Aberystwyth University Library: Encouraging Engagement, Celebrating with Words

Today’s guest post is by PhD researcher and librarian Kit Kapphahn. She talks about the importance of the library/user relationship, and how Aberystwyth University Library used the recent World Book Day as an opportunity to strengthen and celebrate this relationship and further engage its community of readers, both digitally and within the physical space of the library.

Wales has been known for poetry since the ninth-century Historia Brittonum named the bards who were ‘renowned in British poetry’, so it might not come as a complete surprise that Aberystwyth University decided to celebrate World Book Day with a poetry contest. Instead of strict-metre cynghanedd, though, we decided to go with the simpler haiku – a form that is both fairly quick to write and, conveniently, short enough to fit in a Twitter status. (Although, it must be said, some of the Welsh entries were in cynghanedd anyway, which was fabulous!)

Aberystwyth’s library has a great relationship with the students and staff at the university and we’re always looking for new ways to foster engagement with our users. Jamie Harris, one of the three masterminds behind the haiku contest, said, ‘We have conducted temporary feedback harvests before and found our library users, both students and staff, to be quite witty and keen to engage with us, so thought it would be interesting to see if they could harness this in the form of a poem about the library.’ Of course, offering cake is always a good incentive too!

book prizes

Book prizes for the competition winners. Credit: Kit Kapphahn.

The day itself fell in the middle of undergraduate dissertation deadlines in several departments, so the library was a busy and electric place already. The timing may have contributed to the atmosphere – students could drop off or pick up a bound dissertation, write a haiku to calm their thoughts, and celebrate with cake! There were also a few people who came in specifically to take part, having seen it advertised around the campus, and still more submitted via Twitter under the hashtags #haikuaber and #haicwaber.

We awarded prizes in two categories – English and Welsh – and guessed we’d get quite a few entries in both. But those weren’t the only languages involved, since we also received several submissions in French and one in Korean (and one in Latin, but that was mine – I’d just come out of a reading group where we’d been doing Reginald of Canterbury so it was fresh in my mind). All told we had around ninety entries and went through several large sheet cakes – the biggest challenge, according to the judges, was deciding between so many great entries.

The poems themselves ran the gamut, from thoughtful to sweet to funny. One, for instance, captured the ecology of physical books:

 

Trees live two lives

As trees and corpses in balm

Paper, on which we scribe most calm

 

That wasn’t the only entry to deal with the physicality of books – some used the forum to discuss the authority of books over Wikipedia or to bemoan the sleep-deprived student lifestyle. Some entries reflected a clear love affair with books and libraries that reminds us how important these spaces are to students in a way that can’t be replaced entirely by online resources.

Another witty entry appealed to the pathos of the library staff approaching the end of term:

 

Oh! Librarian,

Cry not over my late book,

I shall pay my fines!

 

Then there were those that were unabashedly honest in their intentions:

 

Celebrate Book Night

I too can do a haiku

And I want free cake.

 

University libraries face many challenges at the moment. Budgets are under threat, journal subscriptions are extremely high, and staff and resources are being cut or not replaced. What this really showed us, along with how wonderfully clever our students are, is how eager the academic community is to be involved and engaged with the library, and how important it is to them. It’s more than a collection of facilities or a computer room, but an integral part of the university experience and something they value.

We get a lot of feedback from our students and staff because we encourage it – whether they have suggestions, complaints, or praise (and we get plenty of all three) we want to hear it. The praise makes us feel good, of course, but we also know we can’t address any concerns we don’t know about. I’m occupying the middle ground, being both a postgraduate researcher and library staff, and often try to be an ambassador for both sides. This is definitely made easier by the willingness of the library staff to really listen to student feedback! It results in a feeling of partnership as we all work toward the common goal of providing the best experience possible. When librarians and students (and those of us who are both) feel that we’re all on the same side, it makes it easier to keep going in the right direction.

It also makes for a lot of spontaneous poetry – and cake!

Take a look at the winners and all the haiku entries at http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/is/news/wbd/.

Kit Kapphahn is a PhD researcher and librarian at Aberystwyth University, focusing on gender and genre in medieval Welsh Arthurian literature. She is also the English-language winner of the Aberystwyth World Book Day haiku contest, which is probably the only poetry award she will ever win. She is on Twitter as @aelura.

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