Somewhat after the fact…Umbrella 2011 at the University of Hatfield, 12-13 July 2011

I work as a paraprofessional indexer at the British Library in Boston Spa. I enjoy my work and actively participate in wider professional activities too. So when the opportunity arose to attend Umbrella through the very kind sponsorship of the CILIP Affiliates Network, with help from The British Library, I didn’t need to be asked twice. It was an event I’ve always wanted to go to but could never afford. And what an event it was. My head is still abuzz with the huge amount of information that was delivered in the sessions.

 The conference opener was a keynote address by Gerald Leitner, the president of EBLIDA and the secretary general of the Austrian Library Association, a man whose CV almost defines overachievement! He spoke about what he saw as the two main challenges for libraries:

1. the need for both a Europe-wide policy on the role of libraries and to embed them in the educational culture of each member country, especially in the light of the PISA report which identifies educational attainment levels in each country

2. the challenges presented by the economic crisis, which results in a crisis for libraries across Europe. For example, he pointed out that South Korea as a burgeoning society is opening 180 new libraries this year whilst the UK are trying to close 400.

 It struck me throughout this address that we often lack a wider perspective from our little island. As Gerald talked us through the differences between the European Union and the Council of Europe, and what the legal implications were for a common library policy, I felt he had uncovered a huge gap in my knowledge of what happens in the rest of Europe; Personally I’m probably far more aware of US and Canadian libraries than European. The PISA report of 2009 identified Finland as having the highest levels of literacy due, he told us, to them having the best library system in Europe. The lowest levels of attainment were found in Romania. Approximately 20% of young people there are at risk from all that follows from poor literacy as they cannot be reached by the written word. Gerald concluded that libraries make an important contribution to a country’s culture, education and knowledge, and that they are part of civic responsibility and vision. Herr Dr. Leitner also pointed out something that resonated across the advocacy strand of the conference: that the press and politicians, like anyone else, hold preconceptions and prejudices about libraries and librarians; the difference being that they, rightly or wrongly, have the power to influence. What has been tremendously heartening has been the formation of Voices for the Library(VftL), represented here by the very impressive and seemingly endlessly energetic, Lauren Smith and the ever-entertaining and informative CILIP Vice-President Phil Bradley. VftL has been moving mountains in addressing those prejudices and when you hear the passion with which everyone at Umbrella speaks about the LIS sector it starts to feel like a fight we can win. We can show everyone our worth. Tuesday was a long day, but too exciting and interesting to let tiredness get in the way of more experiences. I’d started the day at 5am to travel from York to Hatfield, but I was glad I’d made the effort to dress up and head out to the gala dinner because it was a chance to hear Bonnie Greer speak. She opened with the news that MPs were going to vote overwhelmingly to refuse Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy BSkyB thus thwarting his monopoly over information flow in this country. This was met with rapturous applause and has pinned the moment to my memory of the conference, something I’ll always remember. Bonnie spoke about free access to information and the written word with great passion, we were all entranced by this impressive, charismatic and erudite woman who made us all very proud of the work we do. Over the two days I listened to presentations from academic, public, government, museum and other special libraries. I learned about working with digital, hard copy, photographic and digitised collections. I heard from non-professionals, paraprofessionals, newly-qualified librarians and very experienced specialists. I can’t see where else you would have the opportunity to experience the breadth of this profession, be inspired, motivated, confused, captivated and moved to tears in the space of just two days. The tears came with the ‘Libraries Change Lives’ award that was won by Kent Libraries ‘Making a Difference’ project, although all three finalists deserved recognition for their wonderful work. Some of what I heard was familiar to me, but much of it was outside my sphere of experience and I’ve had a chance to learn about information work across the sectors which has broadened my horizons considerably. I came away from the conference with a feeling of pride to belong to such a respected and august institution: as soon as anyone looked at my name badge and saw The British Library they were immediately impressed. Similarly when touring the exhibitors’ stands, as soon as the vendors saw I was BL they immediately switched off their hard-sell, from the SWETS representative to a vendor that specialises in outsourcing cataloguing and authority control; the latter because we’re already good customers of theirs, the latter because she knew that we do much of our metadata work in-house. It seemed to me that a lot of librarians look to The British Library to lead on best practice, especially those who work in small teams or as solo librarians who rely on our metadata in order to catalogue their own collections (this is certainly something I did when working at the National Railway Museum). Looking back over my copious notes from each session, initially I’ve hit information overload. But as I begin to digest and reflect on what I’ve heard, start to investigate online resources, and make contact with people I met, I feel confident that I have chosen the right profession; I really love the challenge of using the skills, the collections and the technologies to make a difference in people’s lives and I look forward to a long and interesting career. Helped along the way by all the free pens I got from the exhibitors!

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