Report on the 2019 WESLINE Conference

On September 4, 2019, while the UK parliament debated about blocking a no-deal Brexit and protesters gathered in Parliament Square, British modern languages librarians met for a day-long conference on a topic motivated by a not unrelated professional challenge and by changing responsibilities in their organizations.

Gathered at the Institut français in South Kensington were UK European languages and studies librarians who belong to the specialist groups which comprise WESLINE (West European Studies Library and Information Network). WESLINE is the umbrella organization for ACLAIIR (Advisory Council on Latin American and Iberian Information Resources), the French Studies Library Group (FSLG), the German Studies Library Group (GSLG), and the Italian Studies Library Group. Members of these grass-roots groups are subject librarians at academic libraries and the British Library, close colleagues of ESS members with similar responsibilities and shared convictions. That day, I was at the Institut français, but managed to pay respects to Parliament Square after dinner.

The WESLINE conference, Working Together: Modern Languages and Libraries in the UK, provided a review of the state of modern languages teaching and learning in the UK and a panel discussion on innovative ways researchers and librarians can collaborate to support learning, teaching, and research in modern languages. In the UK, as in the US, although globalization and political, economic and social reality speak to sensible folk of a critical need for language and intercultural skills, foreign language learning and teaching is threatened by declining enrollments and programs. Many are voicing this; for one, the British Academy issued the report Languages in the UK: A Call to Action (2019). I was reminded of recent US studies such as the 2018 report of the Modern Languages Association (MLA) documenting falling enrollment in most foreign languages outside English (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19, 2018), and news that U.S. colleges closed 651 foreign language programs in the three year period from 2013 to 2016 (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 22, 2019).

Janet Zmroczek, Head of European and American Languages at the British Library, chaired the morning panel on “The future of languages in the UK: advocacy, policy making, teaching and learning.” Nicola McLelland, Professor of German and History of Linguistics at the University of Nottingham, offered “The history of language teaching and learning in Britain: how understanding the past can help us shape the future;” Nick Mair, Director of Languages at Dulwich College, a private secondary school near London, reviewed “Teaching languages at A level and the new syllabus;” Clair Gorrara, Professor of French and Dean of Research Environment and Culture at the University of Cardiff, and Chair of the UK University Council of Modern Languages advocated for “Lobbying for languages: how we can be language activists.” Slides from these presentations and more details are available on the ACLAIIR website.

After a buffet lunch there was a “Round Table: What can libraries do?” chaired by Joanne Ferrari, Subject Team Leader and Subject Librarian for Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Languages & Literatures at the Tayor Institution Library of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. One project described was the Digital Editions Course at the Taylorian, a Library/faculty collaboration. (W)ESS and CIFNAL members may remember panelist Alison Hicks, now faculty member in the Department of Information Studies of the University of London, whose deep international experience includes almost a decade as Romance Languages Librarian at the University of Colorado until 2017.

The day included a workshop/discussion on the evolving Modern Languages and Cultures Library Group, skillfully led by Kate Courage, Academic Support Librarian for English & Comparative Studies, French, Hispanic Studies, Italian, and Philosophy at the University of Warwick. This new group is being developed to support UK librarians’ changing roles. It will be open to all interested language groups, including COSEELIS (Council for Slavonic and East European Library and Information Services) and NAIRA (National Committee for Information Resources on Asia). Kate’s article in the Annual Review of the French Studies Library Group in 2016 pointed to some of these challenges (“As Libraries Change: The Way Forward for Modern Languages Librarianship”. pp. 11-17).

The Institut francais was a delightful venue: art deco architecture, an engaging library, evident vibrant programming – and a Sonia Delaunay tapestry in the stairwell. This visit to WESLINE was an opportunity to invite UK participation in The New Shape of Sharing workshop/forum planned for Fiesole, Italy in May, 2020, and much enthusiasm was expressed. Some may remember that Sarah Wenzel reported on her WESLINE visit in a 2008 WESS Newsletter.

Spending a day with like-minded colleagues in London was enjoyable, useful and and interesting. I wish it were easier for more of us to meet together in person more frequently.

Sarah How
European Studies Librarian
Cornell University