Access from All Angles: Charleston Conference 2022

The 2022 Charleston Conference took a somewhat different form from recent gatherings: not only hybrid, but asynchronous. At both the in-person and virtual conferences, issues of the day largely centered on access: open access and open educational resources, access to data, the need for more equitable access to research and materials, and questions of access—period—in the wake of constrained budgets and renegotiated agreements.

Charleston Conference 2022 logoThe 2022 Charleston Conference took a somewhat different form from recent gatherings: not only hybrid, but asynchronous. The in-person conference was held in Charleston, SC, from November 1–4, at the Charleston Gaillard Center, the Francis Marion Hotel, and the Courtyard Marriott Historic Downtown. The virtual conference took place November 14–18, offering all in-person content plus online-only sessions; After each virtual presentation ended, viewers were given a link to join a live Zoom Q&A/discussion.

The two versions drew just under 2,500 attendees in total—1,467 in person (with virtual access as well) and 956 virtual only. Thirty-one percent of the total were first-timers, and 58 percent were librarians (the rest were publishers, vendors, consultants, students, and others). More than 300 came, either in person or online, from outside the United States. Attendance numbers hit the conference’s targets, said Charleston Hub Executive Director Leah Hinds. “There was an improvement in technology this year, and learning from the past we were able to improve the user experience by concentrating on the in-person and virtual attendees at two separate events.”

This year's total registration was on par with 2020 and 2021, according to Hinds, with in-person attendance beginning to rise again; in 2019, before pandemic measures were adopted, conference attendance was just under 2,000 .While next year’s format is still undecided, based on positive feedback from 2022, conference organizers are considering a similar hybrid model.

During the in-person portion of the conference, said Hinds, the vendor showcase featured more than 140 exhibitors, and traffic was steady all day. An Opening Brunch with mimosas and Bloody Marys sponsored by Better World Books, and an afternoon Welcome Reception sponsored by Helper Systems, were popular draws. A Wednesday evening reception on the USS Yorktown offered views of the harbor and city; a chance to visit the on-board museum; and food, drinks, and music.

“We were thrilled with the participation and the feeling of a return to normalcy,” said Hinds. Thank you to everyone who attended, presented, exhibited, or sponsored! It was great to see and hear from all of you, whether you were in Charleston or online.”

At both the in-person and virtual conferences, issues largely centered on access: open access and open educational resources, access to data, the need for more equitable access to research and materials, and questions of access—period—in the wake of constrained budgets and renegotiated agreements. A few sessions attended by LJ editors, out of the many on offer, are highlighted below.



The opening keynote, delivered by Dr. Buhle Mbambo-Thata, university librarian of the National University of Lesotho, emphasized the need to redefine global information access in the face of a host of ills that include pandemics, climate change, and war. Information is the new currency, she noted, but how do we, as a profession, empower the world’s citizenry to use it? Collaboration is key—the title of her speech was “We Will Get There Together”—as is transparent and open communication. Transformative and equitable strategies require real change: “If you are going to change the information environment,” she stated, “it is critical that we create a legal framework that promotes fair use, responsible copyright, and promoting access to information for development.” This includes advancing Indigenous languages in collections and decolonizing knowledge spaces, as well as ensuring sustainable preservation of knowledge.

Particularly from a global South perspective, Mbambo-Thata pointed out, pursuing current best practices in publishing often lures researchers to journals that their own institutions can’t afford. “We need to question who open access benefits if it excludes by class,” she stated.

She praised the Marrakesh Treaty championed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which enables the production and international transfer of books for people with blindness or visual impairments; work being done by the San Francisco–based Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which seeks to improve the outputs of scholarly research through new ways to recognize researchers and how they promote themselves, and how article prestige is calculated; Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO), for its wartime preservation work; and the ongoing efforts to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts. The imperative goes beyond individual campuses and collections, she concluded: “The world of violence, climate, calamity, pandemics, and pain behooves each of us, as a professional, to seek avenues to build a world that is better.”



A number of discussions centered on changes wrought by the pandemic—in libraries, academic publishing, and library-vendor relations. The virtual session “Lessons from COVID-19 and Hitting the Restart Button: Perseverance and Evolution of Academic Libraries,” featuring a panel of international librarians and moderated by Jennifer Griffiths, head of academic affairs in North America at Springer Nature, showed that the issues in play transcend geographical boundaries.

The uptick in the use of tools that increase participation, such as Zoom, has not translated into increased use of resources, noted Greg Sheaf, assistant librarian at Trinity College, Dublin. And while publishers stepped up to provide access to resources students needed during the pandemic, with the return of in-person classes they have raised prices again—a difficult model to work with, said Hilde van Wijngaarden, director of the University Library at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. Ebook use is up, but browsing of physical materials has been declining, said Liz Mengel, associate director of collections and academic services at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Yet students are eager to return to the library. And as campus libraries reckon with the challenges of pandemic-driven isolation and uncertainty, they have the opportunity to center social and mental health services along with academic offerings. The library remains a central social location, and Johns Hopkins locates peer counseling services there because “there’s no stigma in coming to the library,” explained Mengel. The isolation may have been hardest on international students who had no support system in place. “Now we find out how many problems they have, coming back from that two-year period,” said van Wijngaarden. “They missed this phase in their life that was not just studying, but also learning to be an adult, and the social engagement that they really need.” The Vrije Universiteit library, working with student well-being organizations, has set up small thematic libraries—a Pride library, a green library, and a mindful library—to offer them additional ways to connect.

At Trinity College, the library is setting up various sensory spaces for students and different types of learners, using the lens of universal design for learning to examine interactions with students and staff. “There has been, I think, a view in the past that unless you had to work at it, it wasn’t worth anything,” said Sheaf. “We don’t need to make everything hard for people for the sake of it.”

Another library role that the pandemic highlighted is that of the librarian as research data support. This was an emerging field well before COVID, but the pandemic made the library’s digital services more visible and more widely used, said van Wijngaarden. “It’s become clear that the role of the library as initiator, as a real ambassador for open science, was felt by the researchers.” In the Netherlands, Library Science as a field of study was phased out in favor of Information Science a decade ago— “but now we realize that might have been a mistake,” she added. “We are looking into how to set up that library education again, not just to train young people to come into the library and do more traditional work, but also to have the new researchers that are coming in learn about what libraries do, and how those joint efforts can help open science move forward.”

We’ve been seeing the changes the profession needs over the past 20 years, said Mengel, but all forms of data management and digital scholarship—including digital humanities—and cross-institutional collaboration are “starting to blossom a little bit more.” And traditional library skills are increasingly shown to be critical for supporting and augmenting them the new roles, added Sheaf. “It is fantastic to see these competencies being recognized, that we are the people to come to for those types of skills.”



Another access issue, the freedom to read, has been playing out in school and public libraries across the United States—and academic libraries are seeing challenges as well. Of the 137 gag order bills restricting discussion of certain topics in the classroom logged by November, 39 percent target colleges and universities—up 9 percent from 2021—said moderator Camille Gamboa, corporate communications and public affairs director at SAGE Publishing, in the session “What’s the Role of the Librarian in Supporting Intellectual Freedom?”

Emily Knox, associate professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted that academic challenges arise during times of major cultural change, such as the Red Scare in the 1950s. John Burgess, assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama, added that the technologies we use are becoming atomized—”The structures in society which previously have held us together are no longer in place, so it’s much easier to divide us and then reward us for taking extreme positions.” And Aaisha Haykal, manager of archival services at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American Culture, pointed to the glut of information that is difficult both to access and to analyze critically.

There are a number of ways to combat such challenges, including collection development that champions intellectual freedom and pushes back against oppositional fear tactics. Haykal urged all libraries to review their policies with colleagues, faculty, and the university community; Knox noted also that a range of policies exist for different types of academic library, often depending on which part of the university a library serves or whether services are centralized. Keep holdings up to date, weed regularly and thoughtfully, and make sure both the print collection and digital subscriptions include globally diverse viewpoints, she advised.

“If you’re in an environment where conversations about justice and conversations about representation can’t be made directly for legal reasons, then a collection development policy recourse that you can really lean on is currency,” said Burgess. “If you’re in confrontation with your administration, you’re not going to win that fight. So there are ways to accomplish your goals just by altering what you choose to prioritize.”

In addition to collection development policies, make sure the library’s challenge policy is posted, and that all staff and faculty understand how to observe it. “Be prepared to educate—and to have avenues to explore in a procedural sense—requirements for receiving, transmitting, and evaluating any challenges to materials or teaching materials,” advised Burgess. This is probably easier in academic settings than public libraries, noted Haykal, “because you have scholarship angle”—although the same issues of intellectual freedom apply in all settings.

Mis- and disinformation are increasingly part of the equation, said Knox, and it’s important to address how people understand information in the first place. The reference interview can offer context for where users are coming from, she noted, as well as what they need.

Programming with speakers representing different races, sexualities, and religions is critical as well, said Haykal, “so that people get access and see that the library is for them and that [those programs] are accessible. An explicit programming policy should be in place if external groups will be presenting at the library.

Most important, all agreed, is for library staff to be political and advocate for the library’s importance, support intellectual freedom in everything they do, and engage in advocacy regularly. Subscribe to and read the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy, and follow the National Coalition Against Censorship and Unite Against Book Bans.

“You can no longer assume good faith when somebody is bringing a challenge,” Knox noted. “This used to be part of how we understood challenges—that people were going to be supportive of the library, that they would engage in, if not civil discourse, then discourse at all. What we’re finding now is that people are not even going through the prescribed channels for bringing challenges.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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