4 Jul 2016

Conference Report: CONUL Conference, Athlone, Ireland

Guest post by Rebecca Jones. Rebecca has worked as a library assistant in D.I.T Aungier Street for 14 years. She is passionate about supporting students in the library with additional needs.

Day 1 - June 1st

CONUL held its annual conference at the Sheraton Hotel, Athlone June 1st and 2nd 2016. The two-day action packed event was very well organised and the presentations from the
enthusiastic speakers, a river cruise on the Shannon and the Gala dinner made for a very
engaging and enjoyable experience.

Over the two days, library staff both nationally and internationally shared their experiences of
collaborative projects and presentations of papers relating to the theme ‘Going Further
Together: Collaboration in Irish academic and research libraries’. These were delivered to
a relaxed, friendly and supportive audience where delegates from all over Ireland used social
media platforms throughout the event to network and share information presented.

The presentation that most appealed and resonated with me was presented by Sally Bridge
from Queen’s University. The topic was about her experiences working in partnership with
students to empower people with disabilities in Queens. Sally was introduced as the Queens’
Librarian, Disability Liaison Officer and International Student Support Officer; roles I believe would be welcomed by many library staff.

The key motivator for this collaboration was the SENDO (Special Educational Needs and
Disability Order, Northern Ireland) Act 2005. This act ensures the legal obligation of the
library to make the library environment and all its resources more accessible to all who use it.
Now, the library, disability services, estate services and information services collaborate to
provide the 2,053 students registered with Queens’ Disability Services in 2015/2016
equal access to the library environment and its’ resources.

I was particularly interested in the availability of Assistive Technology on ‘ALL’ computers
and asked Sally during the Q&A session to elaborate further. Sally added that all the
computers in the library have access to Assistive Technology so no library users are directed
to a hub at the back of the library or a designated ‘disability corner’ as is common in many institutions.

I liked how Sally also emphasised the ‘human need’ to empower people with disabilities in
libraries and how the library staff in Queens received great feedback from library users;
this is a source of pride for the library staff. Over tea and scones, I took the opportunity to
speak and congratulate Sally on how inclusive their library came across and we talked about
the many barriers all people have in accessing libraries and their resources.
Sally’s presentation has inspired me and my colleagues in DIT to review our collaboration with disability support services to better support library users to achieve their
fullest potential and flourish.

I also enjoyed Siobhan Dunne (DCU) presentation titled Watch, Listen, Learn:
understanding the undergraduate research process through an ethnographic lens which
seeks to understand the user voice and capture students’ research journey. Her findings
outlined firstly how students were not going to library staff for support on how to research;
instead, they used social media and their peers. Secondly, the study identified a group of
students who were afraid to ask for help from the library staff because “within certain
cultures asking for help was seen as a failure”. The concept of library anxiety I thought was
an age old concept and obvious to all library staff, however, Siobhan explained that the
theories of library anxiety need to be further explored to create opportunities on how to
effectively reach out to these students. This concept of library anxiety resonates with me and these findings may influence future strategies on making the library both more visible and more accessible in my own library in DIT Aungier Street.

At the end of Day 1, all delegates excitedly embarked from the quays at Athlone Castle for a
wine reception on a Viking Long boat up the River Shannon to Lough Rea in the beautiful
sunshine. This was then followed by a fabulous four-course meal (and more wine) back at the
Sheraton Hotel. The evening was great fun and everyone was friendly and inviting with many
formal and informal discussions.

Day 2 - June 2nd 

After a lovely breakfast, the keynote speaker Susan Gibbons set the stage for Day 2. It was good to have an international speaker at the conference especially an author who has been referenced throughout the conference. Overall her presentation on Studying users to improve Library Services was engaging and thought provoking. The goal of her research was to use findings to improve services and digital presence. I especially enjoyed the strategy taken to respond to students who go to their parents for research support instead of the library. The practice of the library in shifting the focus from students to 'helicopter' parents on orientation day was insightful. By welcoming parents into the library to have a chat and a cup of tea, it gave them a greater awareness of all the library services on offer to their children, enabling parents to redirect their children to library services. This practice is now in its tenth year and very successful. Susan's final remarks were that the library requires tolerance for change or it will fail.

Following on came insightful presentations by DIT’s Allison Kavanagh and Sarah Anne Kennedy which were both engaging and thought provoking. Getting the edge delivered by
Allison spoke of the collaboration between the library and the Career Development Centre
(CDC). This collaboration led to a tool kit called the Graduates Attributes Toolkit and
provided insight into how digital literacy has real world application for students.
Digital Collaboration delivered by Sarah –Anne was of her experiences with developing an online marketing tool using MailChimp to support the transition of students into third level and measuring the level of engagement from students and academic staff. The key takeaway I found from these collaborations is the importance of engagement from all involved from the beginning to ensure success. It also raises the profile of the library to position itself at the top table of the institute’s future progressions.

Other uplifting presentations were delivered by Katherine McSharry (National Library of Ireland) on how a library can collaborate with the community and partner with the Media and cultural institutions to create a social space for communities to tell their stories and digitise memorabilia. She recalled how the public appetite of such a project led to a growing production event called Inspiring Ireland. Katherine added that it was a process that works regardless of the topic once you have the engagement across all people you are working with.

Final highlights for me from the conference were the expression by speakers that libraries are living systems that evolve and which exist in a neutral environment. This gave me an awareness into how library staff, given the right support, can adopt new innovative collaborative approaches to make our libraries more accessible and visible to all as we all face challenges of budget restraints and staffing issues. These new approaches and ideas may result in projects within our own libraries and possible presentations at future conference events.

I am already looking forward to CONUL Conference 2017.

Videos of conference talks and slides can be found on the Conul Conference website


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