Student delegate report, ARLIS/UK&Ireland Annual Conference 2019, Glasgow
Rosaline Love, University College London
I was fortunate to be the recipient of the Conference Student Award for the ARLIS/UK&Ireland 50th Anniversary Conference, 15th – 17th July 2019, held at the University of Glasgow. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary called on delegates to reflect on the pioneering past and vibrant future of the society and the conference programme reflected this ethos; there was a clear focus on critical librarianship, decolonising collections and innovation within the art library profession. It would be impossible to adequately cover every visit, talk or workshop of the three-day conference, so instead I am going to focus on some of my personal highlights from my time in Glasgow:
Dr John Scally opened the conference with his keynote speech outlining the ambitious plans for the centenary of the National Library of Scotland in 2025. The institution is looking towards a bright future through innovative technology to make their collections more accessible through public engagement and digitisation projects. Planning for this anniversary has allowed the National Library of Scotland to have space to consciously think about the purpose and legacy of its past through its collections and how to make way for the future. This exploration of past and present continued in Dr Robyne Calvert’s keynote talk From Tome to Tomb: The Birth, Death, and Reconstruction of Mackintosh’s Library. This moving discussion took a look at the strategies explored to reconstruct the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Library following the fires in 2014 and 2018. Dr Calvert pointed to the integral nature of technology to aid reconstruction plans, from 3D scans of buildings to using archival material to unpick the original construction, illustrating how the restoration project presented an opportunity for various innovative interventions.
A crucial theme throughout the conference was the discussion of decolonising collections and diversifying librarianship. Dr David Dibosa focused on this issue in his keynote speech, ‘Re-worlding our knowledge’. Dr Dibosa’s talk solidified the ongoing discussions and critical engagements occurring throughout the conference by focusing on the politics surrounding the decolonising of collections. We have a responsibility to acknowledge and identify issues within collections and to continue having frank discussions. Dr Dibosa advocated that art institutions and libraries have to acknowledge that they are not neutral spaces and that what they do and the actions they take have political meaning. To facilitate actual change and to actually decolonise and rethink our collections, we have to take action:
- Works in collections should be called out if they are, for example, homophobic or racist;
- Follow up on deaccession demands;
- Re-write catalogue entries, by identifying problematic and offensive language and including warnings about content.
Tavian Hunter from Iniva also focused on investigations around ‘diverse’ language . UK art institutions and art history education are traditionally white spaces and Hunter calls for a need to change the language around diversity to ensure that it is removed from a tick-box exercise. We can take steps towards this by thinking and learning together through constructive discussions. Laura Elliott and Alice Harvey from Goldsmiths University illustrated different strategies taken to liberate their library which supported the thoughts put forward by Hunter and Dibosa through working groups with students, interactive reading lists and academic workshops focusing on topics such as inclusive citation.
Another aspect I particularly enjoyed was Viv Eades’ and Adam Ramejkis’ workshop on creative library research which took place in the library at the Glasgow School of Art. We were able to participate in a condensed version of a workshop offered to UAL students to introduce them to critical and creative thinking within a library space and how to explore theory through experiential learning.
The conference working party clearly worked hard to ensure that delegates had a chance to explore Glasgow, with a range of visits to different art institutions and libraries throughout the city. I was lucky enough to visit Good Press (who designed and produced the conference’s printed progamme and tote bag), an arts space and bookshop supporting the sale and production of independent publishers’ work. Good Press was packed full of books and zines, with an eye on creative production – it shares its space on St. Andrew’s Street with an open-access studio and risograph printing service. From a librarian’s perspective, champions of independent bookmakers like Good Press are vital to help to contribute to diverse voices within collections. I also visited Glasgow Women’s Library, who generously offered us a tour of their site and their collections. We were able to explore aspects of their collections, including their lending collection, the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre collection and items in their Museum Collection.
There was a naturally celebratory element to this 50th anniversary conference, from the drinks reception held at the Glasgow University Library, where Penny Dade was awarded the Honorary Membership award for her outstanding contribution to art librarianship, to the conference dinner held in the grand setting of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Bute Hall. However, the overall focus of the conference cemented the idea that to have a vibrant future for our art institutions and libraries, we need to take proactive steps to consider our collections, to challenge them if necessary, and to meaningfully take action to undo the historical biases of our institutions. As the various talks of the conference illustrated, the language and discussions surrounding decolonising collections and diversification are complex and nuanced, but working within art libraries and institutions can equip us with the space to have these conversations, to critically engage and learn together.
This report in no way satisfactorily reflects the huge amount of thought, innovation and content in the different talks at the 2019 Arlis conference, but hopefully serves as a small glimpse into the rich and exciting discussions taking place within art librarianship at the moment.