Content Filtering in Libraries

Happy New Year! Just a quick post on this poor neglected blog to signpost to some research done by some people involved in the Radical Librarians Collective on content filtering in public libraries.

The study sought to find out what filtering is in place within public libraries, because there is the potential for excessive filtering to act as a barrier to freedom of access to information. The team felt that although filtering is a very tricky topic and there are often good reasons for libraries to want to filter content, that the methods used to do so may take a very broad brush approach with the potential to do more harm than good. This builds on the MAIPLE study conducted by Loughborough University.

The research team used Freedom of Information requests to ask every local authority in the UK the following questions:

1. Do you employ the use of content filtering software on the PCs
based in your libraries which are connected to the internet and
intended for use by the users of your library?

If answer to 1. is “yes”, please:

2. Provide the name and annual cost of the content filtering

3. Provide a full list of the categories of websites blocked (e.g.
“pornography, gambling, phishing etc.”). If these differ according
to the user profile accessing the PC (e.g. child, student, adult,
staff etc.) please provide a full list of categories of websites
blocked for each user profile.

4. Confirm whether you also block specific URLs in addition to
categories, and provide a complete list of these URLs.

5. Provide the relevant policy document or written documentation
which outlines the procedure a user must follow in instances where
they would like to gain access to a website that is blocked.

6. From January 2013 until the present day, please provide a list
of the URLs where users have requested access to despite them being
blocked by the content filtering software.

7. Of the list provided in 6., please detail which URLs access was
granted for and which were denied.

Most local authorities provided information (although some did refuse). The data was collated and has now been published on figshare.

The aim of the research team is to do some analysis of the key trends and write an article around it, as well as to present the work at the LILAC Conference in Dublin in March.

The data has been picked up by The Register and I was asked to talk to them about it for an article they published today.

Radical Research

This post is about a discussion that was had at the Radical Librarians Collective gathering 2015 in Huddersfield, on the potential for small-scale research into ‘radical’ issues in library and information work.

I suggested this session with the hope that people would have some ideas about what kinds of topics might be valuable to the ‘profession’ and society (and enjoyable personally) to explore and writing about, and to consider what practical and theoretical issues need to be considered when embarking on research without working under the banner of an academic organisation.

One of the (many!) reasons I suggested discussing this topic was that some people involved with RLC have been working on a Freedom of Information Request based study into filtering software on PCs in libraries. I won’t go into too much detail about why filtering is problematic, but people like Louise Cooke have written and researched around the issues and I’d recommend Filtering the Net as a good article that covers some of they key concerns:

“Filtering software in public libraries seems,” she wrote, “To have ‘crept in through the back door’ with little more than a murmur on the part of librarians.”

So, this project is starting with academic and public libraries and potentially expanding further into other sectors, including schools and FE colleges. The requests are being made through What Do They Know (which is an incredibly useful website through which you can make FoI requests really transparent), the data is being entered into a google spreadsheet, tidied up, and then will be made available on figshare (an online repository) in a format that will hopefully be useful for other people.

The aim is to identify trends across libraries in terms of what filtering software is used, how much is being spent on it, what categories of website are blocked, what policies are in place for when users want to access blocked sites, how often users make requests to have sites unblocked and what happens if and when they do. We’re planning to write up our findings for the RLC site as well as for potential publication in an academic journal, because this kind of data isn’t readily available and is potentially pretty useful. Personally, I’d like to see it be used to argue the case that filtering isn’t helpful but is costly, both financially and in terms of the relationship it builds (or destroys) with potential users.

This kind of work is something I think has the potential to raise awareness of what practices are actually taking place in library spaces, and connected to writing around the theoretical issues about why these practices can be harmful or regressive I think the empirical data may offer a compelling case for change at policy level. And if it doesn’t, at least the information is out there, and in the future hopefully it can be used to document what went wrong and why!

Although the topic of filtering is something that does get researched within LIS departments at academic institutions, there are lots of more ‘radical’ topics that are under-researched as well as more mainstream topics that don’t often get looked at from a ‘radical’ angle. One suggestion in the session was to make a list of possible topics for Masters students who might be looking for an interesting dissertation topic, which I think is a great idea – please do comment here or contact RLC if you’ve got any suggestions.

Other concerns raised included how to balance the issue that really ideally this kind of thing would be publicly funded and done by people for a living, against the issue that realistically this is unlikely to happen and seeking to influence policy (for example) in whatever way you can might be worth it. Another concern was the extent to which this is at all realistic and if the focus should be on exploring topics out of interest and enjoyment rather than the hope of (directly) changing anything at all. The Freedom of Information Act, although not the only method of gathering information, is also under threat. This poses challenges because it’s one of the most useful and least challenging methods of collecting data for use in work like this. It’s also already limited in scope in terms of what kinds of organisations are obliged to respond to FoI requests.

We talked about other methodological approaches too, and about how through even writing reports or case studies on radical libraries themselves might help share examples of ways to put ideas and goals into practice.

To my shame I’d completely forgotten that the #critlib research matchmaking form exists. This is a resource for people who are interested in doing LIS research from a critical perspective, and you can send information about what you’re interested in looking at with the hopes of being matched up with people to collaborate with.

As far as I remember it came out of similar discussions within a (predominantly) US context through the twitter #critlib community. When I was reminded of this I got a bit over-excited about the potential for inter-continental research collaboration, and now the more I think about it the more I think it might also have the potential to help with the barrier of lack of affiliation to an academic institution with robust research ethics requirements (and many other things), which was an issue discussed in the session at RLC.

Collaborative research also offers the opportunity for people affiliated with LIS departments and academic institutions to work with people in other sectors to explore issues in those sectors that otherwise might be more difficult to research and write about, or work out how to approach on your own.

This is the kind of thing I love the most about RLC events and discussions – actual things to have a go at to make things better. So yeah! If you’ve got any suggestions about topics of interest then we’d love to hear them. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed to the discussion on the day and I’m looking forward to whatever might come out of it.


Edited to add:

The notes from the session are available here and the flip charts that were used to make suggestions about research areas are here. The ideas for possible research and methods mentioned in the session and afterwards were:

  • Conceptions around what is taught at library school – what isn’t on the syllabus and why, what alternative practices exist that could be studied, how courses could be adapted, and what kinds fof things students want to learn about;
  • Radical libraries as a phenomenon – what they are, how they can be studied (ethnographically etc.), who might be interested in radical practices, opportunities for small grant funding for research projects (such as EFF), getting in touch with non-library people doing research in radical groups to help flesh out ideas and collaborate on work;
  • Policies of exclusion:
    – what groups are being excluded from library spaces (offline and online) e.g. non-digital citizens, homeless people in Manchester.
    – Are there bylaws and policies which exclude people and are these readily available to use as a source of research data?
    – How do we provide evidence of exclusion? Gather policy documents that explicitly or implicitly exclude. Quantify services that aren’t available offline and find out who that effects.
  • What kind of impact would be sought from research and what audiences would be interested:
    – policy changes e.g. membership requirements
    – ways of communicating with communities
library wifi

Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England

Libraryland and the media are abuzz with the newly (finally) released Independent Library Report for England. The recommendations from the report can be broadly summed up as:

  • build a ‘national digital resource’
  • write a strategic framework for libraries in England (Wales have already done this and Scotland are working on one right now)
  • have national strategic leadership (led by councils)
  • appeal to everyone
  • get wifi in all libraries
  • improve library spaces so they’re up to “retail standard”
  • share best practice through guidelines for volunteers and community-led libraries
  • remember libraries are about learning and literacy
  • support digital literacy
  • use central government funding allocations for related services
  • (perhaps) national library cards
  • get copyright law changed so that public libraries can lend ebooks better than they can now (remote loans)
  • strengthen the workforce especially through new recruits and graduates

Unsurprisingly I’ve got some thoughts about this, some of which I’ll be talking about in various radio interviews in the coming days, but a quick and dirty summary:

The talk about a digital network for libraries is grand, and I’m pleased there’s also an emphasis that this should not be to the detriment of physical stock.

None of this is new. Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do. How will it be different now, with the next round of cuts coming up? I don’t see a big pot of money emerging from anywhere for doing things that don’t obviously contribute to the current administration’s neolibprivatisationcitizenconsumerbigsociety agenda, so I expect the majority of libraries – that will probably have to compete with each other to get the necessarily limited funding, which somewhat contradicts the ‘we’re all in this together let’s have a standard level of service nationally’ – will only be able to get wifi, redecorate, put a coffee bar in and get self service machines if they don’t already have them. Money won’t as easily be made available to invest in the qualified staff trained in supporting information and digital literacy, digital fluency, whatever different stakeholders are calling essentially the same thing. As a result, emphasis is going to be made on the how libraries contribute to employability agenda rather than the concept of libraries as an intrinsic public good. And that’ll be disappointing, and probably not help with the goal of articulating the value of public libraries that Sieghart talks about. Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.

WiFi. Yes, god, yes. It blows my mind that all public libraries don’t already have WiFi, but it’s for two reasons: 1) there’s no money 2) local authorities make it an absolute nightmare for libraries to install it. I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. Similarly, elending as it stands is a complete shambles so I can only support efforts to make DRM less restricting and make ebooks through libraries fit for purpose, which they currently categorically are not.

The development of a library taskforce will in many ways be duplicating various other fragmented groups and communities of practice that already exist, but fine, whatever. My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang. The representatives from councils usually haven’t set foot in a library in the last 30 years, if ever, know little about the ethos of public services let alone the specifics of public library ethics, and aren’t motivated to connect the strategic aims of the council’s wider services and duties to public libraries. When you have to spend half your time explaining to the council members that public libraries are a statutory duty, how they’re about more than just books and how they contribute to literacy, community, and the general public good, you’re on to a loser. If the council members involved in the taskforce are the ones who’ve already been converted or have always been on ‘our team’, then fine, but I’m not sure how the message is going to be communicated to the council members who’ve never given a hoot. If the DCMS doesn’t mandate a national set of standards and actually hold councils to those standards, nothing’s going to change in those authorities that are running poor services. (I get the impression from the report that trying to compel the DCMS to do its job was decided to be a bad move politically – Vaizey’s thrown his toys out of the pram before and libraries are a sore spot.)

I’m also concerned about the idea that working “in partnership with others interested in the sector” – if these interested parties have the same amount of power and influence as those in the taskforce who actually spent time learning about libraries, and use experience, research and evidence to inform their opinions and approaches, rather than principles from retail or some kind of profit motivation – then that’s going to be a problem. Support from other areas will be of benefit, no doubt, but it’s the voice of the profession that needs to have the ultimate say, not individuals and groups with ulterior motives and less knowledge. I don’t have (much of) an issue with the organisations listed (apart from the LGA who still don’t acknowledge that libraries are a statutory service and don’t understand the first thing about libraries), it’s the “amongst others” that concerns me.

If you want greater cross government recognition you need to fund research to produce evidence about the educational role of libraries, for example. You also need researchers who can do this. We’re losing our library schools in universities, and the researchers who work in them. The two aren’t especially compatible.

If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them. You also, by the way, need to teach them about how commercial principles can only be applied so far in public services where there isn’t a profit motive, and that kind of critical engagement isn’t done enough on librarianship courses (although some places do and that’s great)*. If you want these wonderful impresarios to work for a service, you need to pay them properly. Public librarians get paid very low wages. You need to pay them for their expertise.

What exactly is it that makes people in positions of power think communities could or should be responsible for the management of public services? Fine, get opinions and make sure consultations are actually meaningful, don’t ask for opinions if you’re not prepared to actually act on the feedback if it’s strongly for or against something. Fine, get communities involved in making decisions about colour schemes for decorating or new book stock, but the ultimate decisions need to be made by people who’ve actually learnt about what colour schemes aren’t going to work with the principles of universal design, and what book stock should or shouldn’t be included in a collection because not stocking it for political or religious reasons would be censorship, or stocking it would be harmful to individuals and groups within a community. This is stuff communities mostly won’t know or think about, and do you know, I don’t necessarily think they should have to. I think that’s what taxes are for – paying for public services that are run by people who know stuff about how to do it properly, in the public interest.

Encouraging community involvement in library management “through a variety of models” surely just adds to the inconsistencies across England (and the UK more widely) in terms of library management. They already sit in several different directorates across different local authorities, there’s already a mishmash of different service structures that are the result of differing approaches to salami-slicing cuts for the last twenty-odd years. Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.

There is hardly any attention given to the role of libraries in supporting literacy and learning, be that for school-aged children or older learners. Schools are mentioned three times – once to do with how TeachFirst has been good, once to mention that school libraries exist, and once to mention in passing that partnerships with schools and public libraries would be good. The fact that there’s so weak a relationship between the education system and libraries is something that continues to baffle me, but I think it’s probably linked to the lack of research and evidence for something that ought to be a given.

So yes, that’s my initial take on it, but I may well change my mind on things the more it’s discussed!

* Pedronicus has written a post on the precarious position of librarianship education in the UK which is well worth a read.

Featured image CC by interactivesomerville

Library A to Z

Just a quick plug for the advocacy toolkit Library A to Z, created by librarians Andrew Walsh, Gary Green and illustrator Josh Filhol, which was launched yesterday.

The Library A to Z is a campaign that highlights the breadth of services, resources and facilities available from libraries, and celebrates their continued importance, value and relevance.

This summer a crowd-funding project was set up to help produce a range of promotional and advocacy materials, centred around a visual alphabet of 27 full colour illustrations. These materials include editable posters, greetings cards and a fully illustrated book. There’s a chapter in the book which I helped to write, about the importance of libraries, and you can read it here.

All of the materials including the original illustrations, are available for free download from the Library A to Z site, and most can be reproduced and re-used by anyone within the terms of the creative commons license shown on the site.

Andy even kindly made me my own P is for Political Literacy badge😀

Screenshot 2014-11-18 11.45.29

I’m going to pop down to my local library to show it to them and see if we can make a display of some kind. If you’ve got any imaginative ideas about how to make use of the resources, leave me a comment!:)


Tips for PhD New Starters

I don’t even want to think about how it became mid-October. The last time I looked up it was the beginning of July. But, it’s just been the beginning of a new academic year and there are lots of new PhD students popping up around the place. I’ve been working from home near Leeds over the summer and I’ve not seen the inside of my department for a while, so I’ve mostly been hearing about the trials and tribulations of the new starters on social media. I’m part of a network (which I’ve mentioned before) on Facebook, the PostgRAD Study Gang, which I have to say has been incredibly helpful in terms of support and gee-ing for me as a student working remotely, and also in terms of being a way to organise meetups and shut up and write sessions in the physical world!

I wanted to offer some suggestions for new students, based on what I’ve found helpful. I’m six and a half months (the half matters) away from scheduled submission on a thesis based in Library and Information Science with a hint of pedagogy, youth studies, politics, personal construct psychology, phenomenography and critical theory, so I hope my experiences so far can be helpful to those at the beginning of their studies in and around the field (and maybe further through and in other areas, who knows).

1) Decide on what software you’re going to use for writing your thesis in now. I’ve used Microsoft Word throughout and it gets to a point, even on a laptop that was new at the start of your studies, where somehow, Word gets creaky and it can’t handle the amount of text and formatting you’re using. You will be told by the more technologically advanced that LaTeX is the way to go and these people will scoff at you and say they told you so when Word stops responding, hangs in mid-air, or even, as mine started doing, starts deleting lines and lines and lines of your work infront of your very eyes when your hands are nowhere near the keyboard and will.not.stop. I decided to divide my thesis into separate chunks in different documents (which I’m sure will be a whole new nightmare when I need to merge it) and keep my cursor as far away from the heading toolbar as possible (which evidently seems to be the root of the problem) rather than changing over to using a whole new piece of software. I weighed up the pros and cons of sticking with Word or changing to LaTeX and I decided that at the point I was at, I’d find it more stressful and upsetting to change over than to handle Word when it played up. You might want to make a decision now to save yourself some strife.

2) As I just mentioned, my copy of Word doesn’t like my use of headings, but I do. If you don’t already have experience of using them, I really recommend you start. It means that if your department requires you to use a numbering system for your thesis sections they (theoretically) update automatically, it makes the layout of your document clearer, and helps you to visualise the structure of your writing both figuratively and literally through the navigation pane. You can jump around your document with ease, and if you use the subheadings you can drag and drop, or delete, entire chunks of writing. Start using this tool straight away and it’ll save you from having to implement it on an existing large document later. I also use it as a way of working out structure when I get to the stage where what I have and what I want to have are very different things.

3) Use your library. I can’t recommend it highly enough, of course, as a librarian…but some features will be a godsend. Different universities use different systems, but if you can’t get hold of a journal article, the library will probably be able to get it for you. Likewise with books, but I also recommend finding out if your department has a budget for staff- and student-driven stock requests. If there’s something they don’t have that they really should, because it’s useful to you (and other students), then ask for it! If the library doesn’t (or no longer) subscribes to a journal that’s core to your field, try finding out why. Which leads me to…

4) Find out what journals are core to your field, and which journals in fields related to your topic are key for you to be aware of. This is useful not just for getting hold of stuff to read (though I do recommend searching through different databases rather than individual journals) but also for planning what journals you’d like to try to publish through. Have a look through the Directory of Open Access Journals as well as subject databases on the library website to find out what’s out there relevant to you.

5) Start thinking about getting published early. The process often takes a long time, so it’s good to think ahead, but it also helps to have in the back of your mind an idea about how your thesis could be turned into publications. So far I’ve had publications from my literature review, methodology and initial findings, and I’ve had a book chapter about how my methods and findings can be used in practice accepted. Not all of these are peer reviewed, and not all of them need to be, but it helps. There’s value in finding out about the different kinds of publication that there are, working out how you feel about open access, how you want to communicate your work to other students, academics, people working in whatever field you’re in, the wider world etc.

6) Get to know people, particularly other students (in your department, online, elsewhere) because they have a kind of empathy you won’t find elsewhere. Also the people working in the office in your department, they will save your life one day sooner than you expect.

7) Get to know your supervisor. Don’t be afraid of them, they are human too. Probably a very stressed human, but one with responsibilities for you nonetheless. Find out what they expect of you and have a chat about what you can expect from them. This will change throughout the process – in my first year I had a weekly meeting with my supervisor, then it became less when I needed less guidance about the direction of my reading and instead had my head down analysing data. Books like this can be really useful – this one in particular has a section on supervision.

8) Don’t worry about your topic changing, either immediately or a few months in. At some point it’s inappropriate to change your topic wildly of course, but there are lots of good practical and theoretical reasons for it being necessary in the early days. Mine was going to be about how public libraries support democracy, but it became apparent early on that public libraries in the UK are bad places to do fieldwork in right now, democracy is a complex concept, the methodology I was going to use wasn’t informed by enough theory, the theories that had been used in related work were too flawed for me to accept, and that the topic was too broad to handle. It’s now using a different research site, a specific notion of democracy, looking at a specific area of LIS (information literacy) and using (too many) strong theories. Talk all this through with your supervisor and always make sure they know what direction you’re heading in.

9) Don’t worry about wasting time reading things that later become irrelevant. Also don’t read too much. This sounds like an awful truism and is an abstract thing to think about balancing before you’ve really started, but keep it in mind. It’s one of the most valuable things my supervisor told me.

10) Keep an up to date document of things you’ve done, like training, publications, presentations, conferences attended etc., including dates and brief details. This will be invaluable for putting together upgrade or progress reports and your CV.

Image: CC by Joachim Schlosser


IFLA Limerick

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the IFLA Information Literacy Satellite in Limerick. As well as presenting, I had the opportunity to attend some really informative and useful sessions, some of which touched on critical pedagogy, critical theory, and citizenship.

Bill Johnston, Sheila Webber and Shahd Salha’s round table session in which Professor Johnston drew on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed to discuss the possibility of a community of practice amongst librarians, educators and activists to support the development of citizens aware of the relationships between information and power.

Dr. Webber discussed the ways in which being considered an ‘active citizen’ in relation to health care necessitates a certain level of information literacy in order to make informed choices, but also how the notion of an ‘active citizen’ can be problematic when it comes to making informed choices which make the lives of healthcare providers more complicated (for example, questioning their recommendations) or which challenge the government’s decisions relating to collecting, storing and sharing data relating to you. Dr. Webber also drew upon Freire’s theories, noting that “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building”, stressing the importance of involving people in the development of information systems and provision in order to best meet the needs and interests of those being served.

Dr. Salha gave a very interesting account of her doctoral research and ongoing work supporting Syrian activists. The works she does includes helping activists to develop information literacy skills such as learning how to use google maps and other tools to find safe routes across borders, helping people find the resources and information they need to work out what vegetables they can grow in contaminated soil in order to grow food to feed their families, and providing psychological support for activists affected by their experiences. This presentation really put information literacy work into context and provided a valuable example of how in this case it really is a matter of life or death.

The slides used in the presentations are below:

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the papers in the track my paper was presented in (Track 4: Information literacy models and theoretical approaches), but particularly relevant to my interests were ‘Crossing the Threshold: The Information Cycle as a Metacognitive Cultural Tool’ by Amanda Clossen, a librarian at Pennsylvania State University, and ‘Information Literacy in Early Childhood’ by Maria Henkel, a researcher at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. Sheila Webber blogged about both Amanda and Maria’s presentations, so I shan’t duplicate efforts!

You can read my paper about critical information literacy and the role libraries can play in helping young people to develop a sense of political agency (developing the identity of people with a right to have rights and the capacity to make decisions and to govern, not just to be governed) here for now, and hopefully it will be published in the conference proceedings. And here are the slides:

Another excellent session was the workshop ‘Transformational Information Literacy Instruction: Using Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Universal Design to Build an Inclusive Classroom Community’ run by Dave Ellenwood (University of Washington Bothell, USA), Althea Lazzaro (University of Washington Bothell, USA) and Rebecca Bliquez (Seattle University, USA). The session introduced us to the concepts of transformational instruction, culturally responsive pedagogy and universal design, and the organisers gave really informative and helpful examples of how they’ve used the ideas successfully (and more importantly, unsuccessfully). I took the handouts we used during group discussions home with me with the intention of reading up on them and using the templates to develop my own hypothetical information literacy instruction sessions! The resources are here on Althea’s website.


What I Do When I Do Conferences

I started off writing about the latest couple of conferences I’ve been to and then realised what I could really do with writing about is why I do what I do when it comes to conferences. They’re the thing I think I write about the most on here, and although I try to write about not just what I saw but what I took from the overall experience, I don’t think I’ve written about why I go to them, which might be useful to people who are starting out or thinking about things they can do for professional development. (I’m now experiencing déjà vu so maybe I have written something similar before…consider this a refresher.) This post is also a contribution to a Blog Challenge I’m taking part in as part of a facebook study group I’m in, I’m writing with not just libraryandinformationscience-folk in mind.

What conferences?

Library-land is not short of conferences, and there’s a lot of variety in terms of content and topic. Over the last six years (since starting a graduate traineeship) I’ve been to quite a few local and national ones, and handful of international ones, with focuses on different things, but mostly librarianship, public libraries, academic libraries and information literacy. I’m now in the third and final year (argh) of my doctorate, and at the moment am analysing my data and writing research findings. My choice of conferences has been dictated by their relevance to my research and how useful I think I can be by presenting at them.

I’m presenting at quite a few conferences this season. I’ve already done iFutures 2014 in Sheffield, then IFLA Limerick, then next week I’ve got ISIC: The Information Behaviour Conference in Leeds where I’m taking part in a doctoral workshop, and then in October I’m presenting at the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL) 2014 in Dubrovnik. For each of these I’m presenting something slightly different for different audiences and focuses, which necessitates reworking and sometimes starting from scratch with what I’m doing. So…the amount of analysis I hoped I’d get done this summer isn’t really happening, but I’m hoping that by ‘promoting’ my work and getting to know people I’m contributing to my development in other (equally?) valuable ways. Although I make the most of online networks (okay, twitter), there’s a lot to be said for meeting people in person. And I think maybe even some people aren’t on twitter?!

Whyfor all the conferences?

Kind of by accident. I probably wouldn’t recommend this many events in short succession to someone in my position! Over the spring, I thought it would be a good idea to send out some conference paper proposals so that I could present my initial findings and discuss how I think the methodology and various methods I’ve used could be really useful in my field and beyond. It turns out my topic is more relevant and interesting to conferences than I was expecting (this year’s sexy words in LIS are social justice, citizenship and democracy – jackpot), so I’ve been accepted for more than I anticipated. The calls for papers all went out at a similar time and had similar turnover times so I found out about them all at once (otherwise I’d not have put myself forward for so many!) I also didn’t realise how much time each of the events, even local ones, would eat my writing and analysis time. I’m considering this a learning curve, and I hope others may benefit too! Pick a couple you really want and go for them, maybe. Or pick a couple more and then say no to the ones you think are the least valuable to you?

All the money

I’m very fortunate that my ESRC funding also provides me with an amount of money per year that allows me to attend conferences and receive training of relevance to my PhD, which is what I draw on for a lot of the events I attend. However, before I started the doctorate, I used to get into conferences through:

  • Offering my services (administrative stuff, mic-running, helping on the registration desk, publicity, live-tweeting, writing a conference report) in exchange for a free place. Nobody has ever been rude to me for asking, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually been turned down.
  • Applying for bursaries and other funding. I still do apply for funding, because my ESRC money doesn’t stretch that far. This year I won a grant from cilip to attend the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Lyon. There are grants out there for LIS conferences, and where it isn’t immediately obvious it’s also worth contacting the organisers to ask if there is anywhere to apply for funding or a free place, and where there isn’t, to ask them if they’d set something up.
  • I’ve also got into conferences by asking sponsors if they have a place going spare, because sometimes only one of their representatives can go but they might have two places as part of their sponsorship arrangements.

Some conferences (few and far between mind) are free. The Library CampRadical Librarians Collective and Mashlib events, for example, run on the principle of free attendance, and the ‘unconference’ format of them is a breath of fresh air. The format exists beyond LIS, too – the Scottish Comics Unconference in Glasgow in February 2015, for example!

Organising conferences

It can be good for your CV to get involved in organising conferences and events, and the unconference is one way of doing that, either by getting some people together and setting it up yourself, or getting involved with an existing group or event. (I’d be happy to give pointers if anyone from any field is interested.)

It’s not just for your CV, obviously – one of the most valuable aspects is being able to bring together people who are interested in the same things, often across different areas. I heard about the Youth Activism and Resistance Conference in Leicester through a friend on facebook who was looking for people to present and take part in a panel discussion. Meeting people from areas like political science and gender studies was really valuable and it meant as well as getting loads of ideas I might not otherwise have come across, I could share my perspectives and research with people who wouldn’t have imagined librarians are relevant to their kind of work. That conference is also a good example of organising conferences – the organisers (who are PhD students) were pleased and surprised that their funding body (the ESRC) was willing to give them money to cover costs for food and venue hire (out of term-time university lecture theatres are much cheaper) and offer travel bursaries to attendees. It’s always worth a punt! The ESRC are hot on making their researchers employable just now, and the skills you can develop and demonstrate through organising events are one of the areas they want to support.

How to do conferences

My top tips for how to do conferences when you get there:

1. If I learnt anything from being away at conferences for ten days straight it’s this: take time off. Don’t feel guilty, wherever or whoever has paid for you to go, to not be at the conference all the time. It’s better to duck out of a morning or afternoon to wind down a bit, than to go to a session you’re not interested in and can’t concentrate on anyway. I have a really hard time with being constantly ‘on’ when I’m away, even when I’m not in the conference venue itself. Removing myself from the outside world to slop around a hotel room in my PJs is pretty much the only way I can not feel like I’m at risk of doing or saying something awful or ridiculous, for at least a few hours.

2. Get chatting to people. Don’t be intimidated by who they potentially might be. Ignore the thing I just said about being worried about embarrassing myself – I also think it’s really valuable to just be yourself. I found myself chatting to someone super-duper important and hadn’t got a clue who they were until I googled them later. If I’d have known, I wouldn’t have had half as valuable a conversation with them. Also I figure if they’re offended by my lack of hero worship they’re probably not worth it (happily this person was utterly lovely).

3. Find a conference buddy (or two). Last year I went to CoLIS 8 and hit it off with a couple of PhD students. One (from North America) has since been to stay at my house in Glasgow when they came to the UK to teach in London and we’re co-writing a paper together, and I’m planning a possible conference with another one and our topics are sufficiently relevant to each other that he’s a very valuable sounding board for theoretical stuff. Last week at IFLA I met up with that conference buddy and another friend, and then met their friends, and my international conference buddy network is building! For me it makes finding places, eating out and complaining about awful sessions much more do-able when you’re not alone.

4. Tweet. I like to tweet from conferences as well as make paper notes because I know I have followers who do appreciate it (honest, they tell me so). I use the official conference hashtag where possible (unless it’s too long and therefore I object…) so that people who follow me who really don’t care and don’t want flooding, can mute it. I also let people know when normal service will resume so they can mute me in general and then unmute me when the torrent is over! Following the hashtag also means I can find people on twitter who are at the conference, or interested in things that I am (and, in some cases, have a bit of a vent with people through a back-channel). When I tweet, I try (but I’m sure I don’t always manage) to obviously adequately represent what’s being said to minimise misunderstandings for people who aren’t there so don’t have the context, and only tweet things that actually mean something. By that I don’t just mean make the sentence make sense, but also only tweet things that aren’t blindingly obvious, buzzwords or contentless truisms. I’ve started taking photos of slides to add interest for people following at home, and to minimise misunderstandings (although people still do willingly misinterpret visualisations of concepts even when the full paper is made available, so…)

5. Take notes and place bookmarks. I’ve only just got back from IFLA but things are already fading into the background. I made sure to write down key points that were being raised, favourite tweets with links to things I want to think about or read more about later, make nots about authors I need to read more of and so on. It’s probably a bit of a no-brainer last recommendation, but I think it’s worth saying: you might think you’ll remember that important thing but you probably won’t, if you’re anything like me.


What to pack?

International conference? Don’t forget your adapter! Oh and currency! Planning on reading a lot of books? Yeah not likely. Take your laptop or tablet and load it up with journal articles or ebooks. And even then you’ll not read them. Don’t take a notepad and pens unless you’re working your way through a series of notepads; there will always, always be free stationery. Take something to do in your hotel room (for me that’s a series of a popular medical drama and a pile of knitting). Always pack a spare pair of pants. Always. Beyond that? Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hairbrush, shampoo, conditioner (probably don’t bother with shower gel, there’ll be some in the hotel room), enough outfits to wear if it’s a dry and medium-warm day, then an extra outfit in case of spillage, and something to wear if it’s ridiculously hot, and something to wear ontop of your normal outfit if it’s chilly. PJs. Ear plugs and an eye-cover thing if you sleep lightly, something to keep you warm, something to keep you dry. Smart shoes and comfy more casual shoes. Don’t forget your phone charger.

What to wear?!

I pretty much always wear what could loosely be classed as ‘smart-casual’, that horribly vague of terms. For me that’s pretty much whatever I’d wear to the office, minus what I’d stick ontop of it to make it ‘smart’ (i.e. obvious makeup, fancy scarf/shawl, some semblance of an updo). I currently feel like I inhabit a liminal space between graduate and adult – at 27 I feel like I’m wearing my mum’s work clothes if I try to wear a shift dress and jacket, but I’m not petite or young enough to pull off what might look quite smart/’edgy’. on someone else. My current conference wardrobe includes a trio of Get Cutie dresses, which work well for post-conference dinners because I can put on a shinier pair of shoes and a belt and whatnot and that’s me away. I wore an elephant-print a-line dress to a conference dinner and ceilidh and felt The Bomb and people didn’t notice I was wearing elephants and tweetybirds until they’d spent long enough talking to me to work out I was Quite A Serious Person. I’ve never got changed inbetween conference and conference dinner apart from one time when I was staying in the hotel where the conference was and where the dinner was being held, because I don’t often factor in time for going back and getting changed. Some people do, for example if they’ve been wearing a smart suit-dress during the day and then wear a fancy evening dress at dinner time, but I’ve never noticed it as being the majority of people and it’s definitely not something PhD students tend to do. The extent of my dressing up for dinner is a change of shoes and an extra coat of eyeliner and eyeshadow. It’s about how you feel most comfortable.

I have this dress. What I said about not dressing like a child? Erm, yeah.

For the more mature and less overwhelmingly twee dress-wearer, I’d recommend something along the lines of a nice knee-length Boden number or a smartish pair of trousers and a nice top or sweater. I often try on things in the shops to see if they suit me and I feel comfortable in them and then go find it on ebay or in charity shops (recent finds include some very nice Hobbs, Saltwater and People Tree things for much-reduced prices). Even though IFLA actually had a dress-code that was casual, there was a wide variety of levels of smart from jeans and t-shirts through to suits. I guess it depends on what you’re doing. When I present I like to wear something I know isn’t going to cause me a wardrobe malfunction and makes me feel nice. (For those in my department, you know how we turn up to iLab? Like that.)

Oh and layers. Layers are crucial. When I’m a bit nervous I get rosy-cheeked and too warm, so long-sleeved dresses and tops are a no-go. Short sleeved with a cardi on top, and then a scarf to wrap around myself when I accidentally get sat under an air-conditioning vent, are key. And a hat, or an umbrella, for the inevitable downpour between the conference and the dinner.

The Conference Dinner

It will probably involve three courses and enough wine to make you possibly feel slightly silly the next day, but then you’ll meet or email someone who was there a few weeks later and they’ll probably not remember anything you thought might be devastatingly embarrassing (or, they’ll forever be too polite to say anything to mortify you). It turns out academics and library-folk are most often very nice, and conference dinners often involve sitting on a table of mixed backgrounds and levels of experience, some who you know and some who you don’t. People just kind of sit themselves down anywhere (although there may be an unofficial ‘most important and serious people’ table which is quite noticeable if it does exist). Although potentially quite formal in terms of cutlery (outside to inside, outside to inside), conversation is quite relaxed. It’s a good chance to find out what interests people share, who knows who and how they do x, y and z, but this just kind of happens, rather than being a formal and serious thing.