Last year was one of ‘reimagining’ and adapting when circumstances are not ideal, and of course the CILIP Conference was no exception. Having only begun my role in health libraries in late March 2020, I was absolutely delighted to receive a YOHHLNet Bursary for November’s CILIP conference, an event that I have always been keen to participate in but never previously managed to attend. Unlike previous years (but maybe setting the precedent for several years to come), instead of getting to head off merrily on a train to some far flung destination (or Manchester), and spend break times chatting over complimentary coffee with librarians from near and far, I attended the CILIP Conference from the PC in my bedroom.

Despite being hesitant at the prospect of yet another day glued to a screen, and wondering how it could possibly capture that ‘conference’ feel rather than just being one more lengthy webinar, I was excited by the themes in the programme, and looking forward to a full day dedicated to professional development. However, since this was 2020 and nothing went quite to plan, even my dedicated day of CPD ended up being highly disrupted. My 7-year old’s class bubble popping the day before, and my 3-year-old waking up covered in chicken pox, meant that I ended up watching the sessions whilst managing significant amounts of whinging and fighting. Not ideal circumstances, to say the least!

However, one advantage of the online conference format is the ability to easily revisit interesting sessions, sessions you didn’t make it to because of clashes, or sessions that you couldn’t quite hear over the whining of a chicken pox ridden toddler. Combining the notes that I managed to make on the day with rewatching of some key sessions over the last few weeks, I’ve pulled together the following highlights (credit to Ryan Ford at Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust for these headings, pinched from his 2019 conference report):

My conference highlight …

Without a doubt, this was the keynote from Tracie D Hall, Executive Director of the American Library Association. Her address was described as a ‘call to mobilisation’ for the information profession. Tracie spoke with passion and a wealth of knowledge and experience, describing the two simultaneous pandemics we are experiencing globally - not only a public health crisis, but also a crisis of digital and information inequity, which she described compellingly as a comorbidity during Covid-19.

Speaking of the role of libraries as ‘lead interveners’ in this crisis of information inequity, she stressed the need for vigilance to ensure that the pandemic does not limit access to libraries just when it is needed most. I really appreciated the clear reminder that the changes we need to make right now should amplify our core values as librarians - a change in tactics, rather than in mission.

Tracie’s explanations of information poverty and information redlining were among the most compelling that I have encountered. Describing the skills and material means to obtain effective information as one of the levers out of poverty, and the systematic denial of equitable access to information and information services as a public health crisis, she repeatedly made the case for librarians to take on the role of activists in tackling these issues, or risk undermining our relevance as a profession. She presented statistics on the correlation between unfavourable health outcomes and lack of access to technology, and the way that digitisation so often works to deepen existing societal inequalities rather than address them, such as the fact that in the US four times as many Black people than White people struggle with poor internet connectivity. Asking us to imagine what the cost to our families of suddenly having no access to digital information right now would be, she emphasised that this is the reality for many people in the US and UK.

Along with her descriptions of the injustices of the situation right now and the struggle that so many are facing, Tracie offered inspiration and focus for future directions in library services. She spoke of a ‘third great wave’ of library services, supporting equal access to the internet and closing the digital and data divide. The need to address micro-inequities within library services was also highlighted-are we (however unintentionally) keeping people out of libraries because they ‘don’t belong’? What alternative future can we imagine where libraries make an increasing difference to these issues of information inequality? Her stark but inarguable statement that there will be no return to ‘normal’ post-Covid, just adaptation to new ways of living, emphasised the importance of making these issues central to the information profession, across all sectors.

One thing I will be changing at work following attendance at this conference will be …

Drawing on themes from throughout the day, and particularly the morning session on health literacy, I would like to learn more about how to be part of efforts to support work to directly address these information inequalities. As my career began in public libraries, I used to spend a great deal of time working directly with people who were digitally excluded and lacked some of the skills needed to find and use crucial information. I’m particularly interested in how to continue to use my skills to support people in this situation whilst no longer working face to face with the general public. Learning more about how we as health librarians can support health literacy in the wider population, particularly given how important this is in the current circumstances, is something I would like to prioritise in the future.

The presentation that really struck me was …

International - The role of libraries in crisis and recovery. With speakers from library associations in India, Africa and Europe discussing how they have handled the challenges of the last year, this session gave a global viewpoint that I really appreciated. For me, the session highlighted both key differences and similarities in the profession and its challenges in different global settings. In conferences and CPD, it’s rare to go beyond a very Anglocentric view of our profession and of information issues, so this session struck me as a refreshing look through ‘different eyes’ at the current situation in libraries.

The most engaging speaker was …

I’ve already sung her praises above, but Tracie D Hall was an excellent speaker. Capturing and holding the audience’s attention is so hard to do online, and sometimes even the most interesting material fails to engage for the entirety of a presentation, but Tracie’s style was both warm and compelling. Even with small children competing for my attention whilst I was watching, my attention never waned during this keynote. Even though we weren’t together in person, the impact of this presentation on the audience could be felt as she spoke, quite an achievement in the virtual setting.

I felt that the key theme of the conference was

The impacts of the pandemic were obviously a key theme running through every presentation and discussion, which was inevitable and necessary at this time. Beyond this though, the theme of information inequality and the ways that its various causes and impacts have been heightened by the pandemic was one that had some influence on every presentation that I attended.

I would recommend attending CILIP conference because …

Despite the less than ideal circumstances, attending the conference felt like a real refresher in the challenges and achievements of the wider profession. It renewed my enthusiasm for being part of the sector as a whole. It can be easy to forget how much there is to learn from information professionals other sectors, settings and countries. The conference was an opportunity to immerse myself in this learning for a day, be inspired, and spark new ideas and perspectives

March 2021

Beth Tapster
Corporate Support Librarian
Medical Education
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust