Reflections about attendance at the 2023 CILIP Conference.

This was my first CILIP Conference and before arriving I didn’t really know what to expect – I had read the seminar details online but what about all the other parts of a conference?  Does everyone know everyone else? Will there be ice breaker tasks?  Exactly how many free notebooks can I carry?

Image of CILIP Conference programme front cover
Image of CILIP Conference programme front cover

First impressions were good there was an interesting mix of stands to look at, always nice when the first few stands within eye line are names I’m familiar with as well.  What was really nice was actually meeting people and chatting with them face to face – people that previously I had only met through a tiny Teams screen. 

Despite feeling like the new girl to NHS libraries it is also comforting to realise that face to face events are still something that everyone is getting used to again post Covid. 

CEO of CILIP Nick Poole started the day off with talking about some of the challenges libraries are facing including leadership, diversity and information equality.  Big themes to start the day and they were discussions we would keep coming back to. 

Masud Khokhar from Leeds University spoke about leadership challenges in libraries.  Ranging from the perils of algorithms, fake news, misinformation and ideas filling in the gaps in between to the emphasis on urgency and inherent bias. 

Some of the ideas spoken about really rang true with me such as ‘learned helplessness’ that sense of apathy from colleagues that there is no point trying to change something.  That is something I have encountered before and it really affects staff morale.  That need to change the mind set of library staff was brought to life with the idea of the staff languishing in the basement of despair but trying to move to the balcony of hope – where the manager normally is.   

I then attended the Knowledge Café about retaining skills and knowledge during The Great Resignation (which really makes it sound dramatic). Knowledge retention is incredibly important especially for a profession that considers knowledge its main business.  There was real opportunity here to speak with people from other sectors as well including the British Library, private libraries and research librarians. 

There were some thought provoking discussions about how knowledge retention should be something we consider a constant part of our role – rather than something we hastily try to cover in an exit interview.  There was also conversation about mini mentorships and the potential for job share roles all with the aim of preserving knowledge.  Also the admission that some people do prefer to be the only one who knows something, the old phrase of ‘knowledge is power’ still applies, when actually shared knowledge is more powerful for everyone. 

This was also my first knowledge café so it was really useful to see how it worked and how everyone responded to the relatively quick fire concept of 10 minute group discussions before you move on to meet a new group of people.

Book signing and fireside chat (minus the fire) with Sathnam Sanghera revealed that he had met three librarians called Helen that day (are we predisposed to work in libraries?).  Sanghera firmly believes that public libraries changed his life – visits to his local library in Heath Town, Wolverhampton that his father took him to visit as a child. 

As he pointed out there is public outcry at the thought of deprived children being denied free school meals but no-one challenges the fact that the same children may not have access to books.  It is crucial for children from poorer communities to have a library within walking distance – not just in the nearest town or city.  He described the professional librarians who helped him navigate the library and pointed out their importance "Books are a voyage of discovery, they take you to places the internet won't take you”.  As a journalist and historian Sanghera recognises the importance of being able to find information and knowing how to judge it critically – skills that library staff possess. 

Some of the issues that seem to have been predominantly online for the last few years seem to be seeping into the real world – outcry about censorship and culture wars and people challenging others over their opinions or reporting of facts.  The complexities and truths of nuance are the responsibility of writers and librarians to navigate and guide the way.  It was interesting to hear Sanghera remind us that writers can change their minds – you can change your opinion of history and rewrite your own books.  Perhaps something worth bearing in mind at the next argument about author censorship and free speech. 

AI is something which really seems to have moved to the forefront of the news lately – as Nick Woolley of Sheffield Hallam university poined out it really isn’t the huge dichotomy that people are reporting – AI will neither destroy humanity nor save it.  Woolley believes we have already missed the moment with AI, technology moves so fast and we are too late to be in a position to be innovators of it. 

We have all already heard of ChatGPT making up references and titles to cover the pieces of information it is not aware of, as librarians our role is going to be one of educating around effective use of AI. There is a lot of uncertainty with AI as it is developing so fast – regulation for AI is already lagging behind, there have been legal cases involving copyright and questions over whether AI can act as an author or co-author.  The main impression I got from Woolley’s seminar was there is no need to fear generative AI such as ChatGPT, it is not a threat to libraries.  What matters is professional values and expertise – very human traits. 

Speakers Phillip Marshal from the London Library and Krystal Vittles from Suffolk Libraries spoke about Evidence and Impact.  Both provided examples of how their differing library services measured impact.  It was really interesting to hear from a private lending library that as a charity relies on memberships and donations and despite its huge history starting in 1841 it still has to validate itself, it cannot rely on its historical members and their legacy. As such they measured the impact of the library using online surveys and discovered that 66% of members were involved in creating intellectual property.  They can actually calculate the amount of jobs they have supported and the financial impact.

Talking about Suffolk Libraries Vittles discussed the social values of the services they provided across the county through public, prison and mobile libraries.  They knew that wellbeing was a major factor of the service and wanted to look at the cost and impact.  In 2022 they looked at a range of services the libraries provided and calculated that there was a £6.07 return in social value for each £1 invested, and perhaps even more surprisingly they saved the local NHS at least £500,000.  Measuring both library services in quantifiable financial impact makes it clearer to stakeholders the value and importance of those services. 

Finally we arrived at Nick Poole’s closing speech and this was an ambitious summary of the two days.  It was nice to start with a quote from Imogen Loucas, one of the CILIP125 winners, ‘Libraries are the backbone of humanity’.  Very true and as we had seen throughout the conference it is library staff who are essential to guiding people through life – whether that was knowledge or generative AI or their wellbeing.

The shared humanity theme also ran throughout the conference in discussions about leadership, resilience and imposter syndrome.  While libraries are important it is the people in them who make the biggest impact and there was a call to arms and reminder to shout about what we do.  Libraries in all sectors do so much and we often assume everyone knows – but we have to shout about it and remind people of our innovation, skills and value. 

Peer endorsement, encouraging people to join CILIP, share what we have done not just with our library users but also with other libraries and other sectors – make the most of those transferable ideas.  It is time to be more courageous and move from the basement of despair up to the lofty balcony of hope.

Thank you to the Knowledge for Healthcare Learning Academy for the bursary that enabled me to attend the conference.  I have worked in public libraries for nearly twenty years and never had the opportunity to attend before, now just after my first year in NHS libraries I made it! 

Other conference observations:

  • the day goes by really quickly, a fast paced mix of listening to seminars and chatting to people (usually at the tea tables)
  • I recognised a lot more people than I expected (even when I wasn’t entirely sure where I recognised them from)
  • it was really lovely to bump into people that I haven’t seen for years – my previous CILIP certification mentor finding me was a real highlight
  • wearing a bookish t-shirt is an excellent ice breaker and it’s always nice to receive compliments
  • I can carry 3 free notebooks

Helen White

Knowledge and Evidence Specialist

Black Country Healthcare Foundation Trust