Reflecting on a transformation

I was delighted a few months ago to find out I had been nominated for the Informed Peer Recognition Award, nominated by Emily Shields, Lisa Jeskins, Rosie Jones and my other wonderful friends on the LILAC committee. It came at a time of transition for me, as I am starting a new job, as a Senior Lecturer in Educational Development at City, University of London. I’ve worked at LSE for over 15 years so this is a big change, but a move I had been thinking about for quite some time. I was asked by Jennie to write something about getting this award and I immediately thought of a talk I prepared last December when I was invited to the University of Ulster, to speak to the librarianship students. In preparing that talk I reflected on my career path to date. So I thought at this moment in time it was appropriate to write a blog post and I rather suspected it might be quite long! So if you don’t read it all, I won’t be offended because it has been a valuable process for me, to write down my journey. In doing this, I don’t want to make it seem like I had a grand plan, as I said in Ulster to the students, I often did things because I was interested in them or because opportunities came my way. Moving to City has however been about following my heart and finding a job where I can spend more time being able to teach and do research, which for means means making a transition to being an academic. It also means letting go of being a copyright advisor, something I love, and not being an information literacy practitioner. But I think it’s the right thing to do and I’m really excited about this journey and my research interests so will travel with me – I should have more time to work on them too! Working out what I really wanted to do was also a large part down to being on the Aurora Programme which I started in October last year and and finished in February 2017. I knew I wanted a change, but Aurora gave me the confidence and kick to do something about it, and getting my new job was partly down to a chance discussions with my new head of department Susannah, who is a role model on Aurora.
However to go back to the beginning of my career, like many others I fell into librarianship. I once wrote a blog post about how my decision to be a librarian was based on my inherent dislike of swimming underwater in the sea (I don’t like fish!) and the fact it didn’t require me to purchase a wetsuit. When trying to get a place through clearing after missing my A levels grades to go to Cardiff University, it was a choice between history and marine archeology at Bangor or history and librarianship in Aberystwyth. Never one for extreme sports, and frankly always liking books, I choose librarianship, with the explicit understanding I would be able to drop the subject after one year and study single honours history. But you know, after one year, it had started to get interesting, and I actually did rather well in the end of first year exams. The course had a lot about emerging internet technologies and elements of media studies in it, and (much to my parents delight) it added a vocational element to the otherwise pointless (in their view) history degree. I toyed with the idea of being an archivist, although a summer placement at a record office put me off, largely because I started to see that librarianship and helping people get access to all sorts of information was something I really cared about. I have always loved history, because history is about evidence,  arguments, and building up a picture of what might have happened in the past, while taking into account things such as bias and propaganda. But for me history was not about old documents, it was about the people and personalities and trying to understand what motivated them. Looking back I see it’s these things that have always been central to my interests – people, access to information (and learning) and the need to be discerning about what we read and what people tell us. I guess I am skeptical at heart and like to see some evidence before believing in anything!

During the final year of my degree I realised I loved doing research, and so when my tutor suggested to me I could apply for a PhD I jumped at the chance – I didn’t have a masters (I still don’t) but apparently that didn’t matter. I was really fortunate that Aberystwyth were looking to increase their research student numbers and funded quite a  number of us through a scholarship scheme in the mid 1990s. I combined my interest in newspapers with history, to study how historians used the press as an information source and what the impact of preservation and digitisation (which was in its very early days) might have on their work. If you really want to you can read my thesis it has been digitised by Aberystwyth. Most of my time spent doing a PhD I was really just immersed in the world of research, I didn’t give a huge amount of thought to what I would do as a career. I was just loving finding out things, being part of an academic community and enjoying my life in Wales by the sea. I ultimately felt the world of academia might be for me, but towards the end of my research, I started to think I needed to get some practical experience. I graduated in late 1999 and was it was an exciting time in the world of libraries, with organisations such as Jisc and the British Library funding digital library projects. So when I landed a job on a British Library funded project, based at the Library of the Natural History Museum I thought I’d burst with joy. I even coped with moving from West Wales to London and learned to love South Kensington (and some of the less grotty parts of South East London where I moved). I spent every day I worked at the Museum walking under the dinosaur to get to my desk (in the archives, which were freezing!) I learned about the amazing collections the NHM had, I learnt a fair amount about spreadsheets and matching up ISSN and journal titles from different data sources. I went to Boston Spa, it was a fantastic job, but sadly it was on contract for just 6 months. When the job finished I signed up with a library temping agency who really quickly found me a job at the Department for Education library. I worked there for a happy summer, before securing another project post (this time for 18 months) at UCL working on the Access to Core Course Materials Project. This job was a defining moment in my career and this is where my fascination with copyright and learning technologies developed, although I still recall when interviewed for the post and asked what I knew about copyright, I just frowned a bit and said, err not much, but I can learn!
In the early noughties, many universities secured funding from HEFCE to run projects to enhance teaching quality and UCL invested in several projects. Access to Core Course Materials (it didn’t have a catchy acronym) was joint between Library Services and Education and Professional Development (EPD), and fairly early on I realised that both departments had different ideas about what they thought the project was about. The library saw it as a project to digitise core readings for students, to investigate and resolve the copyright and technical issues, and to make recommendations for a full service they could offer. Meanwhile EPD thought I’d be exploring ‘digital study packs’ and using emerging e-learning tools to deliver a wide variety of course materials to students. The bulk of my research involved talking to academic staff about their needs and how they wanted to deliver course materials to students. Over the 18 months, and I realised I had found a fascinating area of investigation. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) were beginning to pop up across higher education and my research for this project led me to develop a wealth of knowledge about the copyright and licensing issues involved in digitising course readings. Fairly early on I was asked to speak about this work at a one day seminar in London and found a growing interest in the field through the Heron User Group. It was felt great to be part of an emerging community and to share our experiences in this field!
However, the project at UCL was coming to an end, and in autumn 2001, I spotted a post advertised at LSE which sounded like it might combine all my blossoming interests into a professional post as a librarian, rather than a researcher. I joined LSE Library in November 2001, seconded to the Learning and Teaching Technologies Group. I was based with 3 colleagues in the IT Services department, but for the first 6 months reported to the head of the User Education team, Rupert Wood. Rupert was the very first UK librarian to complete a teaching qualification and he was passionate about information skills (as we called it back then). Part of my remit was to help the library develop the information skills training online, using the VLE. I was also employed to run an electronic course pack service, where we obtained copyright permission for making readings available to students. And the final part of my role was to work on projects and explore new technologies for supporting the integration of e-learning and libraries. Over the years my job evolved and in 2011 I became the Copyright and Digital Literacy Advisor, a job title I felt better reflected what I did. I became well known among the academic and admin staff at LSE who frequently contacted me with their obscure copyright queries. However, it was the teaching I did that I loved, running workshops for staff on copyright and other aspects of Digital Literacy, developing an information literacy programme for PhD students, teaching on and helping to redesign the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and more recently running an undergraduate programme called Student Ambassadors for Digital Literacy. I found I loved teaching, mainly because of how much I learnt myself during the sessions. I completed my teaching qualification while at LSE, which gave me confidence to to devise learning activities and assessments, rather than simply lecture or demonstrate a technology to students. I also worked with the Teaching and Learning Centre to integrate learning tecnhologies into their teaching qualification. These days I like like nothing better than running interactive workshops, facilitating group discussions and finding innovative ways of teaching students.
My research interests led me to attend quite a number of events and I started being asked to speak about the work I was doing at LSE. I discovered a love for attending (and speaking) at conferences and my network of contacts started to expand. I joined several professional groups and early in my career I helped to establish ALISS (Association of Librarians in the Social Sciences) which I went on to Chair, after it broke away from Aslib. I also took over as Chair of the Heron User Group, which was a service providing copyright permission and digitisation services to universities. Around 2002 I met Debbi Boden, who at the time was working at Imperial College London at a one day seminar held in London and it was through her my interest in information literacy started to grow. She had developed an online information skills course for Imperial students called Olivia, which was really impressive. Debbi had great ambitions to set up a new CILIP special interest group focusing on IL, and in late 2003 I found myself at the inaugural meeting of this group. In fact it took us many years for the group to become a special interest group in its own right, but I’m proud to have been a founder member of the Information Literacy Group, which I now Chair. Debbi had great plans to organise a conference and I’d had some experience in running one day events as Chair of ALISS. I had enjoyed the organisation so agreed to be the conference officer for the very first Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC) which we started planning in 2004 and was held in London in 2005. LILAC became a hugely important part of my life for 8 years, I chaired the conference and devised the academic programme, but I also met and worked with amazing people. It was a fabulous and exhausting learning experience. I met so many wonderful friends, and learnt how to motivate the committee and how to get things done and the importance of team work. I also learnt how dedicated and hard working people with a shared passion, really can achieve amazing things. Getting involved in professional groups is probably one of the things I’d say helped me enormously. Not only did it mean I got to meet people from lots of different organisations, I also meant I could continually be learning from them, finding out about new ideas at other institutions and it kept me motivated and inspired.
During my leaving speech at LSE I made a joke about how Steve Ryan, my manager for 10 years while at LSE, encouraged me to join committees, until even he probably lost track of all the committees I was on. However, despite it sometimes feeling like I was spreading myself too thinly, getting involved in a lot of things was a huge positive for me. It allowed me to really explore what I was interested in and what I enjoyed and brought me into contact with a really wide range of people. The work I’ve done for over 10 years on the Universities UK Copyright Working Group on the face of it is a million miles apart from my information literacy work, it involves serious negotiations with bodies such as the Copyright Licensing Agency, and quite a different set of personalities. But I’ve been heartened to see the worlds I inhabit become increasingly closer and to realise that many of the same things motivate people, whether I’m organising a conference or one day event, or negotiating over a licensing issue. We all want to feel that our opinion matters and that we have something to contribute. And ultimately practically everyone I work with really cares about learning, information, libraries and education. I love the slightly nerdy side of copyright, but not because I want to feel clever, because I want to make it simple for people, so it’s not something getting in their way. This is what inspired me to write my first book in 2004, and writing has been another feature of my career over the years – books, journal articles, blog posts, anything really. I realised a long time ago when still at school that I love to write and in addition to talking at events, it’s been an important way for me to share what I know more widely. I served on journal editorial boards and for 3 years was editor of the Journal of Information Literacy. Editing other people’s work proved to be a great way to improve my own writing and so I would encourage new professionals to get involved in peer reviewing. But co-writing with colleagues has been another great way to improve my writing. Writing is not something even now I think I’m great at, it’s something I aspire to be better at, and something I enjoy hugely. Writing is a very different and more thoughtful way of getting my points across, and I’ve always been good at getting a first draft on paper and then editing it extensively. Being able to do research, to write, to teach and present at conferences are fundamental things I need to do in my job, and so becoming a lecturer really is the obvious career for me. However, it’s something I am glad I have waited a while to do, as I think I will bring to it more experience, more patience and empathy.

So if I were to offer any career advice it would be to throw away the roadmap or plan, that’s not to say you shouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what matters to you, and how you can make your greatest contribution. You definitely should. But you should find the things that interest and fascinate you, so you really like (if not love) your job. Join committees, say yes when asked to do things, particularly the things that scare and excite you. Keep learning all the time, approach all personal and professional development with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense

Jane and Emma

Jane and Emma

of humour. Be ambitious about what you can achieve, why not ask to go to that conference in New York, who knows someone might say yes! Get involved in some research if you can, finding out stuff is really important. One of my happiest (and scariest) times was when I had a 3 month sabbatical from LSE as a fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge to do a piece of research, which became A New Curriculum for Information Literacy (ANCIL). I was terrified before I went, I had ideas of being intimidated by clever Cambridge types, of not being able to produce anything of value (of course, I needn’t have worried about that being paired up with the fabulous Emma Coonan). I cannot believe I almost turned this opportunity down, I had been asked to apply by a former colleague at LSE, who went on to be Deputy Librarian at Cambridge (that was my network!) but I feared being away from home, of being away from LSE. It turned into a magical time, when I met amazing people, I grew as a person, I started listening to Radio 4, stopped watching trashy TV largely. I had highbrow breakfast discussions with other fellows you would dream about. And I go back to Wolfson and feel like it’s a part of me. Like all my years in Aberystwyth and all my years at LSE.

Places shape us in unimaginable ways, but I think its the people I’ve met over the years who have inspired me the most. People like Debbi Boden, Gwyneth Price (who I presented at numerous conferences, several in Greece (!) with over the years), Maria Bell, my inspiring colleague at LSE, Nancy Graham who I met through our mutual interest in IL and open education and spoke at UNESCO with in 2012, Emma Coonan who was my Cambridge research partner and created ANCIL with me, and Chris Morrison, who is my partner in copyright literacy, games and creative education. Without these amazing people and many others, I would have never achieved all the things I’ve done. People support me, motivate me, make me feel like I can make a difference and they are what make it all worthwhile. So I am delighted to have friends already at City, I’m looking forward to making lots of new friends too and feel honoured to have been given this award in the month leading up to my new job. And over time the best lesson for me is learning to take myself far less seriously, and it’s been a very liberating experience.
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2 thoughts on “Reflecting on a transformation

  1. Fabulous and inspiring story! You said Rupert was the first librarian to get a teaching qualification. When did he get his? I have a teaching qualification (Cert Ed) which I got in 1976. At the time I worked in Plymouth Polytechnic (as it then was) Learning Resources Centre as one of its professional library staff. I suspect there may have been others before me…..

    • Hi Charles. Rupert as I recall did a course accredited by the precursor to the HEA, the Institute for Learning and Teaching in HE. I have to say, I have not verified this ‘fact’ either, so I may be guilty of believing what I was told as a young impressionable librarian! It sounds like you might in fact be one of the first librarians to do a teaching qualification! I’m glad you like the blog post.

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