Later this week I’m part of a panel at the FestivIL online event, run by the fabulous LILAC Conference committee. Melissa Highton is chairing our session which involves me, Melissa and two previous LILAC keynotes: Josie Fraser and Allison Littlejohn. Melissa proposed we do this talk in late 2019, and it was supposed to take place at LILAC 2020 which was of course cancelled. She’s also kicked things off writing this wonderful post to start us all thinking and reflecting. And I definitely want some lilac tinted spectacles!
As someone who has never given a keynote at LILAC, my role is to provide some sort of overview of what can be learnt from attending every single (all 17) LILACs. Just to note there have now been 9 conferences since I was formally involved in their organisation, but I have attended every year since and feel honoured to have remained involved in the conference since it was founded in 2005.
17 years ago…….
2004 the world was a very different place …… or was it?
This was the year that I was part of group of (rebel) librarians who set up the information literacy group and created LILAC. Let’s go back and think a bit about WHY I got involved…….
Well of course I like a party, and Debbi promised us a really good party, but mainly my reasons were and remain ‘academic’ and by this I don’t mean irrelevant – I mean intellectual! In 2004 my job was to create an online information literacy programme for students. To complement (or even replace) the face to face training we ran in the library. I’ll be honest I felt a bit lost and very early in my career I had realised the library community was an amazingly supportive network when I wanted to find stuff out.
I was working at LSE – I had been trained to work on the information desk – we used to have a referral system, with desk 1 and desk 2, where students with ‘research queries’ were passed to me and more basic queries were handled by the desk 1 person who was often a library assistant. It taught me about inequalities in library systems – many of the people on desk 1 had worked in the library for years and knew at least as much as me, but I was ‘qualified’ so sat in desk 2, mainly terrified that someone would ask me a question I wouldn’t know the answer to, particularly if it related to our immense intergovernmental organisations collection, the EU collection or the UK parliamentary collection. Please don’t ask me to locate a command paper, I used to whisper as a serious looking researcher approached the desk, I know where the toilets are though. Honestly it seems a bit crazy night, but I used to stress the night before a desk duty about being asked a question I didn’t know the answer to – what sort of librarian was I if I didn’t know everything!
Thinking a bit about LSE, I was told repeatedly how bright our students were. That they didn’t need information skills, because they were top students. However working on the information desk revealed to me pretty quickly that students didn’t understand how our library worked – they didn’t understand how to read their reading list, they didn’t understand the signage, they invariable came to ask how to find a book not an in-depth ‘research query’ – yet our library made huge assumptions about what they already knew. My fears about mis-directing people to the command papers were largely unnecessary, in fact I spent a lot of time explaining how I knew a reference on a reading list was in fact a journal article, not a book chapter. And I used to love taking someone to the shelves and actually helping them find the book they swore blind was just not there. It usually started with us leaving the desk and turning left (or right) and the student saying, ah right, I’ve not been down here before. But it revealed to me that our students were largely unaware of the incredible research collection they had at their fingertips, they just wanted to find a book on their reading list.
I learnt a lot about privilege, I learnt about the danger of making assumptions. I learnt how teaching was often playing second fiddle to supporting research. The qualified staff were meant to help the researchers, students should know what they were doing. They were at LSE, they were bright. They didn’t need this ‘remedial’ support.
So coming together with my colleagues from universities all around the UK to create LILAC meant I learnt about so much about information literacy and the incredible opportunity that librarians have to try and make a difference. I also learnt about the power of a small group of people with a common mission to make changes. Instinctively I knew we were doing something valuable – we created a community of practice for sharing our experiences. Sharing our teaching practices, sharing resources – bringing in those to share their knowledge with us – through inviting the amazing keynotes that over the years have inspired us.
That’s why I don’t think hindsight is a wonderful thing, but that studying the history of the information literacy movement is so important. To remind ourselves how far we have come, but also why we started the group and the conference in the first place. As a historian first and foremost I know why we study history and but if you haven’t been there, let me take you on a journey down into the lilac archive. As far as I know there aren’t any dragons there, but there are some amazing presentations, some embarrassing photos and a lot of combined wisdom about information literacy.
Whenever questions are asked about what we can learn from history, it invariably leads to philosopher George Santayana’s oft-quoted aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Studying history enabled me to develop a better understanding of the world. Some say history is all about learning dates, but in fact building knowledge and understanding of historical events and trends, especially over the past century, enables us to develop a much greater appreciation for current events today. And if we heed Santayana’s warning, then remembering history – and learning important lessons from it – should help us to avoid previous mistakes and prevent previous misdeeds from happening again. (In case you were wondering I largely plagiarised this part of the post from Deakin University – why study history)
But what can we learn from LILAC’s history? And the previous keynotes? I often invited people I wanted to hear speak as a keynote – but I also remember how keynotes opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about information literacy. Tara Brabazon our twice keynote astounded and entertained us. Christine Bruce came and educated us about her six frame of information literacy and about phenomenography as a research method that could reveal people’s experiences of IL. You can see a full list of the keynotes here: in 2005 it was Sheila MacNeil, Sheila Corrall and Gwyneth Price who keynoted. But we also had Lord David Puttnam, Char Booth, John Dolan, Leslie Burger (who subsequently invited Debbi and I to Princeton) Ray Land, Barbara Fister, James Clay, Dave White… the list goes on. You can see here the full list of previous keynotes.
I’ve also looked back at the themes we used to choose for LILAC to see if they have changed? Not really I concluded – we were often really on message – New perspectives on IL, using new technologies, IL and citizenship, ethics, diversity and social justice (2008) information literacy for life (2009).
So with the benefit of hindsight, what would I change? I’d maybe worry less about whether IL was really a ‘thing’ – I’d worry less about the naysayers, who spent their time telling us that it was just a new word for user education, or that technology was going to become so advanced that students would just know how to do all this stuff. I’d probably have spent more time trying to prepare for a global pandemic, so everything didn’t have to shift online at the flip of a switch. And maybe, I would spend a little less time talking to librarians about IL and more time talking to those in education and in the wider world, to try and make them listen. But most likely, I wouldn’t change a thing, I’ve enjoyed every moment of the LILAC Conference rollercoaster (the parties really were as good as we were promised by Debbi) and learnt something from each and every one of our amazing keynotes. So thank you and I hope you will join us on Thursday at FestivIL!