Environmental Scanning Part 5: Subject Librarians: time for a fresh look? Conference at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield

The last in my series of blogposts about the various environmental scanning activities I undertook in June/July focuses on the #UHSubjectLib conference I spoke at alongside my colleague on the 20th July at the University of Hertfordshire.

A Storify for the conference from Alison McNab can be found at https://storify.com/AlisonMcNab/subject-librarians-time-for-a-fresh-look?utm_campaign=website&utm_source=email&utm_medium=email

The day opened with a welcome from our hosts, the University of Hertfordshire. The reasons for the conference were stated in that the Subject Librarian’s role is key to the library’s growing reputation within its University, and this role is always changing and developing along with the HE sector as a whole. An example of the number of job titles of delegates at the conference was shown, showing how diverse the ways of looking at our role are across the sector.

The point was made that the role of the Subject Librarian is dictated by the technologies available, and it is the changes in technology that drive the role forward. The speakers mentioned that changes in our roles re. negotiating licences have made the role more corporate-I would say from my perspective this depends on how you interpret your own role and how you react to how others treat you. My values have certainly altered or shifted since starting this role, because I am going through a liminal shift in my thinking about HE, but I wouldn’t say (hopefully anyway!) I am becoming ‘more corporate’, just more experienced in communicating with the private sector. This may be wishful thinking on my part though!

Emma Walton

The Key Speaker for the conference was Emma Walton, Director of Library Services at Loughborough University. She was speaking about the history of the role, which was fascinating to me as I knew nothing about the controversy of 2005, where there was a shift to get rid of Subject Librarians entirely within some institutions. This was changed back again eventually, though, as Emma showed, the fashions for job titles and models of structures go in and out of libraries all the time.

I found Emma’s analysis of the various models of working in HE libraries, and how they should fit in with the rest of the institution probably one of the most useful parts of the day for me in terms of putting my job in context of the sector. I believe my University is quite a traditional model, moving into Traditional Plus+. I think having these models shows the transferable skills librarians have that they can then take to other sectors outside of HE and agree with Emma’s point that we should have high aspirations for ourselves as this is reflected in our users.

In return, though, we should expect investment in ourselves, through training and support. I am lucky in that I have that support and cannot underpin enough the value I find in keeping my cpd going. I would urge any librarian NOT receiving the support they think they need to make a clear business case for further training, environmental scanning opportunities such as going to conferences like this one, and for time to reflect on that training and networking-such as I am doing with my Chartership.

Virginia Power

The second speaker was Virginia Power, a PhD student in Information Management and Science at the University of West England. I think this is the first time I’ve seen an academic speak at a librarians-focussed conference and it made for a very useful talk for me in looking at how I can support my School, seeing from the other side what works and what doesn’t.

Virginia’s main point was that it isn’t a tug of war between academics and libraries; we are on the same, not opposing sides.

She gave some excellent tips for increasing engagement, such as getting to know where academics’ research interests lie and keep on top of finding stuff out about them-this has led to me thinking more about getting to know my academics’ back catalogues and what they are working on at the moment.

Virginia also made the point that OA is a scary concept to some people, and as librarians we should be the guiding light to what it is, and why it is useful. OA is a black-area for me; I need to really get to grips with it. That’s why I’m planning on going to all the sessions on OA at the Northern Collaboration conference in September http://www.northerncollaboration.org.uk/content/northern-collaboration-2015-conference-sponsored-oclc-uk

One top tip I will be taking up is to ‘nurture your newbies’. As a new-ish member of staff myself I have something in common with new academics and it is therefore vital to get good relations off the ground straight away. Faculty-focussed email newsletters are a good way of keeping staff involved with what’s happening in the library and advertise new, and perhaps existing but underutalised, resources. This is something I will be thinking about for the new term. Like Ned Potter was saying at the BLA conference however, communication should also be about how academics can be part of the library, as much as how we as librarians can help and support them.

Virginia gave the following list of things academics want from librarians

  • For us to understand the HE environment (working on it, though there are parts that I’m going to have to get used to as completely go against my common sense way of looking at problems!)
  • Be full partners, proactive and visible
  • Be technology savvy and be able to show things step-by-step (be approachable about teccy issues!)
  • Provide help in accessing databases (Know Where The Buttons Are)

Most importantly is to work together and keep people informed and hopefully this will be reciprocated.

There then followed a series of shorter presentations that shared single ideas that different libraries has tried, and an afternoon of longer presentations, including ours. I’m not going to go through each of these, as there were too many ideas and cool things shown and talked about for one blog post, but you can find the slides and contacts for the presenters on slideshare.

Some of my highlights though were

  • London South Bank University are running Assignment and Referencing Surgeries in conjunction with academic skills, this involves have an enquiry triage that then leads to one-on-ones with either librarians or academic skills tutors (brilliant idea-as a LOT on enquires are about structuring essays or dissertation tips, rather than information searching, or any of the other skills we promote)
  • Anglia Ruskin have a task group that specifically looks at new TELs or e-learning software, such as Padlet, Powtoons, sli.go, Nearpad etc etc etc (there are TOO MANY THINGS sometimes). This group then decides which ones the librarians are ‘allowed’ to use, and creates guidelines for staff in best practice. There is then a member of the team that checks on any new things made that they match these guidelines. Although it could be argued this would lead to a lack of autonomy within your work I think it is better for teaching practices to be consistently good, rather than using stuff you don’t know that much about but are intrigued by (like I do at the moment!)
  • King’s College London librarians have loads of ways of trying to get academics involved, such as advertising ‘office hours’ when they’re Roving in the schools; following academics on Twitter; showing stats from repository downloads during desktop visits; getting involved in social activities on campus.
  • The University of Portsmouth has a now semi-famous Penguin anthropomorphic student engagement device called Pablo that has his own twitter account https://twitter.com/uoppenguin

All in all this was a really useful day for me in once again getting experience in presenting, this time as a team and in a completely different setting, as well as a good conference with some really good speakers and development ideas. I’d be interested to see which direction this conference takes in the future and would recommend people to keep an eye on it and share best practice within their Universities more often.

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