September seems a long time ago now - but this blog post is about something that started back then and is just beginning to come to fruition now. As part of the Library Camp East unconference I ran a session for solo librarians and people single-staffing libraries to get together, have a chat and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of working on their own.
I wanted to do this because I’d just spent a hectic summer single-staffing a very small library branch through a record-breaking Summer Reading Challenge. I hadn’t had too much in the way of support or line management during this time, specifically due to a managerial vacancy directly above me. And, although I didn’t know this at Library Camp East, my days as a Senior Library Assistant were already numbered.
At the end of September I had an interview for what felt like a long-shot secondment to a very attractive librarian’s post, working as part of the central enquiry team for the county library service. To my amazement and disbelief (a feeling which still hadn’t departed a couple of weeks after I’d started work and had an email signature with the word ‘librarian’ for all to see) I was chosen and given an initial six months in the job. That’s just been extended for a further six months and so I’m not sure whether or not I will find myself single-staffing again.
With that in mind, I want to do something positive with what was a very difficult and simultaneously very rewarding experience. It occurred to me that it would be nice if there was some formal group that could offer support to solos and single-staffers who find themselves needing a bit of a metaphorical hug, and also that the regional branch of CILIP would be the perfect way to organise this. So I’m now about to propose to CILIP East that we found a peer support network for solo library and information workers with the possibility of future events, training and networking opportunities.
This was an idea that was floated at Library Camp East and which met with quite a positive reception. So, even though a few months have gone by, I hope I can follow through on that and actually deliver something that will help people in what can be an immensely difficult and stressful situation. In the meantime, here’s some of the material that came out of the day for you to consider and comment on.Advantages of solo librarianship/single-staffing:
English PEN, an organisation that works for the freedom to write and the freedom to read around the world, has asked its supporters to help with an urgent action to support imprisoned Muharrem Erbey.
This writer, advocate and human rights lawyer who represented clients at the European Court of Human Rights, and who was involved in investigating extra-judicial killings in the Turkish region, has been imprisoned in Turkey for more than four years for membership of a banned organisation. The accusations against him include trying to humiliate the Turkish state and security forces, participating in demonstrations and representing legal clients.
English PEN is extremely concerned about this case. It believes the charges against Muharrem Erbey are politically motivated, and that he is being held due to an alleged affiliation with Kurdish political parties. The organisation is calling for his immediate and unconditional release from prison, in accordance with his right to freedom of expression and association, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human and Democratic Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory.
You can help by taking any of the following actions:
For help with the above, visit English PEN’s urgent action page for Muharrem Erbey here.
New towns – a postwar town-planning and housing movement born in a spirit of optimism that, following a very bad few years for people in Britain, lives could be substantially improved with new housing, new jobs and better social conditions. We know now, 60 years later, that the reality didn’t always live up to the ambition. Often these utopian settlements became run down, starved of investment and prone to social problems. I speak with a little insight, as someone who has worked in a new town for the past two years and helped to provide its public library services.
But, despite the undoubted problems, I still can’t help seeing new towns through that lens of optimism which challenges us to build communities and have faith that we can make things better by working together. This is why I was delighted that the first Library Camp to be held in the East of England took place at Harlow College in September. Harlow and many of the first wave of British new towns are located in the east of England – other examples being Stevenage, Basildon and Hemel Hempstead. The town was proposed as a possible venue because our funder, CILIP East Members’ Network, was very keen to hold an event in a new area, in hopes of reaching people that don’t routinely come to its professional development activities already. We also found a very helpful and supportive partner in Harlow College, which is a further education institution justly proud of its record of sending young people on their way decently equipped for the world of work and for the challenges facing them.
Library camps have, of course, taken a certain section of the information professions by storm. It is very rare to organise one and not have the tickets go like hot cakes, with recourse to little more than listing the event on a popular online ticketing service and letting news propagate via Twitter and various email lists. Just to recap for anyone not familiar with the phenomenon: a library camp models itself on the unconference, a gathering that requires a big, flexible space and a largish group of people. Everything else is superfluous (except perhaps for the catering: on that, more later). They are always low-cost and preferably free.
There is no need for complex technology; just a few days ago I sat in a roomful of people waiting for a presentation that did not come because the Macbook wouldn’t talk to the projection system. Ten minutes of the available hour wasted and the speaker had to go ahead without their Powerpoint slides in the end anyway. That doesn’t happen at library camps. Neither is any time spent trapped squirming in your chair while being talked down to (literally and figuratively) from a platform, you having realised some time ago but still too late that you chose the wrong session to attend and now you are stuck in the middle of a row with no hope of escape.
At library camps any participant who wants to can stand up during the first half hour and pitch ideas for hour-long sessions on topics they think their peers will enjoy. A big flip-chart list is made of different sessions happening in different places at different times and people simply go where they want to. Each session is very informal, no more than a slightly uneven circle of chairs, generally. The proposer may lead the session but it is usually fuelled by contributions from everyone present. If you find it’s not working for you, and what is happening across the room is much more intriguing, there is nothing to stop you getting up and going over there. Anyone wanting to stand on ceremony, judge by job title or length of service, and feel smug about working for an organisation with the budget to send them to expensive and important conferences costing hundreds of pounds a day won’t even come through the door.
The joy of these events, and the joy of Library Camp East, comes in the chance to share expertise, ideas, burning manifestos for change, preoccupations, jokes, whimsy, best practice and silliness with other practitioners and interested parties in an environment where nothing gets in the way. You can be head of a service or a newly-minted library assistant – we had both of these groups attending. You can be in any sector or none; there is no hierarchy, no preferential treatment of anyone, no audience-defining large fee to attend and absolutely no judgement of who you are, what you’ve done and what you think about the world of information. People share their time and expertise so freely, and in such a spirit of collaboration that the resulting event is of genuine quality, crowdsourcing at its best, and not often patchy or disappointing.
The challenge facing the library camp movement, however, is to persuade a wider audience to take part. Library Camp UK is happening in a month or two (I have my ticket) and was trying to figure out how to reach the less-connected before the more-connected snapped up all the places. My approach to writing this will have given you certain clues to my outlook on life and professional matters, for me library camps do genuinely appear to be one of the best tools for personal, professional and possibly political development that we currently have available. Which is why I was so determined to have one in the East of England. But that view is far from universal.
I’m very pleased to say that we managed to attract to Library Camp East a number of people who had not been to an unconference before and who nevertheless came along with an open mind despite being not entirely sure what to expect. I believe, from the feedback I have heard, that most of them went away having had a thoroughly good time and a very useful day. Many expressed a willingness to come to similar events in the future. Also we were very lucky in the range of sectors and organisations that were represented. We had representatives from at least three public library authorities, a wide range of universities and colleges, many businesses and some third-sector organisations.
We had people from all stages of their careers and, while students and new professionals are often among the first and most enthusiastic adopters of a new Library Camp, this time we managed a good proportion of mid-career professionals and senior/long-serving people too. We ended up discussing a marvellously interesting and stimulating range of subjects; these included dealing with information overload, being a single-staffing or solo library worker, advocating for public and other libraries, practising speed networking, picking the brains of experts on specialisms including cataloguing and open access, discussing the application process for higher and research degrees, library marketing, creative low-cost CPD, wrangling CVS and interviews, dealing with disasters in libraries and handling metadata. Among other things. At the peak of booking we had 100 people slated to attend; that translated into just north of 70 people on the day, quite enough to make the event go.
(Although I had a pretty bad few hours just beforehand when I was absolutely convinced that no-one would actually come.)
We made contacts, cemented relationships and put names to faces (and to Twitter icons). We also did a few less serious things including holding a creative writing session and spending an hour sitting in silence to re-examine our relationship with that controversial state, decompress a little and perhaps reclaim it. This being a librarians’ gathering, knitting and crochet did appear out of bags several times. There was talk of a rounders game at one point, although I think those threatening to perpetrate it didn’t attend in sufficient numbers. And then there was the catering. At library camps, in the spirit of keeping things affordable, everyone who can is asked to bring a contribution to the lunch table. Attendees thus enjoy a big pot-luck lunch from a table that is usually groaning with food and lovely cakes – and at Library Camp East people did themselves proud.
The one thing we did get wrong – or rather failed to get right – was to find a solution to the hot beverage problem. We approached a caterer to provide tea and coffee and were quoted a sum close to the cost of booking the entire venue, obviously not something we could justify to our funders. Tea and coffee were sorely missed and next time I would ask for donations to fund it or seek out extra funding to make it possible.
But, apart from that, it flew. Thanks to all the lovely, generous and open-minded people who came along and gave it a go. I hope we’ll have another one next year and persuade even more colleagues that it will be a brilliant (and productive) way to spend a Saturday.