Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Reflections of a first-timer at Umbrella 2011: Day One

I was lucky enough to win a full residential bursary from my local CILIP branch to attend this year’s Umbrella conference. This was my first ever Umbrella, and it was a fantastic experience, although very overwhelming. I’ve never attended a large conference before, and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I regret not talking to more people, but it didn’t feel like the kind of conference where I could just go up to people and introduce myself. However, I realise I need to broaden my horizons beyond the world of the New Professionals Conference (taking my own advice about establishing dialogues with experienced professionals I suppose!), and that next time I just need to be braver. I did meet several new people who recognised me and/or who I recognised from Twitter, and caught up with some friends, acquaintances, and folk I had met previously in various different ways, so I didn’t fail entirely at networking (and I did attempt to increase my own accessibility by writing my Twitter name on my name badge, as did several others!).

The theme of the conference was New structures, new technologies, new challenges – how can we adapt to an age of austerity? Sessions ran under six “strands”: Skills and Professionalism, Promotion and Advocacy, Technologies and Access, Libraries in the Big Society, Digital Inclusion and Social Change and Workshops: Skills and Techniques. I had originally intended to try to go to something in each strand, but there were two sessions in one strand (Technologies and Access) that I really wanted to attend, so I only made it to sessions within five of the six strands (I missed out Digital Inclusion and Social Change and look forward to reading some blog posts from people who did go to some of those sessions). Between sessions there was an exhibition with stands from various LIS-related groups and organisations (with plenty of freebies – I have SO many bags now!) and a poster competition.

The conference opened with a keynote speech from Gerald Leitner, EBLIDA (the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations) President and Secretary General of the Austrian Library Association. EBLIDA lobbies for European libraries and has recently focused on influencing copyright law in Europe. Gerald told us that European librarians are watching UK librarians fight against the threatened cuts to libraries, education and culture that we currently face, and reiterated that libraries are now more vital than ever. He argued that we need to work together to create a framework for libraries in the European Union. I found this speech interesting because I’d never considered the potential impact of EU law and policy on UK libraries; I don’t recall it ever being discussed during my MA. As Gerald pointed out, the EU actually offers a tremendous opportunity to create guidelines and a support network for libraries in the UK and the rest of Europe, and perhaps we should be lobbying our MEPs as well as our MPs if we are not doing so already.

It was then time for the first conference session. I chose to attend Effective Teaching Skills, which was in the Workshops: Skills and Techniques strand. Teaching is one of my favourite aspects of my job and is something in which I’ve always been interested; it was one of the things that attracted me to librarianship. I haven’t, however, had much chance to do it yet; I started my current job last November, after the bulk of the teaching was over. I’ve done a few classes, but I am keen to develop my teaching skills (this is in fact one of my objectives in my Chartership PPDP) and, with September just around the corner (sorry!), this seemed an ideal opportunity to get back into teaching mode. The session was delivered by Chris Powis, who is highly engaging and knowledgeable on this topic. Chris began by reminding us that teaching and learning occurs in our interactions with users at the enquiry desk, in drop-in sessions and through any kind of learning material that we produce, not only during inductions and classes. We are very much teachers, but many of us are not trained to teach; as Chris pointed out, library school curricula tend to focus on information literacy rather than practical teaching skills (during my MA we were offered one two-hour optional workshop on teaching skills, with limited spaces), so our teaching role can be challenging (and is not always accepted by non-librarian colleagues). A big problem that can be faced by those of us who teach is that the expectations of those whom we are teaching are often too high – expecting us to give them all of the answers – or too low (this is a library session – it’s going to be boring!). Chris warned us not to fall into the trap of holding these same expectations ourselves i.e. if we expect our students to be bored, we’re going to deliver a boring session! Chris ran through the importance of appealing to different learning styles, being inclusive, and making your teaching innovative, varied, active, challenging, relevant, interesting, and a performance (whether we like it or not, we are performing when we teach in front of a class, and some people take to this much more naturally than others!).

We then spent the rest of the session in group discussions, sharing our experiences, ideas and tips, talking about what worked for us and what we found most challenging. It was really interesting to hear about teaching in other institutions and organisations, with different sets of users and different kinds of resources, and some of the people on my table had some great ideas for teaching methods and activities, which they very kindly shared with the rest of us. I found this session both useful and inspiring; I came away feeling enthusiastic about throwing myself into the teaching that will come with the new academic year, and armed with a few tips and tricks which I will think about how we could potentially incorporate into our teaching sessions.

The second session was within the Promotion and Advocacy strand and consisted of two presentations. The first was Not Just Bars and Gigs: Working in Partnership with the Student Union from Linda Smith of Nottingham Trent University. Linda pointed out that members of the SU executive are ideal advocates for the library service, as publicity from the student body itself is the best kind. At Nottingham Trent, the Library and the SU have reciprocal arrangements in place; space in the Library foyer can be used by the SU for online voting in their elections, and by SU clubs and societies, and the SU provides publicity for the Library in a number of ways, from traditional marketing i.e. adverts on the SU website, to campaigns such as promoting appropriate behaviour in the library. Working with the SU has also allowed the Library to identify things that the students want in the library space, such as water coolers and lockers. It sounds like working in partnership with the SU has been really successful at Nottingham Trent, but I’m not sure how easy this would be to develop in my own small campus library or overall Library service (currently split over five sites); there would be issues of coherence and consistency I think. This is something that Linda highlighted as a challenge that they face every year, when the membership of the SU executive changes; some students are more keen than others to work with the Library, and they possess different skills, attitudes and ideas. I was interested to know whether Nottingham Trent ever use the SU to collect feedback from students about the Library service; Linda said that they didn’t, but I think if I were ever involved in developing a partnership with the SU, this would be an idea I’d like to explore – would students be more likely to respond to a survey or request for feedback from the SU than from the Library, I wonder?

The second presentation in this session was Centre of the University: Integrating services for students at Kingston University, by Karen Belsham. Karen told us about how space is being shared at Kingston; services such as a café, general reception and drop-in areas for academic departments have been integrated into the Learning Resources Centre space. The LRC now has a service desk which is basically a call-centre offering both IT and library support, and services such as replacement ID card printing and other student documentation printing, such as letters for council tax exemption, are also on offer in the LRC. Karen explained that the focus is always on the student experience – trying to make things as simple as possible, particularly for new students – and argued that the LRC is an ideal space in which to integrate these services; the students know the LRC, they use it, and it has longer opening hours than other university services and departments. I can see how this is a really good idea; students expect us to be able to do more than traditional library support, and they want value for the money that they are spending on their education (with the forthcoming massive tuition fee rises this attitude is only going to become even more prevalent), so it’s great if we can find ways to make the student experience run more smoothly, particularly when they first arrive. However, as Karen pointed out, integrating other services into the Library places a lot of pressure on Library staff, who will need training in these new aspects of their role, and will need to be able to offer high quality support in a number of different areas. It can also impact on professional identities and professional boundaries. Concerns about impact on staff were raised by those who asked questions at the end of Karen’s presentation, and I think it’s something which would need to be thought about very carefully and thoroughly, with plenty of consultation with the staff affected, before any integration of services took place. I suppose it’s about getting the balance right; providing as excellent and comprehensive a Library service as possible, whilst not overburdening staff or changing their roles to an unreasonable extent.

For the final session of the day, I chose to attend a session on repositories and storage, which came under the Technologies and access strand. Repositories are something about which I am pretty much clueless, but which I really feel I should know more about! The first of the three presentations was on Open Access and Institutional Repositories: the University of Glasgow experience, from Susan Ashworth, who told us about Enlighten, Glasgow’s repository. A University Publications Policy was introduced in 2008, which requires academic staff to deposit the full text of their research publications in the repository. There was some concern from staff about issues such as what should go into the repository, and whether they would be breaking copyright, but with support and advocacy from the librarians working on the repository, their attitudes towards open access publishing and Enlighten became generally positive. Jacqueline Wickham from Nottingham University then discussed Research repositories: the role of library staff in their management.  Jacqueline gave us some idea of the skills required by library staff working on repositories, from metadata creation to knowledge of access rights, and suggested that perhaps library school curricula should be focusing more on these areas.  I found these presentations really informative, as I had only vague ideas about how a repository works, and both gave me a good idea of the whole process. Although I currently have nothing to do with my institution’s repository, I think it’s useful for me to have a general idea about how it works, in case any of the academic staff with whom I liaise ask me about it, and, as I hope to do some of my own research in the future, I might find myself depositing work in an institutional repository at some point.

The final presentation of this session was from David Errington, on Collaborative storage for Newcastle University. With so much focus on repositories, I think it can be easy to forget about the physical storage that libraries still require, so it was a useful reminder to hear about Newcastle’s offsite store, which contains a mixture of Library material and other institutional material. David and his colleagues hope that it can become a kind of Research Hub that can accommodate academics who want to access the material there, and I think that this is a great idea; as I said, it can be easy to forget about the physical stock, and for several of the arts and humanities subjects that my Library supports, print material remains important for research.

With Day One of Umbrella over, it was time to head off for the gala dinner and a lovely after-dinner speech from Bonnie Greer. I learnt loads, and Day Two was just as informative and engaging, but as  this post has become long enough I shall reflect on the second and final day of the conference in my next post.


  1. Great post Rachel, sounds like you had a good time - it also sounds pretty scary though! Northumbria's institutional repository is pretty good: http://northumbria.openrepository.com/northumbria/I temped there until I got my job in London (just doing the admin side of things though!)

  2. Great post, really informative, thank you. I shall look forward to reading what else you have to say about the conference.