Library leaders can handle the truth - why you should just ask your bosses what they really think of you

Michelle Breen reflects on The New Review of Academic Librarianship Conference 'Positioning the Academic Library within the Institution'.

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The academic library – perceptions and pressures

Cambridge's Helen Murphy and Libby (Elizabeth) Tilley reported on what they called 'ethnographish' research to find out how English and Arts faculty perceived the library. They focused on established faculty members and uncovered some really interesting stories to understand the experience of their academics. I must admit that the talks moved at an incredible pace and I did not catch all their examples but you can read about it yourself in NRAL in December.

John Cox opened his talk by saying that trends and pressures in Higher Education impact how the library positions itself.  John presented his detailed literature review article in a very clever way, choosing his top 10 quotes from his research as a summary of his work. There are thought-provoking insights in John’s paper including this quote from Murray and Ireland in a CRL article: Academic libraries are no longer the symbolic heart of the University. Lots of John’s points would be good conversation starters with senior university personnel.

Big questions

Róisín Gwyer from Portsmouth talked about librarians reinventing themselves by moving out of their areas, encouraging new roles for library leaders. Róisín referenced the SCONUL View from Above report that reports on the perspectives of senior leaders in universities about libraries.  For this report, 12 senior people were asked how they viewed library directors, what strategies library leaders can use in uncertain times, they asked questions about culture and how library leaders can move up to executive positions within institutions. I recommend having a read of the SCONUL report and Róisín’s article next month.

Nick Woolley (Northumbria) asked a couple of fundamental questions such as what is a library for? What is the value proposition? What does the library do for the institution? Northumbria created teams around their major value propositions including a Reading Lists team whereby any competent member of the team goes out and does the liaison work and can also be a technical contributor in the management of the reading lists. 

In summary

Michelle Blake from York posed a very direct question in the early stage of the day; why are liaison librarians slow to take on advocacy work with researchers? The libraries that have made strides in this area have reported that their staff are enjoying the change and the challenge that being a research support librarian can bring. Liaison librarians are very good at what they do but their contributions can go up a noticeable notch by focusing efforts on talking to early career academic and researchers about RDM, copyright, collections, licenses, and scholarly communications. What are we afraid of?

Much of what was discussed resonated with me because it was a definite theme in the research I did with Johanna Archbold about Amplifying CONUL’s voice. Our interviews for that project, with leaders of library organisations, particularly in RLUK, CILIP, LIBER & SCONUL, gave us insights in to how non library people view libraries. Our interviews revealed that libraries could be described as the black box of institutions, knowing what goes on, recording valuable information and being robust and fairly indestructible. The challenge we have is how we take advantage of this really unique position, how do we get involved in the management and leadership of those more tricky areas within the institution, lending our expertise where it is most valuable.

The seminar marked the launch of a special themed issue of NRAL which promises to be a very informative and useful set of papers on a very relevant topic to all academic libraries. This issue is due out in December, sign up on their website to receive an alert when it comes out.  Editor in chief of NRAL Graham Walton was OK with the fact that the journal does not have an impact factor as NRAL has enough altmetric data to confirm that the journal is being read and is making a very important contribution through its practitioner style publications from across the globe. Downloads are at about 3,000 per month at present and the journal has very international coverage and if the event at Goldsmiths is anything to judge by, the journal is still in a growth phase. The mix of international authors, many of them present at the event, is a strong signal that this journal has a global reach. The events speakers are all featured in the upcoming issue and today just gave a 10-15-minute snapshot of their research. Take a look at some of the tweets at #NRAlAcadLib to see how lively the conversation was on the day.

The New Review of Academic Librarianship Conference 'Positioning the Academic Library within the Institution' was held in November 2018 at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Thanks to Leo Appleton and his team for hosting this most interesting event.

Michelle Breen is the Head of the Information Services Department in the Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick. The Information Services department in the Library supports the learning, teaching and research needs of the university community. Michelle is am a member the Library’s Management Team and provides strategic input into the development and management of the library and to the creation of a culture of excellence in the provision of resources, facilities, expertise and services.
This is an edited version of a post that was originally published in LibFocus. Thanks to all involved.

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