I was very fortunate to have received a sponsored place to Umbrella that covered the whole conference, so I was able to attend the second day too. I began by attending another session within the Technologies and access strand, which looked at user information seeking. The first of the two speakers was Professor Nigel Ford, from The Information School at the University of Sheffield, who discussed Technology, personalisation and librarians. I always enjoyed Nigel’s lectures when I was doing my MA at Sheffield, so I was really looking forward to this presentation, which was just as engaging as I had hoped. Nigel talked about the need to learn about our users’ information needs, their information-seeking behaviours, and the effectiveness of these behaviours, in order to develop effective user models which will allow us to help them navigate the various complexities of information, and search tools to become “smarter”. He called for LIS “researchers” and “practitioners” to work more closely together, in order to achieve a “critical mass of knowledge” on information behaviour. As a practitioner who would like to become a researcher whilst also remaining a practitioner, I was pleased to hear someone like Nigel argue for the need for the two domains to meet more effectively, and support evidence-based research methods. Another thing which I took away from Nigel’s presentation was an interest in the PATHS project, in which researchers are looking at users’ “paths” to information in the digital collections, with the aim of creating “paths” which can be used as learning objects themselves. I look forward to hearing more about the progress of the project.
The second speaker was Ian Rowlands, from the Department of Information Studies at UCL, who presented on The Google Generation: understanding information-seeking behaviours in the digital environment. Ian told us about conducting Deep Log Analysis (DLA) on server logs to find out how users reached a particular site, and what they were doing once they entered it. Although DLA has its weaknesses, such as lack of contextual information about the user’s task or motivation, Ian explained, it is also a strong method of assessing what people actually did (not what they think they remember doing). He also discussed research carried out in the Department of Information Studies for JISC and the British Library, which looked at the information behaviours of the “Google generation” (those born after 1993) in order to try to discover whether there are fundamental differences between the behaviour of this and previous generations, to which HE will need to adapt. They found that there are issues around information literacy amongst young people, but that this is nothing that we didn’t know already. Finally, Ian discussed a web behaviour test that was developed by the Department in conjunction with the BBC, which attempted to discover what motivates users to click on a website from a list of search results; implicit trust in the search algorithm, perceived authority of the information provider, or something else? Users were presented with search results which contained no contextual information about each result i.e. no URL or site name or anything other than a few lines of text from each site, and then search results which contained no information about the content of the page, but did contain information such as name and provider of the site for each result. The research results are not yet ready but I am interested to find out what they discovered. Both Nigel’s and Ian’s presentations were on topics which I really enjoy learning about and discussing, but with which I haven’t really had chance to engage since I finished my MA, so it was great to hear about the projects that they have been working on. In fact, both made me wish that I was back at library school and attending lectures like these every week!
For the next session, I turned my attention to the Libraries in the Big Society strand, and the subject of Volunteers in Libraries. I’m sure most of you have read the reflection on this session by Jill Howard, CILIP’s Policy Officer, which has been interpreted by many as a statement of support of volunteer-run libraries from CILIP. There was a theme of positivity and enthusiasm about volunteers in public libraries throughout; I couldn’t work out if this was because the speakers genuinely believed in the use of volunteers, because they were restricted in what they could say, being public library staff, or because they felt they had to deliver a positive session as part of Umbrella. I suspect it was a mixture of all three. This session wasn’t what I expected; I was hoping for more of a discussion and maybe a debate about volunteers in public libraries. Mike Brook of the West Berkshire Council Library Service opened the session, reminding us that volunteers have worked along paid staff in some libraries for years – for example, helping to run the housebound service – and arguing that the work that volunteers do must be strictly defined. Mike felt that the idea of community-run libraries is one that will die out, and believed that we will “see off” the threat whilst developing “positive strategies” for volunteers to work alongside paid staff.
Tracy Long, Dorset Library Service Manager, then told us about Dorset’s use of volunteers, who collectively offer 8500 hours per year. They are used to help run the Home Library Service, help out with the Summer Reading Challenge, and to keep some libraries open for longer after opening hours were cut by the Council in 2006. Tracy emphasised that the characteristics of a community really impact on how libraries can use volunteers; in some communities it will be more difficult to recruit volunteers (and good ones) than in others. Tracy Hager, Area Children’s Manager in Wiltshire Libraries, wrapped up the session with a presentation on the use of volunteers for the Summer Reading Challenge at Chippenham Library. Tracy argued that they need volunteers in order to be able to engage effectively with the readers. Prospective volunteers attend informal interviews, during which they are asked about their experience of working with children and their knowledge of children’s books, and receive training once they are accepted. Whilst some of the volunteers were reliable, effective and good at their role, others didn’t turn up on time, were too shy with the children, or were evidently only doing it for something to put on their university applications. Tracy calculated that she spent 35 hours over 6 weeks on managing the volunteers, and said that this was too much and that their procedures needed to be refined.
As I’ve said, I was hoping that the speakers would engage more with the issue of volunteers potentially taking over libraries, but I do appreciate that, as public library staff, they would feel under pressure to not be seen to criticise any plans that their service might have. What I did take away from the session was that, although when working under careful supervision and in conjunction with paid staff, volunteers can be helpful for projects such as the Summer Reading Challenge, recruiting, training and managing volunteers involves a lot of work, and that things can go wrong very easily; for me, this really brought home the naivety and short-sightedness of those who believe that public libraries can be simply handed over to volunteers.
For the final session of the conference, I visited the theme of research in the Skills and professionalism strand. The first speaker was Professor Paul Sturges of Loughborough University, who spoke on Imagination and LIS Research. This was a really inspiring presentation. Paul said that, as someone heavily involved in peer review, he sees a lot of research-based papers, and that the poor ones were often bound by convention. He argued that imagination potentially has the capacity to transform the LIS research discipline; we need imagination for defining our research topic (is this a question that you really want to answer?), the use of theory (do you really need to import theory from philosophy? Do you need any theory at all?), the literature review (it should be used to stimulate your ideas, not list everything ever written on the topic), the methods (LIS research all too often relies on “the survey”!), and interpretation of results - discussions and conclusions are often poor because the author is exhausted from the research and just wants to get the thing finished! Paul also argued that we should be looking outside of the LIS literature for our research, citing a LIS research project in Malawi where the use of agricultural science literature uncovered the spiritual aspects of information seeking amongst farmers there, as well as arguing for the use of imaginative methods when studying perceptions; his example here was of some LIS researchers investigating children’s perceptions of public libraries by analysing posters created by children for a library contest. Paul’s talk got me really thinking about breaking convention in research, and I began to feel really excited about all the possibilities for the research I would like to do. I will be keeping my notes from this session close to hand, to remind myself not to fall into the various traps of lack of imagination; I think that my weak points are the literature review – feeling that I need to find and discuss absolutely everything relating to my topic – and the research method; I have to admit that I am one of those people who goes for the survey, every time! I think my lack of imagination is down to a mixture of lack of experience in research, and the feeling that I need to be really “academic”, so, just as it was really reassuring to hear Nigel Ford support evidence-based, practitioner research in the earlier session, it was great to hear advocacy of creative research methods from someone who is so experienced in research.
The second speaker was David Streatfield, from Information Management Associates, who discussed Cutting edge research: proving our worth or worth proving? David talked about something that I hadn’t come across or thought about previously, which was the increasing politicisation of research. Research assessment frameworks in HE assess academic research output on set criteria such as number of journal publications (what about academics in disciplines which make use of blogs, for example?). Quantitative research is favoured over qualitative research by policy-makers. Setting measures for success risks distorting the research process. David argued that LIS researchers must respond to this challenge by making the case for more rigorous qualitative research and assessment of services. Like Paul, David wanted to encourage LIS researchers to adopt a wider range of research methods, and both of them convinced me that if I am going to get involved in research, I need to do it creatively.
The conference finished with the CILIP Libraries Change Lives awards. All of the nominated projects appeared to be making a real difference in their communities; you can read more about them here.
Overall, attending Umbrella 2011 was an engaging, interesting, educational, informative and thought-provoking experience. It’s difficult to say what made the biggest impact on me; I think I left with some new thoughts on aspects of my role (teaching, information-seeking, interactions with the student body), some knowledge of the wider profession outside of my role (public libraries, repositories), and enthusiasm to take some steps towards research. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people within the profession, including experienced professionals as well as other new professionals. The Umbrella Conference describes itself as an event for those “at all stages of their careers”, and it certainly appeared to live up to this claim. Most of the other new or newer professionals that I met had, like me, won bursaries or sponsored places to attend, and I was really pleased that so many CILIP branches and Special Interest Groups offered these; they gave so many people the opportunity to attend who otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to. Umbrella is expensive, and I did wonder whether there were things that could have been done to make it less so; I couldn’t help wondering whether we really needed a gala dinner with a red carpet and waiters with trays of drinks and a string quartet, for example. I am not an expert in event organisation and I have no idea what impact the dinner would have had on costs, but reflection is supposed to be honest, and that is a thought that crossed my mind. However, the organising committee did a fantastic job, and I would like to end by thanking them, and also thanking the CILIP South West branch who sponsored my place, for an amazing experience.