2023 IACRL UnConference Report

Illinois Association of College & Research Libraries Forum (IACRL)

March 20, 2024

by Kim Tipton, McHenry County College

people sitting at tables and talking

Members of IACRL convened at the 2023 ILA Conference in Springfield and attended the annual IACRL UnConference. Rather than focusing on one specific topic, an unconference allows for attendees to suggest topics which are then voted on. The most popular topics were chosen, and each topic was assigned to a table. The format allows attendees to move around and get to know each other during their discussions of the topics. Attendees of the 2023 Unconference chose topics that included book challenges and censorship; promotion and retention; combining service desks; organization and employee wellness; and accessibility issues in library spaces.

Book Challenges and Censorship

Libraries of all types have experienced a significant increase in book challenges and calls for censorship. In 2022, the American Library Association reported the highest number of book challenges since they began tracking that information more than 20 years ago. While only 1% of those challenges took place in college libraries, it’s a problem that affects us all. In fact, ILA Conference Keynote Speaker Dr. Emily Knox commented that academic libraries may be the next big target. Knox reasoned that because colleges receive funds from taxpayers, those in the community may start questioning why they are spending their tax dollars on library materials they consider inappropriate. One attendee described a challenge to a research guide on reproductive resources, while another attendee described the disruption to library services when a group of people arrived to protest at the college library.

In response, attendees suggested ways to be prepared for challenges at academic libraries. Everyone agreed that it’s best to have policies in place before a challenge occurs. This includes policies to respond to a challenge as well as collection development policies that explain how materials are chosen and why materials may be deselected. Librarians from Northwestern University and Clark College shared their policies as examples. Attendees also discussed the importance of creating awareness of the issue around campus, possibly in the form of a whole-campus conversation on censorship. They felt that some students may be aware of the issue, but they saw that many were not. Attendees also suggested seeking support from faculty and administrators, possibly in the form of creating university guidelines or policies on academic freedom.

Promotion and Retention

Attendees discussed the employee status structure at their colleges and there was great variation in the employee status of their librarians. A focus of the discussion was on librarians obtaining faculty status. They felt that if the librarian didn’t have faculty status, having a tract to help them eventually achieve that status might increase retention. As one attendee said, “A flat structure prevents growth.” Designing a rubric for tenure or promotion would help with that process. Many also felt that seeking a mentor on campus, especially for a new librarian, would also improve retention. A mentor can assist with the tenure process as well as help a new librarian navigate campus and the challenges that may come from living and working in a potentially new area.

Combining Service Desks

More and more libraries are combining service desks, like the reference desk and the circulation desk. Attendees talked about some of the benefits of combining desks, which “improve efficiency,” and “prevent shuffling students back and forth.” Having a single service point also increases the chance that “students will know where to go” when they enter the library. There were other conversations about the importance of ensuring that a combined desk remains accessible to all who sit there. Many academic libraries employ student workers who may be the frontline to a combined service desk, and attendees described the need to provide coordinated customer service training for them.

Organization and Employee Wellness

With increased research and narrative about burnout, this was a popular discussion among attendees. Almost all said they’ve experienced varying degrees of burnout and felt it has become an “epidemic in the profession.” Some of that burnout has been caused by “job creep in small libraries,” libraries that are understaffed, and a “culture difference between types of employees (salary versus hourly),” and a “tenure system designed for people who don’t self-care.” Attendees had suggestions for preventing burnout as well as ways to take care of ourselves once we begin to feel it set in. Ideas included setting boundaries and self-advocacy; making sure to take breaks; engaging in “slow librarianship;” and utilizing flex time when it’s available. They maintained that self-care must be proactive and that it would help to have a manager who models healthy behavior.

Accessibility Issues in Library Spaces

This discussion about making libraries accessible to all was also robust. Everyone wants to ensure that anyone with a disability can access library resources and services. Specific issues that were addressed included lowering the height of reference desks and providing various seating styles that include seats without arms. One attendee commented that we should “make accessibility part of the collection.” Library staff, including student employees, should be trained how to speak with those with varying abilities, which aren’t always visible. Some commented that when auditing the accessibility of our libraries, we should consider not just the space but the library’s website as well. Students may need to see information on the website first before coming in; one attendee relayed a comment from a student: “If it’s not on the website, I’m not coming.” They also mentioned the importance of ensuring files on the library website should be accessible and noted that PDFs are especially troublesome. To help with some of these issues, a librarian from Northern Illinois University shared their DEIA rubric for evaluating and revising policies to better address the accessibility of our libraries.

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