16 May 2024

Academic & Special Libraries Conference 2024 ‘Fair for all: creating Equitable and Universal Access to Information’

Guest post by Mona Power, Library Assistant at UCC Library

Early on the morning of the 21st of March, I was surrounded by sleepy commuters on the train to Dublin, some already starting their workdays on laptops and tablets. I was struck anew by the Doctorow quote about technological advances, which had caught my eye on the A&SL website several weeks prior:

Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world. This is not a bad thing.

My own journey to being an LIS professional was made entirely possible by the advances Doctorow refers to. I undertook the MLIS at UCD's iSchool during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and was able to attend lectures, access library materials, connect with fellow students, and even make lifelong friends - all entirely online.

Yet the access to information that I enjoyed during this time is not strictly universal. And it is not free. This injustice is damaging to global society on many levels, and something I’d not thought about very deeply until I began the MLIS. Becoming a qualified librarian has opened my eyes to the power and importance of universal information access. If we cannot collectively draw from it and contribute back to it, the global pool of knowledge is diminished. Knowledge is not a finite resource. By sharing it, we do not deplete it. By making knowledge access universal, we create the circumstances under which it can be built upon and furthered.

These thoughts carried me to the Ashling Hotel, the venue for this year’s Academic and Special Libraries Conference. I’d been eagerly anticipating the conference since the bursary winners were announced, and even felt a little nervous as I found my way to the conference room. This would be my first experience of an in-person conference, and all week my colleagues at UCC Library had been offering sage advice (chat to people from outside your own library, take some time to look at the posters, take lots of pictures).

The first keynote speaker of the day was Marilyn Clarke, who opened her talk, ‘Libraries as Liberatory Spaces: knowledge justice, sites of memory, and acts of resistance’ with a poem by Ferdinand Levy, Jamaican poet who had lived in Dublin in the 1930s. Marilyn used Levy’s poem, and the fact that he is not well known as a figure of literary history in Ireland, as a jumping off point for her talk. She focused on the question of who is and is not remembered – and who we do, and do not, study in the classroom. Marilyn’s talk was expansive and inspiring, and even as I took notes, I knew that I would have a challenging time doing it justice in this review. Four words that I underlined several times in my notebook are: Recognition, Reparation, Restitution, Representation. These are words, Marilyn says, that she comes back to whenever she needs to think about what she is doing, and in answer to the question “what does social justice mean to you?” Listening to Marilyn speak, it became clear to me that knowing your “why” - the reason or purpose behind your actions - is a deeply valuable compass for life.

The first of the morning’s three case studies, ‘Inclusive Technology is everywhere: Why is it then so hard to find?’ was presented by Trevor Boland, who, according toinformation gathered by the A&SL Committee, can crochet a pair of slippers in three hours. Trevor’s presentation took us on a whistle-stop tour of some incredibly useful Assistive Technology (AT) – from the glasses many of us wear on our faces each day, to document conversion systems like SensusAccess, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology that can read text within a digital image.

Dean Watters and Dr Ruth O' Hara delivered the second case study of the morning, ‘Diversifying Dewey: Changing the DDC23 to better represent Irish Travellers’. This uplifting presentation was a brilliant real-life example of librarians challenging established systems and making positive changes. The presenters stressed the importance of doing this work not just because it is vital, but because it is work that inspires others and that people will build on in the future.

Eilís O' Neill concluded the morning’s presentations with her case study ‘Let’s take it outside (the classroom): Implementing UDL practices in non-teaching roles’. Eilís provided a compelling argument for undertaking a universal design for learning (UDL) course, and applying UDL principles to library work. She emphasised the importance of simplifying language and letting go of jargon.

The second keynote speaker of the day was David Hughes, who gave a rousing presentation entitled ‘Why Do We Need "Open", Anyway?’ David approached an answer to this question by introducing what he termed the “four horsemen of the library apocalypse”: Hyper-capitalism, academic publishing, artificial intelligence, and the fact that John Deere tractors now come with a remote kill-switch. David then launched into compelling arguments for each of his horsemen, citing Cory Doctorow’s "Entshitification" model, and the importance of true open access (OA) publishing. Some of David’s slides drew audible gasps from the audience, in particular his screenshots of blatantly AI-generated text that had made its way past the peer review process and into academic journals. For David, “open” is not just about publishing, but a philosophy and a rallying call. He urged librarians to lead by example and promote open educational resources and diamond OA.

The second round of case study sessions started with a presentation by Laura Rooney Ferris, entitled ‘Building a culture of Open Research for Health and SocialCare Practitioners’. Laura described the significant barriers to open publication for health practitioner researchers. A particularly powerful point that she made was that, in her own words, “medical research conducted on the public should be accessible to them.”

Jane Buggle and Marie O' Neill followed with their case study, ‘Diamond Open Access Publishing: Navigating the Impact of a Single Library Published Journal’. Jane and Marie made a passionate case for diamond OA, citing the destructive influence of the gold OA publishing model, and echoing David Hughes’ point that the truth is paywalled while lies are free. "We're not going away", said Marie, “this is only going to get better.”

Paola Corti’s case study, ‘Librarians as agents of change - SPARC Europe's Strategy to advance Open Education in Europe’, introduced us to the work of The European Network of Open Education Librarians (ENOEL), a network of academics advocating for open education in Europe. Paola praised the generosity of librarians for sharing their knowledge and encouraged anyone wishing to get involved with ENOEL’s work to become a member.

The final case study of the day, presented by Ann Byrne and Emberly Davey, was titled ‘Digital literacy for all: reflections on creating a Digital literacy OER’. Ann and Emberly described their journey of developing an open educational resource to improve digital literacy. Modelling the precise generosity Paola Corti had cited in her presentation, Ann and Emberly have made their course open to all.

The day's talks emphasised the vital role of libraries in promoting knowledge equity, in particular at the intersection of technology and social justice. These speakers demonstrate that the future of librarianship will be shaped by a commitment to inclusivity, openness, and dismantling barriers to information access.

For my part, I feel privileged to have attended the A&SL conference. The passion and generosity of these librarians is inspiring. It is a wonderful thing to attend a conference and feel that you are among “your people” - I am grateful to the A&SL Committee for awarding me this Bursary.

Image by A&SL Committee
This is the one of two posts written by the winners of the A&SL Bursary 2024.


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