Text and Data Mining Symposium

I spent yesterday at a one-day text and data mining (TDM) symposium in Cambridge. The event brought together researchers, librarians and publishers to discuss the challenges, triumphs and future of TDM in the UK and wider research landscape. The contexts in which presenters were using TDM ranged from systematic literature reviews in medicine to digital humanities and palaeography, from chemistry to libraries. The full programme can be found here.

Image_TDM data_Blog

I want to focus on my two main takeaways from the symposium.

Firstly, the use for TDM most immediately relevant to me is its application in systematic reviews. Researchers are already using TDM at every stage of the systematic review process, particularly during the searching and screening stages, and presenters at the symposium such as Alison O’Mara-Eves and John McNaught were enthusiastic about the vast savings in time and money that could be made were TDM to become a standard part of every systematic review conducted. In order to rigorously test the effectiveness of TDM in systematic reviews, both presenters (along with Makoto Miwa and Sophie Ananiadou) produced their own systematic review, in which they noted, among other things, that while TDM saved an enormous amount of time and money, the trade-off was a loss of around 5 per cent of references that would have been picked up using ‘traditional’ systematic review searching methods. That is, TDM software is only as good as the terms that are put into it, and the human being ‘training’ the software to find relevant data.

Many TDM tools allow for some level of human involvement.

The second theme of the symposium of most immediate relevance was that librarians need to get involved in TDM in whatever way we can — while retaining a level of critical skepticism about its value (sure, it might save time, but can we really afford to lose those crucial 5 per cent of papers that would have been found using traditional searching methods?). As Georgina Cronin pointed out, librarians may not have the expert technical skills (such as writing TDM code) to be able to carry out every aspect of TDM, but we can facilitate its use. There is a role for librarians to play at every point in the TDM workflow.

Librarians should also remember that we have particular skills and expertise that can be of use with TDM in less obvious ways: we are good at finding information, communicating that information to others, and bringing people together — so why not use those skills in support of text and data miners working in our institutions?

So far I’m still chewing over everything I learnt at the symposium, but I suspect it will spark a few changes at my library. I’ve been having ongoing conversations (and debates) with colleagues about the applicability and validity of using TDM in systematic reviews in particular, and we have yet to come to a conclusion. I am also in the process of figuring out how to fit the University’s new TDM LibGuide into my own library’s existing research support resources and training — expect to see it somewhere on our website and other training materials soon! While I’m still in the process of coming to my own conclusions about TDM and its role in my profession, I am certain that librarians need to be in the room when discussions about TDM are taking place, and that we need to keep abreast of new resources and developments in the field. If not, we run the risk of consensus on this issue being formed without us — and surely it’s better to be part of the conversation?

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Report on EAHIL 2017

Each year, the European Association for Health Information and Libraries (EAHIL) holds a conference, where librarians, educators, healthcare workers and researchers come from all over the world for talks, workshops, and posters on all aspects of medical librarianship. This year the conference was in Dublin, and I was able to attend for the first time.

Image_Lighthouse_EAHIL 2017_blog

I attended from the Wednesday onward (so unfortunately missed out on the first two days of continuing education courses), and made it a priority to go to as many sessions on teaching, education and training as possible. I also attended workshops on teaching search methods for evidence-based practice, developing a research data management programme, and teaching colleagues how to lead and conduct systematic reviews. While it is impossible to distill everything I learnt from this conference into a single blog post, between these parallel sessions, workshops, and the plenary papers, three key themes emerged, all of which have significant implications for my own practice. It’s worth looking at those themes in a little more detail.

The first such theme — and something that had not really occurred to me before — is the fact that librarians need to be very careful in our use of statistics when trying to demonstrate the impact of the library. Numbers alone (e.g. circulation of books, number of attendees at training courses or one-to-one literature search sessions, or number of registration forms handed out at external induction events) paint an incomplete picture of the role of the library in users’ work, study or research. We need to ask questions that go beyond the numbers.

This ties in with discussions that have been ongoing in my library about changing the kinds of evaluative questions we send to users after they attend training sessions. In the weeks immediately prior to the EAHIL conference, I, along with colleagues, had been reworking our evaluation forms to bring them more in line with those used in the NHS Knowledge for Healthcare Impact Toolkit. Attending EAHIL and hearing other health librarians talk about the importance of more targeted surveying that goes beyond mere numbers thus reinforced the appropriateness of this decision. I will be expediting the production of my library’s new evaluation form, and hope to be using it for all training delivered from late June onward.

The second core theme of the conference was the importance of user-centred design in all aspects of a library: layout, furniture and equipment, use of particular spaces, resources (both electronic and physical), and types of training and support on offer. It’s no good having a state-of-the-art library with expensive furniture, or a beautifully revamped library website if the furniture is uncomfortable or not suited to the kinds of work users want to use it for, or the website is incompatible with mobile devices (which a majority of people in the world now use to access online content), for example. This is obviously connected with the first theme — we can only figure out how users are using our libraries (or how they would like to use them) if we ask the right questions.

Asking questions need not only come in the form of surveys, evaluation forms and the like. Colleagues at my library have already done extensive work in consulting users about their use of library space and preferences regarding furniture, using a variety of user experience (UX) techniques. This UX work fed into choices the library made regarding furniture and the layout of the library following a renovation last year. I would like to build on this to extend consultation of users to issues beyond space and equipment, focusing on my own areas of responsibility: training and teaching. The redesigned evaluation forms are obviously a good first step, but it may also be necessary to go into more depth, with semi-structured interview and the like. Given my colleagues’ UX project, I’m well placed to draw on their experience and expertise if I were to pursue a similar project in relation to the library’s teaching and training provision.

The final major theme of the conference — and one that was common to talks from librarians from New Zealand to Kenya, from Finland to Romania — was the absolutely crucial nature of faculty/institutional support when it came to uptake of library-led information literacy training. I attended many parallel sessions presented by librarians talking about their experience getting information literacy programmes off the ground (mainly in university libraries or teaching hospitals), and all were emphatic that only way to increase attendance and ensure that students understood about librarians’ skills and expertise in information literacy was through support at faculty or institutional level. Some mentioned that uptake increased significantly (from 38% to 98%) once library-led training was made a compulsory part of students’ courses. Conversely, uptake was lower in library-led courses where faculty support was missing, or where academic staff seemed unaware that information literacy training was an area of library staff expertise. Unfortunately, sometimes this lack of institutional support is hard to combat:

Understandably, many attendees at the education-track parallel sessions were keen to learn from the presenters how they had gained this rather elusive institutional support.

The presenters on this topic gave varied answers. Some had been fortunate enough to have been asked by faculty to develop and deliver information literacy training, and given all the support they needed without having to ask for it. Others were still struggling to advocate for the role of the library in this area. Still others felt that providing demonstrable evidence of the impact of library-led training on students’ studies (or researchers’ research, or patient care) was the best way to promote the value of this service. This reinforces, again, the need to gather meaningful data to provide concrete evidence of the library’s impact.

My own experience of obtaining institutional support has been rather mixed. There are certain user groups whose administrators or course coordinators are staunch advocates of the library, and regularly organise training and inductions for their new staff and students. Others, who may not be aware of the support the library can offer, are less likely to point their students in the library’s direction. I feel the best way to make concrete changes in this area is a twofold approach: more targeted and focused outreach to all user groups (and gathering data to determine how effective this outreach has been), and extensive evaluation of the impact of current training provision on those who use it already. The latter will hopefully provide measurable, concrete evidence of the importance of library-led training, as well as indicating aspects of training that need to be changed, scrapped, or built on to better reflect user needs. As mentioned above, I am already in the process of improving the library’s analysis and evaluation of training provision. Those of us responsible for marketing and outreach are also in the early stages of developing tools to measure the impact of our marketing activities.

EAHIL 2017 thus left me with lots to chew on, as well as the knowledge that colleagues all around the world were dealing with similar problems and concerns. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to learn from colleagues in libraries from my sector, particularly those outside the UK. Best of all, the conference has confirmed that several recent changes in practice (and current projects to facilitate these changes) implemented in my library are wholly appropriate and necessary. Let’s hope next year’s conference in Cardiff proves as thought-provoking and useful!

Those who were not able to attend EAHIL 2017 may want to look into the #eahil2017 hashtag, where attendees were livetweeting their impressions of the conference.

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Making NHS Libraries and Knowledge Service business critical workshop

About a month ago, I attended a session for NHS librarians on synthesising and summarising information. You can read about my impressions of that event here. Today I attended the follow up, a session led by Anne Gray, Knowledge Officer at Arden and GEM CSU. Whereas the previous session focused on finding good quality evidence and information for clinicians (and summarising this information in a way that made it readable, accessible and clear to those requesting it), this session focused on using the same skills, but on behalf of a different user group: NHS management.

Screenshot_SynthesisingSummarising2_mountain climber

Anne began by giving us some background to this group of users and their needs, and highlighting several key characteristics (and the challenges this would present to librarians). This user group is:

  • Time poor, and unable to spend a lot of time learning information searching techniques or finding their way around multiple platforms
  • Sees evidence as important, but tend to be a bit ad hoc about using it
  • Wants information that strikes a balance between standardised, ‘global’ evidence and local material
  • May perceive library services as being geared towards clinical and research support, and thus may not see the library as a natural place to go when seeking expert support in finding information

These are some of the main challenges in finding information for this user group. Anne also mentioned that library staff can sometimes lack confidence in finding their way around the sort of material that this user group needs, material that is normally termed ‘grey literature’. To support library staff in finding this information, she has compiled a wiki hosting useful tools and resources specific to this type of literature, which can be found here. During the session, we had a chance to try out these resources (many of which were new to me) when searching for evidence on individual management-related topics, and I found them to be excellent sources.

After some time spent playing around with these resources, we moved on to creating a summary of the evidence we had found for our hypothetical management topics. Anne stressed that the manner in which this information was presented was critical in terms of both its eventual implementation, and as a demonstration of the value of library services and library staff expertise. Although Anne explained that reports, summaries or other presentations of this material to management could vary in terms of presentation style based on users’ preference and needs, there were some common elements, based on her own experiences, that were crucial. These were:

  • An easily readable format
  • An executive summary and/or bullet points, with key findings, should be at the beginning of the document, with detailed analysis and lists of sources to follow
  • Purposes and outcomes of the findings should be clear, and easy to find in the document
  • Links to references must work: don’t rely on downloads from databases to contain working links, and instead check each link yourself
  • References can be organised according to type (e.g. all national guidelines grouped together, all government reports grouped together, all case studies grouped together and so on)
  • Don’t lose sense of locality: place all findings in their local context, and make sure this relates back to the context of your own Trust and the topic of the report you are compiling

This is all fairly straightforward, although it would involve a lot of work by the librarians involved. The important things to keep in mind are the needs of this user group (particularly the demands on their time), the need for library staff to be present at moments where key decisions are being discussed and made (e.g. Trust board meetings), and the importance of presenting information in a manner and style in which it is most useful.

There was also some discussion at the end of the day about ways to support library staff in their provision of this kind of service. Ideas mentioned included a shared alerts/current awareness bulletin system, shared, editable websites or intranet sites where librarians from different Trusts could share knowledge and resources, training at annual, biannual or quarterly workshops, and things that librarians are already doing, such as requesting and sharing information via subject specific mailing lists.

This workshop offered me insight into the perspectives and needs of a user group with whom I don’t ordinarily have much contact. It also gave me a clearer understanding of the management structure of individual NHS Trusts (and who is involved in the decision making process), as well as hands-on experience of conducting searches on topics and using platforms that were far outside my comfort zone. It also gave me ideas about how to promote library services to a new user group, and reinforced the need (in all library sectors) to provide tailored, targeted support for individual users or user groups, even if the, even if the skills being utilised or taught are actually quite universal.

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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning Teaching Forum 2017

Last year, the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning hosted its inaugural Teaching Forum, a one-day conference bringing together all Cambridge staff with responsibility for, or interest in, teaching provision at the University. You can read my write-up of last year’s Forum here. This year the Forum was back, and better than ever — and I was, once again, able to attend.

I went into the conference with two main goals:

  • To find out more about teaching styles and/or course content on offer in other faculties or departments of the University; and
  • To use what I learned at the Forum to spark reflection on my own current teaching provision and the content and style of courses on offer at my library, and, if necessary, make changes based on practices I heard about at the conference.
  • These goals were amply served by proceedings at the event.


    After an initial welcome by Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, who updated attendees on the current political landscape for higher education (including the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework and the work Cambridge has been doing in relation to that), we split into two groups to hear the first of a series of parallel sessions.

    I opted to hear Dr Sonia Ilie talk about a Hefce-funded research project she has been conducting around issues of learning gain. Her talk focused on the student perspective on learning gain, and was the result of a series of qualitative interviews with thirty-four students from four different subject areas (English, Chemistry, Business, and Medicine). Although Sonia stressed that the small sample size meant that her findings were not yet generalisable, some interesting (and surprising) themes had emerged from her research.

    As seen from the above image, a hierarchy of competencies — skills learned at university and deemed important by the students interviewed — emerged, but Sonia cautioned that these responses may have been prompted by conversations the students had had with educators and skills those educators had emphasised as important. The English and Business students talked a lot about ‘transferable skills’ — which again may have reflected the influence of rhetoric from lecturers or careers advisords — while the Chemistry and Medicine students talked a lot more about subject-specific practical skills.

    Another interesting theme to emerge — and one which reflects my own experiences in trying to teach research skills (finding information, referencing, academic writing and so on) — was that students preferred all skills teaching to be targeted, individual, and subject-specific. That is, it wasn’t enough to teach them about, say, communication skills: it had to be communication skills with examples and material drawn from their own subject area.

    My second parallel session was delivered by Ant Bagshaw, and provided a comprehensive summary of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This was a frank look at the strengths and weaknesses of the TEF. The weaknesses as Ant saw them were concerns that the metrics chosen to measure teaching excellence were not chosen by the higher education sector, and in many cases were heavily influenced by social capital and physical location (that is, things like ’employability’ have a strong correlation with social capital and geography, meaning that the university attended is not the only factor influencing a graduate’s employability). He also had concern that giving a ranking to an institution as a whole could have the effect of flattening differences in quality within that institution. However, he also saw positives in the fact that the metrics being used were not set by the sector, as it meant that the exercise was less susceptible to influence by the sector’s expectations.

    One thing of which I had not been aware was that taught postgraduate students were almost entirely ignored in the TEF, which Ant saw as a massive problem. This group of students is increasing in number, and there’s a tendency for them to fall through the cracks, as the emphasis on measuring outcomes is to focus on those of undergraduates and research postgraduate students. Clearly we as educators need to do more to ensure that the learning experience for this group of students is positive.

    After a break for lunch, I returned to the next parallel session, Karen Ottewell of the University’s Language Centre, on helping international postgraduate students write. This session was a complete revelation. Karen pointed out, firstly, that university students, whether local or international, undergraduate or postgraduate, rarely get any direct writing teaching — it’s almost as if they are expected to learn to write in an academic context magically, through trial and error. She also noted that Cambridge’s standards for PhD theses are rather fuzzily defined, and don’t necessarily take a student’s cultural context (and cultural understanding of the purpose of academic/persuasive writing) into account.

    She also pointed out that nobody — not even native English speakers — learns how to write academically from birth.

    She then walked the audience through cultural differences in rhetorical paradigms.

    The crucial cultural difference was, Karen explained, one between a ‘writer responsible’ rhetorical paradigm (i.e. that the onus is on writers to make themselves understood) and a ‘reader responsible’ paradigm (where it is the responsibility of the reader to understand a piece of writing). Academic English is of the former type, whereas most international students come from very different rhetorical traditions. Thus, most of Karen’s work at the Language Centre involves helping her students reframe their understanding of rhetorical paradigms, rather than improve their understanding of the English language. This was an absolute lightbulb moment for me, and Karen’s session was, in many ways, the highlight of the conference. I’ll certainly be pointing people towards the support she can offer!

    The final parallel session was led by Ange Fitzpatrick of the Judge Business School Library, and focused on ‘Bloomberg Breakfasts’, a training initiative she and her team put together to help their students come to grips with Bloomberg terminals and software, a crucial resource for anyone studying financial trading data. I’m always keen to hear how fellow librarians cope with training-related constraints. In Ange’s case, this meant constraints in terms of time and equipment (they only have four terminals, and both they and their students have limited time to deliver or attend training), as well as staff confidence with the resource (none of the library team at the Judge come from a business or finance background). They had to develop training that made complex and abstract data meaningful and comprehensible.

    To get around all these constraints, Bloomberg Breakfasts were born.

    The course has proved to be a roaring success.

    And it’s been a marvellous outreach opportunity for the library, making the students familiar with the library as a welcoming space, and with the library staff as people with the expertise required to answer any questions.

    The conference concluded with a plenary panel involving all speakers, where they answered questions from attendees about challenges and opportunities surrounding teaching in both Cambridge, and within higher education more generally. There was some pessimism, but also optimism for new opportunities. It was particularly good to hear that all involved believed that too much weight is currently placed on research, and that the role of teaching needs to be recognised more when considering educators for promotion.

    The day concluded with a chat over coffee, which provided an opportunity to look at the posters on display. I made sure to grab a photo of the two library ones!

    If you missed out on this year’s Forum, I would encourage you to check out the conference hashtag (as usual, most people livetweeting seemed to be librarians). And, if as looks likely, the conference runs again in the future, I strongly encourage any University staff with responsibility for, or interest in, teaching to attend if they can. It’s an interesting, engaging and thought-provoking conference, and both times I’ve attended I’ve learnt something new.

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    Moore March Munches

    Over the past two weeks, Georgina Cronin of the Moore Library has been running a series of lunchtime sessions aimed at researchers. Dubbed ‘March Munches’, these have covered everything from data sharing to social media and online presence. This was training in bite-sized sessions — half an hour’s presentation, bookended with free lunch at the beginning and time for questions at the end. I’m always interested in seeing what colleagues in other libraries are doing with regard to training in order to see if I can learn new tricks about how best to present different kinds of information to my students, so I went along to one such session. This covered ‘Selfish Reasons to Work Reproducibly’, and while I was interested in the content, I was particularly keen to see how the format worked, especially given Georgina would only have a short amount of time to cover such a complex topic.


    The session was well attended — although it took place in a fairly large room, pretty much every table was full, with hungry grad students no doubt lured in by the prospect of free food (as well as the chance to learn). Given she only had half an hour, Georgina opted, wisely, to deliver the content lecture-style with slides, rather than in a more interactive, hands-on manner. She made good use of high profile examples where researchers hadn’t worked reproducibly, and had later been found out, and the damage this had done to their careers.

    This is a technique I often make use of in my own teaching, as I find personal stories (whether of high-profile researchers caught fabricating data, or of my own experiences as a PhD student and things I would have done differently in hindsight) can make more of an impact and ensure that information is retained. People will often forget the contents of a contextless set of instructions, but they will remember a story or anecdote. It was helpful, therefore, to see that other library staff with responsibility for teaching make use of this technique, and confirmed that this aspect of my teaching is something that I should continue to implement.

    Brief, lunchtime sessions are a format of teaching that we’ve been trying to institute in my library, with rather mixed results, so it was helpful for me to see that it is possible to deliver teaching in a similar library in this format — and I doubt that the prospect of some free sandwiches was the only reason for this event’s popularity at the Moore. Attending this session at the Moore has prompted me to rethink my own library’s attempt at lunchtime teaching to see if a slight tweaking of the content, promotion and format might make it work better. I’ll try to update here about this, so watch this space!

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    Synthesising and Summarising workshop

    On Wednesday, I attended a workshop for NHS library staff, led by Tim Buckley Owen, on synthesising and summarising information. The workshop involved a mixture of presentations by Tim, and hands-on, practical exercises, centred on transforming a large number of literature search results into a coherent, manageable, well-presented summary. NHS librarians are frequently required to conduct literature searches of medical databases on behalf of doctors, nurses or other NHS staff on topics related to their day-to-day work, and general practice (at least anecdotally) seems to be to export the results of such searches as emails, PDF attachments, or other similarly unstructured sets of references. Certainly this is normally what I would do. Tim made the point that email exports can look quite incoherent to the end user, as well as being difficult to navigate and giving no indication about the individual results’ relevance (beyond the fact that they were found using a certain combination of search terms). I must admit that this wasn’t something that had occurred to me previously, as usually when I do literature searches I’m more concerned with simply finding results that are useful to the requester, rather than with how the results are presented to them. However, Tim taught attendees a few simple changes that we could make to our final sets of literature search results to make them more structured, manageable and coherent to the requester. He argued that this was an important way to demonstrate the value of the NHS library service, as well as highlighting the skills of NHS librarians and making sure other NHS staff saw that librarians have their own set of important, specialist skills necessary for good patient care and the other aims of the NHS as a whole.


    The first task of the day involved moving from an unstructured set of search results that looked like the digital equivalent of the above pile of papers to a neatly-organised table of references that summarised each one succinctly, and organised them according to relevance and priority, based on the aims and information needs of the individual or team requesting a literature search. We were given a list of roughly sixty literature search results, with abstracts included, and, based on the information provided, required to rank them according to a set of criteria as ‘must know’, ‘should know’, or ‘could know’. In the session, we did this in a table embedded in a Word document. However, my own preference when undertaking similar tasks would be to use reference management software such as Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley or Refworks. These all allow users to import references, move them into various folders (which could replace the ‘must know’, ‘could know’, or ‘should know’ rankings), tag the references in certain ways, and share or export the references to other users. Reference managers are slightly less flexible than a Word table, but the time saved, minimal typing required, and future benefits (such as being able to insert references from the reference manager into any later write-up and format them according to the citation style of your choice) surely outweigh this. Of course, using a reference manager requires the end user to also use one, and they may not always be prepared to do so, so this exercise conducted in the workshop was definitely not a waste of time. It was also a marvellous confidence booster in terms of encouraging attendees to get outside their comfort zones, moving from merely finding information to actually understanding the information found, summarising it, and making judgements about its relevance. Given that a lot of attendees expressed anxiety about fully comprehending the (sometimes highly technical) medical literature that they were often asked to find, this aspect of the task was especially welcome.

    We moved in the later half of the day from sythesising information to writing informative summaries. In the first of two exercises, we were given an article (with title and abstract visible), and asked to summarise it in a single paragraph, including a sentence or two indicating its relative relevance to a hypothetical literature search requester’s topic of research. The final exercise involved doing something similar, but drawing on nine articles, rather than a single one, summarising each in one or two sentences so that this summary formed a coherent narrative leading the reader through the available literature so that they could prioritise the articles that would be most relevant to them. I’m someone who really enjoys writing, and has never found it difficult, whatever the context. I’m a lifelong journaller, on paper as a child and online on blogs later on, I spent many years as a journalist, and I also did a PhD, so I’ve had a lot of practice at writing in a variety of registers and for a wide range of purposes. However, I have always struggled to write succinctly, and tend to write as if upper word limits are just a suggestion. (You can probably tell just by reading this blog!) For this reason, although I had little difficulty writing summaries of the assigned articles using the information provided, cutting it down to a single paragraph or a single sentence was like pulling teeth! I found this aspect of the workshop absolutely valuable, because it forced me to reflect on the actual information needs of the (hypothetical) user and put myself in their shoes. There would have been no point in writing a long, waffly summary that made their task harder: its purpose was to guide them through the available literature so that they could prioritise articles that were most relevant to their research and make the best use of their limited time. What was the crucial information they needed about each article? What could be left out? What did they really need to know? Keeping all those questions in find helped me focus and write a simple, readable, and, most importantly, brief summary.

    Tim’s final presentation focused on other ways we could improve our literature search results and make them easier to navigate for the requester. These were mostly cosmetic changes, such as making the typeface readable (rather than sticking with Word’s default), adding NHS letterhead and/or that of your library, and writing a clear, concise covering email summarising the work done on the search, the results found, and any categorising/organising we may have done with them. These were all intended to highlight our specialist skills as NHS librarians, the important role of the library within the NHS, and the library’s identity as an integral part of the NHS. While I’m not sure I’ll be implementing all of his suggestions, all were welcome, and I’m very much looking forward to the follow-up session happening slightly later in the month.

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    Cambridge Libraries Conference 2017

    Yesterday, I spent the day over at the Engineering Faculty enjoying the excellent keynote speeches, panel presentations, and lightning talks, as well as meeting up with colleagues from within Cambridge libraries and from further afield, at the annual Cambridge Libraries Conference. This year’s theme was Library Superheroes, and as you can see, involved a pretty packed programme. This year also sparked some heroism of my own, as I bit the bullet and applied to present a lightning talk at what would be my first ever library conference (although I had presented many times at academic conferences during my years as a PhD student). I was fortunate enough to be accepted, and was very grateful to be a part of proceedings yesterday (although I must admit that when I looked up into the vast lecture theatre in which I would be presenting, I had a moment of thinking, what have I done?). But I thought of all the superheroes (both on the screen and page, and walking around all the libraries in Cambridge) who had gone before me, and gave my presentation happily.


    Events kicked off in the morning with an address by Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, giving us an overview on the current political climate with regard to higher education and academic libraries within the UK.

    This was followed by the first keynote address, Dr Jeremy Knox of the University of Edinburgh on ‘Digital Heroics for Openness and Excellence’. This talk ranged from MOOCs to analytics, and the various ways in which automation is affecting teaching in higher education institutions.

    I was very interested in Jeremy’s frank assessment of the benefits (making education more accessible to everyone, teaching experience outside a non-traditional academic context) and costs (less engagement with students and fewer opportunities for students to learn from one another) of MOOCs, as well as ways in which he and his colleagues at Edinburgh set out to make their own MOOCs more interactive and collaborative. For example, they generated ‘report cards’ for participants describing their engagement with the course (how often they logged on, posted and interacted with other attendees), but some participants rightly pointed out that this did not take passive engagement (thinking about their dissertations, reading non-assigned but related resources) into account.

    Jeremy mentioned Turnitin (the plagiarism detection software) as one example of automation being incorporated into academic teaching, but he had a more novel example from his MOOC at Edinburgh: a Twitter bot he and his colleagues created, designed to respond to certain keywords tweeted by students on the course. This could have sometimes comical results, but the bot seems to have become a valued part of the students’ experience. It can be found here, for those who are interested. As conference attendees pointed out, these kinds of bots are quickly becoming a normal part of everyday life for current undergraduates.

    This keynote talk was followed by the first parallel session of the day. I chose to attend a panel on failure presented by Martin French, Claire Sewell and Marta Teperek, with a guest appearance by Emma Coonan. Each participant spoke briefly on an area of professional failure, and how they were able to draw positives from it. Claire spoke about being rejected for jobs, but using this as a way to learn about the sorts of skills she would need for the jobs she wanted, and taking every opportunity to gain those skills. Given that Cambridge provides so much free training to its library staff, on everything from cataloguing to project management, it seems absurd not to make use of it (although of course this requires support for your professional development from your management, which is not always forthcoming).

    Marta spoke about moving from academic research into a job outside academia, and how this is often perceived as a failure by members of the research community. As someone who moved from academic research into another field, this really resonated with me. After an anecdote from Emma about failing her driving test (which she said meant she did a lot better in her second test because she was alert to potential areas of weakness), the panel opened up to questions from the floor. What followed was a lively discussion about the best ways to elicit feedback from an interviewing panel that had rejected you for a job, the need to make the peer review process in academic publications open rather than anonymous (because research has shown this leads to more productive and helpful suggestions for improvement), and the need to be sensitive when students struggle to use the library and come to us for help. This was a thoroughly enjoyable session, and the panel did a great job in creating a relaxed setting in which attendees were comfortable talking freely about past failures and fears of failing in the future.

    I opted to spend the second parallel session listening to Masud Khokhar, head of digital innovation at Lancaster University, talk about innovation in his library. Some such developments included a period of student consultation (which led to technological changes such as ‘smart cushions’ which help the user manage their time), bookable study spaces which could be configured according to the specifications of the user (so if they wanted a relaxed environment for a small-group teaching session, the room could be set up with that in mind; likewise a focused environment for intense individual study), and investigating better discovery tools that didn’t overwhelm the user with a deluge of irrelevant information. Masud also touched on projects that grew out of external partnerships, such as getting local secondary school students to design an online university campus on Minecraft. The benefit of this? Potential students could tour the university online in advance of attending.

    After lunch, we reconvened for the second keynote speech, Emma Coonan, Information Skills Librarian at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Her talk was on imposter syndrome, and coping with failure. It tied in very well with the panel I attended earlier in the day, and was a big hit with conference attendees, if Twitter is anything to go by. (Check out the conference hashtag for tweets about Emma’s talk, along with other events of the day.) Emma’s talk was frank, personal, and insightful. She reminded us that expertise isn’t innate – it requires effort, learning, failure and difficulty. If we elide the path that took us from novice to expert when teaching or helping others, it distances us from our students and impedes their learning.

    She talked about students’ entry to university being a time of transition, and a time in which they need to unlearn everything they thought they knew about the learning process. It’s our job as librarians to be mindful of that and do all we can to help in this process.

    We have to help students move from a rigid fixation on one goal to a more flexible understanding of learning which allows for tangents, digressions, constant redefinition of goals, and the idea that learning and research is a process, not a finite journey.

    This is important not only in teaching others, but in our own daily work and professional development: there is no comfortable plateau at which we stop learning and know everything we need to know for our jobs. Rather, we should aim to always keep trying new things, developing, and setting new goals. As always, institutional support is crucial in this.

    I left Emma’s keynote feeling inspired and ready to roll up my sleeves and keep learning, and ready to confront things that scare me professionally. This was just as well, as one of those scary things was waiting just around the corner: my own lightning talk! I was one of seven lightning speakers, and I have to admit that I stopped livetweeting during this session, as I was trying to focus on my own speech. However, I did take in the contents of my fellow speakers’ presentations, which were as follows:

    • Ange Fitzpatrick, talking about imposter syndrome (which seems to have been something of a theme of the conference);
    • Meg Westbury, talking about her research into collaborative research processes;
    • My colleague Jo Milton, talking about the development of a book-fetching service in the wake of renovations in our library which meant users couldn’t access most of our collection of books;
    • Emma Etteridge, talking about learning to use Moodle and training others in its use;
    • Jenni Skinner, along with two volunteers from the African Studies Library, talking about the heroic role volunteers have played in that library in getting to grips with its vast archive of uncatalogued material;
    • Jenny Sargent, talking about increasing the visibility and remit of her library and demonstrating its value; and
    • Me, talking about training without a training room – developing a roving training service, and the unexpected expansion of training provision during our library renovations.

    As well as the panels, keynotes and lightning talks, a number of Cambridge library staff produced posters. I’ve been unable to find photos of most of these, but no doubt they will make their way online at some point. The interactive poster made by one of my colleagues certainly proved a hit! This poster asked viewers to provide their own thoughts as to what makes a library superhero, and people were happy to share.

    This year’s conference was particularly inspiring. I left it feeling a part of a great and supportive library community, bursting with ideas for both my everyday work, and my own ongoing professional development. Well done to the organising committee and volunteers for their hard work both prior to, and on the day of, the conference. I look forward to seeing everyone back again for 2018!

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