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!