The late and unstructured ramblings of an old(ish) library school student attending CILIP Conference 2019 in receipt of the PMLG bursary

I suppose I’ve used this subheadline as a warning of sorts…

When I sat down to write an article to sum up my experiences of CILIP’s 2019 conference, I thought I would tackle it traditionally and chronologically by taking the reader on a journey session by session. A logical and systematic approach.

Then I opened my conference notebook…

Wow. Conference-me was neither logical nor systematic. My notes are all over the place and reflect the fact that much of the conference content resonated with me on both a personal and professional level. I am a (shhh) year old PhD student who has left teaching and embarked on a second career in library and information services (LIS). So, if you fancy an emotional and slightly loquacious take on what it’s like to attend CILIP Conference as a first-time delegate and LIS newbie, read on. Equally, if that puts you off, I won’t be offended.

PhD and public library goodness

One of the main reasons I applied for the PMLG bursary was the focus of my PhD proposal. I’m continuing my studies at the University of Sheffield’s Information School, under the supervision of the inspirational Dr. Briony Birdi. At this early stage, I don’t want to give away too many details but the remit covers public libraries, perceptions and legislation.

There was a great deal of information and knowledge at conference that tugged on the thread I intend to pull with this research and which served as a reminder of all the good public libraries do for their communities.

Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian at the British Library, discussed the theme of librarianship and identity. Each delegate will have taken away different concepts from her address which looked back on her impressive career. I was interested in her take on what she considers the enduring values of the profession, influenced by the work of Michael Gorman1: stewardship, service, intellectual freedom, privacy, rationalism, equity of access, democracy, commitment to literacy and learning.

There is something deeply satisfying and powerful in drawing together a unified view of public librarianship in the UK. I am new to the LIS world and some may consider my views naïve… but my own reading has led me to discover different bodies with varied and, dare I say it, conflicting dogma of what libraries and their staff do for and with the public: Arts Council England, The Libraries Taskforce, DCMS, Libraries Connected and even CILIP. Is it time, as Liz implied, to remember that we have a distinct and common role? She asserted that we facilitate, we don’t simply support.

Whilst I didn’t enjoy her question about the master’s degree route into librarianship, and whether it has been unhealthily fetishised, I recognise my discomfort relates to my own status as a recent MA student. I applaud her reflective approach to asking tricky questions and to being “open and transparent rather than closed and exclusive.”2

The last comment I recorded from Liz’s presentation, in my new, fancy conference notebook: “We need to stop pretending to be neutral as a profession.”3 I couldn’t agree more. We’re not neutral; all our actions are small p political and a great number of them are POLITICAL.

Which allows me to neatly, and almost logically, segue into the session titled Innovation in public libraries. The work of Manchester Central Library and Archives+, presented by Larysa Bolton and Neil MacInnes, documents and celebrates LGBT+ history in the North West region. It is gloriously political, emotional and historically important: “We’re here, we’re queer. Manchester’s LGBT+ story is never going back underground.”4 The collection’s narrative predates the 1950s and the archiving is being handled with empathy and tact, in collaboration with the local council. The project has even helped other organisations to catalogue their own collections.

Amy Hearn presented 100% Digital Leeds: digital inclusion matters and I was blown away by the multi-organisation approach of the project and its far reaching impact for those living in Leeds. I love the mantra of removing barriers to accessing information and digital content. Not only is the project delivering digital access and technology to individuals, it’s also helping other community groups by loaning them devices so that they can trial their use, prove their benefits and then use this evidence to apply for bids to purchase their own. Obviously, the digital foundation of the project is of paramount importance but the magic, I think, lies in their collaborative approach; like Liz Jolly said, it’s an open and transparent model.

Similarly, the work at Kirklees to engage vulnerable teens and young adults through the power of rap and music is creative and fun but it’s also political. Kirstie Wilson’s presentation, Creative engagement in library services development, clearly demonstrated that the project has helped to re-engage some of the most marginalised young people in the library’s locale as well as raising the profile of the library through partnerships with schools and the University of Huddersfield.

Equality, diversity and INCLUSION in the world of LIS

I work at an FE college with multiple sites and libraries. I am the only LGBT+ member of the library team. My fantastic, motivational and empathetic boss, the site librarian, is the only staff member of colour in the team and on campus. We often joke, in that unamused way that marginalised people do, that we tick many of the employment equality “boxes” between us.

My boss and I have spent much time over the last year trying to better understand one another’s intersectional, lived experiences and endeavouring to apply that learning to the students we support. For instance, I identify as a gay, working class woman whose childhood was framed by social welfare and Section 28. We are both acutely aware that our experiences are not a catch-all reflection of those who are forced, or choose, to share our labels. Would I say there is a problem in our workplace with how those who are other are treated? That’s a difficult conversation. But, aye, there’s the rub… I’d say that until very recently the conversation has been absent. There was silence. She and I, with the support of others, are beginning to start that dialogue. I could write about how the weight of that responsibility shouldn’t always fall onto our shoulders but I’d rather talk about how delighted I was to learn that CILIP Conference 2019 was offering a number of opportunities to explore equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in LIS.

I hate mornings but I over-caffeinated myself so that I could attend the breakfast seminar, BAME Network: what it means to be an ally. I thought Shirley Yearwood-Jackman, chair of the network’s steering group, was an incisive and motivational speaker, from whom I learn a great deal. Who are allies? They’re not just people who don’t act with prejudice; this ambivalence and lack of racist output is insufficient. An ally actively promotes rights, individually and institutionally. An ally takes responsibility for learning about themselves and their own privilege. An ally seeks to learn about the lived experience of marginalised groups, rather than putting the onus on those groups to educate. An ally reflects, seeks knowledge and takes action. Shirley also warned that preaching to the converted doesn’t mean you are reaching out more widely; in our LIS settings, we need to start the conversation and build in on a foundation of empathy. Racist and prejudiced ideas and perceptions do not appear from nowhere. People have rationalised their beliefs and actions, underpinned by a historical legacy.

Hong-Anh Nguyen’s keynote address, Questioning diversity, was equally illuminating and echoed many of the insightful points addressed by the BAME Network breakfast session. She cautioned that equality and diversity strategies often pay lip service to the idea of diversity but they are shallow. A strategy is not synonymous with action and it won’t achieve anything on its own. Organisations may know they have a problem without understanding its scope. Institutionally, we should be asking:

  • Why do we do things in a certain way?
  • Can it be done more inclusively?
  • Can we celebrate others?
Hong-Anh Nguyen made many profound comments which are still echoing in my brain months later

Following her clear and inclusive message, imbued by her own lived experiences, I was horrified when one delegate chose to use the questions from the floor as an opportunity to interrogate Hong-Anh on her choice of Twitter handle. It is a play on words involving Dewey – we all know about his abhorrent, abusive actions.5 What I can’t understand, nor will I probably articulate it very clearly, is why someone would choose to spotlight that, in front of a primarily white delegation, when Hong-Anh had been invited to speak on inclusion? Because we all recognise inclusion is an issue in the LIS world. She had generously drawn on and shared her own experiences, individually and within her organisation. Was it to undermine her? To wrestle back some power? To accuse her of letting down the sisterhood? To score some mundane points? It left me feeling frustrated…

Following this address, Hong-Anh went on to chair Diversity in the profession, with four panellists: Binni Brynolf, Natasha S. Chowdory, Heena Karavadra and Tom Peach. I won’t be discussing what was said, directly, as the session obeyed the Chatham House rules. It was billed as an opportunity to hear, understand and value the lived experiences of LIS professionals from under-represented groups. Quite literally a chance to enact the promise we had made to the BAME Network in the earlier breakfast session to educate ourselves and to listen. I am grateful to this group. It is a raw, emotional and painful process to explain your experiences in a world and profession that sees you as other. Yet again, it transpired that a delegate did not respect or understand the nature of the session – not my story to tell – but I do find myself wishing that some of CILIP’s most senior people had been present and had stayed to check on the panellists. If the difference between diversity and inclusion is moving from visibility to the embedded inclusion of people at all levels or from liberal, well-meaning kindness to radical, active inclusion… I feel that CILIP may have paused at diversity.

I MET ONJALI Q RAUF AND SHE HUGGED ME. Yes, I have been fan-girling about this ever since. It was fantastic to listen to the panel of Diversity, books and reading, including Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Sharmilla Beezmohun, Olivia Danso, Sita Bramachari, Peter Kalu and Onjali Q Rauf (I may have mentioned her already). The work by BookTrust to improve the under-representation of books written and illustrated by people of colour form the UK was inspiring and alarming: “Over the last 11 years, fewer than 2% of all authors and/or illustrators of children’s books published in the UK were British people of colour.”6 What happens to young people in Britain when they don’t see themselves represented in the literature they’re reading? What happens to their aspirations for further education, higher education or careers in the creative arts?

The panel stressed that the role librarians play in connecting children and young people to books created by people of colour cannot be understated. In his keynote address, preceding this panel, Patrick Lambe argued that books and collections have shape, tell stories, change minds, take people on journeys and capture diversity. His call to arms: when a society is in crisis, attend to the margins; the centre is well able to look after itself.7

Speed dating and AI

Conference also allowed me to broaden my understanding of LIS related fields of which I have no experience and little comprehension! For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed the Knowledge and Information Management round table discussion, chaired by Alison Wheeler, as an opportunity to meet professionals with very varied roles. As a library student, it reminded me of the scope of opportunity out there when I’m ready to leave academia and join the workforce again. The speed dating approach was genius as it meant delegates met different people and chose which fields they wanted to explore; in my case, managing upwards and maximising the value of spend on content.

The opening address from Kriti Sharma was dazzling: Can Artificial Intelligence create a fairer world? I’d never thought about the fact that household AI devices are given female voices and the implications of that: Alexa, Siri, Google Home. I know algorithms exist that mean Amazon pushes adverts at me depending on my Facebook content (I find it disconcerting) and that I receive different news notifications to the others in my household because of my click history… but I didn’t know the extent to which bias and stereotyping is embedded into the design of these algorithms. For example, it affects the jobs and education opportunities you’re shown online. It literally helps to hold the glass ceiling in place. Kriti is positive it can change. Not by signing up to do the right thing but by making it a part of the DNA: designing algorithms and AI which are human-centric rather than focussed on sales, click ads and digital addiction. After all, “When the robots take over, we want them to be nice!” 8

Kriti Sharman both entertaining and terrifying the delegates!

Surprise bonuses

As a distance learner, I spent two years studying with some wonderful people from all over the world without actually seeing them in person. Attending conference meant that I was able to meet staff from the Information School and fellow Sheffield students, all with the utmost professionalism on my part. Obviously.

Eugenia Fernández-Almirón and I actually finding the venue after asking for directions
Cathy Bell fixing the water fountain after Eugenia used it
Me spotting a lecturer in the flesh: Sheila Webber, Information School, University of Sheffield

As someone who never wins anything, not only did I secure the fabulous PMLG bursary, I also won something else at conference. Whist other (I might argue, less fortunate) delegates won books, vouchers, Kindles and iPads, I was the ultimate winner… The Design Concept are the UK office of Lammhults Library Design (@designconceptuk) and, living up to their brand, they had a gorgeous stand at the conference where you could win a canary yellow elephant. It was love at first sight and I had to get him. Delegates were challenged to name the elephant and the best name transformed into ownership. Twirly is named after a keynote address by Liz McGettigan (@lizmcgettigan) at CoLRiC conference earlier this year. She declared that those in the LIS world should “turn whispers into roars;” and, so, Twirly was born.

Twirly has been living his best life

Now what?

Leaving conference, I was buzzing and felt equally angry and re-energised. I wanted to discard the passive-sofa-moaning (you know, where you watch the news, rage at the TV but do nothing) and turn my thoughts into actions by heeding the rallying cries of all the speakers and panellists I’d been privileged to hear. Below is a list of conscious actions I’ve undertaken because of my experiences and learnings at conference.

  • I’ve signed up to join CILIP’s BAME Network as an ally and passed on the details to my boss.
  • I’ve added a series of pins to my lanyard (and my boss’ lanyard) that demonstrate we are allies. We’re hoping our students and staff ask us what they mean or why we’re wearing them so we can start the dialogue.
  • I worked hard to diversify our fiction collection last year, with non-existent funds! Moving forward, I am committed to continue with this, mindful of BookTrust’s statistics on British book creators of colour. I will also continue the impassioned dialogue, with my organisation, about increasing the visibility of diverse fiction.
  • I’ve re-arranged our fiction / reading for pleasure collection to enable a half-termly surfacing of stock related to a theme. The first theme, celebrating difference, tied into September’s International Day of Peace. The books are written by authors or feature characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultural heritage. As the year progresses, we will use the display to highlight equality, diversity and inclusion in different ways.
  • I created a display focussed on International Day of Peace, including the UN’s sustainable development goals9. They turned them into achievable actions for individuals, so I added these to the display and challenged our students and staff to think about which they will pledge to undertake.
  • I’ve spoken to everyone I know about the lessons I’ve learned from conference – regardless of their level of interest!
  • I’ve started to call out micro-aggressions, both those I receive (last month: who is the husband and wears the trousers?) and those I see others receive (a shopper pushing a stranger’s occupied wheelchair so that he could reach a shelf). In the case of the latter, I always seek the receiver’s express permission because I don’t want to disempower anyone.
  • As a household, we’ve continued the tradition of refusing to buy or receive Christmas gifts; instead, we donate much needed items and cash to a homeless centre in Portsmouth. I’m delighted that the business support staff at work are getting behind this cause in lieu of a Secret Santa, this year.
  • I did some voluntary work for the Trussell Trust and I’ve been adding items to the supermarket collection point every month.

I know that I will get things wrong and, in trying, I could very well offend the people I’m trying to include. I need to be receptive to criticism and I must reflect on what I learn. As Shirley Yearwood-Jackman argued, many people fear that questioning the status quo will reflect poorly on themselves10; I won’t allow my worry of getting it wrong to transform into cowardice or inaction.

This is just the start…11

References (And, yes, I’m combining Harvard APA 6th with end notes… the horror!)

1. Gorman, M. (2015). Our enduring values revisited: librarianship in an ever-changing world. Chicago, USA: ALA Editions

2. Jolly, L. (2019, July 3). Librarianship and identity: professionalism in a changing world [keynote address]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

3. Ibid.

4. Bolton, L. & MacInnes, N. (2019, July 3). Never going underground: LGBT archive collections at Manchester Central Library [seminar presentation]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

5. Blake, E. (2017). The father of modern libraries was a serial sexual harasser. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from

6. BookTrust. (2019). BookTrust represents. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from

7. Lambe, P. (2019, July 4). People of the book: knowledge in our society and our role in it [keynote address]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

8. Sharman, K. (2019, July 3). Can Artificial Intelligence create a fairer world? [keynote address]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

9. United Nations. (2019). About the sustainable development goals. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from

10. Yearwood-Jackman, S. (2019, July 4). BAME Network: what it means to be an ally [seminar]. Manchester, UK: CILIP Conference 2019

11. The Trussell Trust. (2019). Logo. Retrieved July 31, 2019 from

Books, glorious books…

In the brief interlude between the MA dissertation deadline and the PhD start date, I’ve been gorging myself on fiction. PhD induction was today so reading-for-fun may take a backseat again. I’m aware many of the ratings are high so this makes me seem easily pleased but I’d counter that I’m pretty adept at choosing books I predict I’ll like!

Book: “The accident season”
Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Source: Waterville Libeary, Hampshire Library Service
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: Cara’s family suffer from an annual, month-long accident season which cannot be avoided. Why?
Positives: supernatural tone, unusual premise
Negatives: resolution predictability, unnecessary romance

Book: “The One”
Author: John Marrs
Source: Kindle, Amazon
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: a DNA test can reveal your soul-mate. What are the consequences when your match isn’t straight forward?
Positives: blending of SciFi and crime, multiple narratives
Negatives: rushed ending for several protagonists, police officer choices seemed implausible or unlikely

Book: “The Testaments”
Author: Margaret Atwood
Source: hardback, Amazon pre-order
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: the collapse of Gilead, 16 years after Offred’s story comes to an end
Positives: multiple narratives, complex ethics, some back-story
Negatives: potentially confusing (in parts) to those unfamiliar with HBO series, too short!

Book: “Elantris”
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Source: audiobook, Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: a cursed city, religious colonisation and the demise of magic explosively meet in a tale of politics, strategy and the human condition
Positives: scope (worlds and politics), well explored rational vs. spiritual ethics, multiple plotlines, original
Negatives: one protagonist’s preoccupation with romance

Book: “Nevernight”
Author: Jay Kristoff
Source: Kindle, Amazon
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Mia attends assassin school to avenge her family and must face her many demons (but not a YA book)
Positives: character development, syntactical style (not to everyone’s taste), brilliant librarian, description
Negatives: sex that didn’t seem to add anything

Book: “A good girl’s guide to murder”
Author: Holly Jackson
Source: paperback, Tesco (impulse purchase)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: Pippa uses the EPQ (extended project qualification) during her A Levels to investigate a murder from 5 years ago
Positives: epistolary (including transcripts, notes, scanned images), twisty enough that the outcome isn’t predictable, characters are believable
Negatives: protagonist makes some leaps and assumptions which could have been better explored

Book: “Black Narcissus”
Author: Rumer Godden
Source: audiobook, Audible (Bookclub choice)
Rating: 🖤🖤🖤🖤🖤
Plot: as far as I can tell, a group of nuns travel to the Himalayas to convert and educate the locals
Positives: …
Negatives: so racist it made me too uncomfortable to finish

Book: “Successor’s Promise” (Millennium’s Rule, Book 3)
Author: Trudi Cannavan
Source: audiobook, Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: The worlds reel following the demise of the Raen whilst Rielle and Tyen struggle with their own responsibilities to Qall and Vellab
Positives: detailed character development, new worlds, complex ideology
Negatives: Qall is annoying (whining teen!)

Alternative acknowledgements

It’s been a bit of a hiatus for blogging, this summer, as I’ve had the small matter of a dissertation to write. I will resume now that it’s all over (freeeeeeeeeeeedom) because I have all the early summer conferences to tell you about!

I found that when writing my MA dissertation, the most satisfying section was the acknowledgements page. This is the version that was submitted…

I wish to thank the colleges and individuals who participated in this research, particularly for their generous gift of time:

  • Chichester College Group
    • Chichester College
    • Brinsbury College
    • Crawley College
    • Worthing College
  • Portsmouth College

I am grateful to Dr Briony Birdi, my supervisor, for her unwavering encouragement and sage guidance.

This study is dedicated to my wife, Helen McKenna-Aspell, whose belief in me looks on tempests and is never shaken (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116).

Quite professional, no? I was governed by my inner, nagging voice who reminded me that whatever I wrote would be there for ever. But, if I ignored that voice and wrote a less guarded (slightly swearier) version, it would go something like this…

I wish to thank the colleges and individuals who participated in this research, particularly for their generous gift of time:

  • Chichester College Group
    • Chichester College
    • Brinsbury College
    • Crawley College
    • Worthing College
  • Portsmouth College

I’m proper proud to work for Chichester College Group and having the opportunity to speak to so many people has been a privilege. I can’t believe you all took the time and energy to support me with this when you’re so busy running the world. I’m your biggest fan. Also, we have so many rock-star female leaders who are brilliant role models for their staff and students.

I am grateful to Dr Briony Birdi, my supervisor, for her unwavering encouragement and sage guidance. Other people look up to and idolise celebrities; I’m lucky to have someone appear in my life who has inspired me to be and do better. In a non-stalker fashion, I am in awe of her and want to be like her when I finally grow up.

This study is dedicated to my wife, Helen McKenna-Aspell, whose belief in me looks on tempests and is never shaken (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). The absolute shitshow she’s put up with for two years would have broken a weaker person. I’ve never understood why she chose me but I’m grateful, every day, that she did.

This research would not have translated from my brain to the page without the loyalty of Nespresso. There’s no one else I’d rather work with at 3 o’clock in the morning. Equally, without the support of the supervisor at Dunelm I would not have completed the MA. He made sure I was able to replace the study chair, which broke at the least convenient time, with immediate effect. He even loaded it into my car. Michael, my chiropractor, has been steadfast in his dedication to my back. There were days when I felt like I’d climbed a mountain, fought several bears, felled a tree and carried it home – and all I’d actually done was sit at the table for 19 hours straight. The man is a wizard. I must thank Laura and Rose, my Chichester College library compadres, for making me belly-laugh this summer – I mean, we also did some work but the laughter was the medicine I didn’t even know I needed. The estates team at Brinsbury College allowed me to break in on Saturdays so that I could work on a real computer in the peace and quiet. This has been a running theme – nobody said no to me! The yeses stacked up and made life just that little easier.

Some specific thanks…

  • Alessio Pruneddu: the person behind the Q-sorTouch system I used. Generous with his time and patient of my idiosyncrasies.
  • Savannah Kelly and Brian Young: their research into perceptions of library services inspired my whole study project and, when I reached out to them via email, they were incredibly helpful and gave much advice (Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 2018).
  • Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke: the duo behind so much comprehensive and innovative material about thematic analysis, including several videos I’ve watched on repeat. Again, very generous with their time and guidance when asked via Twitter.
  • Sue Reed: Horticulture Demi-God at Brinsbury and my MA partner in crime for the year. It’s been so cathartic to have someone at work to chat to – a mutual cheerleading of sorts.

In fact, I am grateful for the people who live in my phone. I’ve reached out, often despairingly, on Twitter and I’ve been given advice about software, Q-methodology, statistics, thematic analysis, dissertation dos and don’ts. And that was just for the dissertation, never mind the MA assignments.

To all the coffee shops, the big chains, the independent cafés… my unending gratitude for offering a different location so that I didn’t succumb to the cabin fever. Some days the only highlight was escaping to Tesco for a Harris and Hoole caramel latte. Boston Tea Party will hold a special place in my heart for feeding me no less than 3 times in the week running up to submission – fabulous coffee and damn good cake.

Maggie, my English Springer Spaniel, who gave me cuddles and kept me company through the long nights… but definitely not her brother, Stripy. The cat that shat everywhere, on repeat, at the least convenient times. He’s old and we love him etc. etc. but I am not thankful for that contribution to my days and nights.

Merci, universe, for sending a pretty lame summer. Had the weather been glorious, it would have been so much harder to be stuck indoors. You can send the summer now; I’ve got time to enjoy it in September.

To my patient friends and family – thank you for letting me be AWOL without guilt. I can’t wait to spend September catching up with you, your spouses, your kids and your pets (not necessarily in that order).

And finally to the Badass Bibliophiles. The group of fellow distance learners who have become friends, agony aunts, therapists, proof-readers, comedians and around-the-clock supporters. You’re the best.

I can’t believe it’s all over. Now, just the brutally long wait to see how I’ve done.

CoLRiC Best Practice Award 2019

I have never written an awards entry before and I certainly didn’t think I’d win my first attempt! CoLRiC stands for the Council for Learning Resources in Colleges and it is “an independent organisation working with library and learning resources centre managers in further education, sixth form colleges and the HE in FE sector to enhance and maintain excellence in their services” (CoLRiC, 2018). Since 2013, CoLRiC has issued Best Practice Awards to college libraries for projects and activities that have demonstrably enhanced service delivery.

Chichester College Group is comprised of four colleges, two of which provide a shared library service: Chichester College and Brinsbury College. I was asked to launch and manage a Twitter account for this shared service back in November 2018. I’ve worked closely with the whole team on this enterprise but the hard work of two, in particular, has meant that the endeavour was possible. Laura Piper, Library Assistant and dog whisperer from Chichester College and Rose Hull, Business Apprentice and creative genius, also at Chichester.

Floor selfie with William the WonderDog

As winners, we received a gorgeous trophy, £150 to spend on the libraries and a place to attend CoLRiC’s annual conference. This year, the conference was held at University College Birmingham and I attended with the College Librarian.

When receiving the award, it is expected that you will showcase your submission in a five minute presentation. I’m going to share that presentation in this blog because it explains why and how we’ve used Twitter.

Why Twitter? This is a good question. We wanted to advocate and promote our services within the college to staff and the senior team. We wanted to make connections to the wider community – both geographically and in the library and FE worlds! When establishing a corporate social media presence, it was imperative we presented a clear and consistent voice. Professional, personalised and personable – our Twitter account is a literal extension of who we are in the physical libraries. This voice underpins our content, approach and tone. In terms of the content, we aim to be both informative and fun.

Laura and I produced this simplified policy after experimenting with Twitter in the autumn term and looking at best practice. In addition to the grand aims and respectable ideology of the policy, we also created a more grounded and concrete set of house style guidelines. Or, more simply put, dos and don’ts. After all, librarians love a list! The detail has helped to empower everyone to participate regardless of confidence or prior experience.

I’m going to take you on a little whistle-stop tour of some of our content and campaigns. Each was designed to support one of our three core aims: modernisation, service advocacy and promotion and engagement with the college group’s senior team, staff and the wider community. I appreciate that screenshots of Twitter might not translate brilliantly to a blog; you can of course follow us for a better look! It’s @CCGLibrary and, yes, this is a shameless plug for followers.

We linked this year’s Reading Ahead scheme to the hashtag #BooksAndBeasts, asking students and staff to catch their pets reading. Reading Ahead is a national campaign led by The Reading Agency, focused on encouraging reading for pleasure and improving adult literacy. Using animals really helped to break down barriers; as Brinsbury is a land-based college, we already have an animal-mad audience. We also used the Twitter-generated content to market the campaign around campus… pictures of animals reading popped up on photocopiers, in cafés and on toilet doors. It worked – we had a record number of participants!

Love your libraries was a month long, overarching campaign that pulled together multiple activities such as the launch of Reading Ahead and our annual student survey. It helped to promote the role that the libraries and staff can play in the student experience. The library and other spaces around campus were decorated with handmade roses and other frivolities. Students (and staff) left the library love-notes and we shared these on Twitter. A tangible impact of the campaign was an even stronger link to the GCSE English Department for Reading Ahead and other projects.

Earlier in the year, William the Wonderdog became our newest librarian. He is a qualified therapy dog and Laura is his handler. I could easily use the rest of the blog to explore how he has impacted the library and our service offer through the power of belly rubs but back to the business at hand… we used Twitter to connect William to the college group and wider community. Advertising his presence on Twitter meant staff, in turn, advertised it to students. He’s gathered quite a following both online (@WSnosidge) and on campus. His Twitter presence has also helped to promote services and stock.

The weekly Mini Writing Challenge is a bit of fun rooted in word play and literacy. Participants have included students, staff, departments, other libraries, other colleges and even writers like Michael Rosen and Michael Grant. We run a number of weekly features like this, designed to engage with communities within and beyond the college: some promote stock, some advocate reading for pleasure, some encourage debate.

On a more serious note, we also use Twitter to advertise our services. We know the students aren’t looking at Twitter but their teaching staff and personal tutors are! By surfacing stock, promoting digital resources and advertising opening hours on Twitter, it reminds the staff and the senior team of how the library can support them in delivering outstanding learning outcomes. It is no coincidence that our e-book borrowing rates are up or that our weekend footfall has increased since we launched Twitter.

We believe one of our mandates is to help students to broaden their minds and experiences; Twitter helped us to achieve this. Here’s an example. Following a staff recommendation, we purchased a poetry book written by a local poet. This led to an online dialogue with the poet, Simon Zec, that ultimately resulted in:

  • a celebration of World Poetry Day;
  • a blackout poetry competition with more than 70 entries;
  • a poetry event in the library attended by students, senior management and staff, led by Simon – who also judged the competition.

The impact of our Twitter account isn’t measured in likes, retweets, followers or engagement, although I am obsessed with them and they have all demonstrated positive upward trends.

The impact isn’t really reflected by our increased book borrowing, footfall or e-book usage, despite the fact I can evidence these.

The impact is really more qualitative and can be found in the comments others make about our service: to us, about us and in the public domain.

Things students have said to / about me this summer…

Student: Why aren’t you a teacher? You should be a teacher!

Me: Well, lovely student, funny thing… I am a teacher.

Student: Why you doing this, then?

Me: Because I love this. Because this is as worthy as teaching. Because I think I can help people doing this. More than I helped them when teaching. Because I also still get to teach in this role. Because… Michael Gove.


Student: Jo, it’s June.

Me: Yup, I know. It’s come around quickly, hasn’t it?

Student: What? Yeah. No, I mean, you haven’t changed the Riddles of the Month. Where are this month’s riddles?!”

Turns out things you think aren’t gaining traction have actually taken root.


Student: Can we play [insert name of game] again?

Me: Sure. I’ve got 5 minutes.

Student: Can you let me win this time?

Me: Awwww. (Sympathetic noises). No. It’s not in my DNA.

Student: Right. We’re playing chess, then, because you don’t win that.”


Student: Is it safe to talk?

Me: (Concerned and receptive face and body language). Of course. Are you ok?

Student: Eh? Oh, yes. No, I meant have you seen episode [insert number relating to Game of Thrones season 8] yet? I need to talk about it; there’s so many things I need to get off my chest.


Student: (Walking into library) LA LA LA LA LA LA LA! (Jamming fingers into his ears) LA LA LA LA LA LA!

Me: (Yelling) What are you doing?

Student: I haven’t seen Endgame or Game of Thrones episode [insert number] yet so the library is dangerous. Don’t ruin them for me.

Me: I would never (absolute horror registered on my face and appropriately melodramatic hand gestures).

Student: No, I know you wouldn’t. It’s all the other [naughty word, rhymes with cluckers] I don’t trust. LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!


Me: (Helping out a series of students with chargers, Sharpies, laptops, punched pockets – also called, slippery fish – books, stapler remover, scissors, glue, every ramification of paper and a drink…)

Student: Jo’s the plug (to the room, very loudly).

Me: Eh?

Really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Initially, my mind wandered to the cute Christmas advert by Sainsbury’s… Was I like the little plug-boy, bringing joy and light to all?

That thought didn’t last long. I was suspicious but I did not want to Google it at work in case it breached our appropriate use of IT policy and set off sirens, triggered flashy lights and angered the Computer Services team. So I waited until I got home.

Apparently, it means someone in the know who can connect you to what you need. I quite liked it – seems like a pretty accurate description of librarianship. That was until I checked further sources (I am a nearly-librarian, after all) which stated the plug hooks people up to drug dealers.

No. No. No. Dislike. I also didn’t enjoy that I’ve become that old, I had to verify colloquialisms.

Just a quickie

No – not that kind. No time for that. Get your mind out of the gutter.

This is a blog about not taking my own advice: prioritisation.

Mum messaged this week to ask how I am getting on. She knows well enough to check in but not expect much in return at this time of the year 😂 Thanks for your patience, Mum.

Usually, in the spring, I balance two jobs: teaching (past) / library assistant (present ) + working for an exam board. Actually, in the past, this has been multiple exam boards at the same time. I’m not allowed to say which one, which exam or what role I have. Top secret stuff. Suffice to say, it’s a very busy, high-stakes role with lots of travel and overnight visits. Those who know me well understand that I thrive under pressure and love challenge. My internal wiring is clearly weird but it might be a McKenna trait. We’re all a bit now-now-now. My spring is always hectic but I always get it done.

Anyway, last year, I decided to throw caution to the wind and tried balancing three things: library assistant + secret exam board role + my MA. At least the MA assignments were submitted pretty early and I was back to just two stressful and simultaneous activities. I managed it all in the McKenna manner.

This year? Well. Here’s something I said during one of the fantastic, monthly chats for new professionals, in the Twitterverse.

*Laugh hysterically and knowingly here* Obviously, this is a not-very-subtle example of foreshadowing so, as I’m sure you predicted, I did not heed my own counsel.

2019 spring = library assistant + new work Twitter account + secret exam role + straightforward MA module assignment + MA module that requires hundreds of separate tasks and a frightening level of introspection and self-reflection which I find uncomfortable + the small matter of my dissertation research involving 6 (wonderful) FE colleges + two conferences.*

So when Mum reached out across the universe to check I was still on the planet…

Will I get it all done? Not sure. I feel like I’m at that part in the movie when the soundtrack is super tense, getting louder and faster. There are a lot of drums. It’s underpinned by that opening wail from Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. I wish I could fast forward through a jolly montage, set to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, featuring me working at superhuman speed, eating ice cream, in my PJs and donning a messy bun – popping out the other side brandishing my bound dissertation for submission.

Alas, this is pure fantasy; thus, I apologise in advance to my wife, nephew, Mum, family and friends for my absence / mood / stress / forgetfulness [please delete as appropriate].

* You’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about it all instead of just getting on with it. It’s cathartic to moan, alright?!

More than a display (part 2)

No big long introduction – see part 1 for my ideological rant.

Purpose: supporting student wellbeing

The #WhaamTheExams campaign is focused on supporting students through this stressful season. It has a weekly theme, delivering freebies and help for getting organised, revision methods, health, mindfulness and fun.

We’ve also placed herbs on each table from our wonderful horticulture team. They can be touched, smelt or even eaten. Each is purported to have different benefits such as relaxation, clarity, energy and calmness.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fifth law and the College’s mantra of students first.)

Purpose: promotion of reading

Each year, The Reading Agency promotes World Book Night in colleges, prisons, public libraries, hospitals, care homes, shelters… its core aim is to improve adult literacy. I like to view it as World Book Day for grown ups, usually minus the fancy dress.

This year, we ran a staff shelfie competition to demonstrate to the students that staff read and own books. We also had an origami station, making and decorating one-minute-bookmarks. Once the student had a bookmark, they were nudged to borrow a book so that they could use it.

In 2018, we encouraged the wider college community to donate good-quality, unwanted books and magazines. From these, we created a lucky dip. Any student could take and unwrap an item as long as they promised to either read it or find it a good home if it wasn’t their cup of tea. Over the week, we gifted over 70 items.

Reading Ahead is an annual reading challenge, also organised by The Reading Agency, to encourage patrons (in our case, students) to read 6 items: books, articles, poems, quick reads. To help break down barriers to reading, and in keeping with the campus’ ethos, we branded the challenge as #BooksAndBeasts. Students, staff and our online community were challenged to send us photos of their animals reading.

These were then turned into posters and put up everywhere on campus.

The physical display included some of these images, plus an array of animal-related reading material (quick reads, picture books, novels, magazines, visual books, reference books) and many, many toy animals.

Essentially, because it’s an annual campaign and some of our students are with us for 2 to 4 years, it’s important to adapt the marketing materials produced by The Reading Agency by adding our own, unique hook – otherwise, it can become too familiar and not enticing. It worked as we’ve had well over 70 participants.

(Ranganathan’s laws: all of them).

Purpose: connecting the library and its students to the real world

Many of our students have never met anyone who makes a living from or has a career in writing; I’m not sure they connect the book they’re holding or article they’re being told they have to read to an actual person. This may be particularly true for those students who are on the cycle of resitting GCSE English and have, therefore, fallen out of love with words.

We celebrated World Poetry Day back in March. Whilst most students grumble that they hate poetry, as a teacher, I know it has the power to unleash creativity and, when introduced in the right way, can be accessible for everyone. After all, it has no rules. We linked the national day of celebration to our existing stock and, in fact, boosted our slim poetry collection by donating some of our own books from home, including a heavily annotated copy of Sylvia Plath’s poems (in my brother’s hand and then mine for our respective A Levels in ’96 and ’99!); a copy of “Moon Whales” signed by Ted Hughes and Chris Riddell, which I won in ’95 as the result of a national poetry competition; and “Mostly Hating Tories” written by my wife’s friend, Janine Booth – an honest, sweary and political collection of poems.

The unusual location of the display, the use of black and the hanging sign meant it display stood out and received a lot of attention. I’d also labelled the books with faux warnings about their sensitive content… which of course meant students picked them up to read. * wink *

In addition , we ran a Blackout Poetry competition inspired by Matt, a Year 6 teacher on Twitter (@5GsPlz). More on how to write Blackout Poetry here. I warn you: it’s addictive. We worked hard with the GCSE English teachers to engage the resit students – in the end, they had multiple trips to the library during their lesson time. We also had entries from many other students, staff and visitors to the campus!

The climax of the whole poetry celebration was an event called “Poetry in the Library.” We sent bespoke invitation postcards to teaching staff and senior management to encourage them to visit. Simon Zec, a local poet, was with us all day. He performed poems, took questions about writing and his process and judged the 70 competition entries! He also wrote a poem dedicated to Brinsbury. It was brilliant to watch students’ body language transform from “do we have to be here?” to “actually, this guy is talking sense.” It was literally possible to track the engagement shift in each session from leaning away / to leaning in \ . Magic.

Over the coming month, we will also display the students’ Blackout Poems in the library, meaning each student will be given a public audience.

This display related to physical stock, a competition enabling students to be creative and play with language, connections across the college and the community and an event.

(Ranganathan’s laws: all of them but especially the third law as we helped the poetry books to find readers!).