a quick reflection on how the year has gone!

Mainly, it’s gone…fast. It doesn’t seem five minutes since I was writing my professional goals for the year back in January! I loved Michelle Bond’s blog post on sharing the awesome things you did during the year, so I thought I’d close off the year here by listing a few things I’ve done/achieved in my professional life in 2015…

  • I did lots of fun stuff with the social media accounts at work, including a celebration of National Libraries Day in February and a library tips “advent calendar” throughout December
  • Supervised two Chinese students from the School of Education, who did a work placement with the library in January-March
  • Completed a City & Guilds Level 3 award in teaching and learning at Northern College in June
  • Attended the SLA conference in Boston, on the Bonnie Hilditch International Librarian Award (applications for next year close soon, btw!)
  • Attended the CILIP conference in Liverpool
  • Spoke at the CILIP Yorkshire & Humberside and UKeIG joint members day in July – my first professional speaking gig for a long time!
  • Took over line management of a team of library assistants in September
  • Delivered a joint workshop with a colleague at the Relationship Management in HE Libraries conference in November
  • Generally learned lots and did lots of new things in my first full year as a subject librarian in an HE library!

Wow, when I list it out like that it actually does look like a lot! It’s useful sometimes to look back and remember what you’ve done over the course of a year. Some of it feels so long ago now!

I’d also like to review how my goals for 2015 went. On first glance, I’ve achieved most of them I think…

  1. Blog at least once per month – I didn’t exactly manage this, there were a few months when I didn’t blog at all, but I’ve written 16 blog posts this year (17 including this one), so I’ve averaged out at more than one per month across the year!
  2. Make some new professional contacts – I’ve definitely achieved this! I’ve gone to lots of networking events, conferences etc. this year and spoken at a few. It’s been interesting going to more HE-specific library events as I am meeting people outside of my existing circle of contacts. I’ve also recently joined the CILIP Information Literacy Group committee, which is bringing me into contact with yet more awesome library people!
  3. Undertake some formal professional development – I think my Level 3 Teaching & Learning certificate definitely counts as this! I’m really proud of this achievement, and would like to continue to build on it.

So, how about 2016? Here are my goals for the coming year:

  1. Continue to blog regularly, and try to post more reflective/questioning posts rather than ones specifically about events I’ve attended.
  2. Submit my chartership portfolio – this is getting ridiculous really, I should have chartered long ago! I’m practically there, I just need to force myself to make the time to actually put it all together and submit.
  3. Submit a proposal to speak at a conference. I’m attending LILAC this year and hopefully one or two others, but I’d like to do more conference speaking. I really enjoyed the Relationship Management conference, and would definitely like to do more of this.

That’s it from me for this year! See you all in 2016 🙂

Feliz Año Nuevo / Happy New Year

‘Feliz Año Nuevo / Happy New Year’ by Ana on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dG6sAJ

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Relationship Management in HE Libraries conference: reflections

In November I attended the first Relationship Management in HE Libraries conference, in lovely Stirling, Scotland. It’s been a little while since then, i know – a busy month at work means I haven’t had time to blog about it until now!

I tweeted pretty solidly throughout the conference, so if you’re interested in what was discussed I’ve created a Storify of my tweets and favourites from the conference. Rather than go through all the presentations, I thought I’d just pull out my key learning points and reflections from the day.

As well as attending, I also co-delivered a workshop alongside Penny Dunn (@Lady_PGD). Obviously I didn’t tweet through that, but I did vanity-search for tweets after our workshop, so I’ve Storyfied those as well if you want to know what we talked about!

Scotland Wallace Monument From Stirling Castle Summer Wide

‘Scotland Wallace Monument From Stirling Castle Summer Wide’ by Sam Agnew on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What is relationship management?

This was the first question of the day, and one I think we all struggled with – interesting as this was the title of the conference, so you might have assumed that most of us knew what it actually was! There was a lot of discussion around relationship management vs academic liaison. Is there a difference between the two roles? Are they just the same things described in different ways, or is there a tangible progression from one to the other?

We didn’t really come to a common consensus on this, but the discussion was illuminating. It was a good way to open up the conference, and encourage everyone to discuss and reflect on how they saw their roles in libraries.

Personally, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the two. If anything, I think you could use “liaison” to describe the practical, operational tasks, and “relationship management” to describe the strategic view. However, I do think that runs the risk of implying that relationship management is something only managers do, whereas I think it’s vital to remember that everyone manages relationships.

Are libraries essential?

This question was prompted by the excellent keynote from Ann-Marie Wyness, Customer Service manager at First Direct. (As an aside, I think it was a great idea to have a keynote speaker from outside of the library world – I’d love to see more library conferences do this.) Ann made the point early on in her talk that banking is boring – but so is electricity. There are services that everyone has to use, no one much cares about them, they all essentially do the same thing so they’re difficult to market and differentiate – but people notice straight away if they’re not working well.

There were a few comments on Twitter along the lines that there was a message for libraries here – similarly, we’re often seen as boring and our services are often misunderstood. However, the difference here is that banking is essential in a way that libraries just aren’t. It feels almost a betrayal to say this, but people don’t necessarily need libraries. To stick with the HE sector here (I feel like looking at other sectors from this angle would need a blog post to itself), a student could get all the way through their degree never having used the library, and still pass. They probably wouldn’t do very well, and may have ended up spending lots of money on books that they didn’t need to spend, but it could be done. (For that matter, they could probably get through their degree without attending lectures either – but that’s a bigger issue!)

There was a comment on Twitter that libraries are essential because information is essential, and libraries provide access to information, but I think that’s slightly missing the point. Yes, information is essential, but libraries are not the only provider of information. We’re certainly not the easiest or most convenient way to access information, at least from your typical undergraduate’s point of view! Is the answer to spend all our time and effort on convincing people who don’t see us as essential that we actually are? Or should we accept that there will be people who will never engage with us, and instead focus our efforts on the keen ones who want to come and use the library?

I don’t know the answer here, and I’m not sure there is an easy answer. It’s just food for thought.

Provide the data your users care about

One point that came up repeatedly was that many academic libraries are producing “action plans” for engagement with their schools/department. It seems that this is most successful where the plans are a collaborative effort with the schools, so the library can work with their academics to monitor and report on the kinds of metrics that they are actually interested in, rather than just providing whatever data the library has and hoping it’s relevant.

It probably seems an obvious point, but I hadn’t come across the idea of tailored action plans before (I am still new to the HE sector!) so I was really interested to see the approaches being taken here.

Final thoughts

I really enjoyed this conference. Being new to HE libraries, it was great to go to a conference that was solely focused on relationship management in this sector, and to see what everyone else is working on. The atmosphere was great, and the conference as a whole was very well organised.

I did speak to a few people who expressed the opinion that there hadn’t really been many “new” approaches shared, and that lots of what was discussed were things that many libraries have been doing for a few years now. I can’t really comment as to how new any of the approaches were, as they were all new to me! However even if they weren’t especially new, I still think there’s value in sharing how different libraries are implementing similar approaches to shared problems.

The workshop that Penny and I ran went really well, and we’ve had some good follow-up from it too. I would definitely recommend this conference if/when it runs again.


Bonnie Hilditch 2016 Award

Just wanted to flag up that the Engineering and SciTech divisions of SLA are now accepting nominations for next year’s Bonnie Hilditch Award. This was the award that enabled me to attend the SLA conference in Boston in June this year.

I would strongly encourage anyone who works in a library role relating to the STEM sectors to apply for this award. Not only is SLA a fantastic conference to attend, the folks in the Engineering and SciTech divisions are also awesome! They were so welcoming, and I learned so much from attending.

When I applied for this award, I had just started my role as Subject Librarian for Engineering at the University of Huddersfield. My aim was to use this award as an opportunity to get to know this new-to-me sector through contacts and networking with the Divisions, as well as through their programming at the conference. Happy to say these goals were well and truly met!

The deadline for applications for the award is 31st December 2015, so there’s a little time, but the sooner you get cracking the better you can make your application!

The last two award winners were both from the European chapter (Niamh Tumelty won the previous year), so it’d be fantastic to see another SLA Europe winner in the mix! Hoping to see some impressive applications from my European colleagues this year.


Chartership: completing the PKSB

This post is pretty long-delayed, but better late than never! This year I’ve decided to finally crack on with Chartership, following two (!) previously abandoned attempts. To this end, a couple of months ago I went through the PKSB (Professional Knowledge and Skills Base) to identify the areas I needed to focus on. I thought it would be useful, for my own reflection and even possibly for others going through Chartership, to blog about the experience.

My first impression on looking at the PKSB: wow, it’s massive! There’s so many skills and knowledge areas covered that I found it a bit overwhelming to begin with. I actually went through the entire thing point by point, which I later discovered is not really what you’re meant to do – instead, you should just focus on the areas that actually apply to your own role, and then pick out a few criteria from each. I’m glad I did it the long way though: it was a useful reminder of how diverse the skill set needed for librarianship really is.

I started out going through the PDF document that lists all 12 expertise and skills areas, and wrote a sentence on each criteria on whether or not I saw this as a development need. This took a pretty long time (even though quite a lot of them just said “this isn’t relevant to my role!), and I rather wish that before I’d done this, I’d seen the PKSB gap analysis spreadsheet! I found the spreadsheet much more useful in getting a quick glance as to where my skills gaps were and which areas I needed to focus on. I ended up transferring my numerical scores from the PDF to the spreadsheet, which made it much more manageable.

Actually assigning scores to each was difficult. I used a fairly snap judgement for each – I didn’t want to over-think it, so tried to assign scores quite quickly to each – but on discussing my scores with my mentor, she pointed out several on which I’d really under-rated my existing experience. So I went through again, taking a bit more time over it, and tried to think of examples of how I’d met (or not) each criteria in my working life. I only did this for the areas I’d already identified as being relevant to me at this stage in my career, so it didn’t take quite as long as going through the entire thing a second time!

Assigning scores in this more considered way was a useful exercise: it helped me be more realistic about what I can already do and what I need to work on. As my mentor pointed out, it’s easy to look at the criteria and instinctively think they’re describing things you can’t do, particularly if you have a tendency to under-value your own skills (shut up, Horace…). Thinking through them in terms of practical examples helped me to think more deeply about what skills I have.

PKSB gap analysis

My PKSB gap analysis

Above is my completed gap analysis, with all but the criteria I intend to focus on hidden. I added the “priority” column myself as after my first pass through, I’d picked about 20 criteria, which I’m told was unrealistically high! I used my own priority judgement to narrow down to seven criteria, plus the three “other” elements. I based the priority on which criteria had the biggest gap between my current and ideal scores, and which were directly related to my job (particularly those elements of my job, like teaching and leadership, that I am fairly new to).

Since completing this, I’ve set myself up a development log using each of the criteria as headings, so I can note down my development activities as I go along, and set reminders for myself of what I need to do to provide evidence, and what further development I can pursue under each heading. I’ve already got quite a lot done, I just need to make time for writing up reflections and gathering other evidence!


CILIP 2015: learning points and reflections

Continuing my Epic Month of Conferences, on 2-3 July I headed to Liverpool for the CILIP conference. I was really excited for this one, largely because of the very high quality keynote speakers listed! I was also excited because it’s been a while since I attended a CILIP conference (my last Umbrella was in 2011 I think). And from the looks of the programme and all the pre-conference materials I’d seen, they’d made a real effort to make it relevant and responsive to the needs of information professionals across a wide range of sectors.

St George's Hall, Liverpool

St George’s Hall, Liverpool – a beautiful place for a conference!

There was a really positive, inspiring atmosphere at the conference – something which hasn’t always been present at UK library events, so it was good to see it here! I don’t know if I took quite as many practical things away with me to apply to my work as I did from SLA, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What I did get from this conference is a real sense of the range of work information professionals are involved in, and the importance of this to society as a whole. It was great for reaffirming my commitment to the profession, as well as of course contributing to my knowledge of the wider professional context! (Why yes, I am chartering, how did you guess..?)

As with SLA, I live-tweeted the conference and have made a Storify of my tweets, retweets and favourites from each day, please see links below for detail of what was discussed:

Here’s my main learning points and reflections from the conference.

The keynotes

As mentioned above, the keynotes were initially my main reason for wanting to attend the conference! I was not disappointed: all the keynote speakers were engaging, inspiring, and made excellent points about the future and importance of the profession. As a general reflection, I really can’t top @bethanar’s heartfelt and eloquent post, which I urge you all to read!

It was great to see the keynote speakers tackling issues like information poverty, information security and privacy, freedom of information, librarians as educators, and the importance of access to information about our rights. These are all really key issues that should be at the heart of everything we do, but I’m not sure they’ve always had the attention they deserve in the UK library sector. (It’s telling to contrast this with the US, where ALA seems to take a much more active campaigning stance on information rights, for example on net neutrality.) It was heartening to see CILIP put these issues front and centre through its choice of keynotes, and I hope this focus continues.

My main learning points:

  • The work we do as information professionals is vital, and we need to ensure people know that.
  • If your work is the kind that is invisible when done well, make sure you tell people about it!
  • Librarians are not neutral, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. Access to information, literacy etc. are all political issues.
  • Libraries are not free! All our users have invested in the service, whether through taxes, student fees, or as part of a company’s overhead – that means everyone has a stake in the service, and we should make that clear.
  • Our role as educators and providers of information is crucial in an information society – whether that is providing information on our human rights, or signposting to other information providers such as fact-checking organisations.

The parallel sessions

Jan Parry’s talk about her work on the Hillsborough enquiry was a real eye-opener. I didn’t realise quite how much investigative work she did, for example in tracking down the families of the victims – right down to knocking on neighbours’ doors to track down people who’d moved away! As well as the general sense of awe at Jan’s compassion and professionalism in what must have been a very emotionally challenging job, I picked up the following points:

  • The importance of good record keeping – despite previous enquiries, there was no full list of all the victims’ families. The enquiry was very family-centric, which was why one of Jan’s first jobs was to track them all down – which took more than 2 years!
  • The need to promote what we do – Jan often got asked what she had to do with the panel, by people who didn’t understand what relevance a librarian had to the work. She explained that she was an expert in finding and recording information – which is not how people generally think of librarians! We are hugely vital to this kind of work though, which is why after Hillsborough, all independent panels are now going to have the involvement of information and records professionals.
  • The importance of knowledge management! There had been previous incidents and near-misses at Hillsborough before the tragedy but lessons weren’t learned – this struck me as a stark reminder of why open communication about risks and challenges is needed in every organisation.

Elizabeth Oddy and Anne Middleton’s talk about the pop-up library at Newcastle University was hugely impressive. This was a project undertaken to tackle the problem of overcrowding in the library. In response to student feedback about what they wanted from a library space, the librarians successfully argued their case to be given use of a conference building.

This was the really impressive part, to me: after first being offered just one room in the building, they managed to get permission to use the whole building, by using the data they’d gathered from door entry stats, student requests, and the other feedback they’d got from various means, to demonstrate the high demand for this service and prove that they could fill the building. This is a really good illustration of why you should back up your project ideas with data!

My other main takeaways:

  • Collect feedback everywhere – the librarians used everything from online surveys, ballot boxes, social media, to just stopping students in the library to ask what they thought. This ensured everyone could have a say!
  • Have a clear value prospect – they knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this project so were able to articulate it clearly to decision makers.
  • Use the student voice! All of us in HE know how important the student experience is – we can make use if this if we are providing things we know the students want (see also: collecting feedback, above!)
  • Having a strong design/brand is important – I love the pop-art theme they came up with for branding, and the theme itself got them further exposure on top of the great response to the pop-up library itself.

Finally, Leo Appleton and Andy Tattersall’s talk on harnessing the power of social media for the benefit of library users was a good overview of the opportunities social media presents for libraries and librarians. It was a pretty wide-ranging talk, covering social media for research, for enquiries, and for promotion. Here’s my takeaways:

  • Social media is part of your enquiry service, whether you like it or not! If you’re there, people will ask you questions, and will expect a quick response.
  • Social media accounts must be responsive. I would argue that having a dead account is worse than having no account at all. Don’t set up social media accounts if you don’t have time to populate them!
  • The University of Sheffield’s Research Hacks videos look great: nice short videos introducing different social media services and their uses.
  • Dissemination channels for research are changing (e.g. expanding from scholarly journals and conferences to blogs, social media and open access publications), therefore the way we measure impact should change too. Altmetrics (e.g. number of shares/likes, links back, conversations on social media) can supplement traditional impact and citation data.

The networking

Maybe it’s because I’ve got more confident myself in networking, but I found it much easier to strike up conversations with people at this conference than I have at previous UK conferences. A lot of this I think was also down to the hard work of the CILIP Fringe team, who put on some great unconference-style sessions and events – that really helped people get talking together! I also really enjoyed talking to the exhibitors (encouraged by the chance of winning an iPad for collecting a sticker from everyone!) – as @joeyanne points out in her blog post on the conference, the exhibitors help make the conference what it is.

Usually at conferences I talk to one or two exhibitors that I need to know something from specifically, and ignore the rest. This time I made an effort to talk to everyone, even those that didn’t have any relevance to my own job. This was really interesting, and I felt like I learned a lot more than I would otherwise about the kinds of suppliers and services involved in libraryland as a whole. Although I’m not in a position to buy anything from many of them, it was a good learning experience – and I picked u a couple of things to pass on to colleagues who may be interested too.

Final thoughts

I was hugely impressed by the conference overall. I was also interested to see the launch of the CILIP Impact Toolkit on the final day – although I did wonder if it would have given more opportunity for discussion and exploration of the tool if it had been introduced at the start, perhaps with a Fringe session to explore the toolkit and share ideas.

I’m glad I attended the conference. Although I didn’t take away quite as many practical ideas as I did from SLA, and some points felt slightly repetitive (but perhaps necessarily so – I feel like we’ve been told we need to get ourselves out of the library for years, but then I think there’s so many of us who don’t take this advice that it’s probably a useful reminder!), overall I left feeling inspired by and reconnected to the information profession. Which ultimately, I think is the mark of a good conference 🙂


SLA 2015: key learning points

View of Boston from the aeroplane

Boston from above

The week before last I headed off to Boston, MA, USA for the Special Libraries Association conference. I’m lucky enough to have been able to attend in previous years, so this was my third conference (thanks to the Bonnie Hilditch International Librarian Award, from the Engineering and SciTech divisions).

I really got a lot out of it this year, I would say probably even more so than the previous SLA conferences I’ve attended. I think because I’m a little more developed in my own career, and have experienced a few different roles and sectors, I know a bit more about what I want to get out of conferences like this.

It was a fantastic few days. I was hugely impressed by the programme – there were some really good, meaty topics covered, and a good variety of topics and session styles.

Boston was also fantastic to visit! I stayed on for a couple of days afterwards and did some sightseeing, including of course the wonderful Boston Public Library, which is stunningly beautiful and exactly what all libraries should look like!

Boston Public Library lion

Boston Public Library lion

I live-tweeted my way through most of the conference, and have created a Storify for each day, if anyone wants to see details of what was covered: Day One, Day Two and Day Three. Rather than rehash all of that, I thought I’d just do a brief post covering my main learning points/takeaways from some of my favourite sessions.

Keynote: Leigh Gallagher

Leigh Gallagher is Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune magazine, and gave an impassioned speech about the value of skilled information professionals in the world of journalism. It was very inspiring and engaging, although I did have a slight moment of skepticism at how valued librarians really are in the media world, given that in the UK the media librarians association AUKML had to close a number of years ago due to lack of members, as so many media librarians had lost their jobs. This was confirmed later when Leigh, after waxing lyrical about how great the librarian at Fortune is, noted that his job is now the only info pro role at the organisation, where a few years ago they had half a dozen.

That was the only slightly sour note for me though, and otherwise it was an excellent keynote. Leigh gave the usual advice (which I’m a little sad to see still needs to be stated, but I think it does!) that librarians need to get better at shouting about our value, get out of the library and embed ourselves in organisations to become indispensable.

One point she made that I found very interesting, was about branding information services as a high-value, artisanal product. Leigh noted that when writing her book, she’d hired Fortune’s librarian to work for her personally as a researcher and fact-checker. This is a hugely valuable service that many people would pay a premium for – so why don’t librarians exploit this!

I thought this was a really good point, and it is one I haven’t heard made in this way before. I think it’s difficult because many of us work in non-profit sectors, and even those of us who don’t perhaps still have the same mindset. The history of librarianship is very much that of a social purpose public service, which could inhibit us from seeing opportunities like this.

Of course, this is all a very neoliberal way of looking at it, which I’m sure wouldn’t go down to well at the Radical Librarians Collective I’m due to attend next week, so maybe I should leave this one for now!

Revolutionary Learning Organisations

This was one of my favourite sessions from the conference! It was a really interesting, case study-based and audience participatory session about successful strategies from and for revolutionary learning organisations. These were defined as organisations that:

  1. Are focused on advancing knowledge (e.g. all the case studies were from higher education institutions)
  2. Have a culture focused on people
  3. Are focused on continuing education (i.e. of staff) and change, and are supportive of both risk and failure.

There were some really interesting examples used in the case studies. One in particular I think horrified many of us in the room (and certainly many on Twitter, if responses to my tweet were anything to go by!): an organisation that shut down its library on a Friday afternoon every so often (I think they said about once a month?) for a four-hour “mega meeting”. Not only this, but the meetings are held at each team members’ house on a rotating basis, and the team members all cook things to bring to the meeting.

Just the idea of a four-hour meeting fills me with horror, not to mention the hostess anxiety I would get from having to invite my co-workers into my home and provide food! The presenters made a couple of good points though. The first was that they were aware this set-up wouldn’t work everywhere, and they wouldn’t expect us all to go off and try it – to which we all breathed a sigh of relief!

They then noted that the main point of the case study wasn’t about the mega-meeting itself: it was about getting away from the office, having an open forum where anyone could share ideas or concerns, and getting to know each other and bonding as a team. One staff member was quoted as saying that you couldn’t help but work with each other differently once you’d all met each others’ cats and dogs! The presenters suggested that many workplaces could aim for these goals in another way, e.g. by launching a workplace book group, or a sports team, or just meeting outside the workplace.

The other really great idea I picked up from this session was the 15five tool. This involves everyone spending fifteen minutes every Friday afternoon to answer five simple questions about their week. These answers are then shared with the management team, who use them to keep in touch with their team, identify any upcoming problems, or new great ideas, and set goals for development. The presenters gave an example set of questions:

  1. What challenges are you facing?
  2. How are you going to address these, and what help/support will you need?
  3. How are you feeling, and what are you doing in your area/team to build morale?
  4. What one thing would make the biggest improvement in your team or organisation? (This could be as big or small as you wanted)
  5. What is going well for you, and did you have any big wins this week?

I really like this idea, and I love the reflexive questions! I particularly like that it ends on a positive. There is a paid-for tool that organisations could use to implement this, but I think it could just as easily be done just via email, or even just as personal reflexion. I am going to start doing this myself at the end of each week, and will suggest it to my colleagues to see if anyone else has an interest.

Success in Knowledge Management: the anti-revolutionary approach

Katherine Schopflin’s session on KM was a real eye-opener. I’ve sort of stopped reading about KM since I left the law firm world – KM is a huge deal in commercial law firms, but I get the impression it’s not really on the radar in academic libraries. What this session made me realise is that it really should be! Knowledge needs managing everywhere, but particularly in large organisations with lots of separate departments with a tendency to keep everything in discrete silos.

I won’t go into masses of detail here – I would urge anyone with an interest to read Katherine’s paper, as I don’t think I could really do it justice with a summary! One of her main themes was the idea that KM has to come from the bottom and be internally-led and driven, rather than being imposed externally as is often the case. That really struck a chord with me, and  I’ll be giving some thought as to how this applies to the academic world.

Trends in Open Education and Open Access

This session, on an Open Education Resources (OER) initiative at the University of Massachusetts, gave me some good food for thought. I don’t actually know to what extent OERs have been explored at Huddersfield, but the speaker, Marilyn Billings, gave some compelling arguments in their favour, including:

  • Saving money for students (and the library?) on textbooks
  • More engaging resources created
  • Improved student engagement and performance (grades went up!)
  • Aiding innovative teaching methods e.g. flipped classroom
  • Opportunity for lecturers to raise their profile within and outside of the institution
  • Opportunity for librarians to raise awareness of topics like Open Access, copyright, Creative Commons, etc.

The programme at UMass was very ambitious, but had some impressive results. I’d love to know how much this sort of thing is being explored in the UK.

How to select the best databases for your community

Speaker Giovanna Badia gave a great, engaging and practical presentation on methods for comparing subscriptions databases. This was probably the most practically useful session I attended, and was also very entertaining – no mean feat given the potentially very dry topic! I’m actually writing up this session for the Engineering Division, so I won’t go into detail here. If you’re interested though, Giovanna has made a short YouTube video summarising her key points:

Those were all the main learning points I wanted to share, although I attended many other great sessions! My not having mentioned a session here shouldn’t be taken as indicating I didn’t get as much out of it, I just wanted to pick out a few highlights and the ideas that I am going to act on here.

I was a bit overwhelmed by the end of the conference to be honest, hence taking this long to write it up! I had an absolutely brilliant time though, met some fantastic people and got some great ideas to take back to work – which I understand is the purpose of these things 🙂