21 Jun 2017

Reflections on CONUL 2017 (Athlone)

Guest post by Jesse Waters,  Library Assistant, John Stearne Medical Library, Trinity College Dublin

I recently attended the CONUL Conference at the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone. I highly recommend attending the conference to anyone in the profession. There was a wide variety of library staff present, from directors and senior management to those who have graduated in recent years. As a library assistant, it was very beneficial to get a higher perspective on the issues and dangers currently looming over libraries. Discussions focussed on the potential for these issues to swallow the profession whole in the future, and the solutions that could be put in place to prevent this from occurring. It was also an opportunity to gain a better understanding of current topics such as Open Access and Research Data Management. Furthermore, it provided a platform to meet friends and past-colleagues from other libraries that I have not seen for a while, and to meet some very interesting librarians for the first time. With that in mind I would like to comment on some of the presentations which struck a chord with me, the majority of which were focused on the theme of change and adaptation.

Dr. Danny Kingsley, Head of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge, delivered the keynote address, or warning, ‘Emerging from the chrysalis – transforming libraries for the future’ on the second day of the conference using a children’s story- Tadpole`s Promise, to great effect. She bounced back and forth between the story and her slides to deliver a compelling and entertaining analogy on the evolving relationship between libraries and publishers. A relationship which evolved in symbiosis until a certain point, after which libraries were overtaken. The narrative depicted a once smitten, but now disgruntled caterpillar, unhappy with its partner because they were transforming from a tadpole into a frog. One day, the caterpillar had enough and left the tadpole, only to evolve itself and return later. Alas, at this stage it was too late and the now-frog simply ate the butterfly. The caterpillar represented the library, the tadpole was the publisher. Clearly, there is a need for libraries to catch up to the fast-changing landscape caused by publishing companies, who are already migrating into other research support services outside making available and providing access to content. She questioned the role- “are librarians support staff or research partners?”, and advised that we should be collaborating more within the research communities that we currently provide for.

In the presentation “The network reshapes the research library collection”, Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC spoke about modern academic libraries and how they have changed. Historically, libraries were defined by their collections. Nowadays, the physical and digital collection has transitioned from the core of what libraries do to a service that they offer. As such, academic libraries are no longer the only “information space”, but have become a part of a much greater and easily-accessible information space. He spoke about the concept of the “inside-out library”, collective collections, and how libraries have begun to market their unique individual identities by highlighting special collections in their possession, citing “Label This” a wine label transcription project at the UC Davis Library in California. Interestingly, this is something which has already risen to prominence in Irish university libraries such as Trinity College with the long-established Book of Kells exhibition, University of Limerick with its recent investments into the Kate O`Brien letters, and UCD renovating their special collections space last year.

Simon Bains, Head of Research Services and Deputy Librarian at the University of Manchester University Library, delivered a poignant reflection on a project undertaken titled ‘A journey of discovery: investigating student publishing at the University of Manchester’. He described how the Library set out to collaborate with, whilst providing for, their student community more effectively as part of a University initiative to develop its pedagogy. The initial aim of the project was to establish a publishing platform for taught students of the university, responding to the University’s commitment that taught students should develop research skills as part of their experience at Manchester. However, their research revealed that demand was unconvincing and sustainability was a concern given the costs and the transitional nature of student editorial teams. They recognised an opportunity (or necessity) to adapt, and opted to invest in publishing training materials which would benefit more students and be less resource intensive to manage. It was inspiring to hear how the library changed the scope of the project in such a radical fashion in response to its findings. It was interesting to hear how this was set within the context of an organisational structure which has moved entirely away from subject librarians to a “functional librarians” model in the wider areas of research services, teaching and learning, and academic engagement. This meant that these new publishing materials slotted neatly into an existing set of services encompassing bibliometrics, management of research data, and Open Access scholarly communications. The online modules produced by the project can be found here.

The presentations delivered by Kingsley and Bains highlighted the severe need for a radical change in academic libraries, whilst Dempsey articulated external changes that have already occurred. The adaptation they advocated needs to occur in regards to staffing, the relationship of libraries and their wider institutions and publishers, and the role that librarians occupy in the research process. I think this is most definitely the case as students and researchers have become self-sufficient, and there is a need to market our resourcefulness and to upskill into new avenues. The depth and breadth of presentations at the conference highlighted that library staff can most-definitely help our communities to maximise their research through our existing services and training sessions, or in the case of functional librarians described by Simon Bains by modifying the services we offer to meet the changing needs of our users.

As I was reflecting on the conference whilst travelling back to Dublin on the train, a passage from a Rage Against the Machine track from their self-titled debut popped into my head that I think summarised the overall theme of CONUL 2017:
“The rage is relentless
We need a movement with a quickness
You are the witness of change
And to counteract
We gotta take the power back

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