Friday 14 July 2017

Accessibility, Development and Promotion: CILIP Conference 2017

Last week I attended the annual CILIP Conference in Manchester. I've been for the last few years and always found it a professionally invigorating experience. The conference lasted two days but instead of giving a complete run down of everything I thought I would just highlight the top three themes which ran through all of the presentations:
  • accessibility
  • professional development and the importance of transferable skills
  • promoting the value of libraries

This was perhaps the number one theme from the conference. Like many people one of the big draws of CILIP 2017 for me was a chance to hear Dr Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress deliver the opening keynote. She spoke of one of her motivations in taking on the role - to make a large research library like the Library of Congress more accessible. Hayden was asked about how she intended to increase access to the Library in her job interview with President Obama (side note here from the speaker to remember this the next time you are intimidated in a job interview!). The Library is obviously a great institution with a well deserved reputation but it is not always easy to access if you are "not a scholar" as people perceive that the Library is not for them. Hayden also made the point that we often make people jump through hoops to access our collections - something which goes back to the role of the librarian as the curator of unique items. 

Working in a major research library I could relate to a lot of these points. We experience similar issues with access at Cambridge even though we are open to anyone with a need to use our collections and services. The physical building is not always the most accessible (having been designed and built in the 1930s) and Cambridge sometimes has an undeserved reputation for being unwelcoming. Once they come through the door the majority of people comment on how friendly and helpful the staff are but of course that relies on them coming through the door in the first place! There are also improvements to be made but this is being worked on. Working with Open Access to the research outputs of the University is an increasingly important way for us to promote accessibility. The aim of OA is to make these outputs accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Cambridge's repository Apollo provides a wealth of information to anyone who wants to access it but there is still more work to be done, both in terms of increasing the number of outputs available and promoting it to those outside the University. 

Future accessibility was also mentioned. Preserving information and data today in the right way will help to make it more accessible to future users. Of course librarians have been doing this for centuries but we may have to think about things in a different way now. Formats are constantly changing so we need to keep up with this and use our skills to determine how best to preserve access for the future. 

The issue of accessibility also came up in other presentations.In his keynote Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford, highlighted the fact that the 24/7 digital culture meant that having a presence no longer necessarily requires being in the same physical location. We can attend events remotely or contribute to discussions online in our own time. Neil MacInnes of Manchester Libraries talked about the recent redevelopment of the city's libraries. He talked about how the fact that everything we do in libraries is about people and how this was at the heart of the redevelopment. Chief Data Officer and CILIP Trustee Caroline Curruthers spoke about her work with Network Rail and the importance of not hoarding data but managing it so that we can access it as needed. She advocated librarians as "data cheerleaders" to promote the value of proper data storage and sharing. Caroline Brazier (Chief Librarian at the British Library) brought the theme full circle in the final session of the conference. Even after extensive changes which have been lauded by many there are still some people who are put off by the "great scholastic silence" of an institution such as the BL. I took note of the lessons from these talks and will be using them to think about my own role in accessibility.

Professional development (and the importance of transferable skills)
Professional development is an interest of mine and at the heart of my current role so I was glad to see this as an emerging theme. In her presentation on Engaging New LIS Professionals to Advance the Profession, Alisa Howlett outlined some of the key concerns of new professionals. Time is as always a factor but there were also worries about feeling that they had nothing to say as newbies. Howlett argued that they had a fresh perspective to bring to the profession and that if development was a priority then time could be made. Equally it's important to know that there is time for development later. Choose the paths that suit you and don't be afraid to circle back to opportunities in the future. 

This theme was also present in Hayden's opening keynote where she outlined a programme at the Library of Congress which pairs younger and more mature staff when dealing with online interactions. This allows for mutual learning - one learns about the technology which may be new to them and the other benefits from a wealth of knowledge and experience in a library. An important message to take away from this session was that professional development can be a two way experience. It's not just about one person passing on their knowledge to another but about making sure that there is a connection between all the knowledge in an organisation.

The importance of transferable skills was another recurring theme. Dan Livesey, Library Manager at Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust spoke about his move from public to health libraries. We all build up transferable skills in our roles and these can be really useful for preparing you for new challenges and identifying your strengths. I can definitely see the truth in this but I think we don't always put these skills to the best use. Hopefully the lesson I can take away from this is to think more about how I can use my own transferable skills.

Promoting the value of libraries
The final theme of the conference is perhaps the most important - the need to promote the value of the library to our communities. It was noted that in a perfect world we wouldn't have to do this but unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world so self-promotion is necessary! In their session on being Loud Librarians Selena Killick and Frankie Wilson talked us through identifying stakeholders and showed us how to target our messages effectively at these stakeholders. Too often we stick to the message we want to give out rather than what stakeholders need to hear so this was a great chance to take a step back. Another valuable lesson from this session was to keep a record of any emails praising your service. Not only is this a nice pick me up but these emails can provide a great qualitative measure of impact through the stories that they contain. This can make a great impact, particularly when it comes to proving how your service impacts the community.

The message about value was also part of the keynote from Neil MacInnes. The redevelopment of Manchester libraries has really highlighted the value of the service to the community through various outreach projects which aim to include all parts of the diverse Manchester community. They have several inspiring sessions which we could all learn from.

Overall CILIP 2017 was a great conference and I'm really looking forward to CILIP 2018 in (hopefully) sunny Brighton! 

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