Conference Reports for the ILA AGM 2018

 The Leighton Library, Dunblane

The Leighton Library, Dunblane

Two delegates kindly kept a record of proceedings at the ILA AGM 2018. This second conference report is by Mhairi Roberts, a PhD candidate at the University of Stirling. Her topic is Provenance and Marginalia in Episcopalian Libraries: Recovering the Intellectual History of the Scottish Episcopalian Church (1700-1880).

When imagining a weekend conference, the prospective delegate does not usually predicate sitting in the scorching Scottish sun, overlooking the Perthshire hills in the grounds of a seventeenth-century library; yet this was the reality for those of us lucky enough to attend the 2018 annual meeting of the Independent Library Association, the second and third days of which were hosted by Innerpeffray Library. On the first day of the conference, librarians, heritage workers, volunteers, students and academics assembled in the shadow of another historic library, the seventeenth-century Leighton Library in Dunblane, to begin a weekend of papers which would celebrate the unique histories of Independent Libraries, their people and the importance of community and collaboration for their future.

People were at the centre of the first paper by Robin Davis, which followed the twentieth-century rejuvenation of the Leighton. Its restoration was a long drawn out process, which relied on the perseverance of people who wanted it restored, and on the local community. James Hamilton continued the theme of people in his emotive paper on the impact of WW1 on the Signet Library, which asked the question “who are the people of the Library?” James refocused the idea of library communities from readers, to the people who worked in the library and cared for it, and the loss of both during WW1. His exploration of the library’s archives revealed that in contrast to the people, the books were one aspect of the library which would not fall victim to the war, due to the determination of the librarian John Minto. Minto relentlessly pursued readers with overdue books, regardless of whether their users were fighting on the western front, or indeed had fallen there. James’ paper demonstrated the unexpected, and unique histories that unfold from researching the past lives of our libraries. The importance of understanding and reconstructing the history of individual libraries was stressed in the next paper by Jill Dye. Entitled “For the benefit of…?” Jill shared her research on the borrowing registers of three libraries; Innerpeffray, Leighton and Orkney. She argued that in order to use the registers as evidence of user habits, it is critical to understand the history of a library, the availability of books, and how access to the library impacted the borrowing habits and choices of users. As a PhD candidate working in collaboration with Innerpeffray library, Jill’s research also illustrated the benefits of Independent Libraries and scholars working together. 

Saturday morning began with remarks by current ILA president Neil Pearson, who reported on his recent visit to member libraries, and the concerns, namely conservation, which were brought up during his visits. In the coming year Neil is eager to recruit more libraries to the ILA and grow the community.

Kelsey Jackson William’s keynote “Bibliographer’s, Book Historians and Independent Libraries” discussed the mutual advantages of collaboration between independent libraries and academics, and the exciting opportunities, growth and future for both, if they work together. Kelsey highlighted the transformative impact of digitisation on how scholars engage with out of copyright texts; the focus on books now goes beyond their content to the book as a physical object. Consequently, the value of independent libraries has only increased as they are rich archives of material evidence, which book-historians and bibliographers would love to work with. Both libraries and academics benefit from access to a different and wider community of people which helps to secure the impact and future of both. Kelsey’s paper brought attention to the importance of the interdisciplinary nature of this year’s ILA conference, as people from different professions had the opportunity to discuss their professional priorities and learn from others; the first step towards future projects together.

The importance of a growing community to Independent Libraries was continued in Sue Clutterbuck’s paper on the Iona Library Project. The library was successfully restored with the aim of benefitting the local community, and now uses its resources to educate and engage with local children and the public, essentially growing its own community through outreach work while having a real impact locally. The benefits of reaching out to a larger community were further emphasised in Ken Gibb and Jessica Hudson’s paper on “Sion Provenance Project: Reaching for the Crowds.” Ken and Jess presented a template for libraries with similar project aspirations and detailed the problems they had encountered when starting from square one. Their creative solution to the problem of identifying a high volume of marks of provenance was crowd sourcing for answers in a collaborative online space (a WordPress blog). With the community aspect the project continues to grow and to become a bigger resource as more people become involved and share their expertise.

After the AGM, attendees had the unique and enchanting experience of seeing a live performance of Linda Cracknell’s play “The Lamp” in Innerpeffray; the library is inspiration behind the play and where it is set.

Sunday morning began with Louisa Yates’s paper on “Gladstone’s Friends,” which offered advice on starting a friend’s group for a library, and the advantages and pitfalls of different models. Louisa demonstrated that a “non-transactional model,” where by friends of the library donate philanthropically and expect nothing in return, is a brilliant way to reach new audiences of people who don’t necessarily read but want to contribute to the library. It can also help foster a global community of friends who want to contribute to the survival of a unique and special library, even if they are too far away to visit.

Next, John Crawford’s paper looked to bring the past ethos of Leadhills Library to the present, and asked the question “Can the historic activity of independent libraries be an example for their use in the present and future?” Leadhills was established on the principal of lifelong learning and mutual improvement, and John detailed the strategic planning and organisation that has went into attempting to bring this learning and skills development aspect back to the library community. The paper highlighted the inspiration we can take from the unique past of our independent libraries to create something new for the future.

The last panel of the conference was brimming full of optimism for the future, and opened with a paper from Helen Williams, from the Library of Mistakes in Edinburgh. The library is a new comer, established after the 2008 financial crash, which inspires its niche collection focused on financial history. The aim of the library is to learn from the past, and to find connections between pat and future to prevent future mistakes. Lynette Cawthra ended the conference with a paper on the inspiring couple, Ruth and Eddie Frow, who founded The Working Class Movement Library, and the exciting future for the library after receiving Lottery Heritage funding. The couple did not just found a library, but a monument to working class people’s drive for improvement, which now inspires Lynette as she collects and purchases new material for the library.

The closing marks from Louisa Yates summarised the atmosphere of optimism for the future. Despite current challenges, institutions are thriving as they find innovative ways to grow, and the ILA continues to grow as new libraries are established and our President Neil Pearson reaches out to invite others to join. Independent Libraries are part of a wider profession and community, and this conference highlighted that by reaching out and learning from each other, they can continue to grow and thrive. The two beautiful locations for the conference only further highlighted the unique experiences independent libraries have to offer, and special thanks must be offered to Honorary Custodian of the Leighton Library Michael Osborne, and to Lara Haggerty, Keeper of Innerpeffray Library, and to the volunteers at both libraries who welcomed us.