At the end of March 2022, the OxCam College Librarians’ Conference was hosted online for the very first time. Held every two years, OxCam brings the college librarians from Oxford and Cambridge together to share experiences and knowledge, reflect on library practices, and of course, engage in some friendly rivalry (cake competition anyone??)! Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we were unable to meet in person, but instead joined a virtual conference spread over Thursday 24, Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 March. This was an excellent opportunity for us as trainees to hear from library professionals from across the Universities, and we are very grateful to Cambridge for hosting this year and for putting together such a fantastic programme! Each day was structured around a central theme, so here are a few thoughts about what was said and what we learned.
Day 1: Decolonisation
In many ways, the conference could not have gotten off to a better start than with the Reader Services Workshop led by the Cambridge Decolonising Working Group. This was a fascinating session which encouraged participants to think about the ways in which racial bias plays out in our libraries – primarily in virtual reader services scenarios – and how we as library professionals can respond to systemic issues such as unconscious bias, race- and name-based macroaggressions, and the degree awarding gap. In break-out rooms, we discussed the research of Sally Hamer (herself a former Wolfson College, Oxford, trainee!): ‘Colour blind: Investigating the racial bias of virtual reference services in English academic libraries’ (The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 47:5, 2021). Hamer’s research is an important read for anyone working in library services. In particular, it highlights how our response to a reader enquiry may be tied up with aspects other than the actual question – including, even, a reader’s name and the racial biases we have associated with that name. Yet what was also especially noteworthy about this session was that the break out groups fostered a real sense of involvement and discussion for participants. We were able to talk directly with people from different libraries in a range of roles and career stages: a really productive and, we think, a fitting start to OxCam 2022. You can watch Sally Hamer’s findings here: ‘Colour Blind: Investigating the racial bias of virtual reference services’.
After a short break – in which the virtual meeting room was left open for casual chatting as people ran for tea, bathroom breaks, and snacks – we reconvened for a panel discussion on Decolonisation & Discussion: Learning from Libraries Experiences. The three panellists were Genny Grim (Pembroke College, Cambridge), David Rushmer (English Faculty, Cambridge), and Renée Prud’Homme (Worcester College, Oxford). They began by each introducing the efforts taken in their library to decolonise the collections, before moving on to answer questions and discuss their work. Two things really came through in this session as being central to positive decolonisation work in Oxford and Cambridge libraries. The first was working directly with library stakeholders (students, other staff members, academics), and the second was committing to decolonisation as an ongoing, ever-evolving part of librarianship. Perhaps most poignant, though, was a parting question from the audience which asked, “can we decolonise the college library without decolonising the college [or the] wider Cambridge / Oxford library system”? This is something we are sure many of us will be thinking and acting upon in the future.
Day 2: Accessibility
The second day began with Accessibility and Inclusion in Libraries for Disabled Students, which was a reflection on a year of the Libraries Accessibility Service at Cambridge (Patrick Dowson, Accessibility Services Manager, Cambridge). The number of students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND or SEN) has been increasing significantly and the shocking statistic that there is a 3% awarding gap between SEND students and students without SEND. In addition, SEND students have a lower continuity rate. These facts show us we need to think about the social model of disability in our libraries. The social model of disability says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. The COVID-19 panic has increased some of these barriers, but also improved some, like hybrid study, ready access to scans, and more online resources. However, as Patrick Dowson stated, going back to the old normal before the pandemic is not an option – we must think about how libraries can work for SEND students in this ‘new normal’.
The following talk featured Eleanor Winterbottom (Apprentice Library Assistant, St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Aimee Burlakova (Librarian, St Antony’s College), who spoke about The Library, Information and Archive Services Assistant Apprenticeship Scheme: Opportunities for Diverse Applicants to Develop Careers in Libraries. The apprenticeship scheme is a great opportunity for those who want to work in libraries who did not necessarily go to university. You can read about Eleanor’s Day in the Life on the blog.
After a short break, we heard short talks about the Support Before Arrival: Enabling Non-Traditional Students to Thrive at Cambridge by Suzanne Tonkin, Librarian, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. The college’s new programme aims to improve students’ first-year experience and remove all barriers to success. This involves a bridging course between school and university, a residential summer school, and a scheme through which students could submit books they required from their reading lists and the library would buy them for them to keep for the year. Following this, Cecilia Vartholomeou, Senior Library Assistant at Christ’s Library, Cambridge, spoke about supporting students through the provision of accessibility equipment. Christ’s Library offers specialist and ergonomic equipment, but also resources which are available for all, such as coloured notepads and overlays, adjustable laptop or phone stands, magnifying glasses, book rests, and many more. She also spoke about library anxiety and readers experiencing threshold anxiety, which can be very common in the grand libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, and highlighted that it is important to offer up-to-date library and accessibility guides such as Cambridge’s College Access guide or Oxford’s Access Guide. Cecilia noted that the library’s book rests were very popular, and that the emoji stress balls were so popular that they all go as soon as they are put out.
Day 3: Lightning Talks
The final day of OxCam was a bit different from the first two – it was structured around 5- to 10-minute Lightning Talks. There were ten Lightning Talks in total, and they ranged in topic from how Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, has supported the University’s very first Foundation Year Students to to how Wolfson College, Cambridge, have welcomed and worked with early-career librarians looking for work experience.
There were also three Lightning Talks led by trainees – including one of our very own! Heather Barr (St Edmund Hall) spoke with Emma Anderson (Queen’s College, Cambridge) and Ellen Woolf (Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge) about what it has been like to enter librarianship during a time of such a shift in attitude, education, and behaviour around decolonisation. Heather says:
“I opened my part of the Lightning Talk by saying that our students are an exceptional resource to draw upon when we are thinking about decolonisation. But working closely with Ellen and Emma has really highlighted to me how valuable it is to collaborate with other librarians, especially from outside of our own institutions. We can all be each other’s resources! OxCam has been a wonderful opportunity to share ideas and experiences, and I can’t wait to build on the discussions we’ve had through the rest of my career.”
The conference ended with some interesting parting thoughts about decolonisation in libraries and improving accessibility. The winners of the logo competition and the bake-off were announced. Sadly, the cake submission from the Oxford graduate trainee housemates was not mentioned, but the winners were so impressive, we don’t really mind.
- Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers | Reference & User Services Association (RUSA) (ala.org)
- IFLA Digital Reference Guidelines
- International Naming Conventions – Decolonising through critical librarianship
- Decolonising through critical librarianship – A platform for Cambridge librarians approaching decolonisation (wordpress.com)
- The Black Advisory Hub (Cambridge)
- Pembroke College Library history collection, ‘Decolonising through critical librarianship’
- Worcester College, ‘Decolonising the Library Shelves’.
Relevant book titles:
- Jess Crilly and Regina Everitt (eds), Narrative expansions: interpreting decolonisation in academic libraries (Facet Publishing, 2022).
- Melissa Adler, Cruising the Library (Fordham University Press, 2017).
- Hope A. Olson, ‘The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs’, Signs, 26:1 (2001), pp. 639-68.
- Rebecca Davis & Laura Saunders, ‘Beyond lip service: A call for research-informed services for Black and African-American students’, The Journal of Academic Librarianship (in press, 2021).