I had the pleasure of attending the UHMLG summer residential: Supporting the student experience: space, structures, skills and scholarship developments. It was held in Leicester, so there was an opportunity for some nostalgia on my part, since I lived and worked in Leicester for 4 years.


It was a great line-up of speakers and they did not disappoint! The whole session was Storified,  so you can read through all the tweets, and I confess I contributed more than perhaps my fair share of tweets, but I personally got lots of comments coming in from people who couldn’t attend, so I was very happy to act as a commentator. And I would expect the slides will appear on the groups’s site or blog shortly.

library design

First off we heard all about the evolution of the David Wilson Library in University of Leicester. Caroline Taylor gave a great overview and included useful insights into the design process. It’s too reductive to say what are the “bad” learning spaces are (ie lecture theatres, “old style” library seating layouts), and what are the “good” (ie small group spaces,) – where’s the evidence base for this? Students will move in and make the best of any space you give them, but again, equating use with value (or best value) is not correct.

But what the redesign of the space in the David Wilson Library did show was the contrast between the informality in study spaces which gave the students confidence in their learning (and allowed cross pollenation between different groups), versus the gravitas that the university wants to comfey and the fact that students are grown ups and don’t want their space to look like a primary school. (and when they’re paying £9K a year they want good resources!)

In the redesign there was also the opportunity to reconsider staffing – so that the staff at the issue desk are only there to answer queries (no taking extra work out onto the reception desk – (note to self – sure this might work in a big library but how would it work in a much smaller medical library?). This creates a very special atmosphere.

digital literacy

Next up was Dr Alan Cann (@ajcann ) talking about digital literacy – which was particularly interesting because his opening premise was that digital literacy didn’t really exist – information literacy: yes; an ability to use various digital tools: yes; digital literacy (despite multiple and various definitions): no (see “digital literacy is a crock” for reference!). Or rather – while digital literacy may be an intellectual construct is it a “thing” (like IL is a “thing”).

Alan also gave us the opportunity to talk through some of the issues of what it means for people across different generations to teach/be taught “digital literacy” (how often an absolute nonsense because of the differences between digital natives vs immigrants / residents vs vistors etc) Issues of institutions/organisations being very risk averse in their use of social media were also discussed, and how this impacts on social media policies.

image taken from the Storify feed of #uhmlg14 tweets

traditional subject librarians -> learning advisor / generic study skills support

I’ll go off the running order now, and talk about 2 talks that covered some of the same issues: Mark Clowes, University of Leeds and Yvonne Cotton, Teesside University both talked about their transitions from “traditional” librarian roles to new positions (Learning Advisor and Learning Advisor (literacy) respectively). Their transition to the new roles were at either end of the spectrum (I hope I’m not doing him a disservice by suggesting that Mark’s move to his new role was not entirely voluntary), and Mark is at the start of his role, while Yvonne has been in post for a year. But never the less, the recognition in both institutions was that purely subject specialism was not the way to go, but generic support for academic skills was the future.

Both spoke of the tension between providing all the subject specific sessions they might have wanted to versus the challenge of gaining the new skills required to support generic academic skills. But both also spoke of the appreciation of the students for all/any support.

peer assisted learning / student mentors

Yvonne Cotton, Teesside University also spoke about the value that was gained by bringing in PASS which involves recruiting students to deliver study support to their peers. This nationally recognised scheme is organised from Manchester: Peer Assisted Study Sessions.

Mark Clowes also mentioned the student ambassadors they’ve recruited to deliver inductions and peer assisted learning.

Triple emphasis came from a group of presenters, led by Christiana Titahmbohfrom Birmingham City University about their Student Mentor Scheme. Christiana co-presented with fellow Liaison Librarians (learning & teaching) and with 2 student mentors – great to hear it from the horses mouth, as it were.

Hearing the experiences of how the student mentors gained in confidence through the experience (to the point of starting to consider a career in education, if not librarianship!) was very impressive. The benefits of up-skilling the students might also have a long term benefit in creating the library champions of the future.

What was recognised were challenges about where the peer/mentor should pass on a query to a librarian (I think this happens within teams of librarians too, so perhaps no surprise at this), as well as the fact that neither peers nor learning support librarian have the subject skill to proof read essay, comment on content etc. Either group could get into very hot water if the student didn’t do as well as hoped, and then come back to say “well YOU told me to write it like that”.

I found it vaguely refreshing /equally depressing to hear that some students didn’t turn up for their meeting with their peer mentor – “so it’s not just me, then!”.

Also thought it was a great comment from one of the student mentors who said she’d met with a student who complained that “things are where they should be” on the VLE. The student mentor’s response: “that’s just because you don’t know how to search properly”. Fabulous!

Developing student mentors is a very pragmatic solution to the “problem” that students will always ask each other for answers before they ask a librarian. Training a student mentor improves the chances that the correct answer will be given, and that you might get a library advocate into the bargain!
Also, librarians think that getting a tutor to tell student to do something will effect the change in behaviour we hope for. Actually, getting a student in the year above to say “I wish I’d done this last year” will effect even more change!

There are parallels that I’ve observed in my experience with the NHS Evidence Student Champion scheme, but the PASS / student mentor schemes were much more generic in their approach.

don’t do all the things, only do the things that make a difference

We also heard from Jackie Chelin and Caroline Plaice from University of West of England talk about their Library Impact and Value for Education and Skills project. They recognise that plenty of people/research relies on correlation of library skills training with better results in assessment, but it’s causation that’s should be the real goal. They advocated that we stop doing all the things and star concentrating on doing the things that make a difference to the students: namely behaviour, competence, knowledge, attitude.

They facilitated sessions where groups of students carried out searches on last years dissertation titles – and then compared approach/results. (I thought this was a great idea! might take that away with me….)

They advocated “pop-up librarian” – where they would spend much more time in departments. (not new idea, but never hurts to hear new examples of it being put into practice)


Tensions: some places just talk about federated search/discovery resources like Summon for the first 2 years of a degree, and then launch the searching of specific database when there is a dissertation to be done in year 3. Others talk about the searching of individual databases right from the start. I find this tricky. Perhaps for the first 2 years the level of academic work doesn’t require detailed searching of Medline, and there should be progression in their skills over time. But I worry that students just wont see the need for a more nuanced approach if they’ve had 2 years of a google-style approach being sufficient. And then I worry for the future of academic rigour.

But maybe I’m just a boolean dinasour……


I thought this was  a great line-up of speakers, and UHMLG always is a great chance to catch up with friends and colleagues from around the UK, and beyond. Given that in the round-table discussion there was an emphasis on the need for more training in leadership, I think the next few meetings should be just as intersting.

thanks UHMLG!


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