Polar Libraries Colloquy – Collaborating creatively

In my last job at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), I helped with organising and planning the biennial Polar Libraries Colloquy, which in June 2014 was co-hosted by SPRI and the British Antarctic Survey. By the time the colloquy came around, I had already moved on to my current UX role but I had agreed to talk about creative collaboration with a polar focus so I had the chance to return to talk about all things polar. I really enjoyed meeting all of my polar colleagues in person and we had a lot of amazing discussions about my talk afterwards which was great fun.

I made some slides and spoke lots. Here are my slides and here are my words.

So, let’s face it. Polar librarians are a pretty niche bunch aren’t we? Our polar collections are dotted around the entire globe and while we’re often really great at getting in touch with each other, the non-polar world probably doesn’t even know that some of us exist. This is certainly something that we have experienced at SPRI in the past. With a front-facing museum space, people know all about the exciting artefacts and the thrilling displays, but they don’t always know about the vast bi-polar collections sitting just a few floors above their heads. What they also rarely realise is that they can come and use those collections for any interest at all, so long as it is polar-related in some way.

Is this a problem for other collections? Perhaps. Having worked at SPRI for three years, I’ve dealt with a wide range of research requests from around the world and I have supported education and outreach through using our collections. But, it isn’t just about what we have to hand and how we utilise that to our advantage. By being too polar-centric, we can risk shutting out users and collaboration opportunities that may not always seem as obviously relevant to us as polar professionals in the first instance.

There are many collections around the world that would never refer to themselves as ‘polar’ as such, but they still have resources that are of direct value and importance to our own work and that of the researchers that we may be supporting. One really good example of this is St John’s College, here in Cambridge. While on the surface it appears to be just one of many large college collections, aimed at serving a large undergraduate and postgraduate population, if you dig deeper you realise that they also house the Vivian Fuchs collection. Now St John’s would probably never refer to itself as a polar collection or institution, yet this untapped archival collection exists as do many other relevant resources.

Non-polar collections are only part of our potential to collaborate creatively. We can also reach out and connect with groups of people that would never consider coming in to a polar library space for teaching or education purposes. A while ago, we hosted a group of students from a sports science college. They were planning a hiking trip to the Alps and rather than contact a more obvious institution such as the Royal Geographical Society, they came to us. By using Captain Scott’s expedition as a backdrop, they were able to thoroughly investigate what went into planning an expedition, what sorts of risks and issues they would face and what calorific foods they would need to bring with them to ensure they were able to maintain their energy levels. They had complex grids and equations that allowed for them to not only figure out what they needed to be successful, but they were also able to look at Scott’s oversights using modern calorie information that simply wasn’t available 100 years ago. By critically evaluating a historical case study, the students were able to plan, predict and quantify exactly what they were going to face on their own trip even if it wasn’t quite as a complicated location as Antarctica.

These students were not studying polar issues, or climate change or even human biology in extreme conditions. They were simply figuring out what went in to embarking on tough challenges and they used our resources to learn from past mistakes and errors of judgement so they wouldn’t get into similar trouble.

As a very localised example, SPRI generally caters for postgraduate students and researchers. We very infrequently support undergraduate teaching but it certainly is not the bulk of what we provide as a service. However, in previous years we have offered study spaces to students looking for that secret silence space away from the crowded hubbub of their college or faculty library. As part of this, we have taken advantage of opportunities to talk to them over the daily tea break that happens at SPRI and have helped them make new connections with people within the institute. We have also introduced them to new angles to their work, by showing of the potential polar connections such as the linguist who didn’t know that we have one of the largest Russian language collections outside of the former Soviet Union, or that the literature student can take advantage of our extensive children’s literature material. Through connecting their work with polar research in ways they never thought possible, we are able to enrich the overall student experience as well as help individuals move beyond the traditional boundaries of their studies. Of course, these students may well never go on to become polar researchers but then that doesn’t really matter. They’ve had a fantastic experience with our polar collections that they never would have had otherwise.

As I am now at Cambridge Judge Business School, I thought I had left the polar world behind me but I was wrong. It followed me there and I soon discovered that there were many polar connections to be had in this unexpected environment. In the past, SPRI has supported risk management teaching through introducing participants to risk situations faced in extreme climates such as Antarctica and what does in to managing potential issues. We also have an academic, Chris Hope, who writes and researches extensively on the topic of climate change, with an more policy-focused angle. He runs models, just as the SPRI scientists, but he uses his findings in different ways. These two examples demonstrate the potential connections that are to be had in areas that probably could have been overlooked before.

And of course there’s us: librarians. We’re pretty fantastic and we have the opportunity to truly offer collaboration opportunities. We have our connections and our skill sets but we also offer something very powerful. Neutral spaces. Libraries don’t have an agenda past getting people the access to the stuff that they need. Libraries can be used for innovation and collaboration that is open and uncomplicated by other factors. One perfect example of this is that SPRI has been used in the past for great political meetings between representatives that would otherwise not have been able to be in the same room as each other, such as during the Cold War. We can put people in touch with each other and allow for them to meet in our spaces without any baggage or constraints.


We have the chance to expand beyond our physical collections and offer neutral digital spaces as well, where people can collaborate and innovate remotely as well. We don’t have to be bound by our physical spaces and we can reach out beyond the walls of our institutions to bring people together. Through collaborating and connecting with each other and on behalf of our users, we can make amazing things happen. And that is our true superpower as Superhero Librarians. We get to know people, their work, their interests and the people that they should be talking to. We make those connections happen and we see the benefits on a daily basis when we get the thanks and free copy of the book that has come out of that partnership that we made happen.

So, how are you going to use your superpower today?


Image credit: Trey Ratcliff via Flickr


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