15 Feb 2016

Academic & Special Libraries (LAI) Annual Conference, 11th-12th Feb 2016

Guest post by Marie O'Neill, Head of Library & Information Services, DBS Library

We are all familiar with the debate about the role of the librarian in the Google age. For me the answer to this dystopian question was revealed at the 2016 Annual Conference of the Academic and Special Libraries section of the Library Association of Ireland. The theme of this year's conference was library radicalism. It occurred to me over the two day conference, that in addition to being a vital and inspiring response to the closure of public libraries and integral to the amelioration of social problems; library radicalism presents a viable strategic roadmap for the future of the library profession. There have been lots of separate conversations about the future direction of librarianship taking place but the success of this conference lay in its ability to unite these disparate conversations into one gloriously noisy, unified and radical voice; one solid and exciting roadmap for the future of the profession.

There was a heady, exhilarating, euphoric atmosphere of revolution as speakers socked it to Google and other search engines about privacy. There were also warnings about the threats to privacy that lurk in your hand held device. There were workshops on how to engage students with not a single reference to information literacy frameworks, drawing instead on a probing of the teaching and learning literature. New approaches to marketing, outreach and social media were discussed. Information on how to create stunning online exhibitions was also provided. Event planning initiatives at Maynooth University Library were outlined, (the library is booked out for events until November). The library is the cool place to be on campus and a dedicated event organiser at Maynooth University Library (from library staff) is required to facilitate this.

There were powerful insights into writing for publication as well as the benefits of getting a doctorate so that we get our place at the 'top table' in academia. We are no longer the passive curators of knowledge but also robust creators of it. And we won't just preserve print but also the born digital so that these fleeting cultural and societal snapshots are not lost to history. Predatory commercial journal publishers were taken on. Librarians can produce academic journals on open access using open source software such as OJS. This presentation was delivered jointly by a librarian and academic.

A highlight of the conference was an account of how librarians and record managers used information to unearth fundamental truths about the Hillsborough football disaster, providing accurate and concrete answers to the bereaved. One presentation took a pop at De Valera and the Irish constitution. Irish women were not perpetually dancing at the crossroads back in the day. Two hundred of them were in fact integral to the 1916 Rising. The stereotype of the spinster librarian was also firmly and jubilantly pushed out to sea once and for all.

There was a sense at the conference of walls being pushed through and of librarians breaking out of confining stereotypes and professional spaces and moving deeper into the realms of teaching and learning, academic departments, publishing, IT, law and politics and of leaving an impressive and truth revealing, truth preserving mark. Kevin Sanders from the University of Bath invited the library profession to a call to arms to fundamentally change society for the better in one of the most exciting and original presentations that I have ever seen. Every sacred cow of what a librarian is supposed to be and how they are perceived was deftly knocked down, one by one with gusto, gumption and the unassailable veracity of information and research supplied by a dizzying succession of badass librarians. I'm not going to provide an outline of each conference presentation as it would not do justice to the compelling messages raised in each of them. Go check out the slides, or the footage. You won't be disappointed.

The concluding speaker wisely prompted delegates to take any opportunity you can; you never know where it will take you. A library intern eloquently exhorted delegates to properly empower them to make a difference in libraries and to help build their careers. The conference was inclusive and democratic with all levels of library personnel contributing to speaking, organising and commentating including postgraduate library students. No pecking orders at this conference! The logistical organisation of the conference was akin to a spectacular Jean-Michel Jarre concert with multiple screens, podcasting, phone charging stations and mouth watering catering (my personal award for best conference desserts), professionally, calmly and cheerfully overseen by the A&SL Committee team from command central at the back of the main conference room.

There's an irresistible charm to the A&SL Committee. Check out the adorable video that they circulated after the conference ended of kittens falling asleep to indicate their post conference fatigue. Committee members are razor sharp and have their finger on the pulse (to employ a tired and much overused expression) but they also have an informality, humour and approachability that has provided space for new conversations in the Irish library profession and invited in a broader, wider range of contributors to this conversation. Make no mistake, this Committee is shaking things up in the Irish library profession and are forcing us to embrace new innovations; to hear new voices and to learn about new approaches. This was made manifest at this conference.

The inclusion in the conference of heart warming, wise and entertaining personal accounts of how library careers were established and the lessons learnt along the way (check out Jane Burns' presentation) was also an inspired touch. Tweets from the conference were the most probing in terms of professional introspection that I have ever seen. The theme of the conference prompted a great deal of library profession soul baring and reflection. One tweet 'Are people in charge of libraries predominately white and male?' is an example. I recommend that you go to #ASL2016 to see the vibrant, insightful (and humorous) Tweetage that emanated from the conference.

This year's A&SL Conference was honestly one of the most exciting conferences that I have ever been to. There was a sense of the library rule book; the outdated and strangulating strategies, hierarchies and cliques being torn up and a new vision for librarianship being constructed in which every level of librarianship has a voice and one which makes a real difference not just to libraries but also to society. And talking of exciting conferences; this conference came hot on the heels after Andy Priestner's incredible UX Conference in Maynooth University. Andy (another library radical) is tearing up the rule book about how we understand students' interaction with library services and spaces using ethnographic research methods. He is also the driving force behind the exciting and innovative Future Libraries project at Cambridge University. SLIP also held their superb conference on library education. All of the above, represents a great start to the year for Irish librarianship.

A key message for me from this year's A&SL Committee Conference as someone who is involved in postgraduate library education is that we owe it to the next generation of library students to equip them with the knowledge and skill set for this new library world order not just for the betterment of libraries but for the betterment of society on a far deeper and more radicalised level.

Google a threat to librarianship? Library closures? Not on your nelly. Look out Google, radical librarians are coming for you and we are badass. Be afraid. Be very afraid.


  1. Fantastic Marie. I might steal some of this for use elsewhere.

  2. Wow... this is perhaps the best review of a library conference I have ever read. Well done Marie. It captures perfectly the buzz of the such an amazing conference. This too, for me, was probably the best most exciting A&SL conference I've attended. I'm still buzzing. I too recommend that people check out the slides when they go up because there is so much in them. I will be going back to them again. There was something for everybody at this conference. So many papers made me confident for the future of the profession. They are really smashing the stereotypes. I want to go on record - again - and complement the A&SL committee for doing an amazing job on this years conference. We all owe you a big round of applause.

  3. Very engaging review Marie, I lived the conference through your words. Thank you