Literacy lessons from LILAC

Literacy Lessons from LILAC by Claire Sewell

LILAC is a firm fixture on the information conference calendar and an event that many of us at Cambridge aspire to attend at least once in our careers. Focusing on information literacy and teaching, the event has grown to become the premier information literacy event across a range of sectors and is now in its 15th year. This was the third LILAC I’ve attended and every time I come away with a head full of ideas and something new to try. This blog post can’t cover everything I learnt in the three days of the conference but I’ve picked out some of my highlights.

ALKeynote (002)

Of the three (excellent) keynotes the one that stays with me was given by Allison Littlejohn on the final day. In her talk on the [Un]Intended Consequences of Educational Change, Allison spoke of librarians as the keystone species of the higher education sector. A term used in conservation biology, it refers to a species which “has a disproportionately large effect on its natural environment relative to its abundance”. The other main characteristic of these species is that they are crucial to the ecosystem they operate within and without them the sector could not function. Comparing librarians to a keystone species is a message that really resonated with me. Too often we are taken for granted by those we work with but I think we sometimes do the same thing with each other. We know we are really innovative in the teaching and services we offer to our community but we don’t always show this, too often keeping our innovations to ourselves. This is one thing that CILN will really help with – giving us the opportunity to showcase the fantastic work we are doing and proving just how essential we are to the academic ecosystem.


Another common theme was the many different types of literacy being discussed. Of course there were many sessions on information literacy but also data literacy, health literacy and scholarly communication literacy to name but a few. Some of these have clear definitions like the CILIP ILG definition of information literacy but others are more complicated. In her talk Sheila Corrall made the point that there is no concrete definition of what it means to be data literate and that it is almost like a second language which people need to learn in order to function well in the modern workplace. The keynote from Ruth Carlyle focused on the importance of health literacy and it’s real-life impact. A shocking number of people are unable to understand the instructions which come with everyday medications such as paracetamol whilst others are having lots of important information given to them moments after a life changing diagnosis. With the collective health of the nation becoming an increasing concern we need to make sure that people are equipped to handle this information and librarians can play a key part in this education. Despite the differences between literacy types this is the element that ties them all together – that information professionals have a clear mandate to help educate their user community in whichever literacy or literacies they need to understand. Teaching our students at every level how to choose, use and access the information they are dealing with will help to prepare them for their lives far beyond university.


Gamification of teaching in libraries is becoming increasingly popular so it was no surprise to see several sessions focused on educational play. In their session on Making a Game Relatable, Mathilde Panes and her colleagues showcased a card game designed to teach researchers about the realities of publishing and Open Access. During their turn each player can perform two actions with the outcome dependent on a roll of the dice to symbolise the sometimes random nature of academic life. The aim of the game is to accumulate publications in order to gain research grants and move onto the next stage of your career. We had the chance to play one round of the game and our table was quite competitive! I can see how this game could transfer to the Cambridge context and it would be a great way to introduce some of our more formal training sessions. The second game based session I attended involved using an educational escape game as a replacement for the traditional library induction.  Hazel Glasse from The University of Derby took us through Library Lockdown: Zombie Attack where we were challenged to open the safe to find the cure and free ourselves from the cursed library by working together on a series of puzzles. When students play this game they may not realise that they are learning but feedback shows that they retain information on how to use the library. Hazel warned us that these games take a lot of work to develop but with the proper thought (and props) they can be a great learning tool.


As always, LILAC offered several practical tips which we can take back to our teaching.  My role increasingly focuses on providing online education and it was good to see so many sessions covering this topic. An important point made by Lorrie Evans and Karen Sobel was that transitioning the usual classes to an online format is not as simple as copying and pasting the content. They encouraged us to think through each class we develop and look at what we can keep, toss or build (create a new version with a sustainable online structure). This is something that I will definitely be thinking about as I prepare new materials. An equally useful session came from Laura Woods who talked about creating short videos for her students on how to use the library. Many students preferred these to traditional induction materials as they were quick to access and got the point across in a visual way. These videos can also be included in other materials and courses to make sure there is always a piece of the library present.


One of the most impactful messages from LILAC was the importance of stepping outside your teaching comfort zone. We all have one and we can feel very at home teaching the same thing in the same way but we need to make sure we keep challenging ourselves so that we improve the teaching experience for our users. Conferences like LILAC are a great way of doing this as we get to share best practice and learn from each other. Even if you can’t attend in person there are plenty of blogs and tweets to follow so we can all be part of the learning and continue to provide excellent  information literacy support.


(All presentations will be available soon via the LILAC website)



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