The logo for the LILAC 2024 conference. The logo says 2024 Leeds but the number 0 is replaced with an image of an owl. A number of Leeds Beckett University’s constituent colleges at various times during their history featured the owl as their emblem, this included the City of Leeds Training College, the original occupants of Headingley Campus. Below 2024 Leeds it says LILAC: the information literacy conference. The logo is the colour lilac.

LILAC 2024: A View from Public Libraries

This post is by Ana Silva, Library Development Officer at Cambridgeshire Libraries, who was awarded a bursary to attend this year’s LILAC Conference in Leeds.

Woman with brown hair and glasses holding a book.

I attended LILAC 2024, held at Leeds Beckett University, as one of the winners of the bursaries for under-represented groups, which include those of us working in public libraries. As part of my role as a Library Development Officer for Cambridgeshire Libraries, I have responsibility for our Information and Learning offer. This includes training my frontline colleagues to promote our Online Reference Library and support library users to make the most of it; developing and supporting the delivery of promotional campaigns to raise awareness of these resources; and outreach to community groups who may not realise what’s available through their local library service or how our information offer could benefit them in their everyday lives.

Something we’d like to explore as a service in the near future is developing more public programming under the broad umbrella of information literacy. This could include sessions on how to spot misinformation on social media, a topic we know attracts quite a lot of interest. One of the things I was looking forward to at LILAC was connecting with colleagues in the academic sector who may be approaching information literacy from a slightly different angle, so we could exchange experiences and learn from one another.

The LILAC 2024 venue, the Rose Bowl at Leeds Beckett University, was modern and accessible, with plenty of comfortable sitting we could use between sessions and dedicated quiet spaces for anyone who needed a break. I really enjoyed the day one welcome with tea, coffee, and pastries. There was also a very popular sticker station where we could decorate our name badges with a colourful assortment of rainbows, unicorns, cats, flowers, etc. As I said in a message to my team back in Cambridgeshire, LILAC clearly knows its audience.

The first session I attended was “’Never Have I ever used Google Scholar’: hypocrisy and authenticity in library and academic skills teaching”. This session looked at the moments where we may find ourselves advising students (or in my case, the general public) to do things we don’t necessarily always do ourselves when looking for information. Should we always be truthful and authentic, or should we aim to lead by example? What would the communities we serve benefit from the most?

I enjoyed meeting some of my fellow attendees during the group exercises at this session. I learned, for example, about the copyright issues surrounding platforms like ResearchGate, which I hadn’t come across in my role in public libraries. The exercises were followed by a group discussion, and although this was very much focused on academic libraries and working with students, some of the points raised were more broadly applicable. For example, a participant raised the importance of getting past the value judgement behind terms like “hypocrisy” or “authenticity”, particularly when neurodiversity can be a contributing factor to how we do things at work or in our research. What look like “bad” methods may in fact be coping mechanisms. A related point I appreciated was that if our priority is getting the right information to the right person, it may not always be helpful to think in absolute terms and frame discrepancies between what we practice and what we “preach” as hypocrisy. What really matters is finding the right strategies to help the person in front of us.

In the afternoon I attended the CILIP LGBTQ+ Network session on “LGBTQIA+ Disinformation: Information Literacy for Allyship”. The session covered a lot of ground, including the difference between misinformation (getting the facts wrong) and disinformation (a deliberate intent to mislead); what we can do in an environment increasingly hostile to LGBTQ+ and especially trans people, where disinformation is weaponised; identifying “dog whistles” and terms that try to stoke particular fears; and how information literacy can help.

The presenters drew from Emily Drabinski and Eamon Tewell’s “critical information literacy” theory, which highlights the importance of understanding the social and political context that shapes misinformation. Some practical takeaways were:

  • Don’t repeat misinformation, even in the context of debunking it.
  • Emphasise the correction if you must repeat it.
  • Speak up: where you hear misinformation being spread, don’t let it slide.
  • Use your privilege as leverage where it exists.

Day two included what was probably my favourite LILAC 2024 session: Maha Bali’s keynote “Teaching Critical AI Literacy”, which was a welcome and refreshing corrective to the frenzied urgency that so often accompanies discussions of AI. Bali emphasised the value of taking a critical view of the learning tools we’re using, of care, compassion and kindness when working with learners, and of openness and inclusion. She explained that her approach to both pedagogy and technology is oriented towards social justice, and that one of the reasons why she uses the term “critical” is as a reminder that technologies like AI are not neutral but have political ramifications. For example, it matters that AI is much more reliable with English-language knowledge than with any knowledge from the Global South, and that it’s trained using English language data much more often than data in Arabic. These are facts that have implications for how these technologies work and shape the world. As Bali writes in her article “Where are the crescents in AI?”, “AI perpetuates a bias towards the dominant knowledge data sets it has been trained on”.

I also appreciated the points Bali made when discussing the topic of academic integrity. Is “catching” students who may be “cheating” really what matters, or should the focus be on reaching them early so that they’re doing their work ethically to begin with? It matters that we help people recognise inequalities and biases (including in who has access to AI in the first place; Bali shared that there was none in Egypt until recently unless you used a VPN), and this includes biases in the output AI produces. In order to do this, we can’t cede the terrain of discriminatory judgement and critical thinking. Education must continue to create the context for people to develop these skills.

There were a lot of interesting parallel sessions in the afternoon of the second day, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on one: “Information Literacy and Society”, a systematic review of socially impactful information literacy research. As someone who comes from public libraries, I was interested in the opening question: “What’s absent and/or overrepresented in research about information literacy?”. I was not surprised to hear that there’s very little research on public libraries and information literacy. Education, particularly tertiary education, is overwhelmingly dominant in the research, and presenter Bruce Ryan pointed out that this is exemplified by the fact that 80% of presentations at LILAC across the history of the conference have been about this sector.

Using CILIP’s 2018 definition of information literacy as a point of departure, the review looked at barriers to and enablers of information literacy across sectors like education, health, everyday life, workplace, and citizenship. Some of the enablers in the context of everyday life included the existence of national information literacy frameworks (this is the case in both Scotland and Wales), improvement to teaching methods and programmes, and efforts to work around socio-cultural barriers. Barriers were manifold, but inappropriate government action and lack of funding were consistent across sectors.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time for an in-depth discussion of the citizenship, health and workplace findings, but I appreciated the Q&A at the end and the perspectives brought by the other attendees. Some comments that stayed with me were: “I could argue there is a push towards worse IL (propaganda, fake news, deep fakes, disinformation, etc) to deliberately prevent good engagement and enable dodgy political views to gain power”; “I think we also put too much on information literacy. It can’t fix all the problems”; and “we should try and understand why people believe conspiracy theories, because I agree that IL is not ‘the’ solution – it is just part of it”. I also appreciated the session’s final words: we can increase the impact of information literacy by starting early, using accessible language and grassroots community building, and promoting what it does rather than framing it as “information literacy”. We need to make it relevant to people’s lives.

The third and final day started with one of my most anticipated sessions: “‘I have no idea who I’d even ask’: information literacy and dissemination amongst young recently arrived adult immigrants in Montreal, Canada”. Last year Cambridgeshire Libraries joined the national network of Libraries of Sanctuary, and as part of this work we created an information page on our website to help new arrivals find accurate and reliable information when it comes to housing, internet access, learning English, health, finding a job and more. I was therefore very interested in hearing about what’s happening across the Atlantic in Canada.

The focus of this study was the information-seeking behaviour of young adults in Montreal: where do young adult immigrants go for information or help, and is the information they receive helpful and accurate? How can social services disseminate information in a way that reaches and helps people? These young people’s specific information needs included things like finding a job, accessing housing, making friends, figuring out their identity, choosing a programme of studies, juggling work and studies, accessing a food bank, and staying connected to loved ones back home.

The stakes of access to accurate and timely information were high, and often had long-term implications. For example, does changing from full-time to part-time studies have an impact on someone’s immigration status? The complicated policies governing temporary immigration statuses in Canada were difficult to navigate and made for a complex and quickly changing information environment.

There was a lack of trust in institutions, with many young people feeling that these didn’t care about them. Instead, they relied on grassroots information sharing networks, particularly WhatsApp and Facebook groups, as well as transnational networks. There was also a lot of information sharing between family and friends. This helped fill the gaps left by institutions, but it also meant that those without access to these networks found it difficult to ask for help.

Some of the researcher’s recommendations for best practice included:

  • A holistic approach.
  • Fostering mutual aid to bridge the institutional gap.
  • Offering services in multiple languages.
  • The sharing of information among providers.
  • Prioritising outreach in spaces where people actually are.
  • Government funding for grassroots community organisations.
  • Creating spaces for mutual aid specifically for information sharing.
  • Providing technology to bridge the digital divide.

I’ll finish with a few words about LILAC 2024’s third and final keynote: Andy Walsh’s “Playful and compassionate approaches for inclusive information literacy instruction”. Walsh highlighted the importance of compassionate pedagogies and of play in education. The two go hand in hand because people need to feel psychologically safe to play. When you put playfulness and compassion together, you move power to the learner, adapt the content and structure of your sessions to overcome barriers, and create space for all the voices involved to be heard.

Like most LILAC sessions, this keynote was very much focused on the academic sector, but there was a lot to Walsh’s approach to working with students that I recognise and believe also applies to the general public. Walsh reminded us that it’s important that we listen to and value students (people), that we empower them to be who they are, that we create safe environments, and that we build relationships. As Walsh said, these things are more a set of values than directions on how to teach, and as such they’re also at the heart of what public libraries at their best do.

I also appreciated Walsh’s thoughts on the CILIP definition of information literacy. Meaning is always contextual, and so it matters that we remember that information is relational, not absolute. There isn’t one single correct way of being information literate. We often treat it like it’s absolute, but it matters that we don’t automatically defer to power and don’t make people feel stupid for not meeting the expectations of authority figures.

These are only a few brief highlights from three days packed with knowledge and ideas. Other sessions I enjoyed included “Academic Libraries and Neurodiversity” or “View from the BRIDGE: information and digital literacy for primary schools”, and one I really wish I could have been at (unfortunately it clashed with the session on information-seeking among new arrivals) was “Information literacy : social class perspectives”. I look forward to exploring the LILAC 2024 Archive online and catching up on what I missed.


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