14 Nov 2017

Internet Librarian International: Conference Report



Guest post by Niall O'Brien. Niall currently works as a Library Assistant in the Client Services unit of UCD Library. He is a graduate of the UCD MLIS programme and a qualified teacher. He is interested in the teaching and learning practices of academic libraries

The Internet Librarian International Conference, took place in London 17th & 18th October 2017.

Through the very good fortune of being awarded the LIR bursary for 2017 and with the support of my employing institution, UCD Library, I was privileged to attend this year’s Internet Librarian International Conference in London.

This being the first international conference I’ve had the pleasure to attend, I felt very humbled by the depth of the work and research that this global range of speakers were engaged in. Kate Torney, CEO of the State Library of Victoria, opened the conference with a rousing keynote speech in which she encouraged librarians to be more assertive about the importance of their work and not to allow the public to take it for granted. This message resonated in other talks I attended that day. I was struck, for instance, by Marydee Ojala of ‘Online Searcher, USA’ who succinctly made the point that ‘the librarian of the future thinks in connections, not collections’. It emphasised to me that librarians are no longer the gatekeepers of information, controlling access for the few privileged enough to be allowed to interact with their resources. Rather, in a world of frenetic information exchange, it is our role to communicate the merit of our particular information resources to users effectively. Likewise, it is imperative for us to reflect on how users are actually engaging with these resources rather than how we think they should. This means listening to them as much as having them listen to us.

The reality that the more open information network of today has necessitated a great deal of change to the librarian’s work practices was a strong theme of the conference. Many of the talks that took place that first day fleshed out these new practices. There were three different tracks that delegates could choose to attend: ‘The New Library, The New Librarian’, ‘Users, UX and Usage’ and ‘Content Creativity’. I spent most of my time at the UX track and picked up some invaluable insights into how information professionals are endeavouring to make their services more responsive. Carl Barrow of the University of Hull explained that his own interventions stemmed from the frustration of ‘sending out surveys knowing exactly what kind of feedback I was likely to get’. He charted his experience of employing more creative means of capturing the student’s library experience, including cognitive mapping and interview transcripts. I found this approach to user engagement refreshing and daring, exactly the kind of approach needed in response to so much debate and uncertainty surrounding how to move library services forward. I was particularly taken with his idea of asking library users to submit ‘breakup letters’, detailing reasons why they would choose to end their relationship with the library. I’m sure these make for devastating reading - provoking many bitter tears from library staff - but they must surely capture a brutal honesty that a more formal survey simply can’t. Terence Huwe’s talk on the many opportunities available to librarians in the field of data analytics likewise made a strong impression on me that day. As information professionals, we get so tired of hearing what we’re not: We’re not quite academics, we’re not quite support staff, and we’re not quite administrative staff. It was heartening to listen to some concrete examples of the roles that we are well placed to occupy if we’re prepared to work hard.

A keynote from David White of the University of the Arts, UK opened day two of the conference. His talk delved very deeply into what he saw as a growing chasm emerging between libraries and information professionals on the one hand and their more tech savvy user base on the other. He argued that today’s users tend to gather information in terms of networks and relevance, whereas information professionals tend to organise information in hierarchies that users have difficulty navigating, understanding or even caring about. While I’m not sure I see the gap in such adverse terms as White, I think he is attuned to a growing problem in information services. There is certainly a worrying disconnect emerging between users and librarians, and it’s one that improved interfaces and reassessment of the user experience is only going to go so far in addressing. The encouraging message that White provided at the close of his speech was that the answer (he feels) lies in information professionals taking on a greater teaching role and deepening their interaction with users; not only to offer instruction for students on how to navigate our resources, but also for us to actively keep pace with their rapidly evolving needs. Again, it all comes back to connections!

This cerebral keynote set the tone quite well for what was a decidedly more tech focused second half. I was left a little in awe of the dynamism of my fellow Irish librarians in employing such enterprising means to market libraries and library services. Laura Rooney Ferris and Michael Ferris are behind the ‘Librarian’s Aloud!’ podcast which aims to communicate the work and achievements of Irish librarians to a wider audience. I was particularly interested in the mechanics of how each podcast was produced and how both Laura and Michael honed skills that they had developed outside the field of librarianship to make the podcast so cutting edge and of such high quality. Similarly, it was obvious that deeply held passions for both music and libraries drive Ronan Madden and Martin O’Connor to present their radio show ‘Shush: Sounds from UCC Library’ and to be so successful in growing and developing it. It is encouraging to see that for some innovative and dedicated librarians, the effort to market libraries can really be a labour of love rather than any kind of obligation.

The final talk I attended included a very measured and insightful presentation from Ruth Graham of the University of Worcester. She has succeeded in streamlining e-resources at Worcester by minimising the number of interfaces and personalising them to give the user a more pleasant experience. Through this initiative, e-resource usage has increased by 200%. ‘It is all about building trust with your users and creating a seamless experience that they actually enjoy’, she said. The second day of this conference demonstrated to me that it is the human effort at the heart of the technology we facilitate that is crucial to its enduring success.

Having listened over the course of the two full days to so many inspiring contributions from information professionals dedicated to positively developing library services and fostering deeper connections with their user base, I can only surmise that the information needs of today’s library users are in good hands.

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