The late and unstructured ramblings of an old(ish) library school student attending CILIP Conference 2019 in receipt of the PMLG bursary

I suppose I’ve used this subheadline as a warning of sorts…

When I sat down to write an article to sum up my experiences of CILIP’s 2019 conference, I thought I would tackle it traditionally and chronologically by taking the reader on a journey session by session. A logical and systematic approach.

Then I opened my conference notebook…

Wow. Conference-me was neither logical nor systematic. My notes are all over the place and reflect the fact that much of the conference content resonated with me on both a personal and professional level. I am a (shhh) year old PhD student who has left teaching and embarked on a second career in library and information services (LIS). So, if you fancy an emotional and slightly loquacious take on what it’s like to attend CILIP Conference as a first-time delegate and LIS newbie, read on. Equally, if that puts you off, I won’t be offended.

PhD and public library goodness

One of the main reasons I applied for the PMLG bursary was the focus of my PhD proposal. I’m continuing my studies at the University of Sheffield’s Information School, under the supervision of the inspirational Dr. Briony Birdi. At this early stage, I don’t want to give away too many details but the remit covers public libraries, perceptions and legislation.

There was a great deal of information and knowledge at conference that tugged on the thread I intend to pull with this research and which served as a reminder of all the good public libraries do for their communities.

Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian at the British Library, discussed the theme of librarianship and identity. Each delegate will have taken away different concepts from her address which looked back on her impressive career. I was interested in her take on what she considers the enduring values of the profession, influenced by the work of Michael Gorman1: stewardship, service, intellectual freedom, privacy, rationalism, equity of access, democracy, commitment to literacy and learning.

There is something deeply satisfying and powerful in drawing together a unified view of public librarianship in the UK. I am new to the LIS world and some may consider my views naïve… but my own reading has led me to discover different bodies with varied and, dare I say it, conflicting dogma of what libraries and their staff do for and with the public: Arts Council England, The Libraries Taskforce, DCMS, Libraries Connected and even CILIP. Is it time, as Liz implied, to remember that we have a distinct and common role? She asserted that we facilitate, we don’t simply support.

Whilst I didn’t enjoy her question about the master’s degree route into librarianship, and whether it has been unhealthily fetishised, I recognise my discomfort relates to my own status as a recent MA student. I applaud her reflective approach to asking tricky questions and to being “open and transparent rather than closed and exclusive.”2

The last comment I recorded from Liz’s presentation, in my new, fancy conference notebook: “We need to stop pretending to be neutral as a profession.”3 I couldn’t agree more. We’re not neutral; all our actions are small p political and a great number of them are POLITICAL.

Which allows me to neatly, and almost logically, segue into the session titled Innovation in public libraries. The work of Manchester Central Library and Archives+, presented by Larysa Bolton and Neil MacInnes, documents and celebrates LGBT+ history in the North West region. It is gloriously political, emotional and historically important: “We’re here, we’re queer. Manchester’s LGBT+ story is never going back underground.”4 The collection’s narrative predates the 1950s and the archiving is being handled with empathy and tact, in collaboration with the local council. The project has even helped other organisations to catalogue their own collections.

Amy Hearn presented 100% Digital Leeds: digital inclusion matters and I was blown away by the multi-organisation approach of the project and its far reaching impact for those living in Leeds. I love the mantra of removing barriers to accessing information and digital content. Not only is the project delivering digital access and technology to individuals, it’s also helping other community groups by loaning them devices so that they can trial their use, prove their benefits and then use this evidence to apply for bids to purchase their own. Obviously, the digital foundation of the project is of paramount importance but the magic, I think, lies in their collaborative approach; like Liz Jolly said, it’s an open and transparent model.

Similarly, the work at Kirklees to engage vulnerable teens and young adults through the power of rap and music is creative and fun but it’s also political. Kirstie Wilson’s presentation, Creative engagement in library services development, clearly demonstrated that the project has helped to re-engage some of the most marginalised young people in the library’s locale as well as raising the profile of the library through partnerships with schools and the University of Huddersfield.

Equality, diversity and INCLUSION in the world of LIS

I work at an FE college with multiple sites and libraries. I am the only LGBT+ member of the library team. My fantastic, motivational and empathetic boss, the site librarian, is the only staff member of colour in the team and on campus. We often joke, in that unamused way that marginalised people do, that we tick many of the employment equality “boxes” between us.

My boss and I have spent much time over the last year trying to better understand one another’s intersectional, lived experiences and endeavouring to apply that learning to the students we support. For instance, I identify as a gay, working class woman whose childhood was framed by social welfare and Section 28. We are both acutely aware that our experiences are not a catch-all reflection of those who are forced, or choose, to share our labels. Would I say there is a problem in our workplace with how those who are other are treated? That’s a difficult conversation. But, aye, there’s the rub… I’d say that until very recently the conversation has been absent. There was silence. She and I, with the support of others, are beginning to start that dialogue. I could write about how the weight of that responsibility shouldn’t always fall onto our shoulders but I’d rather talk about how delighted I was to learn that CILIP Conference 2019 was offering a number of opportunities to explore equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in LIS.

I hate mornings but I over-caffeinated myself so that I could attend the breakfast seminar, BAME Network: what it means to be an ally. I thought Shirley Yearwood-Jackman, chair of the network’s steering group, was an incisive and motivational speaker, from whom I learn a great deal. Who are allies? They’re not just people who don’t act with prejudice; this ambivalence and lack of racist output is insufficient. An ally actively promotes rights, individually and institutionally. An ally takes responsibility for learning about themselves and their own privilege. An ally seeks to learn about the lived experience of marginalised groups, rather than putting the onus on those groups to educate. An ally reflects, seeks knowledge and takes action. Shirley also warned that preaching to the converted doesn’t mean you are reaching out more widely; in our LIS settings, we need to start the conversation and build in on a foundation of empathy. Racist and prejudiced ideas and perceptions do not appear from nowhere. People have rationalised their beliefs and actions, underpinned by a historical legacy.

Hong-Anh Nguyen’s keynote address, Questioning diversity, was equally illuminating and echoed many of the insightful points addressed by the BAME Network breakfast session. She cautioned that equality and diversity strategies often pay lip service to the idea of diversity but they are shallow. A strategy is not synonymous with action and it won’t achieve anything on its own. Organisations may know they have a problem without understanding its scope. Institutionally, we should be asking:

  • Why do we do things in a certain way?
  • Can it be done more inclusively?
  • Can we celebrate others?
Hong-Anh Nguyen made many profound comments which are still echoing in my brain months later

Following her clear and inclusive message, imbued by her own lived experiences, I was horrified when one delegate chose to use the questions from the floor as an opportunity to interrogate Hong-Anh on her choice of Twitter handle. It is a play on words involving Dewey – we all know about his abhorrent, abusive actions.5 What I can’t understand, nor will I probably articulate it very clearly, is why someone would choose to spotlight that, in front of a primarily white delegation, when Hong-Anh had been invited to speak on inclusion? Because we all recognise inclusion is an issue in the LIS world. She had generously drawn on and shared her own experiences, individually and within her organisation. Was it to undermine her? To wrestle back some power? To accuse her of letting down the sisterhood? To score some mundane points? It left me feeling frustrated…

Following this address, Hong-Anh went on to chair Diversity in the profession, with four panellists: Binni Brynolf, Natasha S. Chowdory, Heena Karavadra and Tom Peach. I won’t be discussing what was said, directly, as the session obeyed the Chatham House rules. It was billed as an opportunity to hear, understand and value the lived experiences of LIS professionals from under-represented groups. Quite literally a chance to enact the promise we had made to the BAME Network in the earlier breakfast session to educate ourselves and to listen. I am grateful to this group. It is a raw, emotional and painful process to explain your experiences in a world and profession that sees you as other. Yet again, it transpired that a delegate did not respect or understand the nature of the session – not my story to tell – but I do find myself wishing that some of CILIP’s most senior people had been present and had stayed to check on the panellists. If the difference between diversity and inclusion is moving from visibility to the embedded inclusion of people at all levels or from liberal, well-meaning kindness to radical, active inclusion… I feel that CILIP may have paused at diversity.

I MET ONJALI Q RAUF AND SHE HUGGED ME. Yes, I have been fan-girling about this ever since. It was fantastic to listen to the panel of Diversity, books and reading, including Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Sharmilla Beezmohun, Olivia Danso, Sita Bramachari, Peter Kalu and Onjali Q Rauf (I may have mentioned her already). The work by BookTrust to improve the under-representation of books written and illustrated by people of colour form the UK was inspiring and alarming: “Over the last 11 years, fewer than 2% of all authors and/or illustrators of children’s books published in the UK were British people of colour.”6 What happens to young people in Britain when they don’t see themselves represented in the literature they’re reading? What happens to their aspirations for further education, higher education or careers in the creative arts?

The panel stressed that the role librarians play in connecting children and young people to books created by people of colour cannot be understated. In his keynote address, preceding this panel, Patrick Lambe argued that books and collections have shape, tell stories, change minds, take people on journeys and capture diversity. His call to arms: when a society is in crisis, attend to the margins; the centre is well able to look after itself.7

Speed dating and AI

Conference also allowed me to broaden my understanding of LIS related fields of which I have no experience and little comprehension! For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed the Knowledge and Information Management round table discussion, chaired by Alison Wheeler, as an opportunity to meet professionals with very varied roles. As a library student, it reminded me of the scope of opportunity out there when I’m ready to leave academia and join the workforce again. The speed dating approach was genius as it meant delegates met different people and chose which fields they wanted to explore; in my case, managing upwards and maximising the value of spend on content.

The opening address from Kriti Sharma was dazzling: Can Artificial Intelligence create a fairer world? I’d never thought about the fact that household AI devices are given female voices and the implications of that: Alexa, Siri, Google Home. I know algorithms exist that mean Amazon pushes adverts at me depending on my Facebook content (I find it disconcerting) and that I receive different news notifications to the others in my household because of my click history… but I didn’t know the extent to which bias and stereotyping is embedded into the design of these algorithms. For example, it affects the jobs and education opportunities you’re shown online. It literally helps to hold the glass ceiling in place. Kriti is positive it can change. Not by signing up to do the right thing but by making it a part of the DNA: designing algorithms and AI which are human-centric rather than focussed on sales, click ads and digital addiction. After all, “When the robots take over, we want them to be nice!” 8

Kriti Sharman both entertaining and terrifying the delegates!

Surprise bonuses

As a distance learner, I spent two years studying with some wonderful people from all over the world without actually seeing them in person. Attending conference meant that I was able to meet staff from the Information School and fellow Sheffield students, all with the utmost professionalism on my part. Obviously.

Eugenia Fernández-Almirón and I actually finding the venue after asking for directions
Cathy Bell fixing the water fountain after Eugenia used it
Me spotting a lecturer in the flesh: Sheila Webber, Information School, University of Sheffield

As someone who never wins anything, not only did I secure the fabulous PMLG bursary, I also won something else at conference. Whist other (I might argue, less fortunate) delegates won books, vouchers, Kindles and iPads, I was the ultimate winner… The Design Concept are the UK office of Lammhults Library Design (@designconceptuk) and, living up to their brand, they had a gorgeous stand at the conference where you could win a canary yellow elephant. It was love at first sight and I had to get him. Delegates were challenged to name the elephant and the best name transformed into ownership. Twirly is named after a keynote address by Liz McGettigan (@lizmcgettigan) at CoLRiC conference earlier this year. She declared that those in the LIS world should “turn whispers into roars;” and, so, Twirly was born.

Twirly has been living his best life

Now what?

Leaving conference, I was buzzing and felt equally angry and re-energised. I wanted to discard the passive-sofa-moaning (you know, where you watch the news, rage at the TV but do nothing) and turn my thoughts into actions by heeding the rallying cries of all the speakers and panellists I’d been privileged to hear. Below is a list of conscious actions I’ve undertaken because of my experiences and learnings at conference.

  • I’ve signed up to join CILIP’s BAME Network as an ally and passed on the details to my boss.
  • I’ve added a series of pins to my lanyard (and my boss’ lanyard) that demonstrate we are allies. We’re hoping our students and staff ask us what they mean or why we’re wearing them so we can start the dialogue.
  • I worked hard to diversify our fiction collection last year, with non-existent funds! Moving forward, I am committed to continue with this, mindful of BookTrust’s statistics on British book creators of colour. I will also continue the impassioned dialogue, with my organisation, about increasing the visibility of diverse fiction.
  • I’ve re-arranged our fiction / reading for pleasure collection to enable a half-termly surfacing of stock related to a theme. The first theme, celebrating difference, tied into September’s International Day of Peace. The books are written by authors or feature characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultural heritage. As the year progresses, we will use the display to highlight equality, diversity and inclusion in different ways.
  • I created a display focussed on International Day of Peace, including the UN’s sustainable development goals9. They turned them into achievable actions for individuals, so I added these to the display and challenged our students and staff to think about which they will pledge to undertake.
  • I’ve spoken to everyone I know about the lessons I’ve learned from conference – regardless of their level of interest!
  • I’ve started to call out micro-aggressions, both those I receive (last month: who is the husband and wears the trousers?) and those I see others receive (a shopper pushing a stranger’s occupied wheelchair so that he could reach a shelf). In the case of the latter, I always seek the receiver’s express permission because I don’t want to disempower anyone.
  • As a household, we’ve continued the tradition of refusing to buy or receive Christmas gifts; instead, we donate much needed items and cash to a homeless centre in Portsmouth. I’m delighted that the business support staff at work are getting behind this cause in lieu of a Secret Santa, this year.
  • I did some voluntary work for the Trussell Trust and I’ve been adding items to the supermarket collection point every month.

I know that I will get things wrong and, in trying, I could very well offend the people I’m trying to include. I need to be receptive to criticism and I must reflect on what I learn. As Shirley Yearwood-Jackman argued, many people fear that questioning the status quo will reflect poorly on themselves10; I won’t allow my worry of getting it wrong to transform into cowardice or inaction.

This is just the start…11

References (And, yes, I’m combining Harvard APA 6th with end notes… the horror!)

1. Gorman, M. (2015). Our enduring values revisited: librarianship in an ever-changing world. Chicago, USA: ALA Editions

2. Jolly, L. (2019, July 3). Librarianship and identity: professionalism in a changing world [keynote address]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

3. Ibid.

4. Bolton, L. & MacInnes, N. (2019, July 3). Never going underground: LGBT archive collections at Manchester Central Library [seminar presentation]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

5. Blake, E. (2017). The father of modern libraries was a serial sexual harasser. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-libraries-was-a-serial-sexual-harasser

6. BookTrust. (2019). BookTrust represents. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from https://www.booktrust.org.uk/what-we-do/programmes-and-campaigns/booktrust-represents/

7. Lambe, P. (2019, July 4). People of the book: knowledge in our society and our role in it [keynote address]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

8. Sharman, K. (2019, July 3). Can Artificial Intelligence create a fairer world? [keynote address]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

9. United Nations. (2019). About the sustainable development goals. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

10. Yearwood-Jackman, S. (2019, July 4). BAME Network: what it means to be an ally [seminar]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

11. The Trussell Trust. (2019). Logo. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from https://www.trusselltrust.org/

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