BLA 2011 – Impact, value and stress seals… (Part 1)

View from my gigantic hotel window

So another year, another BLA (Business Librarians Association) conference and Sheffield 2011 is set to be a very different experience for me. For the past 4 years I’ve attended as Chair which involved heaps of work before, heaps of work during and heaps of sleeping after. This year I’m here as an ordinary delegate and so far (hand-on-heart) it’s been Completely Lovely and not just because I can kick back and spend more time at the bar! More importantly I can now fully engage with the content and there’s a lot more time for me to talk to other delegates and the sponsors. Only once so far have I wanted to leap up and sort something out but ultimately, you’ll be relieved to hear, dear reader, I resisted.

One of the obvious highlights of BLA 2011 was the hotel itself – the Mercure St Pauls next to Sheffield Town Hall and the Peace Gardens. My amazing hotel room window view (above) looked out on both and was a nice bonus. Arriving early I also had time to use the hotel gym and pool, my first serious exercise since my 3 Peaks adventure and I was pleased to discover that my knees have now fully recovered.

Another highlight was before the conference proper: the Proquest User Group at the hotel, fronted by (fellow 3 Peaker) Phill Hall and new colleague Mark Ayling. This was a chance to learn about ABI Inform developments and specifically information about new content coming our way. I was pleased to see more market research and economic data was forthcoming and resolved to input direct links to different sections of the database on my return to work to make sure our students and staff are getting the most out of what is fast becoming a very valuable resource once again (for the first time, in my opinion, since the ABI ‘glory days’ of the mid-90s).

Antony and the 'Ladder of Loyalty'

Most delegates would I’m sure agree that Antony Brewerton’s very visual session on advocacy, branding and communication was the best presentation on Day 1. For me, although it was entertaining, a little too much ground was covered and the sort of strategies that were being detailed should already be bread-and-butter to the engaged librarian. If you’ve not embraced marketing and branding by now what is your excuse frankly?! However, there was still much to enjoy. My favourite elements were: the Ladder of Loyalty – turning potential customer into customers and ultimately champions and partners; the video of students talking about the University Library at Warwick which was bravely created by just handing out the camera to students and seeing what they came up with (!); his advice on seeking out talented individuals; and his reflections on the OCLC 2010 Perceptions of Libraries report (including the depressing bottom line that we are still perceived as just being about books, books and more books). How true it is that whatever we do, lots of students and many of our non-library colleagues regularly revert to default old-fashioned perceptions).

A new ‘Question Time’ format session fronted by our very own Dimbleby (BLA Chair – Emma Thompson) was a great new initiative. I’d previously submitted a deliberately provocative question and mine was first up:
“Is there a danger that we’re currently just playing at improving the relevance of library services to our users. Isn’t it time we adopted a radical and completely different approach in order to ensure our continued existence?”

Question Time with Emma Dimbleby

I felt that the responses from the panel were on balance a bit too defensive and rather complacent about both our professional future and what is currently being achieved. I didn’t push the point when asked to respond to the panel after they’d each had their say, partly because I couldn’t see them acknowledging there was an issue and partly because I want to keep a low-ish profile this conference (there were bets from BLA mates on my Facebook page as to how long I could keep quiet for and I like to think that I have surprised them all by managing several hours!). Worth mentioning the excellent contribution of Steve Gianonni of EBSCO to the panel (above right) who provided an external but informed perspective and yet remained endearingly humble about the value of what he had to say. Keep this format next year please committee.

Natalie and Lorna at the first night dinner

For the informal first night dinner I went back to my roots sitting next to five librarians from the North, three of them working on Tyneside, my old stamping ground. I didn’t quite revisit my old Geordie accent even when the contentious quiz results were announced (it used to creep back in when I got excitable). Strangely the team with people who worked and lived in Sheffield won this Sheffield-themed quiz! We reckon we got 19 out of 20, 18 if we were marked ridiculously tightly. The winning team with it’s (ahem) Sheffield-based members got 19. We woz robbed. It didn’t stop us finishing off their leftover chocolates later on though – we’re not that proud! I’ll probably get over this particular injustice in a year or two…

Day 2 kicked off with Shelia Corrall whose presentation had a great deal of valuable content on measuring impact and value with reference to measures like Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard. Unfortunately the academic theory-heavy style of the presentation was a bit of a turn off for me, but I will certainly be looking at her PPT post-conference. Personally I think your PPT should make a visual impact (ironic as she was talking about impact) rather than include slides and slides of data and models which are openly acknowledged by the presenter as impossible for the audience to read. I’d rather have Antony’s image-based slides any day of the week. Having said that, it’s high time you were using Prezi Antony – it seamlessly plays video (getting around the problem you experienced) and is far more dynamic than PPT.

Freebies including Key Note's 'stress seal'

I think I got around nearly all the sponsor stands over the first two days and as well as being updated on latest product developments (Key Note’s additional UK company content being particularly worthy of note) and explaining our budgetary constraints, I picked up some rather nice freebies including a furry frog from Emerald, a rugby ball from Perfect and a ‘stress seal’ from Key Note – all for my son John of course. Key Note, as usual, won the best freebies award: Hotel Chocolat chocolates – good move.

Perhaps most zeitgeisty and on topic was Huddersfield University’s Library Impact project presented by Graham Stone. Graham was to have been accompanied by Dave Pattern (@daveyp on twitter  – well worth a follow) but he was unable to attend at the last minute. Their project (in which the BLA’s very own Alison Sharman is also involved) has sought to establish a direct correlation between library use and student attainment and pleasingly was a solid piece of thorough research. Their blog is here.

In short, these guys have nearly proved the correlation. Their research throws up lots of interesting questions and we broke out into groups to discuss them. Our group mainly discussed whether the high-achieving students choose ‘better’ resources or whether they are ‘better’ at choosing resources?

After an interesting exploration of the experience of postgraduate Chinese students by Professor Bradley Barnes, including the recommendation that we need to educate them more before they arrive so that they are more aware of cultural differences , there was a presentation from Sigrid Gimse and Toril Sigstadstø of the Norwegian School of Management.

Toril Sigstadtso

As they discussed another great library student video , their successful embedding of information skills on the curriculum (involving a mandatory 3 hour workshop on research methodology followed by an exam) and the finding that students preferred online chat to face-to-face communication, Sigrid’s and Toril’s style was upbeat and optimistic and therefore very refreshing. Also, despite the fact that English was not their first language they impressed by managing to crack a few jokes and get some laughs. I found this perspective from beyond the UK to be a very positive thing and hope they will be the first of many European visitors to the BLA conference…

Next Time: The members sharing sessions from the final day of BLA 2011.

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