OCLC EMEA Regional Conference, 25 – 27 February 2019

This year’s OCLC Conference for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa was held in the impressive surroundings of the Palais Du Pharo in Marseille. Despite the stunning views from all sides, there was plenty within the programme to keep our attention and maintain our focus.

Game Changing

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Change the Game’. The conference interrogated the role of the modern library as an agent of change and explored the transformation of library collections, spaces, and activities. It examined the need for diversity and inclusion within library audiences, the role of libraries within their communities, the relationship between research and public libraries, and the nature of the evolving scholarly record. A recurrent theme was the importance of collaboration as a facilitator of change. This was the subject of an interactive “world café” satellite meeting held before the main conference during which participants examined the benefits of international collaboration and the challenges faced when building cross-border partnerships. Delegates will have the opportunity to continue these discussions at the OCLC Research Library Partnership meeting at this year’s RLUK Conference.

These themes and the subsequent discussions were framed by OCLC President, Skip Prichard, in his opening address. During this plenary session, Skip outlined the five ingredients he perceived as integral to successful change, whether the need to change one’s perspective and outlook, the culture of an organisation, the need to have a “can-do attitude”, to look at challenges from multiple perspectives, and ultimately, be willing to change ourselves as individuals and professionals. The underlying message running through this plenary, and the wider conference, was the importance of seeing change as an opportunity, as a catalyst for conversation, and a moment to rethink established assumptions and practices. Having recently visited a series of RLUK members, these sentiments and discussions look very familiar. RLUK members are engaging with increasingly diverse audiences, changing demands, a shifting collection, and expanding missions. They are not doing so as passive recipients of change, but as active partners and pioneers of transformation.

Throughout the conference, libraries spoke of their need to, and experience of, change. Many of these focused on the necessity of transformation following budgetary reductions and the need to “do more with less”, and thus the process they had undertaken to revise and rethink the purpose and process of their activities. Others described how unexpected opportunities had precipitated change and the need to embrace these.

Space and places for people

The design and utilisation of library spaces was a recurrent theme throughout the programme. The Burgundy School of Business (Dijon) spoke of the incorporation of a historic building within its new library spaces and the specific demarcation of areas around particularly activities, from tea drinking to self-reflection, in order to provide an attractive and informal learning environment. The balance between visual appearance and practical design and use were explored, as was the potential of library spaces to reflect national and cultural traditions in how they’re used. The American University of Central Asia described how the construction of their new library had been influenced and shaped by traditions of movement, and that the library was designed around the concept of modern nomadism, people moving and pausing between public and private spaces on their own intellectual journey. This touched upon the recurrent theme of spatial “openness” with a number of papers reflecting on the removal of barriers, both physical and perceived, to entice new users into the library and encourage existing ones to think differently about its purpose, spaces, and function. Beyond university libraries, the City Library of Helsinski – Oodi explored the role of the library as “game changer” within the city-scape and national library network through the lens of its new building, the importance of engagement with library users and the wider community throughout the planning and design process, and the impressive results that can come from this. Similarly, the library as a shared space between community, city, and nation was something explored by the National Library of Latvia when they spoke of the transformative effect of their new building, not only in re-situating collections and activities, but of re-situating the library within its community, with the physical manifestation of their being the “people’s bookshelf”, a physical space filled with beloved donated books by visitors to the library.

The very concept of a “library space” was something explored by a plenary presentation from the Chester StoryHouse , where the library collection is dispersed around a multi-functional building containing a cinema, theatre, restaurant and a number of communal areas. This dispersal of “the library” throughout the building has challenged how users think about a “library space” and has embedded the library throughout the operations of the building as a whole.

Elements of all of these projects will be familiar to RLUK members in their own libraries, where a variety of spatial redesign projects are creating flexible, multi-functional learning and engagement spaces for widening audiences and activities. In support of these, RLUK will shortly launch a programme of work under Reshaping Scholarship’s eighth challenge to assist members as they navigate spatial redesign and capital-build projects, enabling them to share their plans, experiences, and lessons learnt as they undertake these initiatives. Watch this space!

‘Who are we here for?’

Underpinning many of the meeting’s presentations was the relationship between the library, its users, its potential users, and the wider community in which it exists. The aspiration of the library to be the embodiment of the community in which it sits, whether in its staff, spaces, collections, or mission, was the focus of a number of papers. A paper from Bremen Public Library outlined their work to diversify their library workforce through the “EQ programme” which provides members of the local refugee community with work placements, enriching the library through new perspectives and skills, whilst supporting newly arrived members of the local population to enhance their career prospects within Germany and the library sector. Within the same session, Zagreb City Library outlined their work to be more inclusive of all of their surrounding community, with a particular focus on the library being a safe and supportive place for members of the city’s homeless population to learn new skills. Finally, the placement of people at the centre of the library and the proactive reaching out to the wider community was something explored by the University of Winchester, and their involvement in the Human Library Project, an international initiative “where ‘books’ are people, and ‘reading’ is conversation”. The value of this work, and the impact it could have on individuals, communities, the library, and as a catalyst for conversation between various groups, was highlighted.

The themes of inclusivity and openness were further explored by colleagues from the British Library in outlining how the library’s vision, Living Knowledge, has provided the impetus to create a series of strategic partnerships with public libraries through the Living Knowledge Networks. In doing so, they considered how, in the digital age, a national library can support public libraries through the scoping of a single digital presence and engage with a variety of communities, many of which are not geographically proximate to the library.

There is clearly a lot of experience, and a lot to discuss, regarding how libraries can engage with multiple audiences, across a number of platforms. These discussions will continue, and be built upon, at this year’s Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference which will consider how libraries, archives, and museums can engage with communities in the digital age, and the possibilities of the digital shift being experienced in audience engagement, collections, and operations.


This year’s OCLC EMEA conference provided a fantastic opportunity to hear many of the exciting projects and initiatives occurring across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The library sector is going through a period of profound change and many of these changes are difficult, challenging, and provocative. What is reassuring is the varied and creative ways in which libraries are responding to these changes, seizing the opportunities, and looking to build new partnerships to face them collectively. It’s the role of RLUK to both harness the collective voice of its members and highlight and further these opportunities for collective action. I look forward to continuing many of these conversations at the forthcoming RLUK Conference and DCDC19 Conference, whilst working to support collective discussions and actions amongst the RLUK membership through a series of forthcoming initiatives, networks, and programmes emerging from Reshaping Scholarship.

Matt Greenhall, Deputy Executive Director, RLUK