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Interview with Jordan Byrne and Jenni Skinner

By Zeena Elhassan


I caught up with Jenni Skinner, the Library Manager of the African Studies Library, and Jordan Byrne, an MPhil student in Education, Knowledge, Power, Politics at St John's College and president of the Black Postgraduate Society, about their book display they collaborated on in the atrium area of the Black Awarding Gaps & Decolonisation Forum (March 2023).

Q: What was your contribution to the Forum?


Jordan: I reached out to Jenni to see if we could create a visual book display in the atrium area of the Black Awarding Gaps & Decolonisation Forum. The idea arose from what I have seen in conferences with book tables relevant to the conference topic. Even though we didn't have a table of tangible books, I thought it was important to create a space to engage in something perhaps less confrontive, where people can have their moments with book covers. 

I like how the book covers weaved in the ideas we are bringing into the Forum, through the academic discourse to student experiences: the kind of conversations we are having also form more mainstream conversations, which is why we included the book Taking up Space: The Black Girls' Manifesto for Change and A Fly Girl's Guide to University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Elitism and Power, both written by Cambridge alumna.  We realised at the time that in the interests of time, the books themselves were not an option, but having a visual display itself was really important. I engaged with Jenni who was really helpful in finding relevant titles.

Jenni: I was really happy Jordan reached out. I think it was a really interesting way for libraries to fit into this as, quite often, we are - well, I wouldn’t say hidden, but maybe not the first immediate thing that would spring to mind, even though we are handling books and information all the time. So it was vital for me to get involved, and like you say, really reflects the sort of conference style event that you were trying to put together for the Forum.

Giving the option for people to quietly reflect and pick up more details of titles to go check out afterwards was a great opportunity. I was able to help through the archive the Decolonising Working Group had been building collaboratively, so it was a great way of how their work was able to contribute to this kind of work, even if quietly in the background, it is still going on. 

The archive [that formed the basis for the exhibition] was collaborated with other student reps and academics, not just librarians so it was a really nice dove-tailing opportunity to present. How it is presented is the challenge. Of course, having the physical books or the covers would have been great. I’m always happy to for if we had anything that was already in our library, we did with a few of the copies, which we would have been able to loan for the day. But it is unclear if they are elsewhere, which is also a difficult obstacle. It brought up ideas of challenges around accessibility - to say, we have done these things, but in practicality, there are still barriers, and more steps to think about. We even considered QR codes, where you could be linked to the reading list itself with a bit of explanation and annotation around the titles - but each time I tried to create a QR code it took me to a Raven login page which presented another obstacle since there were few titles with open access. 

However, I think it still went great, considering I could never quite get to it as it was so busy from people engaging with the titles! Working with Jordan to think through possibilities and challenges together was a great experience. I hope people found it useful and it highlights something that the libraries were already working on, so for that, I am grateful.


Q: What might you change for next time?


Jordan: There’s a call for libraries to update their reading lists and I had planned having a document which had that information there to add to - I guess, to connect to something bigger than the Forum in involving the libraries and showing students that these are the titles compiled by a working group to access if and when needed. And to also allow the opportunity for those to add to the conversation. I wanted to create almost a mini-Forum for conversation to see if there is any kind of knowledge that can be given to the libraries and books to add to particular libraries, e.g. I’m at Johns and if I wanted to buy a particular book. This would have been great if it had been a manned bookstand perhaps and the books present there to gather and collect knowledge. Maybe the one thing I would change then, would be to add signposting of where people can go to add to their collections, suggest ways to be involved, and what is next.


I am learning about how libraries support the courses and universities in knowledge-making and dissemination, as well as  what is (and is not) accessible for people to understand the foundation of the ideas in the Forum. We present information to people as if it is given and static, which is not the case. The book cover exhibition was a way for people to do their own research and come up with their own understandings beyond the Forum, and not just a way to include the book list on the Forum agenda or the programme. 


Jenni: I would jump in on that and say it would be great to facilitate an activity like that for the future events, for example the First Year Induction to organise this in person,  so that students know from the get-go on their arrival that this is something that is being taken seriously. A lot of this work is collaborative but hopefully we are trying not to make it too extractive, we are trying to take on the burden of doing this work, but at the same time we do really welcome input suggestions - linking back to my previous point about libraries and librarians struggling to find their space within the university and academia sometimes. The work can be seen as being done and continuing without people thinking about it. So it would be really lovely and I’m sure other members of the main formalised decolonisation will be happy to help with this - but also definitely the more informal, grassroots group - decolonising through critical librarianship. 


Q: Could you tell me more about  the Decolonising Through Critical Librarianship group?


Jenni: We stay in touch and share with the core group, sharing articles and events and try to plan something for librarians at least once a term. I’m happy to chat more about our ideas and solidify them, to think about how we can engage students such as Jordan and groups like the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning. It has been hard to gather together recently through strikes but our members are active, and we also have senior librarians as well, who agree that it is vital we do this work, as well as bringing in academics. We have student representatives that we engage with, for instance Black Cantabs and other decolonising movements across the University.  Librarians are keen  to learn from students and academics who are researching in the area.

It broke my heart at the Forum when a student from Criminology said that a lot of this work had been taken on by her for the department, which she shouldn’t have needed to do on her own. It is a case of shaming them into formalising it, to support students properly. Departments can’t give themselves a pat on the back that this work is being done when it is just down to a student or two. That is why it is important that libraries realised they couldn’t rely on part-time members of staff on some of the lower salary scales to conduct this work, it has to include all members, including senior management. The University struggles to work as a coherent group across the board, and there are so many little bits of important work going on that just need to be joined up and taken seriously. 


But what we really want people to know is that we would love engagement with students and for them to know we are here from the beginning, not just at crisis points when you might be stressing about a specific book. Student contributions to discussions about decolonisation or research more generally doesn't have to be just through an academic course reading list. 


Q: You touched upon student engagement. What has inspired you this time around and what might you like to see in the future in terms of student-staff collaboration? 


Jordan: I think it’s great that the Black Advisory Hub is engaging with so many different facets of the University as possible, because when I presented my book display idea to the team they suggested Jenni who I had already connected with previously. Had I not already spoken to Jenni, I think I would have been a bit more hesitant to make first initial contact where I was already super comfortable. As a student sometimes when you’re working with a staff member there can feel like a sort of dynamic where you fear you will be chastised if you’ve made a mistake due to feeling less experienced. These were not my feelings but I could imagine how a first year student on this programme speaking to a member of staff perhaps feeling a little more reluctant to reach out. It’s great that the Black Advisory Hub kinds of vets the people they work with in this way. And I think the student-staff collaboration really helped to encourage creativity within the ways that the Forum was a little bit more unique in the sense that we all composed it together. I would love to see more creativity encouraged in upcoming cycles of the APP PAR Project


Jenni: I think it is always such a joy to work with students. All of this work has been inspired by students in the first place, and libraries would not have done this work on their own, outside of the Sociology department, for example. And because of that student activism in the first place,  so much other work has been inspired, not just within Cambridge but also across the UK. I’m on so many national mailing lists for librarians and academics and the change is absolutely powerful, for instance in decolonising research methods, and constant conferences with ongoing talks and seminars, these ideas have arose from student movements.

About that point about students feeling nervous: we librarians learn so much from students and our whole purpose is to support the students.  I’m just really pleased to see in the last six years how work around decolonisation has rocketed through and become embedded in so much of our work. Around 2017, when decolonisation became more prominent, for example with the Fees must Fall and Rhodes must Fall movements,  it became apparent that something that could have seemed so remote, from South Africa, actually created a ripple effect.

From my librarian perspective, you might feel nervous approaching us but we are so eager to also learn and engage and make sure that we providing the resources and that we are funding the right things, and taking the correct approach to everything. We take it so seriously now and there is not a single meeting that I have that won’t touch upon decolonising efforts, whereas before it just would not have been on the agenda. Without students, the change would not have occurred, so remember not to feel any imposter syndrome… it wouldn’t have happened without the student body at all!