MSc Information Management at UWE Bristol

Inspiration from CILIP Conference 2015: a personal view   

Posted by Judith Stewart | 0 Comments 

Six hundred library and information workers in Liverpool:  seven keynote papers, four strands of relevant and engaging breakout sessions, supplier and organisation exhibition, social events and opportunities to network, and queues for food and coffee. Each delegate will have experienced this in their own way and come away with new friends and memories, tips and hints, something of real value for their professional development, solid ideas that can be implemented in their place of work. And also inspiration.

I certainly picked up some useful ideas to explore further, and resources to look at which will inform my teaching. Thank you Steve Dale, Elisabeth Goodman, Clive Holtham, Naomi Korn. ….. But what I want to talk about here are the people and the presentations that inspired, moved and excited me, whether personally or professionally.  These were in particular the keynote talks from David Lankes, Shami Chakrabarti and Erwin James, and the presentation by Andy Ryan about the City Read project.

The title of R David Lankes’  keynote which opened the conference was ‘An action plan for world domination through librarianship.’ His talk was as direct, lively, and witty as the title suggests. There were two main messages it seemed to me.  First that librarians and information workers should have more courage and confidence in who we are and what we do – the self-image of the profession is notoriously poor – and that we should put a greater value on what we do. He asked that librarians and information workers should stop seeing Google as a competitor, because Google is not in the business of providing information – they are in the business of Advertising! For Lankes, the main demonstration of our undervaluing our work is the low expectation we have of our users to respect and value the service we provide. Library services are not free.

“When we call library users customers we absolve them of the responsibility of being co-owners of libraries”

Lankes was talking from the perspective of a an American public librarian, but it’s worth thinking about whether this is also applicable to British public libraries which are funded from our Council Taxes, and also our academic libraries which are funded through taxes and students’ fees. The attitude in higher education is often – ‘the students are paying for their education as a purchase’, whereas we should rather encourage the culture that students and their families are investing in the process of their education, and that the services and provisions of the library and information service are an integral part of that service. This implies a shared responsibility and therefore demands effort and thoughtfulness rather than just a ‘purchase and consume’ culture. The resources, in whatever format, are collected, curated, made accessible, ‘in order to help people learn.’

Shami Chakrabarti’s keynote which opened the second day of the conference was a masterclass in public speaking. Calm, understated, thoughtful, riveting. Of course she was discussing some of the most important concepts and challenges of our time : our civil liberties, and how they are being insidiously undermined in the current political and economic climate.  Shami described human rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948) as ‘a framework in the world to help people rub along together’. It is an ethical as well as a legal framework. She discussed the current proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998) in the UK, and the implications of this for our civil liberties.

This is not the place to discuss this further, but Ms Chakrabarti reminded us how precious our human rights are, and  the place that libraries, as collectors, and curators of information have to play in protecting them. Although her perspective on libraries seemed to be limited to the provision of printed material in a physical library, this was powerful and thought provoking. I was moved to ask a question – one that we ask students on this programme to consider.  

‘Is access to information a human right?’ Basing her answer in that the clauses of the UN Declaration, she argued that as information is key to education, and equality of opportunity, access to it is indeed a human right. This might not be surprising, and may be seen as obvious to many, but it was good to have the question answered by a lawyer who is immersed in justice and campaigns for equality.

I’ll be honest:  along with wanting to hear Shami Chakrabarti, the opportunity to hear Erwin James speak was one of my main motivations for attending this conference. Fifteen years ago, Erwin James, then serving a life sentence in prison, wrote a regular column in The Guardian. Each week I turned straight to these short pieces which captured moments of prison life, prisoner existence, and their author’s progress towards parole and release in a simple direct prose that sought no sympathy, but told it as it was. 

At conference Erwin James spoke in the same straightforward style about the power of reading and education, and the impact of one particular book on him and his determination to live a life ‘with courage and integrity’. It wasn’t just the book of course. There was guidance and support from skilled professionals, and incredible determination, hard work and perseverance from James himself to translate the inspiration found in one book, the story of another man’s life and incarceration (Alfred Dreyfus) into his own life.

What inspired me here was this man’s humility, his honesty and dignity; the efforts he continues to make to work and in and be part of a world that before his prison term had been other and alien to him. This of course is the world that most of us as information professionals take for granted – where language, reading, communication, are as natural as breathing and the substance of day to day life and work.

After his talk, which elicited a respectful and emotional response from this room of information workers, there was a Q&A session with Erwin. With difficulty, I refrained from attending this to attend sessions about content curation, and strategies for implementing copyright cultures in your own organisation. With absolutely no disrespect to Steve Dale and the excellent Naomi Korn, I think I made the wrong decision.

The breakout session that inspired me most was also about the potential power of the book in ordinary lives. It was that presented by Andy Ryan about the City Read project ; an annual celebration held across all London boroughs which aims to ‘bring reading to life for the whole capital’ .  Andy talked with energy and passion about the project, about the risks taken, and the activities and events they created. ‘They’ are Stellar Libraries cic, (community interest company), set up to design and deliver ‘innovative, daring campaigns that promote and celebrate libraries, reading and literature.’

The City Read project built on similar endeavours to engage communities in reading in other public library authorities including Brighton and Bristol. What was particularly captivating about City Read was the risk taking associated with the immersion approach – engaging actors to represent characters and interact with the public, having volunteers dressed in period costume handing out books in the street; and offering opportunities to handle real archives from the first world war. (These events relate to the 2014 City Read). Andy Ryan’s approach to marketing and promotion is forthright and bold. In his talk, David Lankes several times identified traits that do not reflect well on librarians, and urged us to ‘stop it, stop it, stop it!’  Conversely, Andy’s approach is definitely ‘Go for it, go for it go for it.’

So is there a common theme in these presentations that inspired me. I think there is – they all showed courage and self-belief in large amounts. Courage to stand by what we believe is right; belief that we can achieve and make the world a better place – on whatever scale., whether personally or professionally. There is also a determination to stop being what the world thinks we are (or should be), and become something better, stronger, clearer, louder, braver.

Why is this relevant to LIS? Because reading, books, (in whatever format), finding and utilising information, and developing knowledge, is instrumental in, and even an integral part of developing these strengths and beliefs. Which is why the role of librarian/information manager in collecting, organising, making available and promoting – by whatever name it is known, and in whatever context they work is as critical now as it has always been.

Links for further information on these speakers
Link to presentations by speakers in the conference breakout sessions

Judith Stewart
July 2015

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