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#LibrariesAreEssential: the CILIP Ireland / Library Association of Ireland 2021 conference

Category: #LibrariesAreEssential, Blog

‘I can’t stretch my arms out wide enough to show how much I love libraries…’ If you’re anything like us, you’ll have met with a wide variety of ‘technical difficulties’ during the past year as we’ve all adapted to working life online. Fortunately in the case of CILIP Library Champion Bobby Seagull, his Zoom problem was a very nice one to have!

‘Go to the library and absorb,’ Bobby’s father had told him as a youngster, advice he recalled for over 200 delegates at the CILIP Ireland / Library Association of Ireland 2021 conference. Discussing how much he treasured his childhood visits to East Ham local library, Bobby reminisced in his keynote speech about how ‘it felt like a gateway to the world,’ and concluded with an inspiring rallying call for us all to share the vital value of libraries, wherever and however we can. After Bobby’s rousing commencement, we heard from a series of New Voices who had exciting examples of best practice to share. Daniel McGrath of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Library Service highlighted how the pandemic has brought digital spaces to the fore, while Emma Rothwell reflected on her (surprisingly musical!) studentship with the National Library of Ireland. Niamh O’Brien shared insights into Plan S and open access priorities for HE libraries, before Adrian Vaughan from Munster Technological University showcased his organisation’s incredible (not to mention enviable!) virtual library tour.

The second half of day one focused on a pressing issue that also sits at the heart of our #LibrariesAreEssential campaign: misinformation and the role of libraries as a frontline defence against this growing threat. Ricardo Castellini da Silva from MediaAware identified the need for a more holistic approach to tackling misinformation, noting that libraries have a ‘very important role in the fight’, while Alan Carbery from University College Cork gave a thoughtful examination of how his library seeks to encourage students to move ‘beyond cynicism and towards curiosity’ about what makes a strong source and why. Finally, Orna Young from FactCheckNI discussed how organisations like her own – with a shoutout to Scotland’s Ferret Fact Service! – can help to foster critical thinking skills, making sure that ‘freedom of speech is not freedom of breach’.

a woman sitting crossed legged on a library floor. surrounded by books and holding a laptop

As Day Two dawned, delegates discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic directly, reflecting on the challenges it continues to present for libraries and yet also the undeniable resilience of our sector. Stuart Hamilton of the Local Government Management Agency used his keynote to ask whether we need or want to merely ‘get back to normal’, with Irish libraries having proven themselves equipped to offer safe spaces for citizens in such a wide variety of new ways, and this appetite for continuing to transform was reinforced by other speakers. Sinead O’Higgins from Waterford County Council highlighted how, despite initially feeling daunted by the challenge, library staff came to find it both rewarding and confidence-boosting to witness the profound difference that their socially-distanced efforts were having on library users, while for Trisha Ward from Libraries NI, library workers should be justifiably proud at having provided essential services to people who in many cases had never felt more isolated.

Trisha questioned whether we can really define whether or not a library is ‘open’ anymore (with the extensive digital services now on offer, the answer often appears to be ‘always’!) and this was echoed in a session led by health librarian Aoife Lawton: ‘our physical libraries may be closed, but that doesn’t mean our service is’. Excitingly, the conference then crossed the Atlantic to hear from Siobhan Stevenson at the University of Toronto, where a comprehensive survey of frontline library workers explored the varied emotions they have experienced since the start of the pandemic. Survey results revealed that communication is key to maintaining morale, and Siobhan’s session reminded delegates that, while quick and convenient online interactions have never been easier, the rewards of a richer, more responsive and thoughtful communication style can often be infinitely richer.

The final part of the conference certainly sustained our interest: quite literally, in fact, with a focus on sustainable libraries! Emma Horgan from University College Cork Library inspired everyone with her insights into her library’s award-winning green scheme, with even simple changes like daylight only rooms and a ban on disposable coffee cups – ‘there’s no such thing as the rubbish fairy!’ one library poster reminded users – coming together to make a profound and positive difference. Marion Khorshidian from Ulster University also shared invaluable experiences from her institution’s journey to embed environmental responsibility into its day-to-day processes, with creativity and collaboration helping Ulster to become a top five institution in ‘Global Goals for Sustainable Development’.

It’s not just in Scotland that #LibrariesAreEssential to literacy, education, digital inclusion, health and wellbeing, environmental sustainability and so much more. We greatly appreciated this chance to hear about the incredible work taking place in Ireland and around the world – thank you for having us #CILIPIreLAI21, we’re already looking forward to next year!

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