Librarians as partners– engaging and effective

Kingston University Big Read Selection Committee 2017

Kingston University’s Big Read has shown that the shared reading of a book can improve the experience of students joining the university, prompt new partnerships, and reach out to the community. Alison Baverstock explains why the project’s success is due in large part to the involvement of librarians and the Learning Resource Centre.

I recently put together a panel at the London International Book Fair (LBF) on the Kingston University Big Read, the shared reading scheme we established at Kingston in 2015, and exported to Edinburgh Napier in 2016. I invited three speakers who had been key to the project’s success – all librarians. Here I summarise the motivation and contribution of each participant, as they explained it to the LBF audience, and consider what publishers can learn from librarians, librarians from publishers – and reflect on what any project can gain from effective collaboration.

The KU Big Read may already be familiar from Wendy Morris’s article in November 2016’s Update (‘The Big Read – how shared reading transforms lives’). It is a pre-arrival shared reading scheme for new students, linking them both with their cohort and the wider staff/community they will meet on arrival. Experience in the US, where such schemes are relatively common, indicated likely benefits to student enrolment, engagement and retention. We began with research into the 2014 first-year cohort, and the student response when we launched in 2015 was enthusiastic. What we had not ­expected was the response of staff, particularly administrative and support colleagues, who were so eager we ended up having to reprint twice. Kingston’s drop-out rate plummeted.

Edinburgh Napier joins in

In 2016, we involved Edinburgh Napier University and sought to work with the wider Kingston community. The Napier link came through meeting their Principal, Professor Andrea Nolan, at the academic conference where the project had its first public airing. Professor Nolan boldly announced she thought Napier should join in too. Edinburgh Napier and Kingston have a very similar range of courses, and student demograph, but their ethnic mix is very different. We thought it would be interesting to explore outcomes in both places. 

Local links: Kingston Council

Many Kingston University staff live ­locally, and the number of students who stay on after graduation is high; our Estates ­Department recently estimated that 1:8 homes in Kingston has a university link. From 2012-15, the university and Kingston Council were partners in Kingston Connections, a programme of civic engagement. We built on this connection, selling copies of our second KU Big Read to Joanne Moulton, Head of Libraries, Museum and Archives at Kingston Council. It was a good match: the university gained an external affirmation of project value; books were made available to the wider community through libraries and museums – and we laid on a second author event to the wide community now included. 

How the collaboration worked

Involving Kingston University’s Learning Resource Centres (LRCs) was initially based on convenience. Based on her experience of managing delivery of the university magazine, a colleague from our Communications Department advised that a free book would likely gain a better response from staff if they were required to collect rather than receive it in their pigeon-hole. I approached our LRC to find out if they were willing. The response was an immediate yes, and they seized the opportunity to get further involved, buying copies of the 2016 shortlisted titles from their budget and rolling out ­encouragement to participate institution-wide. 

Wendy Morris, appointed KU Big Read LRC Champion, was clear that the project benefited them too; emphasising the library as the hub of the university and encouraging LRC-student engagement. The second shared book (The Humans by Matt Haig) was incorporated in numerous ways, for example in library induction sessions when demonstrating how to find a resource, structure a reference, or gist-read. Library colleagues were included in the nomination for a university staff recognition scheme, in which The KU Big Read won first prize (‘Best project of the year’).

Edinburgh’s experience

Laura Ennis, LRC specialist for Applied Sciences at Edinburgh Napier heard about Napier’s proposed involvement before it had been officially signed off. She said: ‘Edinburgh Napier University has a history of collaboration with Kingston ­University, and I was on a fact-finding mission for something completely unrelated when I had the opportunity to sit down with Wendy and hear about her work with The Big Read. I must admit to some initial scepticism, but I was won over by Wendy’s passion and enthusiasm. 

‘The shortlist of six books was sent to us and we moved them around between colleagues, but our library did not buy stock. Two members of Napier staff came to Kingston for the two final selection meetings, and in each case toured their respective disciplinary departments and had a developmental day which was much appreciated. I think if we’d been closer geographically there could have been a lot we could have collaborated on events-wise. It would have been nice to visit the campus at Kingston to see the activities and promotion in person – sometimes our best ideas are those that are “borrowed” from elsewhere. 

‘We ran promotional events and worked the book and themes raised into several pieces of coursework and lectures. University events included a collaborative art project based on the cover, use of The Humans at the Association of University Administrators Book Group, a lecture on prime numbers, a maths challenge run by our School of Engineering and Built Environment, a LibGuide, and was factored into a group discussion on social alienation in our School of Health and Social Care.  

‘From the perspective of student experience, the events had a nice buzz about them, and it was wonderful to be talking to students about something other than coursework and assessment deadlines. The author-event was also a hit – great to see so many students attending.

‘We supplemented our on-campus activities with digital outreach. Edinburgh Napier University runs courses not just in Scotland, but also in Singapore, Switzerland, China, Sri Lanka, and as of quite recently, Myanmar. Twitter competitions were held over the summer, and people were encouraged to share their ‘shelfies’ for prizes. A series of digital posters were prepared for use throughout the library. Preparation of these took longer than expected as we weren’t allowed to use unofficial artwork, and our communications team wouldn’t share the original files with us. There’s a lesson to be learned here – if you want people to be creative, you need to relinquish control!’ 

What Kingston Council learnt

Joanne Moulton, Head of Libraries, Museum and Archives at Kingston Council ­commented: ‘Initially the involvement of council was through our colleague in arts commissioning. It was only through conversations with her that we saw an opportunity to get the library service involved so we could reach a wider audience. Books and reading are at the core of what we do every day, so developing the offer and our partnership with KU seemed the logical next step.

‘The relationship between the university and the council is a key one and works at many levels throughout both organisations. But never before has there been a link between local public and academic libraries and the opportunity to engage so widely with the student population. And what better way than through reading!

‘The council rolled out publicity material through public libraries and museums. The event held at Surbiton Library was a game-changer. Forty people turned up, and the questions were really engaged. We built on this with seminars between the librarians at the university and the council, sharing good practice and findings.

‘We have also run some targeted outreach work to start to break down barriers ­between the council and community and the university and community. We were able to present this work when Alison and I were invited by Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, to speak at a Libraries Taskforce seminar. With key strategic partners in the room such as the Taskforce, DCMS, ACE, LGA and The Reading Agency, this was a perfect opportunity to share our learning.

‘We are now working with Kingston University to plan The Big Read for 2017. We want to work with our reading groups and promote a shared reading experience across the borough. We also want to have more engagement with colleagues across the council, which will start at the top with the CEO who is firmly committed to the initiative. All this activity will strengthen and deepen the relationship with KU as we discover more about where the crossovers are and what we can plan and deliver together.’

What can be learned from all this?

Most publishers know little about the workings of libraries or the motivation of librarians. However, I remember in the first few months of my role as Marketing Manager for Macmillan Press (Macmillan’s academic division), Marketing Director Ian Jacobs ­organised a departmental seminar on how academic librarians work, inviting several of the species along to meet us. His motivation was both personal and strategic. Married to an academic librarian, he ­understood that job satisfaction for librarians comes from matching information seekers with access to the resources they need – so they can be really useful to academic publishers. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, and I have continued to encourage students to make one-to-one appointments with our departmental librarian, ensuring they gain access to the broadest field of potentially supporting information. Working with librarians to deliver #KUBigRead however brought my appreciation of their value to a whole new level.

Five reasons why it’s good to work with librarians:

1. They have excellent supporting structures

Rolling out a scheme over a large organisation or community is not easy. Universities are notoriously hierarchical institutions and information tends to flow up and down rather than across; inter-disciplinary collaboration is more often described than spotted – and invisible boundaries may prevent information being shared. Here the library network was invaluable. 

We discovered the extent of their capillary network, reaching every part of the organisation and their unique access to the organisational committee structure. So if shortage of time/pre-agreed agendas or local politics meant there was insufficient time to raise The KU Big Read during meetings, it could still have an airing within the LRC’s pre-allocated agenda slot. 

2. They commit and then deliver

We consistently found that meetings with ­librarians resulted in action plans and dates. They never signed up to more than they could realistically achieve, and were never once late.

3. They are confident about what they stand for

Librarians have a very strong professional identity; based on a firm commitment to values and ethos and seemingly understood by all. If you offer a good match for what they seek to achieve, the chances of achieving a working collaboration are good. 

4. They excel at spotting opportunities for individual/organisational affirmation

Library management spotted opportunities for involvement and hence evidence-gathering that could highlight individual, library and wider organisational contribution. Librarians applying for HEA accreditation used The Big Read to demonstrate their ability to work across institutional boundaries; Big Read colleagues provided references for Customer Service Excellence Awards, in both Kingston and Napier. Senior LRC staff tipped us off about awards for which the project could be entered. 

5. They are instinctively collaborative

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as information professionals and specialists, library staff are very well informed; we observed weekly newsletters, staff briefings and regular training sessions. They were also collegiate. Yes, Kingston Council would like to be involved in choosing the next shared book, but the opportunity went to a frontline member of staff new in the role, to support their personal development.  

Wider impact

The shared reading of a single book has now improved the experience of students joining the university, prompted new partnerships, and reached vulnerable groups – with wider impact rippling out into the community. This is just as we hoped; from the outset we sought to share The KU Big Read, believing that if we made it freely available, others would be able to take it forward. Our success however is largely due to so many of the collaborations we established being with librarians.

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, September 2017.

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