Photography: Christian Fisher, Bloomsbury Festival 2017
To some ‘Doing Outreach’ might sound more like a points-winner in Strictly Come Dancing than a legitimate pursuit for an academic institution, yet it is not only legitimate but essential to what we do. Outreach is the means by which we share with our community and the wider world what we teach, what we research and, of particular relevance to us in UCL Library Services, the treasures we care for. It is relevant to everyone, regardless of their role in the university, as it not only demonstrates our value but also gives us the opportunity to bring together people who previously shared nothing but curiosity, but might go on to solve problems and create new knowledge.
So for anyone who has ever considered putting a toe in the Outreach water but has yet to go further, here is a brief insider view of a recent event.
The Bloomsbury Festival is an annual enterprise:
“a five-day celebration of the area’s pioneering creativity. Presenting an inspiring programme of arts, science, literature, performance, discussion and reflection, each October the Festival shines a light on the radical imaginations, institutions, and 11,000 residents that shape contemporary Bloomsbury.”
UCL has supported the Festival since it began in 2006, and for the second time was the Saturday Hub, bringing together most of the festival events for that day on the main UCL campus. The stalls were a mixture of UCL research-focused presentations and outside businesses, with street food, music and dance provided by the Festival organisers. Traditionally the Festival has a theme – a broad concept such as ‘Light’ or ‘Language’ or (for this year) ‘Independence’. This gives a useful focus for planning an event, but is sufficiently flexible to encompass many interpretations.
Like many outreach projects, our event (Telling Tales of Independence) developed somewhat organically and we finally focused on aspects of the personal independence made possible through reading, creativity and performance. Sam Duncan, IOE Senior Lecturer in Adult Education and Literacies, discussed her Reading Aloud in Britain Today research with visitors, and invited them to contribute to her data collection by completing surveys or signing up for interviews. Theo Bryer, (Lecturer in IOE’s Culture, Communication and Media Department) and Rebecca Wilson (IOE ICT Teaching Support Analyst), both recently returned from introducing ‘agile film making’ with iPads in a variety of schools in India, presented some of the films and a poster explaining the project. For younger visitors, performer Laura Mitchison (of community interest company On the Record) read aloud from story books from the IOE Curriculum Resources Collection, and children (and in more than a few cases grownups) were able to explore their creativity by making puppets and designing for them superpowers or award-winning talents.
The weather, a crucial factor in outreach endeavours such as the Bloomsbury Festival, was not kind and led to last minute changes in the positioning of stalls and performances. Even so 3790 visitors came through the Gower Street gates of the UCL campus, and another 1242 came to the Institute of Making. There were 30 stalls set up in and around the North and South Cloisters, and 26 performances took place during the day.
So what did we learn about Doing Outreach from our Telling Tales of Independence experience? Here are a few of the many lessons:
- Prepare to be flexible. One of the excitements (and challenges) of one-off outreach events such as Telling Tales of Independence is the unknown. You have to be prepared to throw your best-laid plans to the wind, and do what works when circumstances dictate. Our planned story times, for example became ‘stories on demand’ when we realized that arrangement was more suited to the flow of visitors.
- Being part of a large mixed event rather than an individual one might take you out of your comfort zone if you like familiar surroundings and control over arrangements, but it will bring in more visitors, have wider reach, and enable you to meet fellow ‘outreachers’.
- 11am to 5pm feels a lot more than 6 hours when you are presenting an outreach event. Arrange for reinforcements for the later part of the day if possible.
And what did we feel we achieved? Well based on the conversations held, the surveys completed, the puppets created and the stories enjoyed, it seemed visitors appreciated and engaged. We hope they left with a better understanding of what UCL is about and enthusiasm for the possibilities presented. Introductions were made – with UCL colleagues, with visitors, with perhaps potential students – that might one day lead to something that would not have happened if we had not ‘outreached’. So on reflection, a worthwhile day’s work.