The annual Cambridge Libraries Conference, held in January every year, is always a wonderful way to ease back into work after the Christmas break. This year, although I was sadly only able to be there for the first half of the day, the conference was particularly intellectually engaging — a great way to kickstart my brain for a new year of teaching, research support, outreach, reader support, and, above all, learning.
As always in my conference write-ups, I will not attempt to provide a blow-by-blow description of events as they unfolded, but rather pull out what I feel were the main themes of the day and how they relate to my own work and workplace. For a live recap of the day as a whole, I recommend the #camlibs19 hashtag on Twitter.
For me, although the conference’s theme was ‘exploring and collaborating’, the common thread was an emphasis on what I think of as hidden landscapes of the mind: shaped by language and (choice of) terminology, people’s experiences and identities, and our everyday interactions with physical and digital spaces and the people and resources therein. And, above all, that there can be barriers within these landscapes of the mind, thrown up unintentionally (or with the best possible intentions) or deliberately.
You might be wondering at this point what all this has to do with libraries. These barriers come into play in numerous different ways. They may appear, for instance, if library professionals are careless in use of terminoogy — words which we think of as commonplace and easily comprehensible, such as ‘library catalogue’ or ‘interlibrary loan’ may be misinterpreted or misunderstood by library users, leading to a lack of engagement with vital resources and services, or making users feel excluded or anxious about using the library. This was a point raised by Dr Philippa Sheail, of the University of Edinburgh, in her keynote address entitled ‘What Makes a Library?’ Likewise, the maze of digital architecture through which users of academic libraries must navigate to access eresources — particularly when off-campus — is opaque, confusing, and for many, downright incomprehensible, making it another barrier between users and vital services. This has certainly been my experience when trying to explain to users how to access electronic resources remotely, particularly when they have navigated to journal websites via Google rather than the library discovery system. Dr Sheail’s talk similarly drew attention to the interaction between library users’ mental landscapes and the physical library environments, highlighting the deeply psychological and emotional reasons people might have for moving through and using library spaces in the ways that they do. She also stressed that we as academic librarians need to shed some assumptions about how familiar student users might be with libraries when they first enter university: for many, their university library will be the first time they’ve encountered a library, and we need to take care and empathy with how we handle this.
We moved from barriers within library spaces (digital and physical) to barriers in the profession as a whole in the first (and sadly only) parallel session I was able to attend, a fantastic talk on diversity in the library sector by Jennifer Bayjoo, of Leeds Beckett University and DILON. Bayjoo brought home not only the shocking whiteness of librarianship as a profession (nearly 97% of library/information professionals in the UK identify as white), but the terrible strain this puts on the few non-white library professionals — the isolation, unchallenged (or excused away) microaggressions, the feeling of having to constantly speak up alone against racism both individual and institutional, and so on. The barriers of the mind in question here are not the (very real) barriers facing non-white library professionals, but rather shared perceptions of the (white) profession as a whole of libraries being ‘neutral’, ‘nice’, ‘safe’, ‘friendly’ spaces, and library/information services as a heroic profession bringing knowledge to all who need it in a friendly and caring manner. These shared perceptions can make us feel warm and fuzzy, but they are not conducive to either listening to our non-white colleagues (Bayjoo noted that challenging the ‘niceness’ of the library can lead to people being perceived as constantly, unjustifiably angry or disruptive) or enacting genuine, meaningful change. We as white library professionals need to commit to truly listening to colleagues such as Bayjoo when they make themselves vulnerable by talking about these issues, and to come up with concrete ways to address their concerns. Lip service to a ‘commitment to diversity’ is not enough. My fear, as always when attending talks, workshops and similar events on diversity (whether that be on axes of race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, class, or any combination thereof) is that the attendees are generally people who recognise that there is a problem and want to confirm that there are ways in which they can use their privilege to address it. Largely absent from such events are those who truly need to hear their message: that there is a genuine crisis when it comes to racial diversity within librarianship, that this is doing serious and exhausting damage to people outside the white majority, and that white library professionals have a responsibility to take on the work necessary to address it. Otherwise those barriers in the profession’s mental landscape — the warm and cuddly self-perception — will remain.
It seems, therefore, that mental landscapes — and the barriers and roadblocks within them — will figure largely in my professional life, how I engage with my work and my wider profession this year and beyond. I’m grateful to the two speakers for sparking this focus and understanding.