As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been thinking recently about advocacy and educating people; not necessarily on a huge scale like some of the campaigning going on in the library world, but on an individual level. It’s sort of a double pronged approach – doing things at ground level to help spread the word as well as some of the larger scale campaigns.
As a librarian, I often end up in conversations where I try to explain what I do to people. I’m not as good as I’d like to be at it, especially since moving to research librarianship which I find even harder to explain, but I do like to do my bit to help people understand the work of the profession. I often find it easier to do this when talking to strangers – I’ve had a number of conversations about it with taxi drivers, train passengers, and a particularly interesting conversation with a train ticket collector at a train station in Exeter. I was there for last year’s UC&R/CoFHE joint conference, where I was doing two presentations; one about your library brand and the student experience, and one on professional networking for new professionals. It was a three day conference with around 100-150 delegates (I’m guessing). As I arrived at the train station I stupidly put my ticket through the barrier and it kept it. I needed the tickets to be able to claim back the expenses so I had to ask the ticket collector if he could retrieve it for me. He was very nice about it even though this meant he had to go through ALL the tickets to find mine (which happened to be in the last pile he checked). During that time, we struck up conversation about what I was doing in Exeter. I explained about the conference and his initial reaction was one of surprise – what did librarians have to talk about that could fill three days? When I explained that this was actually just a very small section of the librarian profession and mentioned some of the other conferences I had presented at and attended and the things we had discussed, he was amazed. We got chatting about what a normal day is like as an academic librarian, and he was really impressed with the variety of things I was involved in and the support we offered to the University. He had no idea that we taught or provided support for developing information skills, he didn’t know that we took a qualification to become librarians, and he was amazed at the variety of topics I mentioned would be discussed at the conference. He then found my ticket and I thanked him profusely before leaving the station. As I was leaving, I noticed he had started chatting to his colleague about our conversation and some of the stuff academic librarians do – our conversation had obviously made an impact on him.
Another thing I talk to people about (probably more often than librarianship as it arises so often due to having to eat unusual meals!) is the fact that I have coeliac disease. I’ve been diagnosed since December 2009, so it’s still a relatively new thing for me, though it’s almost normal to me now. For those who don’t know, those of us with coeliac disease have an auto-immune response when we eat anything with gluten (wheat, barley and rye are the main grains that have gluten). It brings different symptoms which makes diagnosis difficult, but thankfully when I was suffering I was tested for pretty much everything by my doctor and following a positive blood test for coeliac disease I had an endoscopy to confirm diagnosis. It’s a condition you have for life and there’s no treatment other than cutting gluten out of your diet. I get some food on prescription, and my grocery shopping now takes a lot longer than it used to as I have to check every product to check whether or not I can eat it. It’s a bit of a pain, but it’s necessary – I feel so much better since adopting the gluten free diet and it means I’m now at far less risk of some of the problems I could have if I continued to eat gluten (things like osteoporosis, infertility, and cancers). It does make eating out a little tricky, and I’ve had some revolting gluten free offerings at events.
There’s a lot of confusion about gluten free diet – some people choose to adopt a gluten free diet but don’t need to (though I don’t understand why – it’s so difficult to eat gluten free and most people can manage gluten with no problems), and some coeliacs seem to think that they can get away with eating gluten or that their body will learn to cope with it (not true, but some coeliacs don’t have physical symptoms so I can see why they might think they’re not affected). Also, because it’s not really an allergy, the effects of inadvertently eating gluten aren’t as immediate or violent as someone with a severe food allergy (in my case it takes about 12hrs to take effect and symptoms last about 3-4 days). These issues dilute the message about the importance of a gluten free diet for coeliacs (high profile chefs with coeliac disease saying they eat pasta and pizza don’t help either!). And let’s face it, it is bloody awkward! We can’t have anything that’s been anywhere near gluten, so I can’t even use the same toaster without using one of those toaster bags for my gluten free bread, I can’t use the same butter as my non-gluten free partner, I can’t use the same serving tongs if they’ve been used for food with gluten, I can’t have sauces that have been thickened with flour…. Like I said, it’s awkward and difficult!
I do understand that for people not familiar with the condition, it can be difficult to understand. But because it’s so crucial for me to follow a gluten free diet (and I want to make it easier for myself and others in future), I do try to do my bit, particularly when I’m eating out. I have to ask about gluten free options anyway, which I think in itself helps raise awareness, but I will also explain it to people I’m with or servers/chefs at restaurants if necessary. At a hotel in Edinburgh recently, the rate included breakfast. Now I can’t eat cereals, or toast, or muffins, so breakfast can be tricky. I’d asked the hotel if they were able to offer anything for a gluten free diet and they were really accommodating. They bought in lots of special food including gluten free bread, cereal, and rice cakes for me (for any coeliacs reading, I would definitely recommend Holiday Inn Express Royal Mile if you’re visiting Edinburgh). This did however mean that I had a loaf of bread and a whole box of cereal on my breakfast table. It got some odd looks from others in the hotel, and the guy next to me asked me why I’d bought my own breakfast. I explained that I hadn’t, and that the hotel had got some gluten free food in for me. What followed was another interesting conversation, where I basically had to defend my diet and explain that it wasn’t a faddy choice – it was something I had to do to stay healthy (as it happens, during this conversation we also discussed why we were in Edinburgh and I also got to do a bit of library advocacy too!).
I’d like to think that through these examples, and many others conversations like it, I’ve managed to educate a few people about both librarianship and coeliac disease.
I thought I’d share my experiences because maybe you’d like to help spread the word about something you care about too. My advice is to get out there and start talking about it – either face to face, or online. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get involved in campaigns if you can, but grass roots level stuff is important too and it all helps.
Think about the main message you want to get across; this is something I’m trying to do at the moment so that I have an easy to understand answer when people ask what I do.
As much as I despise BT (though they are hopefully installing fibre optic broadband for us tomorrow so I might change my opinion slightly if all goes to plan), I do think their old advertising campaign is relevant here: “It’s good to talk” (though nowadays with social media there’s no need to spend money on expensive phone calls to do it!).