28 May 2024

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

Guest post by Beth Tyrell, MLIS Student at UCD, graduating this year.

The LAI Academic and Special Libraries annual conference took place on Thursday 21st March 2024 in the Aisling Hotel in Dublin. I was very lucky to be one of two people given a bursary to attend. This is a report of the day.

Decolonising Library Spaces

Lord, Lord, down O’Connell Street,” read keynote speaker Marilyn Clarke at the opening talk of the 2024 LAI Academic and Special Libraries Conference in Dublin’s Aisling Hotel. 

The theme of the conference was ‘Fair for All: Creating Equitable and Universal Access to Information,’ and Marilyn was asking attendees to consider: in our libraries, whose knowledge and history is preserved and collected? 

The poem she read for us is by a Jamaican born poet, Ferdinand Levy, who was probably the first black poet to be published in Ireland, according to Dr. Karl O’Hanlon of Maynooth’s Department of English who shared some of Levy’s poetry with Marilyn in advance of her talk. Levy’s book of poetry, Flashes in the Dark, was published in Dublin in 1941. 

Marilyn Clarke has worked at Senate House Library, Imperial College London, and Goldsmiths, University of London. She is currently the IALS Librarian at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

Marilyn’s talk brought home how much richness can be gained if we decolonise our library collections and reading lists and question our biases and skewed perspectives on who has intellectual authority. She shared how library spaces can be transformed in three areas – whose voices do we include and respect, who do we remember, and how do we resist the structural inequity that we have inherited. On that last point, she spoke of her reaction to the floor plan of the IALS library – a quick scan of the collections map shows that white-centric topics are stored on the floors with large windows and high ceilings, while collections pertaining to African and Asian matters are literally kept in the basement, a space she described as having low ceilings and no natural light at all. Why did it take a mixed raced librarian to see the harm in this, when it has clearly been accepted practice for years? Being very conscious of our own positionality is key if we want to recognise situations like this and make positive change, she said, urging the audience not to leave politics at the door of the library. 

We learned that, in practice, to decolonise a collection or reading list is not as simple as swapping out some writers for others. Not all voices are equally represented in published works, and this fact compelled Marilyn to start the Liberate! zine collection at the Goldsmiths library when she worked there, a practical way to include and amplify marginalised voices. 

Because she grounded her insight in examples of real transformative practices, Marilyn’s presentation managed to shift the concept of decolonisation from an unachievable task to a thrilling opportunity.  Decolonisation is an opportunity to light up our cultural identity and allow energy to flow through our collections in a way that will bring them to life and have them act as inspiration or invitation to library users of all diverse identities. By decolonising collections now, we lay the foundations for future collections to include all voices.  In Ireland we are blessed with such a rich poetic heritage – Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney – but to have a canon of only men and only white men and only white men of a certain educational status is like having a body with one lung. With one lung you can breathe, you can sing, you can speak truth – but imagine what you could do with two. Imagine what you could do with a full choir. 

Marilyn Clarke, image courtesy of A&SL Committee

Tools for access

The case study presentation that sparked the most questions from the audience was given by Trevor Boland, Assistive Technology Officer, DCU. Perhaps because Trevor is not a librarian, he brought information that many audience members seemed to be crying out for, regarding simple, free, assistive technologies that he shares with students to help with common challenges. He also spoke very well about the necessity of creating an empathic bond with students by being willing to be vulnerable himself. The technologies he highlighted are all easily accessible and yet hidden in plain sight; much potential good could be done if all librarians were familiar with them. 

Eilís O’Neill, Outreach and Engagement Librarian at DCU, presented a case study on the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in a library setting.  Eilís has studied UDL and is a member of the University Consultation Group on best practices regarding UDL. She told us that universal design is a set of principles regarding the design of buildings, products, and other environments to make them inclusive for people of all abilities. Universal Design for Learning takes these principles and applies them to all aspects of education. Eilís and her colleagues at the DCU Library implemented UDL principles in the design of their Live Wise Book Therapy libguide so that it now caters to the needs of a diverse group of learners; she shared insights into how they achieved that end. 

Diversifying Dewey

The case study presented by Dean Watters and Dr. Ruth O’Hara, members of the LAI Cataloguing and Metadata group, was an inspiring example of how the (voluntary) work of two dedicated people can make a real and lasting change to equity and access in libraries everywhere.  Irish Travellers face widespread discrimination and stereotyping and Dean and Ruth found that works relating to Irish Travellers were frequently misclassified. This group were not included in the DDC and existing OCLC Subject Headings were inaccurate and exclusionary. Dean and Ruth walked us through the steps they took, in consultation with Irish Traveller representative groups, to fix this situation. Now you can log on to web dewy and find ‘Irish Travellers (Mincéari)’ under: T5-91623. “Dewy is in need of decolonisation,” said Dean. “Marginalised groups deserve better.”

Why do we need ‘Open’ anyway?

When keynote speaker David Hughes took to the stage warned the audience that he was not passionate about his subject – the need for Open Access. He claimed to be merely enthusiastic. The presentation that followed was very convincing in every aspect except this – David’s enthusiasm would easily pass most people’s bar for passion, so perhaps, for the purposes of a professional conference, it was just as well that his passion was unprovoked. 

David is the Digital Systems Librarian for Education and Training Boards Ireland. He regaled the audience with the sordid history of academic journals (Robert Maxwell came in for criticism). Academic publishing, said David, is astonishingly lucrative, and he said, “we provide free labour.” In response to this, the idea of Open Access was born from a vision to make access to knowledge fair, equitable, transparent, and collaborative. Open Access does not only apply to scholarly publishing, but also to research, data, and educational resources. Unfortunately, this ideal has been turned on its head by the invention of the Gold Open Access model, which demands that authors pay Article Publishing Charges (APCs) in order to keep their article from getting put behind a paywall. David warned: “APCs are a licence to print money and we’re the fools being taken advantage of.” In this reality, transformative agreements are not actually transformative – they are a means to maintaining the status quo. 

Meanwhile, Gold OA creates an ecosystem where predatory journals can thrive, a situation that has encouraged the growth of a new practice of companies publishing white- and blacklists of journals in a purported attempt to protect academics from the predatory ones. But, said David, some of these list makers are themselves predatory, blacklisting perfectly good journals unless they agree to pay a fee. 

Additionally, the advent of APCs has inevitably led to the market being flooded with low quality eBooks and journals, and, said David, ‘good’ journals are not immune to this pressure and in many cases have joined right in with what has become acceptable exploitative behaviour. In a system where journal impact factor is the holy grail, self-citation has become a problem too. “The whole thing is rotten, I think,” said David, quoting Goodhart’s law that when a measure becomes a target is ceases to be a good measure. 

As an aside, David drew attention to our use of language: whitelist meaning good, blacklist meaning bad. He acknowledged how deeply embedded our inherit biases can be. These biases bleed into every aspect of work, including the world of publishing. 

So, David enthusiastically got the audience’s blood boiling, setting the stage perfectly for some inspirational women who have dedicated enormous time, energy and, I suspect, passion, to realising a solution. The solution seems to be Diamond Open Access. 

David Hughes, image courtesy of A&SL Committee

Diamond Open Access, two case studies

Jane Buggle and Marie O’Neill, Institute and Deputy librarians at IADT, have been working for years to establish and promote a culture and practice of Diamond Open Access publishing in service of open access as a global public good. The Diamond Open Access model requires institutional funding, but all content is fully open and there are no APCs. 

It was a relief, after David Hugh’s exposition on the “enshittification” of everything, to find that Jane and Marie’s case study presentation pointed to the transformative impact that Diamond OA library publishing can have. In her talk, Marie O’Neill quoted from a paper that she, Jane Buggle and Lai Ma wrote, that found library publishers are “more likely to take on controversial topics and perspectives, as well as emerging scholars who may be sidelined due to unconscious biases based on their affiliations and personal characteristics such as, for example, ethnicity, race, gender identity, sex and country of origin” (Read the full article here). Canada was highlighted as a particularly heartening example; institutional publishing in Canada is thriving to the extent that traditional heavy hitters like Elsevier (the cartoon villains of scholarly communication) hold a very small market share compared to their standing elsewhere. 

During their time working Dublin Business School , Jane and Marie established two Diamond OA journals - Studies in Arts and Humanities, and the DBS Business Review. They are currently in the process of starting one in IADT. If you are interested in their tireless and inspiring work, you should check out the LAI Library Publishing Group, the Irish Open Access Publishers (IOAP), the Library Publishing Coalition, and the IFLA Library Publishing Special Interest Group. 

In the same vein, Laura Rooney Ferris is doing amazing work for the HSE where she is the Library Resource Manager. While a lot of good research is apparently being done by HSE employees, the majority of them are not affiliated with an academic institution and therefore can’t benefit from transformative agreements. Most of this research is therefore going unpublished or isn’t shared beyond the immediate professional community of the researcher. To remedy this situation, Laura is working to establish a Diamond OA journal for Irish Health and Social Care researchers. She shared some of the significant roadblocks she has faced in this endeavour (HSE hiring freeze, among others) but her diligence and commitment to outside-the-box thinking bodes well for this project. HSE researchers are very lucky to have Laura Rooney Ferris as a champion.

Open Education, two case studies 

Paola Corti presented a case study for open education resources on a European level. Paula is the Open Education Community Manager for SPARC Europe. SPARC works to promote, advocate, and practically facilitate open education and open research across Europe. Paula told us about the good work that SPARC is doing in conjunction with The European Network of Open Education Librarians (ENOEL). ENOEL have a series of very insightful, practical workshops available on YouTube, focusing on various aspects of using and creating Open Educational Resources, all well worth a watch if you want to know more (here is a link to the latest workshop).

More locally, Ann Byrne and Emberly Davey have made an open educational resource for Hibernia College where they are Digital Librarian and Digital Library Assistant, respectively. Seeing a need for digital literacy skills in the student community, they worked together to develop an open course in digital literacy, with an aim to nurture digital citizenship. They talked us through the piloting, review and launch of the course and the tools they used to build it. Their course is available to anyone on the Hibernia Library website. 


The speakers at the LAI Academic and Special Libraries annual conference 2024 each brought and shared an integral piece to the puzzle of how to make libraries fair for all and create equitable and universal access to information. In her case study, Eilís O’Neill advised attendees to identify and tackle small, achievable tasks towards positive change. Seeing the good that all these speakers are quietly achieving certainly gives truth to Eilís’s advice. If everyone takes one distinct challenge and focuses on that, there will be a bright and equitable future for libraries. 

One aspect of access to Information that was not addressed in the conference was the very practical problem of making libraries accessible to people with physical disabilities. I worked in a library that has a ramp to a beautifully wide front door, but the door itself is not power assisted and is heavy to push open. Having eyes in my head is enough for me to know that there are members of the university community, both students and staff, who would experience the actual front door of this library as a barrier to equal access to information. I understand why this aspect of access was maybe not addressed – one, it is not possible to fix everything in one conference, and two, the conference had a wonderful focus on immediate, tangible actions that all library workers could take to improve access. And library workers are not engineers, they are not builders. I don’t know what the answer is, but if Marilyn Clarke can agitate for an entire restructuring of collections so that scholars interested in Africa are no longer sent to the dark, low ceilinged basement of her library, then I think we can start to insist that as well as the collections, the physical infrastructure of libraries be functional and accessible for all. 

This is the one  of two posts written by the winners of the A&SL Bursary 2024. The other post can be read here.


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