Wednesday, 22 June 2011

New Professionals Conference 2011: a conference virgin-virgin speaks

My middle name is Grace, and not Calamity, but I started the day on a calamitous note. My train to Manchester was late, the walk from the station to the conference venue was far more than the twenty minutes my Mancunian friend claimed, and I arrived flustered and stressed. I cannot overstate the importance of spending the night in a hotel beforehand if you have anything more than an hour-long commute, unless you're one of those annoying types who finds everything always goes smoothly.

This was my first conference, and my first time presenting a workshop (alongside the brilliant Simon Barron). As ex-CILIP president Biddy Fisher informed me, I was, “a conference virgin-virgin!” I am, by nature, a very anxious person. I also believe that fear is only conquered by silencing that voice in your head that says I can’t, and throwing yourself in at the deep end. So, I threw myself in, and ended up having an engaging, exhausting and exhilarating day.

Please be warned: this is a long post. I wanted to give an in-depth account of the day for those who couldn't attend. If you'd rather just have a quick list of links to presentations and online links to those who attended and presented, go here and look at Samantha's list:


First to present in the morning was Helen Murphy, formally launching CPD23. This claimed to ‘supercharge’ my professional development. I’m cynical of such grand, overarching schemes, so I was delighted to see that Helen’s attitudes to professional development were incredibly similar to my attitudes towards activism: do it because you want to do it, do it to level the playing field, and do it to benefit ourselves, our jobs, and our profession. From the moment she said, “it’s not just about doing continual professional development because we think it’s something we ought to do,” I was fully on board.

CPD23 consists of twenty three things participants will learn and then reflect on, encompassing technical skills, interpersonal skills, and everything in between. Based on a framework used at Cambridge University, it was designed to circumvent the barriers people face when continuing their professional development (lack of opportunity, lack of time, lack of confidence, isolation and cost) through being self-paced, supportive, inclusive and free. Quite rightly, in my opinion, the team behind CPD23 had modified the original framework to ensure it was relevant and current to the LIS sector.

I loved the emphasis Helen placed on face-to-face networking. She urged us to network and ‘find our Watson’, whose skills would contrast with and complement ours. In a conference that had ‘as I Tweeted…’ as something as a catchphrase, it was lovely to be reminded that nothing beats sitting it down and sharing your failures and successes over a nice cup of tea. If I wasn’t already on board with CPD23, Helen’s passion and enthusiasm would have been more than enough to convince me, and she certainly didn’t need to hard-sell the programme. Over 400 of us have signed up, and I can’t wait to have fun playing around with new tools and technologies and meeting plenty of interesting LIS folk in all sectors.

You can view the slides from Helen's presentation here.


Next was Rachel Bickley. Inspired by the misconceptions she’d heard at a recent SCONUL conference she attended, she presented the results of research she’d carried out on what more established professionals thought of new professionals, and called for us to establish a dialogue with each other.

The good news is that forty three percent of her respondents had nothing but positive things to say about us, and we are particularly employable for our skills, future potential, willingness to learn and enthusiasm. However, the bad news is that we are perceived as having poor practical skills, poor time-management and organisational skills, and library qualifications have left us with significant knowledge gaps. She also asked respondents who were responsible for recruitment why they wouldn’t employ new professionals. One reason was experience (which is where gaining experience through voluntary work or activism can help us) but the others were that we were too-self focused. Essentially, a rookie mistake is to stress what the institution will do for our careers rather than what we can bring to the role. Another point was that, “we can afford to be picky.” The salient point was that the onus is on us to prove we meet the person specification through our transferable skills and to continue being enthusiastic and willing because this is what gives us an edge. Through doing this, even though they can afford to be picky, we can ensure they pick us! After all, none of her respondents said they wouldn’t employ someone without professional experience.

The second strand of Rachel’s paper was focused on building a dialogue between new and established professionals. Rachel made the excellent point that we must not get too caught up in our own networks. Through doing this, we might give some established professionals the perception that we’re cliquey and exclusive, which is off-putting to professionals at all levels. Michael Cook made a fantastic post on this which I agree with immensely. We might appear cliquey, but really we’re remaining in our comfort zone. The solution is to break away from this. Rachel felt a great way to do this was to just jump in and interact with people at all levels, and talk about anything and everything, be it work or discussing your hobbies and interests with colleagues in the staff-room. She urged established professionals to interact with us through similar means, and attend face-to-face meet-ups such as those arranged by LISNPN. It's worth mentioning this has sparked a bit of a cliquegate, however only one of her thirty five respondents actually mentioned cliques, so please let's do further research before we agonise too much.

I really enjoyed learning about Rachel’s research, and found twenty minutes didn’t even begin to cover its usefulness and implications for professionals at all stages of their careers. Her research has sparked a fair bit of debate, including a forum post at LISNPN.

Rachel's slides are available here:


The last paper of the morning was presented by Sam Wiggins and Laura Williams, who attempted to conceptualise and define what a ‘professional’ was. I find it a nebulous term myself, so I was interested to hear what they had to say on the matter. Sam and Laura are students at Sheffield University, though both had worked in libraries prior to this. Like me, Laura felt that if you feel you’re a professional, you are a professional. Sam, on the other hand, felt it was defined by experience and skill set. To try to define what a professional was, they surveyed people who defined themselves a professional.

Quite predictably, the results showed there was no consensus. Respondents felt that it was the level of responsibility you had in your role which defined you as a professional, although the actual job title had little influence. I’d agree with this: my two jobs both have the official title of ‘customer service assistant’. In one of them, I mainly shelve and retrieve stock. In the other, I supervise eight members of staff and spend the majority of my time doing enquiry work! Interestingly, a third of respondents didn’t feel that having a CILIP-accredited qualification was vital to being a professional.

One of their respondents produced a great quote: ‘Our skills and experience don’t make us special; it’s our ethics and conduct that should make us stand out’.

Sam and Laura’s conclusion was that conceptions varied between the sectors: public sector professionals emphasised experience, specialist networking, and academic qualification. However, they were all linked, and the main factor was attitude! Afterwards, I’m still inclined to agree with Laura: if you think you’re a professional, you are one. I thought their methodology was great, because they acknowledged that the research drew from their own pre-conceptions and didn’t reduce their findings to a cut-and-dry ‘twenty percent of people think a professional is x’. They made me want to dig up my undergraduate notes on phenomenology! It seems so obvious once it’s been said, but as a recent LIS graduate, I am fully aware that many people working in similar roles don’t think they are new professionals!


After lunch and doing my second workshop with Simon, it was time for some much-needed caffeine and the afternoon papers.


Ka-Ming Pang and Joseph Norwood are LIS students in Brighton. Their presentation focused on the (very admirable) attempts they’d made to get their course mates engaged in activism. Their slides were brilliant, complete with doodles by Joseph, and really caused us to sit up and pay attention. I’ve previously blogged about trying to persuade students on my course to be active and so was pleasantly surprised to see two thirds of their course mates were involved in activism. I’d love to know what they’ve done, and what they felt was ‘activism’.

Part of their activism involved teaching course mates how to use social networking to engage with each other, and with the wider profession. Their experience was that people will only use tools and be active when they feel like it, so ‘interventions’ should be done just before the point of need. As an example, invite someone from CILIP to advertise an event happening in the next few weeks. I thought this was a great point, because we’re often told about things at the beginning of courses (or indeed, jobs) and if they aren’t immediately useful or relevant, we can forget them. They encouraged us to ‘be like an octopus’ because nobody communicates using the same tools. This is also a good point: as much as we’d like to believe everyone is on Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn/Blogger/etc, no one medium can reach everybody.

One thing that concerned me was that when Ka-Ming and Joseph asked their course mates what they thought of CILIP, they commented that they didn’t feel CILIP was politically active enough. From my work with Voices of the Library, I’m well aware of the work they do and how active they are. Obviously, more political activism and involvement is a fantastic thing, but I think the issue here is that people aren’t following CILIP closely, or don’t have access to publications like Update. Perhaps CILIP need to find new (and free) ways of letting us all know what they’re up to, although the @CILIPInfo Twitter feed is incredibly informative. They called on CILIP to engage with students specifically. In the panel questions, it was mentioned CILIP could produce leaflets and posters for the purpose of recruiting students, which I felt was a great idea. After all, if they impress us at the beginning of our careers, they’ll have us hooked for life.

I felt that Ka-Ming and Joseph’s activism was a really good example of how activism can start from something as simple as organising social events for students and getting CILIP to visit for a talk, and really hope next year’s lot at Brighton continue and build on their accomplishments. As with Sam and Laura’s presentation, real care was given to explain the limitations of the methodology, part of why having presentations from current or recent students at NPC was so enjoyable.


The penultimate presentation was from Megan Wiley, who was discussing how to develop and promote your profession in a careers information role. I initially thought her presentation wouldn’t be at all relevant: I’m a librarian, and I work in a library. Indeed, it wasn’t directly relevant. However, it was utterly interesting, and Megan’s experiences in promoting and developing her role would transfer to people in any sector. Indeed, it startled me how similar her job in careers information was to that of a liaison librarian!

Megan’s main point was that we needed to promote ourselves, and the best way to do this is through letting colleagues know what she actually did. Quite rightly, she urged us not to do this through a step-by-step list of duties, but to do this in more meaningful ways. Several of the methods she mentioned included writing a ‘day in the life’ article for colleagues, asking the person next to her what they did, copying colleagues in to replies she sent containing research, and giving people refreshers on things she used that they were unaware of such as the Library Management System.

Along similar lines to Sam and Laura’s paper, she mentioned that quite a few of her colleagues didn’t see CILIP as relevant, because they didn’t feel they were information professionals. While she saw the value of belonging to multiple professional organisations, many of her colleagues were put off joining CILIP, predominantly due to the cost. She felt that advocating what we do can encourage colleagues to become more active in professional organisations, and urged us not to become hung up on our job titles: we might not be librarians, or work in a library, but we’re still working with information and applying the same ethics and code of conduct.

It was a composed and engaging presentation from what could have come across as quite dry in the wrong hands. I came away thinking Megan was a fantastic advocate, and a great example of how small steps can have a far-reaching impact. It also made me consider a careers information role, so she really did do her job!


Last, but certainly not least, were Katie Birkwood and Naomi Herbert. Quite honestly, co-presenting can frequently appear a little stilted and scripted. Katie and Naomi were former colleagues, and had such an easy rapport with each other, showing little touches of informality which kept the presentation light while still managing to get their point across. I’m quite tempted to corner them and ask them how they prepared and planned this presentation, because they were brilliant throughout. They would certainly refute any stereotypes people had about Cambridge librarians sitting quietly in lofty ivory towers.

Their presentation was focused on how special collections outreach can help you, your career, and your library. It did exactly that! Drawing on practical experiences, they showed that we simply can’t hide the uniqueness of our building and collections from the public. Naomi’s project involved using Hocus Pocus Junior, the first illustrated book in the English language devoted to magic and conjuring, to create an exercise in which schoolchildren would create their own book of magic, including a demonstration from a real live magician. Katie was working on the Hoyle Project, which was funded by the National Lottery. One of the conditions of this funding was that they needed to use the collection for outreach, so Katie decided that building an astrolabe would be a fantastic way to use the collection to educate families about astrology. Katie even put instructions online, to ensure her outreach project had a lasting legacy long after the last split pin was used...

Katie and Naomi both explained how easy it was for us to use special collections for outreach. Funding could come from your institution, voluntary bodies, or even through requesting participants make a nominal donation to cover the library’s costs. They stressed not to go it alone, and that through asking for help from friends and colleagues, it needn’t be as daunting as you think. A point I also liked was that you didn’t have to be an expert, and that by asking around you would probably find, “you do have a friend who’s an expert on something.” They also gave an excellent run-down of the practicalities including how much their outreach activities cost, how long they took to plan, and the vast number of considerations to make, ranging from accessibility to buildings and car-parking to trying to accommodate thirty school children liable to need the toilet at once!

Honestly, I don’t think there’s going to be much scope in either of my roles to use the library’s special collections for outreach activities, but if I had the opportunity to do so in future, I would be confident in planning and organising them thanks to this presentation. At the very least, arranging a build-an-astrolabe session strikes me as an excellent and unique idea for a team-building exercise. Katie and Naomi won the award for best paper. I would have given everyone a bottle of champagne if it was up to me, but I felt they were absolutely fantastic and very worthy winners.

You can read Katie and Naomi's slides here:


This won’t be the last of my posts on NPC: I’ve planned to write some tips for those presenting for the first time, as well as a post on whether there is a clique among new professionals as touched upon in Rachel’s paper. However, for now, I’d like to end this post with a thank you: to the organisers for making it happen, especially Emma Illingworth whose positive attitude and boundless enthusiasm ensured Simon and I went into our workshop feeling prepared for what would await, and Simon, who helped me keep calm and carry on. Most importantly, I’d like to thank every single attendee, especially those who contributed so readily during our workshops. It wouldn’t have been the same experience without any of you.


  1. Excellent write-up.

    As for the thanks, keeping calm and carrying on is my speciality. And you were extremely brilliant yourself :)

  2. Holy heck, Simon, that was quick. I think you can add speed-reading to your impressive resumé.

  3. Alice,

    You're too kind! Naomi and I worked on our presentation over several coffees after work, starting with bullet points about what we wanted to say, then writing a full script, then polishing that, then dividing it up, and then learning our bits. Knowing each other well certainly helps the presenting, I think - we both felt confident beforehand that if one of us froze the other would be able to jump in and make a rescue.

    I really enjoyed your workshop - I've been doing a lot of seeing activism happen via social media, but it seems much more do-able once you've spoken to people about it in person. Thanks :)


  4. Hi there,

    Sadly I don't think I mentioned on the day that CILIP already produce leaflets for the purposes of promoting the profession. Though I did tweet it.

    Anyway if your interested the promotional materials are available here:

    Feel free to request some if you need them for anything.

    Richard Hawkins