Friday, 29 June 2012

ARLG Conference 2012: Get Out [Of The Library] More!

Being awarded the Alison Northover Award allowed me to attend my first large national conference, namely the ARLG Conference 2012, in Newcastle, June 25th – 27th. The conference, entitled ‘Great expectations: what do students want and how do we deliver?’, explored several extremely topical themes surrounding the rise of tuition fees and the expectations of our students within a time of general austerity in the information services sector.

Throughout the conference, from the keynote speaker to the final workshop presenter, the concept of the student as customer raised its commercial head. Opinions differed wildly; some argued that if we start calling our students customers then they will behave like customers, expecting a good degree as their product purchased for the cost of for example £27, 000. Others put forward the argument that, if we’re committed to providing excellent customer care, why not call our users customers? A compromise emerged in the form of the terms ‘member’ or better still ‘partner’, encouraging open dialogue between staff and students.  The best analogy I heard is that of gym membership; you can pay your fee but that doesn’t automatically make you thin. Paying more for your degree doesn’t give you an automatic right to a good result.

Main exhibition room(care of

However, like it or not, I think that the rise in tuition fees will change student expectations. Despite protestations to the contrary from speaker Paul Abernathy, president of Liverpool John Moores' University student union, paying such vast amounts of money will commercialise the student experience. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is managed and facilitated appropriately. Paying almost thirty thousand pounds will not guarantee you a first, but it will give you a more assertive voice. It will make students less willing to accept decisions taken by library staff purely on the basis that a librarian considers the student request to be inappropriate or not how this particular librarian thinks a student should be conducting their learning experience. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot ignore our students; they have to become our partners with a voice that is respected and heard. This is a good thing. It will make us more relevant and it will ensure that we are doing what our students want us to do. Otherwise, what’s the point? If we sit staidly in our ivory towers and refuse to demonstrate Google Scholar because we know a better place to go to for information, we will be bypassed. This has been going on since the birth of the search engine made people generally more assertive in researching their own topics, but it will increase in the future.  It might be true that Literature Online has a better data set but we as professionals need to manage these situations well. We demonstrate Google scholar, then we mention LION. We must pick our battles.

Which leads well onto the second big theme of the conference; ensuring that we market our products and services well through continually stressing the benefits of the library and librarians over the supposed ease of Google et al.  Kay Grieves and Jan Dodshon from the University of Sunderland gave a vitally useful workshop detailing a seven stage strategic marketing plan to fully embed the library service within the consciousness of every single student. They based this toolkit around the concept that every student needs to feel a sense of ownership within the library service; dialogues were stressed as a vital means of ensuring that this happens. Feedback should be collected regularly but we also need to encourage dialogues about library services between students, whether via a web 2 tool or in real life on a comments board. If something is truly impossible, we need to start explaining why. We can’t go to a staff-student liaison committee and just say that requests are impossible anymore. We need to explore and explain, to communicate and convey. For example, in my library we have had requests for 24/7 opening. I would dearly love to offer this provision but unfortunately we have no security to protect our students after hours. Their expectation is for 24/7 opening; we mitigate this through dialogue. This is how we need to start dealing with rising student expectations.

After all, how do your students know that your service isn’t necessarily richer due to their higher fees? I can see it now: “I pay your wages, why can’t you stay here until later in the evenings?” Some say it with MPs; “I pay their wages and they’re fiddling their expenses?” If we explain, we can deal with this situation well. We could even turn our students into ambassadors for our service, canvassing for higher budgets and rallying against staff cuts. We could do this. But only if we explain things well via open dialogues.

The final theme that came out of the conference was all about how we can measure the impact of the library service on the overall student learning experience. How does what we do improve what they do? We need to collect evidence. Every time we run a training event, we need to gather feedback and ask the right types of questions to be able to match responses on to  the learning and skills outcomes of our faculties and institutions. This gives us harder evidence than purely anecdotal quotes, although it is still only a perception and only goes some way to justifying the need for the services that we provide. Essentially it comes back to gathering feedback, although this time it is for a slightly different purpose.

The three days were a genuine whirl of new ideas, new projects, new people, a great quiz, a lovely gala dinner at the Baltic, some wonderfully inspiring workshops and some very inspiring people. A particular mention should be made of the Serious Play workshop hosted by Andy Priestner and facilitated by Libby Tilley; if you ever have the chance to do it, grab it quick! It’s a really interesting experience that can tell you a lot about your thoughts about people and services that you didn’t already know. And finally, a big thank you to the ARLG committee for organising such a great conference and for awarding me the Alison Northover Award. Since returning to my institution, I have already had approval for a new information skills marketing campaign to launch in a few months and I will be attending a big departmental meeting for new freshers in October in a bid to become much more outward facing. My motto for the academic year 2012-13: get out [of the library] more!


Anonymous said...

Great post, Charlotte, you have pulled together the presentations with the conference themes and make some telling points. Thank you.

LottieMSmith said...

Thank you Sarah! Glad you liked the post - I got so much out of attending the conference.