This guest post comes from Katy Stoddard, a Learning & Teaching Support library assistant at the University of Sussex. Katy can be found on Twitter @katy_bird
The Library came alive in June/earlier this year as the Festival of Doctoral Research held a Living Library event aimed at encouraging conversation and knowledge-sharing between doctoral researchers. Stories were swapped over tea and coffee as borrowers browsed the catalogues and settled down to ‘read’ their fellow students.
The Living Library concept started as a tool to promote human rights, a way of bringing people together to challenge prejudice and foster dialogue in a safe space. The Doctoral School wanted to apply this to PhD researchers, who often work in isolation, offering them the time to talk to their peers in a relaxed environment.
In this Living Library the researchers were the books, as well as the borrowers, speaking on topics both practical and general, from writer’s block, failed fieldwork and public engagement to tracking down primary sources, juggling academia with a career and maintaining your mental health.
The Open Learning Space on the ground floor was transformed for the morning, with Spence sofas and coffee tables replacing desks and chairs for a relaxed vibe, while an issue desk and card catalogues lent the air of a 1980s-era public library.
Retro posters and librarians armed with date stamps completed the look. It felt like we’d stepped into a different world, away from the rarefied atmosphere of an academic space.
It didn’t take long for the initial shyness to ease and soon the conversations were flowing. Shanu, a BSMS student, proved a popular book, discussing strategies to manage stress, procrastination and imposter syndrome and suggesting apps that could help borrowers find their writing groove.
Nehaal, part of the editorial team at Excursions, took readers behind the scenes of an academic journal, from writing and submission to editing, feedback and publication; while Marianela played host to borrowers in the library’s new Family Room and spoke about her own experiences and the support available for anyone studying with children in tow.
Members of library staff also became borrowers for the day, gaining an insight into the day-to-day needs of doctoral researchers. Adam Harwood, the library’s data technologist, said: ‘I often only get to talk to students about one aspect of their research and so it was good to hear their views about the whole process – and to let them know how the Library can help them with their data too.’
Joanna Ball, part of the Library’s management team, found the event particularly helpful in getting a user’s eye view of library services: ‘It was a great opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with doctoral researchers about their research and the challenges they face. It also gave me fresh (user) perspective on some of the services we’re providing or trying to set up, like supporting them to manage their data or to publish openly.’
Librarians signed up over 40 Living Library members over the two hours, all eager to learn from others’ experiences. Books as well as borrowers benefited from the opportunity to discuss their PhDs in a relaxed but framed forum – avoiding the awkward small talk and uncertainty of some social events – and everyone made connections or learned something new.
The Living Library gave PhD students the space to let their guard down, talk openly about their struggles and triumphs and really celebrated what it means to be a doctoral researcher.
If you’d like to find out more about other events take a look at the festival highlights here. And if you’re feeling inspired and raring to go, the Doctoral School is welcoming suggestions for next year’s festival programme.