9 Jul 2024

CONUL Conference 2024: Libraries as Changemakers: Recent LIS Graduate Bursary Report

Guest post by Kath Stevenson from Queen's University Belfast Library. Kath was awarded the CONUL Conference bursary for a recent LIS Graduate.

Conceiving a world in which libraries are active changemakers, solving social problems through empathy, creativity, and collaborative leadership: Reflections on CONUL 2024.

ICC Belfast from the CONUL website

29-30 May 2024 saw over 200 delegates from academic libraries across the island of Ireland gather for this year’s CONUL conference, which had the pertinent theme of “Libraries as Changemakers”. This was the first time since its inauguration in 2015 that the CONUL Conference had been held in Belfast, and the ICC provided a fabulous venue for proceedings, which included a packed programme of fascinating speakers, talks and presentations, optional tours of both Ulster University Library and the McClay Library, QUB, and a well-attended drinks reception and conference dinner at the Hilton Hotel.

This was my first time attending a CONUL Conference and I was delighted to have been awarded one of the three bursaries sponsored by UCD ICS in order to attend the conference. As a glance at the programme illustrates, it would be impossible to do justice to all the events in a single blog post, so I simply hope to offer a few snapshots of the conference based on the talks and sessions I attended. 

Day One:

On Wednesday morning delegates were warmly welcomed to the conference by Fiona Morley (Maynooth University) and Ciara McCaffrey (University of Limerick) and then the business of the conference proper kicked off with an engaging and thought-provoking keynote talk by Tony Ageh, titled 'Do Librarians Dream of Digital Books?'

AI generated image. Dall.E3 prompt "Please create a sci-fi cover with the title 'Do Librarians Dream of Electric Books?' and the author name Tony Ageh."

A central passion of Tony’s spectacular career has been ensuring that information remains accessible to diverse audiences worldwide and this mission informed his keynote talk, which considered the profound impact that the Digital Revolution is having on the role of libraries and librarianship and the power of technology to transform not just our sector but our entire society. 

In Tony's contemplation of the transition from physical to electronic resources, several profound questions arose. The proliferation of an e-first approach in research libraries, accelerated notably by the Covid-19 pandemic, brings with it both opportunities and risks. Chief among the latter is the potential loss of knowledge, posing a fundamental challenge to librarians' primary mission of preserving and providing access to information.

While e-books promise enhanced accessibility and flexibility, digital formats present a standardized solution that may not cater adequately to varied scholarly needs. Moreover, the shift from purchasing to licensing published materials raises significant concerns that demand careful consideration. Rather than merely replicating print, e-publications should leverage digital capabilities to offer functionalities that physical books cannot, thereby complementing rather than replacing traditional formats.

Tony warned that this digital shift could exacerbate inequalities and erode the democratic principles central to library services. Unlike the longevity assured by printed books, the commercial viability of e-publications introduces uncertainties regarding perpetual access to knowledge. The urgency to address these issues is immediate; as Tony aptly illustrated with the analogy of the Thames Barrier, proactive measures taken now are essential to safeguarding our intellectual heritage for future generations.

Next up was the conference plenary, 'Creative and collaborative change-making at Trinity College Dublin' delivered by Helen Shenton. Two highlights of Helen’s talk were her discussion of the Virtual Trinity Library and of the redevelopment of Trinity East.

Screenshot from the Virtual Trinity Library webpage
The Virtual Trinity Library initiative is an ambitious, multi-year effort which aims to catalogue, conserve, digitise, and research the library's distinctive holdings, which hold national significance. By undertaking these efforts, the initiative seeks to ensure that these iconic treasures are safeguarded for future generations while also making them widely accessible to a global audience, ranging from schoolchildren to academic researchers. 

As Helen explained, through comprehensive cataloguing, the initiative will provide detailed documentation of each item, enhancing scholarly research opportunities and facilitating deeper exploration of cultural and historical artifacts. Whilst conservation efforts will ensure the physical longevity of these materials, digitization plays a pivotal role in the initiative, enabling remote access to the collections and democratizing knowledge dissemination. 

Running in parallel with this impressive digital initiative is the equally aspirational Trinity East project. This campus initiative brings together researchers from all disciplines of Trinity College Dublin alongside aligned entrepreneurs, industry partners, cultural practitioners, and the local community. Together, they collaborate on innovative projects and innovation activities, underpinned by a shared commitment to sustainability. 

Central to this ambitious vision for Trinity East, Helen stressed, is the concept of open access, both physically and intellectually. The campus aims to open up previously underutilized city spaces, creating dynamic hubs for collaboration and knowledge exchange.

Screenshot from TCD's Trinity East webpage
Next on my conference agenda was the first Lightning Talks session, themed Collaboration, Culture, and Digital Makers. Four engaging speakers showcased innovative projects and collaborations from their respective institutions, highlighting how these efforts are driving change and fostering creativity in the library sector.

Eileen Kennedy from the University of Galway explored the transformative impact of MakerSpaces driven by student-led 3D printing initiatives, sharing a heartwarming story of how a custom-made mobility aid was created for an academic’s dog, allowing it to run with its owner. Grace O’Connor from DCU discussed the collaborative efforts between DCU Library and the Cultural Arts Office, highlighting synergies that enrich both academic and cultural experiences.

Kathryn Briggs from ATU shared insights into merging disparate library teams, emphasizing strategies to foster collaboration and unity within Atlantic Technological University. Finally, Seán Harnett from ATU detailed the implementation of a design science research project within an Irish academic library, discussing the challenges, opportunities, and limitations encountered along the way.

After lunch and a perusal of the sponsor exhibitions (thanks to whom I am fully stocked with notebooks for the rest of the year), it was time for Breakout Session Two. Delegates had a choice of formats and topics, including lightning talks on the themes of Learning, Development and Culture, and Open Research and Community Transformation, and a workshop on 'Collaboration as a Strategy for Change: Participatory-led Research Informed by Intersectionality and Inclusion', led by Alessia Cargnelli from the National Irish Visual Arts Library. This was followed by the first of two poster exhibition slots, where, along with my co-authors Iain McCool and Laura Milliken, I had the chance to present our poster, 'Navigating Change: A Survey-Based Exploration of AI Transition and Training for Library Staff,' and to engage with other poster presenters.

Iain McCool, Kath Stevenson and Laura Milliken. Photo credit: Andrew Jones, TCD.
For the final breakout session of the day, I chose to attend the highly relevant session on AI, featuring insightful presentations from Johanna Archbold (Atlantic Technological University) and Helen Farrell (Maynooth University).

Johanna’s talk, 'Charting the AI Frontier in Academic Libraries: A Multiyear Vision,' emphasized the crucial role librarians play in AI literacy within educational institutions. She highlighted that librarians, accustomed as they are to interrogating and unpacking queries and assessing the validity of information, are among the professionals best suited for effective prompt engineering. Johanna challenged delegates to consider how AI developments should be incorporated into library strategies at all levels. She encouraged us to reflect on what aspects of AI we should own, what knowledge we need, what collaborations are essential, and what advocacy is required. Additionally, she underscored the importance of sectoral engagement in assessing AI tools to enhance service quality and innovation.

Helen Farrell’s presentation, 'Something Old, Something New: Mitigating Inappropriate Student AI-Use by Promoting Digital Primary Sources and Positive, Appropriate AI-Use in the Classroom,' began with a striking reference to Elon Musk’s prediction that AI might “surpass human intelligence by next year” and could potentially be “smarter than all humans combined” by 2029.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of Helen’s talk was her introduction of the newly developed Maynooth Libguide on Digital Primary Sources. This guide offers an overview of available digital primary sources and support for academic staff at Maynooth, including module alignment reports from database providers. These reports map MU's modules to relevant digital content, aiding academics in seamlessly integrating these resources into their courses.

In light of advancing AI, the guide also emphasizes designing assignments to prevent inappropriate AI use by students. Primary sources, both digital and physical, are invaluable in this context as they are typically not used as AI training data, are unique to students, and require thoughtful analysis. Furthermore, the guide provides advice on locating and interpreting primary sources and highlights thematic, multidisciplinary databases available at MU. As Helen explained, strategically using primary sources fosters critical thinking, an understanding of diverse perspectives, and enhanced student engagement.

The final event of the day at the ICC was a lively panel discussion featuring keynote speakers Tony Ageh and Dr Pauline McBride; Fiona Quigg (VP Education) Ulster University Student Union, and Stiofán Carson, Comhordaitheoir Forbartha Acmhainní / Capacity Building Co-ordinator, East Belfast Mission.

Afterwards, delegates enjoyed a drinks reception at the Hilton (where I overheard one aghast bartender whisper to another “who knew librarians could be this noisy?!”) followed by the conference dinner (in which the assembled attendees demonstrated the glamour of GLAM) and which included a very entertaining talk from speaker and personal brand consultant Billy Dixon.

Lesley Sands, Isobel O'Kelly and Maire Bradley (Queen's University Belfast) at the drinks reception. Photo credit: Kath Stevenson.

Day Two:

The closing day of the conference kicked off in style with Pauline McBride’s Keynote, ‘Change-making: Agency and Resilience in the Age of AI.’ A distinguished researcher and Scottish solicitor specializing in the ethical use of AI in policing and justice, Pauline is currently based at Northumbria University, where she collaborates with VUB on the COHUBICOL project, exploring AI's legal implications. Her research interests relate to the intersection of law and technology, theories of legal interpretation, and the impact of artificial intelligence on law and legal practice and this formed the context for another fascinating keynote in which she drew attention to the parallels between law and librarianship as professions with common concerns on the authenticity and the reliability of information.

In her erudite and wide-ranging talk, Pauline stressed the importance of pushing back on the techno-determinism which dominates so much of the discourse surrounding AI, reminding us that choices about whether, how, and why to deploy AI are in our hands. Underscoring the importance of professional and personal values in assessing recent technologies, her talk emphasized the need for collaboration between legal and library professionals and AI technologists. Her keynote highlighted the fact that digital tools used in data analysis are not neutral and that libraries will play a vital role in educating about the capabilities and limitations of AI, as well as stressing the need for critical voices from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to be involved in the conversations around AI, including philosophers and ethicists.

Breakout session four again offered delegates a choice of formats and topics, with a workshop 'Creating Our Future Together' allowing attendees to have their input into CONUL’s Future Direction and Strategic Plan 2025-2029; four lightning talks on Learning and Developmental Change, and parallel papers on Change, Collaboration and Organisational Culture. Another opportunity was offered for delegates to discuss the 15 poster presentations on display and to chat with the conference exhibitors.

A selection of the posters on display at the conference: Top l-r: Exploring the Intersection of Researcher Profiles, Metrics, and Responsible Practice (Mareike Wehner); Implementing Persistent Identifiers: Addressing Barriers to Enable Change (Christopher Loughnane); For Your Pages, For Our Practices: Crafting a For-You-Page for UP Diliman University Library Services (E. Cruz, E. Chua, C. Bonifacio, Y. Arce, & D. Viray)

Bottom l-r: Triaging E-resource Queries at RCSI Library (Anne Gregg); Navigating Change: A Survey-Based Exploration of AI Transition and Training for Library Staff (Laura Milliken, Iain McCool, Kath Stevenson); Libraries as Changemakers: Fostering Value in Learning Space (Ajeni Ari, Siobhan Dennehy)

During the fifth and final breakout session, I had the pleasure of chairing the Collaboration, Collections, and Culture session. The first presentation was by Della Keating (National Library of Ireland) and Maria Butler (IRC-funded PhD student, University College Cork), titled 'Keyes for Change: Collaboration between Libraries and Academics to Promote Intersectional Research in the Digital Age.' They discussed the processes and challenges of researching the National Library of Ireland’s first born-digital pilot project, following the donation of Marian Keyes’ Mystery of Mercy Close collection in October 2019. Their account of this innovative collaboration provided valuable insights into digital humanities research and processing workflows.

Collaboration, Collections and Culture session. Speakers (seated l-r): Della Keating, Maria Butler, Katherine McSharry, Evelyn Flanagan Photo Credit: Rebecca McCoy 

Next, Katherine McSharry and Evelyn Flanagan (both from UCD) presented 'Ink, Imagination, and Inclusion: An Exhibition Partnership between UCD Library and the Museum of Literature Ireland.' They explored the background and aims of the exhibition ‘Ink and Imagination: Treasures from UCD Library’s Special Collections,’ which opened at the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) in October 2023 and runs through 2024. This partnership showcases UCD's heritage collections to new audiences, demonstrating how sharing expertise and exploring new venues can change the perception and reach of library collections.

Both presentations emphasized the benefits of cross-organizational collaboration in enhancing library collections' reach and perception. They highlighted how these partnerships support EDI commitments and democratize access to cultural heritage, enhancing community and public engagement.

The conference was formally closed by Fiona Morley, Maynooth University, Chair of the CONUL Conference Committee, and John McDonough, Dublin City University, Secretary of the CONUL Board, before delegates enjoyed lunch and, for those not at the mercy of train timetables, an optional tour of the McClay Library at QUB.


The 2024 CONUL conference offered a packed programme of thought-provoking speakers and discussions that this blog can hardly capture. I left the conference feeling challenged, inspired, and with a renewed appreciation for the vital role of librarianship in the Digital Revolution.

Attending the conference allowed me to meet a diverse array of librarians at different career stages and with various specialist interests from all over Ireland. I found my first CONUL conference to be a very friendly and welcoming experience and would thoroughly encourage anyone thinking about attending next year’s conference to do so.

As part of the bursary that enabled my attendance, I was paired with a conference mentor, the wonderful Michelle Breen from the University of Limerick. Participating in this mentorship programme significantly enhanced my experience at CONUL. After a brief introduction over email, I met Michelle at the start of the conference, where she immediately put me at ease. We discussed my role and identified who at the conference might be working in similar areas. Michelle encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and chat with delegates I hadn’t previously met. One tangible outcome of the networking facilitated through this mentorship was being encouraged to attend the upcoming DPASSH conference, where I look forward to reconnecting with some of the delegates I met at CONUL and exploring potential collaborations in digital scholarship.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Michelle for volunteering as a mentor and for her invaluable support: the experience was incredibly useful for a me as a recent library studies graduate. My thanks also go to everyone involved in the meticulous planning and smooth running of the conference, as well as to the speakers and delegates.

I look forward to next year’s CONUL conference!

Kath Stevenson, Digital Scholarship Librarian, QUB


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