On Saturday 8th October the first ever UK Library Camp ‘unconference’ was held in Birmingham, attended by 175 librarians. The idea behind an unconference is that there is no formal, pre-determined programme of events, and instead the attendees pitch ideas for sessions at the start of the day.
I was lucky to get a ticket to Library Camp because the tickets were gone within 24 hours of the event being announced on Twitter! It seemed like every single librarian in my Twitter feed was going to the event, so I knew that this would be a really good opportunity to meet up with all the people that I’ve been following online.
On the train to Birmingham I met up with a group of my former library colleagues from Cambridge and upon arrival we trekked across the city centre to Maple House where the event was being held. After making ourselves up some badges with our names and Twitter IDs on them, our first priority was to investigate the huge amount of cake that was on offer!
As well as the 200 or so cupcakes provided by Swets, one of the event sponsors, lots and lots of librarians had pledged homemade cakes for the event, which was really lovely – though I think that most of us were suffering from a sugar crash by the end of the day!
In our Library Camp welcome packs we were all given paper feet, on which we had to write our reasons for coming to Library Camp. All the feet were then stuck up on the walls, which I thought was a cute idea.
I spent most of the first part of the morning chatting to anybody whom I recognised from Twitter (lots of people!) and then we all gathered in the largest room to decide on the day’s programme. Before this, though, the Library Camp resident poet Mark Niel performed a poem that he had written for us, inspired by words about libraries that Library Camp attendees had given to him before the event.
After this performance, each of us had to do our own little performance by taking turns to introduce ourselves into a roving microphone. I’m sure I’m not the only one who found this to be a rather nerve-wracking experience – I became convinced at one point that I was going to forget my own name as soon as it was my turn to speak into the mic! Thankfully this was soon over and then lots of people began pitching for sessions and all the interesting suggestions were put on post-it notes and stuck to a board at the front of the room.
There was so many interesting sessions that it was hard to choose between them, but here’s a quick(ish!) summary of the ones that I attended:
Session 1: School libraries and the transition between school and University
I found this session really interesting. We talked about the fact that many pupils do not arrive at University with adequate information literacy skills and that we should not assume a certain level of competency just because these young people are part of the so-called Google Generation. One person mentioned that she had observed school children typing their assignment questions into Google in order to find the answer, which suggests that they need to be taught more effective search strategies. Another person drew attention to the fact that some children would not have computer access at home and so would be at an automatic disadvantage.
We discussed the need to embed information literacy training into the curriculum from the earliest stage possible and to ensure that teachers recognised librarians as a resource not only for the pupils but for themselves also. It was generally agreed that such training was paramount to pupils’ success at school and that it would greatly improve their ability to develop the more complex information literacy skills required later at University.
Session 2: Librarians as agents for social change
This session was presented by Maria Cotera, who discussed her experience of working in a prison in Uganda. It had been part of her role to help the prisoners there to improve their literacy, and she had worked particularly hard to empower the women by helping them to gain access to education. She argued that access to information helps people to transform their lives, and she felt that librarians in the UK should be doing much more to market themselves as the providers of this life-changing access to knowledge.
It was noted that the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award was an excellent example of this type of marketing, but that there needed to be much more of this in future. Maria felt strongly that government funding would be obtained more easily if librarians made an effort to promote themselves as agents for positive social change. She also argued that these issues should be taught explicitly on library school courses.
Session 3: Convincing politicians that libraries improve literacy
This was one of my favourite sessions. We spent some time discussing the meaning of literacy and it was generally agreed that literacy was about more than just the mechanics of reading and writing – it was about comprehension, engagement, critical awareness, and the ability to develop yourself through the written word. We also discussed visual literacy and the fact that literacy is about being able to decode the symbols that you see around you every day. This raised the question: if literacy is so broad, how can we teach it effectively?
One person suggested that we should focus on the learning rather than the teaching and that each person should be allowed to build their confidence on their own terms, rather than being taught in a prescribed way. The librarian who was leading the session said that she valued her freedom to teach literacy in a variety of different ways, and she felt that she was doing much more for literacy as a librarian than she had been able to do as a teacher. She particularly advocated storytelling as a way to engage and enthuse children and she argued that they found it useful to hear words spoken aloud as it helped them to understand meaning and pronunciation. She also argued that, unlike school, the library was an informal space where children could learn at their own pace and where they could take ownership of their reading by choosing books for themselves. As such, libraries had a very important role to play in the support and development of literacy.
The second part of the discussion focused on the fact that although there was a lot of research to suggest that libraries improved literacy, this message wasn’t being communicated forcefully enough to the government. We discussed the difficulties in getting this topic on to the government’s agenda and it was agreed that librarians needed to capitalise on the existing research when campaigning for libraries. The public librarians in the group were frustrated that they were unable to promote their libraries because they had been forbidden to do so by the local councils. Some people felt that CILIP was in a position of influence when it came to talking to politicians, but others were not convinced that this was the case. It was generally agreed that librarians needed to demonstrate impact in order to communicate their importance, but that they also needed powerful representatives to advocate for libraries and to get their message forcefully across to politicians.
Session 4: Libraries without buildings
The speaker for this session had experimented with creating a travelling library. Her enterprise started when she decided to rent a space in a gallery in order to set up a small library exclusively for poetry. However, she became frustrated with the limitations imposed on her by the owners of the space that she rented and so she packed up her library books and began couch-surfing her way around Europe, setting up her library in different places as she travelled.
She told us that she had run her library at various points from markets, bars, people’s houses, theatres, and parks. As time passed, people donated more books to her library and she gained several thousand members. She found that people liked to be able to contribute to the collection, and that they liked being able to consult with a librarian. She explained that she wasn’t necessarily proposing this as an ideal model for libraries, as obviously it did have certain limitations – the transport and storage of resources being one of them – but she felt that it had been an interesting, thought-provoking and worthwhile experiment.
Session 5: Social media and #uklibchat
This session was delivered by the #uklibchat team who run a fortnightly discussion on Twitter about current issues affecting libraries and librarians. In this session we discussed the format of #uklibchat and gave feedback as to how useful we had found it. Many people felt that it was an excellent way of connecting with other information professionals, while some also thought that it could be a useful way for people to get started on Twitter if they hadn’t used it before. It was suggested that the #uklibchat sessions could provide a way for people to instantly become involved in a conversation on Twitter, without having to spend time figuring out whom they should follow and how they should join in.
Some people thought that the agendas used during #uklibchat made the sessions a bit too formal, but other people felt that the agendas provided a useful structure for the conversation (I agree with the latter). We also briefly discussed what attracted us to social media and why some people were just not interested in it. One person commented that Twitter could seem a bit mysterious to new users and that the point of it wasn’t always immediately obvious. I agree with this as it certainly took me a little while to get the hang of Twitter and to understand jargon such as hashtags, DMs, @mentions and retweets.
By the time the fifth session was over I was full of new information and feeling very enlightened, despite also being rather tired and extremely over-sugared! For the final session of the day, we all gathered together again to hear some more poetry and to award prizes for the raffle and for the tastiest cake of the day, an honour which was given to the beetroot cake (I wish I had sampled a bit of this now!). Afterwards, the Library Campers descended on the pubs of Birmingham for more chatting and some much needed relaxation after a hectic but inspiring day.
I have to say that I really enjoyed myself and it was great to meet so many motivated and passionate librarians – I’ve heard rumours that people are already planning to organise a Library Camp 2012 and it would be brilliant if this were to become an annual event. One of things that I liked best about Library Camp was the unconference format because it meant that the sessions were much more dynamic and interactive – definitely more engaging than listening to traditional presentations all day. The fact that the event was free also made it a lot more accessible for people (like me!) who are on a tight budget. Overall, I think that the first Library Camp was a resounding success and a big thank you goes out to all the organisers, sponsors, speakers and bakers who made the event possible! 🙂