I’ve returned to Cambridge with my head bursting with ideas from last week’s LILAC conference. It was my first time attending this conference, and I was a little daunted at the prospect: not only was its focus, information literacy, a major interest of mine, but I’d also been accepted to present not one but two presentations at the conference. I shouldn’t have been worried. Both of my presentations were very well received, and I felt very welcomed into this community of librarians as passionate about information literacy as I was. Every single session I attended as an audience member was excellent, and the standard of content was very high. As always, I left the conference with lots of great ideas and inspirations, but rather than providing a blow by blow description, I will focus on one key theme and how it was illustrated by the sessions I attended.
That theme, for me, was communication. When you take away all the flashy teaching techniques, complex pedagogical theory and so on, what information literacy comes down to — and what underpinned the content of every presentation — were two key questions. The first is what are you, as an information literacy educator, trying to communicate, and the second is how are you best going to communicate it. These are the questions we all need to begin with when planning, adapting, or developing information literacy teaching or support.
These concerns preoccupied the three keynotes: Sandeep Maha, director of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature, who spoke of strategies to build and sustain a literate community with a passion for reading for pleasure, Dr Ruth Carlyle of Health Education England, who spoke of the challenges of ensuring a health literate population, and Professor Allison Littlejohn of Glasgow University, who stressed that technology alone (MOOCs and so on) are not enough to widen access to university education — it’s how you use this technology that is crucial. All three keynote speakers emphasised that whether it is health information literacy, academic information literacy, or information literacy in one’s personal and family life, initiatives aimed at improvement cannot be delivered in a top-down manner, but must be driven by the individuals and communities concerned, recognising their agency, concerns and preferences.
Most of the parallel sessions I attended had an either academic or health library focus (or both), given my own professional interests. Some were concerned with techniques for ensuring student engagement in the library classroom and maximising recall and retention of class content. These ranged from the complicated — both Hazel Glasse, of the University of Derby, and Adam Hill, of the University of Surrey, had developed fantastic escape room games to use in library induction sessions (and Hazel even let us play a condensed version of the game to get a taste of what her students learn) — to more easily implemented techniques. The latter included Eveline Houtman, a librarian at the University of Toronto, who challenged attendees to consider whether bringing in our own identities and experiences into the classroom can be an effective teaching strategy. While I’m not sure how comfortable I would be with bringing my personal life into the classroom (and indeed there was a lively Twitter discussion about whether this would be traumatic for those with marginalised identities, such as LGBT people), I certainly do draw on my own experiences of my PhD studies (I received the degree several years ago) to illustrate certain points about referencing software, academic publishing and so on that come up in several of the classes I teach. Eveline also noted that it’s impossible to communicate effectively if you’re simply mimicking the style and personality of another educator who mentored you — you must find your own authentic teaching voice.
Other presenters spoke of frameworks that they adopted to communicate complex information literacy ideas more effectively, such as Pip Divall, Clinical Librarian at Leicester Hospital, who has adopted Edward de Bono’s ‘six hats’ theory as a technique for teaching critical appraisal. As someone who finds critical appraisal very stressful to teach, and often finds herself bogged down in the statistics component of this subject, I’m always looking for fresh approaches, and Pip’s method certainly seems to relieve a lot of the pressure on the librarian during what can be a very difficult class to teach. Meanwhile, Niamh Hammel, of Dundalk Institute of Technology, developed a low-tech solution to the problem of ensuring student comprehension of teaching content in information literacy classes. Rather than assuming that a nod, or silence, meant that her students were keeping up, she created three colour coded, laminated paper discs for students to hold up to indicate understanding, confusion, or semi-comprehension. She found these to be effective ways for her students to communicate with her during her training sessions, whereas previously they had been uncomfortable indicating that they weren’t keeping up. I can see the utility in something like these discs. Most of the training I deliver is open to anyone, meaning my classes frequently have students with a range of levels of experience and understanding of the topic at hand, and ensuring I’m pitching things at the right level and moving at the right speed is crucial. I am certainly considering adopting Niamh’s approach.
Communication doesn’t stop outside the classroom — quite frequently what we are doing as librarians is communicating what we do and how we can help to those outside our profession, meaning using the right terminology and language is essential. This came up in several presentations, most notably the panel discussion on open access (involving Jane Secker, Chris Morrison, Claire Sewell, Stephen Wyber, Stuart Taylor and Elizabeth Gadd), in which the importance of framing the aims of open access in a manner attractive to researchers, funders, and universities was highlighted, and the presentation by Cheryl Coveney and Hossam Kassem of Open University, in which they noted the difficulties in framing the educational aims of universities and information literacy frameworks of librarians in a way that employers understand, or that students can translate into language which matches that used in job advertisements. As always, communication — and the clarity of expression and appropriate use of terminology is key.
The conference concluded with perhaps the most important material of all: a panel discussion (involving Elizabeth Brookbank, YiWen Hon, Sajni Lacey, Clare McCluskey Dean, and Darren Flynn) on critical pedagogy. As information professionals, communication is our job, and it is essential that when we communicate (whether part of formal teaching, or any other context in which we interact with users) that we do not reinforce barriers, hierarchies, and inequalities. Our users bring their own experiences and identities with them into our libraries and classrooms, and we must be mindful of that. And this panel left me with one of the most useful pieces of advice of all: Darren’s suggestion that we explain why we are teaching or communicating using a particular technique, emphasising a particular element, or structuring our classes in a particular way. Sometimes just giving our students that specific context can be all it takes to communicate with greater clarity and ensure greater understanding.
I want finally to mention how much I appreciated YiWen Hon for a particular communication choice. YiWen summarised the talks she attended in a fantastic way, and was able to packed a lot of information into a single sheet of paper without missing anything crucial. It was a fantastic way to catch up on sessions I hadn’t attended, while also distilling each presentation’s content down into its key concepts. I will post YiWen’s summaries of my two presentations below to illustrate:
These are such a great illustration of the role communication plays in information literacy, and as such are the perfect note on which to end my summary.