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.

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

6. BookTrust. (2019). BookTrust represents. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from

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

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