Aubrey Keep Library
North East London NHS Foundation Trust
Thanks to being awarded an HLG Bursary, I was able to attend my first CILIP conference, and so made my way up to the great city of Manchester in early July.
The first session I attended was chaired by Caroline Carruthers, the chief data officer from Network Rail, and was all about data science. The speakers, who all came from a data science and IT background, made some interesting points: for example, that IT folk and library/information science folk should work together more closely to make technological systems more user-friendly, and that librarians have a lot of transferable skills. Finally, Jez Clark and Nicholas Deveney from recruitment agency Eden Smith, which specialises in data science, talked about their work. While this was interesting to listen to and useful to know what is going on in this area, I was not convinced by their claim that librarians are well placed to move into well-paid, sexy data science jobs. With the majority of librarians being women who do not have science or maths degrees, and all jobs I could find on the Eden Smith website having maths or science degrees as essential requirement, I find it difficult to believe that the reason librarians don’t move in this direction is because we don‘t want to join the “dark side”.
Professor Luciano Floridi’s keynote on ethics and information was very philosophical in nature and reminded me that having a theoretical framework within which we operate is important – something that can get lost in the day-to-day.
The next session I attended was “Using the arts in libraries to benefit health and wellbeing”, held by Sue Williamson and Cath Shea from St Helens Council. As a health librarian, this fell within the bounds of my regular job. The session covered the work they had done in partnership with Public Health and adult social care to deliver an engaging arts programme in their local public libraries. The difference that this made to wellbeing was evaluated using validated instruments that are also used in psychiatric services such as SWEMWEBS.
In the evening, I went on a guided tour of Manchester Central Library, which would merit and article all by itself. The most striking feature was probably the music library, which has instruments such as drum kits, guitars and pianos, and space where local bands perform on a regular basis.
The second day’s keynote from Neil MacInnes, the strategic lead for libraries, galleries and culture in Manchester, gave an overview of what they have achieved over the last few years. This was interesting enough but I found it to be very focussed on monetary value rather than difference to people‘s lives or wellbeing, which was especially jarring in contrast with Wednesday’s closing session.
My favourite session of the whole conference was Konstantina Martzoukou‘s “Beyond Grey in Sepia: Empowering the everyday life information literacy of Syrian new Scots”. It was the only talk that focussed explicitly on libraries’ and librarians’ work to improve the lives of very vulnerable people. It was sobering to hear about the amount of work that librarians can do to get this population access to basic things like housing and education and make sure they are included in their local community, and also about the barriers that exist and reasons why people don’t make use of libraries. There were no graphs about “value creation” or the amount of money that the council could save by using librarians better – the talk was a summary of semi-structured interviews with Syrian new Scots about their lives and what they needed/would have needed on arrival. It was a good reminder of what libraries should be about, and a much needed one too in this day and age.
The same session also contained a talk on the epidemic of misinformation about vaccines, which went beyond the standard listing of why there is so much misinformation and why people believe it, and also covered some communication tips for countering it or challenging people‘s false beliefs.
Finally, Caroline Brazier‘s talk “How to be a Chief Librarian in 15 easy steps” was a surprisingly candid overview of Caroline‘s career and the steps and missteps along the way. It was very refreshing to hear someone from this level say that whatever career plan you make won‘t always play out because life can take you on different roads; on the impact of starting a family on career plans, and about the fact that sometimes in your life, there will be times when there are simply other things that are more important to you than furthering your career.
On the whole, I found the conference to be a bit of a mixed bag. With a few notable exceptions, it felt very focussed on money rather than people‘s lives. While I am obviously happy for those who manage to run libraries and make a difference to their local communities, things like the recent decimation of the profession, the rise of volunteer-run “library services” and the impact of public service cuts didn‘t seem to feature at all in speakers‘ minds. On the plus side, it was very useful for me to get an idea of what is going on in the wider library world – health librarians are a close-knit bunch and we love sharing practice with one another, but the sector can also be quite insular and so it was good to take a look outside of it.