'UKSG gave me a community and a place to learn'

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Andrew Barker

Andrew Barker, UKSG chair, looks back on a difficult year – and towards a brighter future (and tells of his love for 50s jazz)

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

After my degree in Sociology from the University of Hull – Philip Larkin had been Librarian there (though just too early for me), I began in public libraries, working for Surrey and Hounslow Libraries, meeting my wife in Library School.  I then moved into FE in Norwich and then on to HE via the Universities of East Anglia, Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores and now Lancaster University where I am Director of Library Services & Learning Development. Moving into HE from FE was a huge shock. I had a great manager and UKSG to thank for making it through the first couple of years. UKSG gave me a community and a place to learn about the wider sector and gain knowledge and experience. I owe it a great debt, and I feel a huge commitment to it. I once said that UKSG changed my life – it did then, and it continues to do so now.

What sort of a year has UKSG since the onset of the pandemic?

I’m going to take you back to March 2020 and the dark night of the soul that Bev Acreman (Executive Director of UKSG) and I had when we realised we had to cancel the 2020 conference. This was a huge decision, which we knew would have significant ramifications for the organisation. UKSG is a charity, it’s ‘the’ scholarly communications organisation and we were having to cancel the main source of its income. The money we get from the conference pays for everything UKSG does. Without it, we thought there would be no Insights articles, no webinars, no workshops – no UKSG. What we did not factor in were our great sponsors and all those who agreed to roll over fees for a year and support us. Without them, I would not be answering this question.

So, in terms of finances we had a terrible year – and I cannot overstate that. However, outside of the finances, we saw the best of UKSG. We saw great support from sponsors and organisations across the sector, we have had wonderful engagement with our webinars, seminars, and our November Digital Conference. There was a great attendance from across the sector and across the globe. Finally, we had staff and trustees who have worked incredibly hard to make sure that UKSG’s future is as strong as its past. That effort has been personified by our Executive Director, Bev Acreman, who has worked incredibly hard this last year and has ensured we look forward to our first all-digital annual conference in April.

What are the plans for the UKSG 2021 event? What are the main themes going to be?

We will be all-digital this year, but, we know that people are missing the human elements of a conference – so Bev and her UKSG colleagues (a big up to Vicky Drew and Brian Lewis) are working with an external provider, Underline, to try and retain the human element of the conference. We will be having the exhibition spaces (a big thank you to our exhibitors), we will be bringing people together for informal get together – and we will be having the famous UKSG quiz!  

As it is a digital conference we have introduced reduced rates – I am particularly excited by the Library Delegate Group Membership fee of £ 275.00 + £ 55.00 VAT for four attendees from any library member organisation. We do still offer the single delegate of course – but we wanted to introduced a new flexible way for people to engage with us – particularly those who may not have had the chance in the past. This allows maximum attendance at the conference.

Our themes will be the themes facing us all at the moment, what challenges face the sector in relation to content in light of the seismic changes we are seeing: access, prices. However, we are global organisation, so we will be hearing the global perspective, not just the UK take on things. The beauty of the conference, is that it is  the sector having conversations about the challenges we are all facing; presenting many answers to those challenges. That will be our theme, as it is every year.

Is the digital/virtual format, or part of it, likely to be continued in coming years? Can you see any advantages in such a format?

Yes, the digital is here to stay, at least in part – we know people have missed the in-person elements, so the answer shouldn’t be either or, but like teaching and learning, we should be talking about a blended approach in the future, taking the best from what we have learnt this year.

Going digital, in terms of engagement, has been a huge success for us.  We have had delegates from countries and companies who would never be able to send delegates previously and our attendance numbers were higher than for the comparable  in-person events. There is a place for in-person though, and our conference is an important part of the community calendar so it would be good to go back to in person in 2022 – it is certainly our ambition.  

What are the biggest issues facing UKSG members over the next few years?

The challenges are the same for our members as for everyone else really: uncertainty and trying to guess what the new world will look like. In terms of libraries, our universities are looking at less income from students and, at the same time, higher expectations  – fees have stayed at the same level for nearly a decade, our international enrolments are down which has a knock-on effect in terms of rents and other university income (campus shops cafes etc). Expectations are sky-high post-pandemic – the digital is not a ‘nice to have’ it’s an expectation, so we all need to work out what the content  model looks like in the future, when the money is not there. That is an overdue discussion.

Libraries have however, been a success story throughout the pandemic – our value to our institutions in terms of digital content and physical space has never been clearer.

While the pandemic has also driven home the value of research – without universities we wouldn’t be looking at a route out of the pandemic (as hard as things look right now) – open research will only become more prominent. That will impact on how this research is presented. Within that we have the opportunity to go further into partnerships with our academic colleagues, the local stakeholders and our global partners – potentially we are coming to the most challenging – and most exciting-  time of my career.

Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

My main interest is probably mid-20th century popular culture. Its books, records, films and clothes. If you were to ask my family and friends to sum me up in two words, they would probably choose ‘hair’ and ‘records’.

Some choice examples: I am a huge Beatles fan, but I also love electronica (analogue synths) and 1950s/1960s jazz (Blue Note Records, Louis and Ella, Miles and Lee Morgan). I am a huge fan of the golden age of Hollywood (any Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, John Ford or Howard Hawks film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Stanley Baker, Joel McCrea or  Henry Fonda will do me). I am a voracious reader, loving authors like Patrick Hamilton, Elizabeth Taylor, James Baldwin and Anthony Powell. It’s fair to say that my clothes and hair speak to this mid-century love… so I have been told, at least!