An inCALCulably excellent conference

What do alpacas, pets, Mary Poppins and poetry all have in common?

CALC 20201.

I was very lucky to be in receipt of a bursary, sponsored by the Information School, to attend the Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference (CALC) 2021 earlier this month. It was my second virtual conference since the pandemic began and I was prepared for two days of fidgeting at my desk.

I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of CALC 2021.

There was so much rich material that I scrabbled to make notes and engage with the sessions; therefore, if I’ve misrepresented anything, I apologise in advance and will gratefully receive correction. Also, many thanks to the wonderful folks who tweeted with the hashtag #CALC2021 for helping to jog my unreliable memory; a particular shout out goes to Alina (@NaulisLeRugu) whose live tweets were chef’s kiss.

I’ve chosen some highlights from each day.

*** Day 1 ***


Typically, registration on the first day of a conference involves checking in, coffee, awkward mingling and some sort of orientation of the space. CALC 2021 welcomed us onto Zoom and promptly instigated a show ‘n’ tell of delegates’ pets. I had booted Edith to doggie daycare and Maggie isn’t one for clambering up to be on camera, so they missed out. But I’d say pet-cam is a definite perk of attending a conference virtually (that, and getting away with wearing your pyjama bottoms).

Taking pride in our work? A case study analysis of the lived experience of LGBTQIA+ staff working in a UK HE institution (David Bennet)

This was an interesting case study which validated lots of experiences I’ve had as an out member of staff in different settings (not all of them libraries). David reported that the case study shows the experiences of LGBTQIA+ staff can vary, affected by line management support, the team composition, past experiences, age and financial situations. Moreover, the experiences of asexual, bisexual, transgender and non-binary folks can be overlooked, particularly as these identities are often absent from diversity training. The research offers lots of solutions and actions:

  • staff groups, subgroups and networks can be powerful spaces to share experiences and promote a sense of belonging;
  • line managers need to identify and try to resolve conflicts as early as possible, which means being vigilant and open to communication;
  • engendering a culture of mutual respect is of paramount importance – leadership setting good examples is a healthy place to start;
  • mentoring is a great tool, including peer mentoring for LGBTQIA+ to support one another, reverse mentoring so that managers can learn from LGBTQIA+ staff and coaching to help team members who are change resistant.

Working class academics in the library (panel discussion with Andrew Preater, Jo Forster, Kay Sidebottom, Shona Smith, Hina Suleman and Lisa Taylor).

I had a pre-existing commitment to a doctoral training programme session at university that clashed with this panel. As a working class, first generation university goer, I was gutted to miss this. I can see from the brilliant Alina’s tweeting, that the panel discussed topics very close to my heart; I recommend having a read here.

Epistemic alienation in African scholarly communications: libraries in the age of technocoloniality (keynote address from Dr Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou)

This was my first exposure to the notion of coloniality. Where colonialism is the political dimension of colonisation, perceived to end with liberation, coloniality encompasses oppressive economic and social structures which are pervasive and persistent. Technocoloniality is coloniality through the lens of technology: neo-capitalist practices, techno-utopian rhetoric (tech will solve social problems), technology transfer and coloniality of knowledge. The latter refers to the imposition of Western global history onto non-Western peoples; in academia, it’s present in books, cultural models, codes, aspirations, academic performance criteria… Not least because most scientific discourse is carried out in English.

The transfer of knowledge is a vehicle of coloniality; knowledge is distorted to fit a Western frame. “We can define epistemic alienation as the distortion of one’s narrative way of thinking, and of seeing and speaking of one’s own reality” (Nkoudou, 2021). Nkoudou argues that the African university system is a leading factor in epistemic alienation because it adopts Eurocentric practices and is dependent on the West. Leaders, researchers and libraries need to adopt open access literacy, policies and infrastructures to begin to diminish epistemic alienation and technocoloniality.

I know I haven’t done justice to Nkoudou’s presentation as I am woefully under-read in this area. Please do explore his keynote address, in full, here.

Break times

It’s worth noting that this was one of the exemplary features of the conference. The organisers (Darren Flynn and Michelle Bond) were hyperaware of the attendee experience and ensured that all breaks were met on time. No overrunning meant plenty of time to rehydrate, play with a pet, pop to the whatsit and stuff your face with snacks – I even popped out at lunchtime to vote on the second day. At no point did I feel harassed, late, or like I had to choose between my comfort and missing out. Although I don’t need them, I was also pleased to see that closed captions were available for all sessions without any fuss. Darren and Michelle tag-teamed to make sure the parallel sessions had tech support and someone monitoring the chat. It was a masterclass in how to make a conference seem effortlessly accessible and inclusive.

Rethinking the public of the academic library: access, community and engagement (Ben Cornish and Katherine Quinn)

Against a backdrop of increasing fees and ongoing austerity making higher education (HE) more exclusive, Ben and Katherine discussed public access to HE libraries (link). Ben presented a survey of 25 HE libraries and its early conclusions. The survey shows that most HE libraries require members of the public to register or pay to access collections; also, around half of the libraries surveyed do not allow access to eCollections (eBooks, online journals). For members of the public, access privileges to HE libraries are often hierarchical: university almuni, students from other universities, school or college students whose organisations have partnerships with the university, public services workers (such as council, social care or NHS ) and public library users.

Katherine followed the survey outcomes by exploring a slice of her PhD research – an ethnographic study of The Hive, in Worcester. The Hive, which I’ve studied before during an MA module, is a flagship for academic-public library partnerships. According to its website, the name represents “purposeful activity, and sense of community.” Opened in 2012, it aims for the HE and public library service provisions to be indistinguishable.

The Hive (image source)

Katherine’s research demonstrates that The Hive is really a shared space that is integrating rather than integrated: subverting design means it blurs what is public / academic; shelving public and academic collections together leads to unexpected encounters; uncomplicating access generates cross-borrowing. Katherine comments that The Hive offers a “managed surface upon which these live practices of public engagement with knowledge can take place.” That isn’t to say it’s without conflict, negotiation or compromise but these imperfections are actually productive. Given my area of research, I was pleased to hear Ben and Katherine note that some literature is critical of this hybrid approach because of its potential erasure of the public library. It would be easy to imagine other local authorities falling short in their attempts to emulate The Hive, resulting in more examples of outsourced public library spaces.

As I was drafting my reflections, the brilliant Dr Emma Fields sent me a link to an article by Georgina Bowyer, for WONKHE. It discusses academic and public libraries’ civic commonalities. The Engaging Libraries programme supports public libraries to work with universities and researchers to engage the public with health, society and culture activities.

Colour blind: investigating the racial bias of virtual reference services in English academic libraries. (Sally Harmer)

Sally’s research is equally interesting and worrying (link). Lots of students will use different technological methods to engage with library reference services: live chat, instant message, email. Not only is it efficient and convenient, it can minimise social anxiety for those who don’t want to approach a librarian face to face. Sally wanted to explore the evidence of racial bias in these exchanges.

The scope and process of Sally Harmer’s research

The queries were posed as though the person asking was not a student at the organisation; each was assigned a different name to imply a country of origin or ethnic group. Based on digital reference guidelines from IFLA, the responses from the academic librarians were reviewed in five areas: service provision, clarity, courtesy, approachability and information literacy. Positively, Sally can report that over 90% of the queries received a response and over 40% of the queries were offered an answer; most emails received a response promptly, within a day. However, Sally also reports that there were noticeable treatment inequalities, evidence of name-based microaggressions and a general lack of adherence to best practice guidelines.

Research findings

The research is worrying because of my misguided hope that librarians hold ourselves to a higher standard of inclusivity and fairness; it is disappointing to be reminded that we do often fall short. That said, it is also promising that CALC 2021 was so well attended as it shows that many of us are actively learning and trying.

Social event 1

I’m one of those people who presents as confident and, dare I say it, adept in social settings but I’m really an introvert… If you know me, you probably won’t believe me because I do a good job of hiding it. Usually, I’ll try to avoid or manage the social aspects of conferences because I prefer more regimented settings – like the talks – because they have easy-to-follow expectations. I’ll be honest and admit I went to the social event on Day 1 out of a threefold sense of duty. First, I was attending on a bursary (thanks, Information School) so felt I should try to embrace the full conference. Second, I had been so impressed with the day’s sessions, I didn’t want the evening event to be poorly attended. Third, in our previous doctoral training programme session, we’d discussed conference attendance and their social elements. My peers and the PGR director had pondered what such events would look like in a virtual setting; I’d vowed I would check them out at CALC 2021 and report back.

As I mentioned earlier, CALC 2021 was a masterclass in how to run a conference online and the social events really set the tone. We were treated to a poetry performance by Desree. I had never heard of her and I was completely blown away. It’s a good job I was on mute because I kept hollering “Yes! YAS! Exactly!” as she powered through gem after gem. Within five minutes of her set finishing, I’d ordered three copies of her book, I find my strength in simple things. I’ll be featuring it in my next book review blog. She is on fire.

Desree (image source)

*** Day 2 ***

Morning coffee

Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a free coffee and pastry when you’re at a conference? Or tea, if the coffee is questionable. CALC 2021 couldn’t deliver buttery, sugary goodness… so what did they give us, instead? Actual bloody alpacas! Genius!

Decolonising the GLAM sector, one practice at a time (keynote address from Jass Thethi)

I made so few notes because I was utterly engaged with Jass’ content, wisdom and relaxed mode of presenting.

Decolonise your mind

Things I learned…

  • Decolonisation is a social justice model and must be intersectional to be effective.
  • You can’t decolonise anything until you first decolonise your mind.
  • Decolonising the GLAM sector has to happen at a cellular level
  • The organisation, classification and cataloguing systems are ingrained with colonisation so failure to address them means decolonisation attempts are superficial
  • Essentially, information governance is Euro and Western-centric
  • GLAM institutions are looked to, by society, as holders of memories and facts – the cultural impact of white, Eurocentric collections is the reinforcement of misinformation, misrepresentation and erasure
  • The GLAM sector needs to work on language and discoverability to avoid objectionable descriptions and erasure; empowered (and paid) collaboration is the key to more effective practice

Jass left a significant impression. Two of her key messages are still echoing in my head, a few weeks on. First, choosing not to be political is a privilege. Many folks have identities which mean it’s not an option – simply existing in public is deemed political, whether or not they want it to be. Second, “don’t let your mistakes deter you from being better.” As a white, straight passing woman, these comments resonate with me. Those parts of my identity which other me can be hidden; and when I choose not to, that’s imbued with a privilege that I live in an area where it’s safe to do so. I can choose to be apolitical. Also, as a white woman, I understand the fear of getting it wrong, of misstepping, of exhibiting a saviour complex, of offending someone. But that shouldn’t deter me from trying, as long as I remain open to learning, listening and accepting when I have it wrong.

Punk pedagogy (Maria King)

I love a good oxymoron: punk is anti-authority and pedagogy is usually hierarchical in nature (I’ll update with the link when this session is available).

The principles of punk pedagogy:

  • honesty,
  • authenticity,
  • empowerment,
  • innovation,
  • experimentation,
  • risk taking,
  • creativity,
  • autonomy,
  • equity,
  • rebellion,
  • critique,
  • solidarity,
  • community,
  • collaboration,
  • action,
  • reciprocity,
  • passion,
  • rejection of authority.

There is no singular definition of punk pedagogy because that would contradict the notion of punk. But punk pedagogy embraces punk values as an ethos that guides practice. There are strong overlaps with social constructivism: learner centred, learning occurs through interactions, the teacher as a facilitator and a sense of shared ownership.

In an HE setting, Maria advised that there is a balance to be struck between embracing punk and working within the organisational machine. You don’t want to sell out but you do need to pick your battles! Punk pedagogy can positively influence your practice and how you perceive your role as an educator: be a guide and a coach, not a dictator; engage in self reflection; build feedback and critique into all learning not just formative assignments; strive to be flexible and open to ideas from the students; and encourage criticality. Students need support to think, read, write, appraise and discuss critically.

I really enjoyed the example of an assessment or activity, whereby students edit a Wikipedia page. It creates the opportunity to teach about choosing and appraising sources, how to reference and the importance of open access. It provides a genuine audience and potentially immediate impact – all the while, students add to the global knowledge base and have a clear ownership of their own development.

Critically appraising for antiracism (Ramona Naicker)

What a speaker (link)! Clear, informative, engaging, interactive: Ramona was a highlight of CALC 202. And given there were alpacas, that’s saying something.

And I thought I was behind in my reading!

Ramona commented that whilst there is a wealth of research each year, it needs to be critically appraised, even if it’s peer reviewed, because “not all research is created equal.” To critical appraise, you need to check it’s relevant (to the population of interest), reliable (for example, confirmation bias) and valid (for example, with sampling or selection bias). Ramona’s presentation was specifically focused on critically appraising for antiracism because racism in research can lead to underrepresentation and misinterpretation.

In terms of misinterpretation, Ramona argued that avoiding the word racism risks resurrecting disproven theories about biological race. Take this example from 2002… bloody 2002!

Where do you even start with this?!

Moreover, blaming race for health outcomes effectively blames the patient, implying that there’s just nothing that can be done about the health problem. Papers which cite societal drivers as a factor sugarcoat racism: obscuring racism is to fail to seek solutions to racism as health interventions; race and ethnicity are fluid social constructs not biological facts; race doesn’t cause health issues; and racism can be addressed or changed.

By this point, the topic could have been overwhelming and depressing… but Ramona provided practical tips and advice on how to critically appraise for anti-racism, so that even as individual cogs in the massive information sharing machine, we can start to have an impact. As library professionals connecting students and NHS staff to materials, we should:

  • use critical appraisal tools;
  • check whether BAME participants have been recruited;
  • check that BAME participants are representative of the wider population and study;
  • make sure the ethnicity data on BAME participants is accurate;
  • expect a full interpretation of differences in outcomes between groups;
  • review the impact of discrimination which prevents ‘race’ itself being assigned as a risk;
  • question genetic interpretations of race.

Interrogating professionalism: professional behaviours through a critical lens (Darren Flynn)

I knew it was going to be a good afternoon when Patricia Carmichael featured on one of the slides! I enjoyed this session because there was a great deal of interaction in the chat and it felt like a two way conversation.

This character brings me out in hives

Darren discussed that customs, conventions, social mores and expectations constitute a professional culture. Some people lack the social capital (due to their background or lived experience) to inherently know about professional behaviours, so they have to learn on the job. This can be tricky and stressful to navigate. Professionalism is a game and an endless performance; as the rules aren’t officially written anywhere, it can be elitist and exclusionary.

Many people (I count myself here) fear being perceived as unprofessional. This fear swung the conversation around to that job advert. For those unfamiliar with the job, check it out. Here’s a teaser…


The whole advert is vile and a perfect example of how the toxicity of saving face and maintaining the hierarchy can disenfranchise people to challenge behaviours. The worry is speaking out or taking collective action for the workers = undermining the organisation = being unprofessional.

Darren offered insight into how indirect, ambiguous language can lead to perceived unprofessionalism when, in fact, it is a miscommunication. For instance, By Monday would be great isn’t a suggestion; it’s an instruction framed as an option. Moreover, a culture of faux politeness leads to a saccharine level of passive aggressiveness and tone policing. It affects individuals by forcing them to seek compromises rather than fighting for library users or peers because if you don’t play the game, you’re considered unprofessional. This relates strongly to constructed consensus in the workplace because it can mask power structures, workers feel compelled to compromise, working groups are self appointed and consensus can be apparent rather than real.

Social event 2

Having featured pets, alpacas and poetry, the CALC 2021 organisers told us that Day 2 would end with a tea party. We were strongly encourage to bring family members, our own cake and the mystery package we’d received in the post.

I took this seriously and arranged two types of gluten free cake for the occasion

After the delights of the Day 1 social event, featuring Desree, I was excited to find out how the tea party would pan out. I dragged Helen along, too, with the promise of cake.

If a the second day of conference starts with alpacas, how does it end?

A spoonful of sugar to help CALC 2021 go down

With Mary Poppins, of course. It was a wonderfully personalised, utterly surreal, delightfully unexpected hour of entertainment. There was music, singing, story telling and anecdotes. I don’t care that I’m nearly (very nearly) 40, being read to is still a cathartic experience. We even flew paper kites – the items sent to us in the mysterious package. I’ve graffitied mine, courtesy of Jass Thethi, and it’s flying on my Kanban Board.

This was my first CALC attendance and I will be most certainly signing up for future conferences. 10/10 would recommend.

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