11 December 2011

Academic library pick and mix

A few goodies that caught my interest of late.

First, thanks to Ed Chamberlain for alerting me to this set of slides from the US' Education Advisory Board.  It's a good assessment of the issues facing academic libraries at present and, like Ed, I think it's definitely required reading. 
It's worth comparing these slides with Christopher Pressler's Charles Holden lecture to the Friends of Senate House Library in London back in October (it's also on YouTube). He makes some great points about the historic value of libraries, and I particularly like the way he ties the purpose of his research library to its architecture, his highlighting of the need to consider differences between libraries and between science and humanities; and his accommodating Admiral Nelson, Borges and Orwell (hooray) in the talk.

Moving to more practical matters, I found this very concise description from Meredith Farkas of how to integrate online tools into research and writing.  One aspect of research she doesn't explore though is the joy of serendipity, so it's interesting to read also Libby Tilley's review of the recent talk in Cambridge from Dr Aleks Krotoski on her Serendipity Engine.

Aleks Krotoski
Ever wondered why it takes so long to get an answer to that email?  Cambridge librarians in particular may be interested in the contents of Professor Beard's inbox. Looking at this list, I am tempted to say that much of it seems to contain the kind of administrative matters which could be handled by a P.A./assistant - hmmm.  I wonder whether the Professor has ever thought of asking her College or Faculty librarian to deal with the publishing stuff?

Finally, as I recently attended a talk by Andrew Green of the National Library of Wales, I was delighted to find this clip, although I'm afraid I find it a bit too slow; and am wondering why it uses Danse Macabre when there is so much wonderful Welsh music to choose from?  Anyway, thanks to, always a great source of library videos, for finding it.

25 November 2011

Students at the heart of the system

Let’s hear it for the lean, mean University.   

There’s going to be less money for teaching, fiercer competition for the most promising students and maybe more private universities.  UK Unis are going to have to pay greater attention to student levels of satisfaction with their course structure, delivery, and  infrastructure,  and are going to have to produce more effective and strategically directed research.

These were some of the challenges raised at a conference last Monday run by the Academic and Professional Division of the Publishers Association : Students at the Heart of the System:  how to fulfil their learning needs, to an audience of UK academic publishers and H.E. institutions, librarians and consultants.   

We gathered to discuss the Government H.E white paper and its likely impact on academic publishing.  Graham Taylor of the PA and, in his keynote speech, the Vice-Chancellor at Aberdeen University, Professor Ian Diamond, established the landscape and opened the debate.  Then followed a panel session with 6 students (50/50 undergraduate/post-graduate, UK/international) and presentations of four new publishing and collaborative working initiatives.  We wound up with a preliminary report from ShiftLearning of their survey of University Vice-Chancellors, and a general discussion.

From the student panel discussion it was clear that academic libraries are still at the heart of research and teaching, because their resources come with the reassurance of a level of authority and quality control.  However, the students all said they wanted more and better advice about how to evaluate and use the resources : undergraduates had problems locating textbooks, they were often advised to buy books written by their lecturers and would prefer "all the bits we have to read to be together in one textbook"; postgraduates were confused by the sheer quantity of material available to them and often felt isolated.  Those from overseas in particular were unaware of the shortcuts to study which the British usually employ (!), and tended to plough through everything. One, from Eastern Europe, described how the education system in her home country was very proscribed, communist thinking being still entrenched in education, and while she relished the freedom to “be a detective” in carrying out doctorate research in the UK she hadn't been prepared for the huge difference in what was expected of her.  All the students agreed that higher tuition fees would raise the expectation that their university library would provide all reading and study materials for their courses.

Attitudes to the question of print or electronic book varied.  Several students immediately expressed a preference for print; one, to audible gasps from the publishers in the audience, admitting blithely that she just photocopied whole books from the library.  Another student strongly recommended the Kindle.  She felt it was better value than buying print or using the library and, with a young child to care for, she it was difficult to keep library books in good condition at home and to manage carrying them on a bus along with said child and a pushchair.  The popularity of reading on iPhones and iPads was mentioned, students said they preferred them because they were fun to use and looked cool.  As many undergraduate courses are focussed on digesting study notes or handouts, those who used books as well were seen as the “loser geeks”, i.e. those who needed to read books because they couldn’t manage to pass the course on just the notes. However, when asked about costs, students immediately pointed out that Universities shouldn't expect them all to be able to afford an iPad.  

 Two of the new initiatives attracted my attention.  Despite the fact that valuable research is carried out by undergraduates, until now it hasn't been available to others.  OUP’s new Journal Bioscience Horizons fills the gap by publishing the results of undergraduate research in the life sciences which has been validated by a rigorous supervisory process replacing peer review.  It's met with considerable success, attracting citations even though articles cannot be retrieved yet on PubMed or Web of Science.  Other benefits are that students get an early taste of having their results reviewed and published, and thus the encouragement to move on to work at postgraduate level, while for the University having their students' work cited is useful publicity.

The second initiative is very much grassroots. Meducation began when Dr Alistair Buick was a medical student.  Confused by the amount of information he had to absorb, he started sharing podcasts and lecture notes on to a site and invited medical students around the UK to do the same.  Medication now has a vast mass of teaching resources : lecture notes, exam papers, podcasts, videos, diagrams and so on, plus a social networking area for students to ask questions and share answers.  They can sit online tests and rate their scores against each other; they can read chapters from Elsevier medical textbooks with an advertising link to purchase a print copy. 

Dr Buick explained that Meducation worked along the lines of You Tube – information is uploaded and if anyone complains about copyright or quality they will take it down; when asked by a publisher “How do you guarantee that the information is accurate?” he replied that medical tuition is traditionally evidence based, with practitioners passing on their knowledge to students.  “How” he said “does one know that a lecturer has got it right?”

I felt the conference brushed aside universities' objections to the government white paper, and didn't really engage much with the points Professor Diamond presented at the outset.  Publishers are no different from the rest of us in struggling to come to terms with the changing economic and political landscape so it may not be surprising that they fell back on previous discussions.  However, the panel of students vividly presented them with the realities of university life.  The thought that stayed with me afterwards was that raised by Professor Diamond, and I think is particularly pertinent to librarians.  In future, he said, universities are going to have to focus delivery which responds to this question “How do I ensure my students have the best intellectual experience possible?” 

20 November 2011

Re-imagining library catalogue interfaces

We're often aware that students "don't use catalogues".

Take a look at these two images.

And now these ...

Well, aren't library catalogue interfaces just a bit ... dull?

Wouldn't it be good if instead of a plain text box with neatly arranged search options and vital information, the library catalogue page was...

a big creaky door ...?

... which, when you opened it, took you into a vast gothic building (stained glass, swinging lanterns) where a wizard librarian would quickly cast a spell on an old oak desk (fizz, bubble) and give you a leather bound volume which turned out to be an ebook copy of what it was you wanted to read?

If you wanted to find the real print book, you'd have a virtual treasure map which he'd inscribe to show you where it was in the library.

Sorting out fines for overdues would be easy.

OK, maybe the Harry Potter option is a bit stereotypical.  But you could find the physics stuff via the interior of a space station, or medical books through a hospital.  Chemistry would be in a laboratory, French literature would be in a Parisian market, and criminology in Wormwood Scrubs, you get the idea.

Just a thought.

10 November 2011

Collaborative platforms : dissolving boundaries between researchers, publishers and librarians

Earlier this month, Jayne Kelly (ebooks@cambridge Administrator/Cambridge University Library) and I were invited to speak at a seminar held jointly by the Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute and the Centre for Material Texts.

The topic was ebook platforms and their impact on scholarship, research, research skills and the end user. Hannah Perrett from Cambridge University Press (CUP) spoke from the publishers' perspective, while we presented from the point of view of academic librarians.  The audience consisted of ARU and Cambridge Uni staff and students, including some studying for a postgraduate qualification in Publishing, and librarians.

Hannah's presentation described CUP's plan to bring their existing electronic collections, and new content from other academic publishers, together on a single platform University Publishing Online.  She explained the background to and challenges involved in taking this on.  Jayne and I followed on, and our talk can be summarised in the slides which can be found at the foot of this post.

The following discussion was lively, well-informed and covered diverse issues.  I would suggest that many arose from the well-recognised tension between the need for publishers to keep generating income by retaining rights and restricting access to their content; and researchers' desire to have as much of it as possible available with the least amount of restriction.  Although the web would appear to offer this opportunity through open access publishing, the entrenched academic system of peer review, the need to publish to secure academic posts, and in some cases the need for income from sales, inhibit change.

The point Jayne and I tried to get across was that publishers, researchers and librarians could work together effectively and pro-actively to solve these challenges.

Some more specific comments I noted:

1.   How might researchers' work be mapped so that in future others could follow it? Emma Coonan had suggested to us the concept of "Darwin's Kindle", ie how will it be possible to store annotations in ebooks and exchanges via social media?  How do we know whose work should be archived because it will be significant for future students?

2.   Could ebook platforms be the place to accommodate this kind of information?  As researchers' work is usually published by different houses it's unlikely this will happen just yet. 

3.    This brought us on to information silos.  Basically, the more content is aggregated on platforms the greater the risk that these platforms will defend their investment by making it harder to share content outside its boundaries.  Meanwhile researchers would like to be able to move from platform to platform to pursue their topic, browsing serendipitously. Industry standards might be useful here but again agreement between publishers is years away, and there would be considerable challenges to keeping platforms interoperable after upgrades.  Archiving issues were again discussed in this context.

4.    Questions were asked about textbooks in eformat. CUP are not about to make their textbooks available electronically through sales to libraries; in common with most publishers they want to defend this revenue stream. However, Hannah drew a distinction between publishers like CUP and the big US companies currently marketing e-textbooks directly to students to replace print sales, and reminded the seminar of the differences in publishing models across the globe.
The discussion was well-informed and stimulating.  Jayne and I were grateful to Dr Leah Tether, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Publishing, Cultures of the Digital Economy Institute, ARU for allowing us to participate.

7 November 2011

How to succeed in Library Management

Part One of an occasional series

How to get your own way at meetings

1.  Never confess your diary has any spare time, except to attend a meeting that is important to you.

2.  Before the meeting never read minutes or documents.  Do not answer requests for information which might be helpful to the committee.

3.  At the meeting, ask anyone presenting any report/ proposal to summarise it for you.  They will probably miss out half of what is important so you can claim afterwards never to have known about it.

4.  When critical issues are discussed it's best to appear interested but occasionally gaze out of the window as if deep in thought.

5. If producing a document yourself, circulate it at the last possible moment. With luck no one will have read it.  Insist it has the full backing of your boss (you can run this past him/her later saying it has been agreed by the committee).  Tell the committee it is crucial that a decision is made immediately.  Chances are you will have it accepted with little scrutiny.

6. If pressed for a decision, suggest setting up a sub-committee/focus group (this will take several months to set up by which time the issue will no longer be relevant), or explain that you will need to discuss the matter further with your boss/colleagues/someone on long-term sick leave. 

7. If decisions go against you, appear blank at future meetings and ask “Did we agree that, I thought we agreed [what you actually wanted]" and hope no one can remember differently.

8. It's always worth trying to fix the minutes in your favour at the next meeting.

9. If asked to evidence any questionable decisions, respond by giving evidence for decisions which are irrelevant but uncontentious.  

10. If all else fails, resign.

23 October 2011

Facebook is better than sex?

I've been thinking about

although not exactly in the terms this article, which gives my post a neat title and is worth a read anyway.

I've had a personal Facebook (FB) account for about three years, and I log into it most days.  A lot of the people with whom I am “friends” on FB are not “friends” exactly, but people I know fairly well, mostly through work. (Oddly enough, of my four closest friends, three barely use FB and one isn't there at all. Nor are my “children”, both of whom reckon FB is for losers.)

But I like it for two reasons. First, because it reveals bits of information about my work colleagues - it's helpful when communicating with them to know if you have similar interests, that they have been on holiday, or had a rubbish week; and you can, I hope, assume that anything your colleague is putting on FB is something they are happy for you to know about. The second is that FB allows me to keep in contact with old friends whom I have known for years but seldom have the chance to meet.

So far so good.

But there are downsides. What exactly is FB?  A global marketing database? It's presumably not that efficient as I've been lying to it for years.  Who is in charge?  Us, or them?  Despite this apparent egalitarian networky stuff, FB instigates sudden changes to the interface, like the new BBC News-style (Top story : I've been to the pub, says Albert Jones). FB seems to fiddle about mysteriously with account settings : is our data being stored away somewhere? If so, there must be a gynormous amount of it, so is it accurate? Or is it junked (how?)  Status updates from 3 years ago pop up on friends' pages, sometimes with embarrasing consequences.  I refuse to sign up to apps which want to access my and/or my friends' info, but maybe I'm just being paranoid. And isn't there something a bit, well, weird about some FB friendships? As a student said to me, “I just spent half an hour looking at the holiday photos of a girl I was at primary school with, and I'm not even interested in her, or where she went”.

On the professional front, in an attempt to generate a space for discussing ebook matters at Cambridge I set up this FB group a couple of years ago.  Together with my colleague Jayne Kelly I doggedly post information there about ebooks which I think will be of particular interest.  The fact that communication has been somewhat one-way deterred me from embarking on a second FB page for Selwyn Library.  Nor was I convinced that the students would like librarians "going down the pub" with them.  So we thought this through carefully.  Michael Wilson carried out an excellent piece of research on the use of social media by Cambridge libraries to see what others were up to, and with what results, and Katie Turner attended a course on Facebook for libraries to pick up tips on best practice.  Eventually, this summer, we took the plunge and set up Selwyn Library.

We were keen to create an online library community for students, alumni and staff, and we're delighted that so many of them are already following us.  Even if FB isn't the best place for interactivity, it is helping to place the library within the College's consciousness, and seems to be raising our profile; even the Master's cat paid us a visit last week!  I must acknowledge here the brilliant inspiration of my favourite library FB/Twitter account, Orkney Library, who have nailed the art of providing library info with personality and humour.

Following on from creating the Library FB page, I've been involved in writing a social media policy for the College.  Arguably it isn't necessary because much of what is in it is already covered by employment terms, law (eg copyright/defamation) and policies such as Dignity at Work; but it seemed it would be more likely that staff would use social media, and do so effectively, if they felt confident about its purpose and content, and about the distinctions between personal and professional identities.  In turn, this has made me think more about how institutions should be presented - by displaying a carefully constructed, joined-up online identity, or by allowing its staff to speak as individuals?  And how will this be controlled?

You will be aware of the role of FB in encouraging the Arab spring revolutions.  (Maybe you saw How Facebook Changed the World).  What is surprising is that the regimes which the Arab activists overthrew seem to have been oblivious to the dangers of allowing their population access to FB, and some have paid the price. It looks like is going to be difficult for any hierarchical system to retain power by controlling information in future.

15 August 2011

The long and winding road : my post for the Library routes project

From a Gloucestershire Library / Flickr
I was awestruck at her ingenuity.  Every time I passed my book across the wooden desk the smiley old lady behind it was able to take one look at the cover and then, with the deftness of a conjuror, whip out a cardboard ticket with my name written on it from a wooden tray and hand it to me.  Not once, but again, and again.  How did she do it?

It must be down to a secret code, written in an arcane language, or maybe they all had fantastically good memories like elephants? In which case, what else did this eccentric creature in a woolly blouse and spectacles know about me? 

Purley Public Library
I was hooked.  I yearned to know how the trick was done;  but at the same time I feared that if I worked it out I might set off a terrible sequence of events, like Mickey Mouse did in Fantasia.  For Purley Public Library contained adult books so powerful that they had to kept behind a locked door.  You had to be really grown-up and courageous to be able to cope with those ones.  I knew this for sure because at the age of 9, my request to borrow The 39 Steps was refused.  

Fast forward to the 1990s, when I applied to Cambridgeshire Libraries for a small part-time post at the local branch, partly to get back to work after having had two children but also because I spotted the opportunity to find out how that trick was accomplished.  My early ambition to be a librarian had been jettisoned in my teens as the job seemed hopelessly uncool. Instead I had gone into broadcasting and publishing, via an eclectic mix of secretarial posts in London.  Imagine the thrill of becoming a Queen of the Trays myself!  For several years I enjoyed working with the best ever library supervisor, Jill Saggers, who taught me everything I needed to know and more about customer care, chatted with children and old ladies, and re-arranged the display shelves so that Reginald Hill and Catherine Cookson looked even more enticing.  Meanwhile I was studying for an O.U. degree, and once I acquired that I began to think about what else I might do now the great mystery had been revealed.   

Well, this library stuff seemed pretty good fun, meeting people, organising books and so on, so I signed up to do the postgrad course at SLAIS UCL part-time; while at the same time expanding my work places to include another branch library and then moving in academia.  The switch to academic libraries was purely pragmatic – while public libraries were being threatened with closure there seemed to be plenty of room at Cambridge University, so I decided to get a foot in the door there by moving to Homerton College as a library assistant.

Homerton College
After 3 years at Homerton I applied for and to my astonishment got, the post of Assistant Librarian at the School of Education, helping to cover during the Librarian’s maternity leave.  The move wasn’t too drastic, in that Homerton was a teacher-training College at that time so the material was familiar; but I wasn’t qualified yet and required a day off in term-time to go to London.  I will always be very grateful to Angela Cutts for taking me on, and keeping me on there when a permanent vacancy came up.  I enjoyed my 3 years at Education.  I received a lot of support, and learned from one of the most efficient and proactive of Faculty Librarians, someone who was always willing to listen to new ideas.  As well as the usual library duties I had responsibility first for a collection of videos at Shaftesbury Road, and then for Brookside Library, and was involved in the early stages of planning the merger between the two site libraries.

Whilst there, I decided that if I wanted to progress to running a Library myself it would have to be a College Library.  Despite my interest in social sciences, history and music, I didn’t want to be restricted to a particular subject area.  So when the post of Librarian at Selwyn came up I applied for it, albeit more out of interest than expectation.  I was, again, surprised to be offered the job and accepted it with delight laced with trepidation. After all, the College has a tower.

I needn’t have worried.  Although it was quite a big step up for me, I was able to fall back on the  experience gained from previous posts both in the library world and elsewhere.  In fact I would say that having worked outside libraries for some years was very helpful in developing  management skills and putting library issues into a context.  Bringing up children, working for a degree and doing a part-time job at the same time teaches you a lot about time management, if nothing else.  Becoming a student again in my 40s gave me a view of what academic study entails but through mature eyes.  Working in publishing was enormously useful to me in dealing with publishers and suppliers when I started up ebooks@cambridge.  And I have never regretted all those boring hours I spent learning to touch type at 50 wpm.

I appreciate that working in a Cambridge college is an opportunity only available to a lucky few.  I am enormously grateful to those who had faith in me and gave me opportunities along the way.  And I believe librarianship of whatever sort is the best job ever, even if we don't have the ability anymore to create magic out of cardboard tickets and wooden trays.

Written for the Library routes/roots initiative.

3 July 2011

You can't come in, I'm changing!

This week I was fortunate enough to be able to attend events at which two academic publishers offered updates : the first being a focus group at Cambridge University Press attended by their staff and a small group of UK librarians; the second a presentation by Dr Rupert Gatti of the  Open Book Publishers, Cambridge (OBP), as part of the English Faculty Library's Food for thought afternoon*.

There are a couple of areas I would like to pick up in this post, both of which are interesting because of they highlight the potential impact of future developments.  The first area is The Book.  Arts, humanities and social sciences are disciplines where the monograph is still the primary method for communicating the results of academic research.  OBP are a new company, their list consists of 14 such titles.  They are using an open access model, offering free downloads and inexpensive print on demand.

This is a great new venture.  Will they develop their product further, for example by making their material available at chapter level? (If the whole book is free anyway perhaps there is no particular advantage to either the publisher or reader in doing so?)  Are we seeing a division between open access monograph publishing while bigger publishers invest in developing "super" ebooks?  How long will the e-version be available, for future researchers?

Meanwhile, CUP were anxious to assure us of their commitment to The Book, especially the print format, for the foreseeable future.  Even though their Cambridge Books Online platform has proved very successful, they see the ebook as complementary to, rather than as replacement for, print.  The reasons given were that print sales demonstrate demand, and because climbing the rungs in an academic career is still dependent on successfully publishing in print. Time will tell, and of course. CUP are selling print books in many countries where internet technology isn’t as widely available as here.  From the tour of their print works, which we were kindly given after our meeting, it was clear that they have a heavy investment in the process, while being engaged in digitisation projects such as the Cambridge Library Collection.  I asked how they felt about libraries digitising out of print works, such as the British Library/Google agreement, or Ed Chamberlain’s Arcadia project – the answer was that they were ok about it providing the books weren’t likely to be popular (ie sell in quantities) but on reflection I wonder how they will be able to judge this in advance of digitisation, and what they would do about it afterwards if a resurrected book proved to be popular, especially if the copy had been given to a Library on copyright deposit in the first place.  

 The second area of change is in the roles of academics, publishers and librarians.  OBP has been set up with the expressed intention of providing an opportunity for academics to disseminate their work without the frustrations caused by (a) having to shape their writing to satisfy the requirements of editors in traditional publishing houses, and (b) being restricted by copyright law in how it is distributed; clear evidence of the internet's ability to disrupt traditional processes and power bases.  If OBP and similar publishers achieve a reputation for publishing works of academic value they will certainly change academic publishing for good.  But in a free download world like this, will there be any need for librarians?

CUP were confident that their reputation as an established publishing house (the oldest in the world) and their global marketing reach will continue to attract top academic authors. The impact of the internet is already evident in their need to employ a couple of staff to uncover pirated editions of their publications, as soon as one is taken down it pops up somewhere else, unsurprisingly. However, from the local point of view, as not-for-profit publishers they pay a proportion of their income to the University – what happens if their business cannot respond fast enough to the challenges from both the open access publishers and the pirates? 

I was also reminded of the discussion at the JISC/Elsevier/Open University meeting in January, where their Librarian, Clare Grace, suggested that libraries might move towards Just in Time collection management for electronic resources, allowing users to purchase access to a text (ejournal article, ebook chapter or database content) when they want it, rather than have librarians build up electronic resources collections just in case, this being subject of course to the Library negotiating licences with suppliers in the first instance.  If this were to come about, it might be sensible for publishers to find new ways of maintaining, collating and describing their online content so that readers can find it in the first place. Oh, that sounds like librarianship.

In conclusion, what interested me most was the shift in roles – if academics turn publisher and bookseller, and publishers turn librarian …what role will there be for the librarians?  I'll leave that one for another post.

  *Cambridge librarians, where were you? This was a brilliant event!

18 June 2011

Tense, nervous headache? Relax, you're a librarian!

We've reached the end of another academic year. The library is silent, the desks abandoned, just the piles (and piles, and piles) of paper, odd socks and dried up felt pens remain to remind us of the exam period.

A colleague told me recently her GP had identified that her blood pressure was too high and asked her what she did for a living. As she replied, he looked at the reading from her cuff and said “As soon as you started talking about your job I noticed your blood pressure shot up”.

Now, you're thinking, surely running a Library can't be stressful? It's not like being a surgeon, or a social worker, or even a top footballer, any of whom would know a lot more about being under pressure than a librarian. So, what creates stress in our job? Here are a few thoughts, based on my experience at Cambridge.

Is it to do with expectations? It seems to me that librarians exhibit two characteristics. We are organisers, and at heart we remain perfectionists, Kontrolmeisters obliged to operate systems which have to be 100% consistent and accurate. Then we are also descended from generations of Keepers of the Knowledge; so we're disappointed when our collection fails to supply a key book for an eager student, or get him into the online Ohio Journal of Tagmemics or whatever. Especially if he departs saying “It's cool, I'll use Google instead”.

Keeping up with our professional development can be daunting. “Live in multiple worlds”, “Re-invent your career”, “Find out what your stakeholders value”,”Benchmark your service”. Librarianship is changing faster than Wayne Rooney's hairline because we are churned up in major, intersecting changes (see Dymvue's post Libraries at the crossroads) Yes, we need to develop new skills and to apply them appropriately but, in Cambridge especially, we're often limited in what we can achieve not just by the resources available, but also because our institutional structure and/or technology dictates the shape of developments, rather than being able to establish processes the other way round. Perhaps also, because we can see what we might be able to achieve in different circumstances we tend to undervalue the work we do now.  In fact, we don't always realise how much we are appreciated.  (Is your blood pressure rising? Don't worry, I'm nearly done.  An interlude is called for : here is a calming painting of the sea.)

It's Sea, Gulls by Andrew Lipko (from Paintings of Russia).

Back to the post.  I guess I have enjoyed just about every minute I've spent working in libraries,but I also think I have an advantage in having previous convictions, at the BBC, in publishing, advertising, at IBM, and so on - even for a short while at the gloriously named Film Cooling Towers (1929).

The experience I gained in those jobs (and some of them were stonkingly mundane) taught me some useful tricks to help me organise my work and my time efficiently, to work in teams and value everyone's contribution, not to over-complicate matters, or to become too dependent on work for my self-esteem; and I'm afraid I've seen colleagues succumb because they foundered in these areas.

There are two bits of advice I've found especially useful. One, from a producer I worked with in BBC tv was, “Get the script right first”. (If you watch the extras DVD of Middlemarch you can even see him saying it). He was absolutely right. Whatever you do, get the first bit right because if you don't, the rest of it won't work. It's surprising how many people bash on with something even though they know the groundwork isn't secure, lacking the confidence to admit the mistake, to go back and change it while there is still time. The other piece of good advice I received from a friend, especially applicable to the Kontrolmeisters among us, is“You can't do someone else's job for them” i.e. if someone else is determined to make a balls-up of something and won't listen to advice, it isn't your responsibility.

Having worked elsewhere also makes me appreciate the good bits about Being a Librarian. I'm lucky enough to have a job with plenty of variety; covering archives, rare books, ebooks, textbooks and odd books like the recently unearthed Church Bells of Leicestershire. I am fortunate in having superb, supportive staff, the College is a a well-run and considerate employer, and the students are interesting and engaging. There is nothing to beat the job satisfaction of noticing on the returns trolley a book bought for the Library on the hunch that it would be useful, or the delight of opening up a box of new books, or of retrieving a book from the stacks which has been long ignored, and has finally found someone with an interest in it.

So if you're feeling stressed, adjust your expectations, recognise what is beyond your control, and make a list of the good bits about your job.  

Or just blast off a blog post.

18 May 2011

The Last Apprentice Judgement ...

Young folk from all the nations are gathered together, standing hushed and expectant before the throne of the Great Lord. They are in fear and silence, for he is truly mighty. While they wait, they are scrutinised by his two recording angels, one on the right hand and one on the left, each holding before them books wherein their deeds are written down.

The clouds, looking remarkably like frosted glass, part asunder, and the great lord steps into their midst. He sits upon his mighty throne.

“Good evening”.

The people fall down in obeisance before him and offer him praise. The Great Lord speaks thus:

“Nah I set you, a task. I said, Get out there and be human beings, in the garden of Eden. So how did you do, did you dress it and keep it, or did you flog it off to developers?”

In tribulation the people wriggle and writhe. They rend their garments and moan.

“Oh Great Lord, we have laboured for you, night and day.  And yea, we have been … successful.” 

One sly young man speaks up, “I invented an amazing money-spinning idea, Great Lord. Fruit vending.”

The Great Lord is thoughtful.

“I see. So, how did they do, recording angels?”.

The angels answer, “Great Lord, Team Sheep will find thy favour because they have abided in thy ways, but Team Goat made a real hash of it, they picked the fruit and gave it to Adam without charging anything”.

“They charged nuffin?” the Great Lord is angry. “Wotcha playin at? I   began selling bicycle clips to French onion sellers.  I didn't build up my multi billion pound empire by givin' stuff away.” He ponders, stroking his awesome and unshaven chin.

“Right, well Team Sheep you done all right this time. I have laid on for you a visit to Paradise. You are to enjoy a feast with the saints, nectar, ambrosia, that sort of stuff. And a bit of entertainment on the 'arp. Off you go and I'll see you here next time.”

Team Sheep depart in gladness and joy, embracing and singing the praises of the Great Lord.

“Nah then, Lucifer, you was the team leader. Whose bright idea was it to give away the bleedin apple?”.

“Great Lord, it was she, that woman, who tempted me – and how was I to know she had been tempted by Pantsman Phil in a silly snake costume?” It was all so … tempting”.

“I see, so it was your fault."

Lucifer trembles. "I think ... we needed to adapt our business plan a bit".
"I thought you was a Marketing Manager, Lucifer?”

“I am Great Lord.”

“Well, I didn't want for you to be tempted, Lucifer, I wanted you to do the bloody tempting yourself.  You're just a bloody amateur.”

Lucifer is indignant. “But Great Lord, It is only that I am young.  Yet I am tough.  I am Brand Lucifer. No one can hold a light to me, or match me in any way. Please make me an apprentice unto you, and I will bring you great repute, fabulous riches and Tottenham will get the Olympic Stadium ...”

"Nah, I've seen enough. Off to the eternal flames of hell with you, Lucifer – you're fired!”

7 May 2011

Libraries at the crossroads ...

This post began its life as a wrap up for the current ebook meetings.  I've tried to shove several quarts into a pint pot and summarise below some thoughts about the challenges for ebooks at Cambridge.

Let's imagine we are at a four-way crossroads; the kind of place aspirational blues guitarists hang about at, waiting for the Horned One to appear and turn them into Robert Johnson.

Look ahead.  You’ll see, rushing towards us if not already upon us, that we are in the middle of an unpredictable digital revolution, of which ebooks are just one part.  Since handheld e-readers like the iPad and the Kindle hit the market there has been a huge growth in the sale of ebooks and at the moment probably dictate most peoples' idea of what an ebook is.  Maybe it’s worth remembering that these devices are essentially portals for marketing product.  Where they will go and how ebook content will develop, we can't say.  I’m not sure how or where UK academic libraries will fit into future developments, certainly we aren’t getting the pick of the titles we want and acquisition and access is often a struggle, but I'm aware that more and more stuff is becoming available electronically and certainly from a College librarian's point of view I want to take advantage of the savings ebooks offer us, providing it's what our students want.  Mind you, just about anything you want to read can be found on the net at no cost, if you know where to look and aren’t bothered about legality.

Look to one side. 

Student fees are going up, and with it their expectations that the stuff they need will be available quickly and at no extra cost to themselves.  University funding is being cut and with it the amount available to library budgets.  Universities won't want to be seen to be cutting back on resource provision at a time when fees are increasing ...

Look to the other side.  In taking both these considerations on board we in Cambridge have particular issues because of our institutional framework.  We need to ensure that services tailored to suit individual institutions are valued and supported;  the research Andy Priestner and Libby Tilley are carrying out into boutique libraries may be helpful here.  At the same time, we want to make sure we share the benefits of cost-effective, efficient and responsive University-wide provisions, where appropriate.  

And along the fourth way, librarians have to consider how we manage our dealings with each other. 

Negotiation skills weren’t taught on my library school course, I wish they had.  The ebooks team can be justly proud of its success in bringing librarians from different institutions together for the common good.  Other projects (Cam23, TeachMeet) have also been strikingly successful.  But it has also illuminated differences in the way we do business.  My observation is that top down management, exclusive decision making and inability to fully disclose information impedes progress and effective decision making.  This has to change so that our critical success factors of team working, communication, open discussion and trust continue to be employed in the development of University-wide services.

Yes, this is a very brief summary of important issues, but I hope that it brings together four points which, in my view, need to be considered together. Without selling our souls to the Devil.

10 April 2011

UKSG and the monks of Rievaulx Abbey

This is a library ... or rather, it used to be.  It was the library at Rievaux Abbey in the days when monks copied out manuscripts and stored them in a cupboard in the cloisters until political, religious, economic changes brought monastic life there to an end.

I visited Rievaulx this week, having just attended the UK Serials Group conference in Harrogate, a fantastic opportunity to catch up on recent developments in electronic publishing and librarianship.  So now I have a few thoughts to share.

John Naughton in his keynote speech emphasised how the web is of itself disruptive and unpredictable, something which perhaps we all sense but the implications of which John expressed very concisely.  Later, in his presentation, Sir John O'Reilly, Vice Chancellor of Cranfield University, emphasised the uncertainty engendered by proposed changes to the funding of UK universities.  Listening to them, I was reminded of discussions at the recent excellent symposium Personalised library services in HE, which discussed the opportunities for academic libraries to add value, tailoring their services more closely to the needs of their members, and especially how ebooks might fit into the "boutique" library model.

We've been dealing with the opportunities offered by the disruptive web for years, albeit with occasionally inadequate tools. inflexible institutional structures, and escalating prices for electronic products, especially ejournals. What the web should be offering the academic world (as it seems at the moment) is the opportunity for researchers and students to access a vast amount of material, to personalise and own content and to share it via social network tools. 

But a comment from the symposium stuck in my mind, about the negative impact of "irritants" - things that block effective use of libraries and put people off them.  With ebooks, irritants abound.  Librarians select and order content, publishers limit the titles they offer and/or access to them; finding them online requires lengthy treasure hunts with passwords and personal account creation as clues; viewing is clunky, and so on.  Of course, these obstacles are there for "good" reason : librarians order material to ensure the institutional spend matches its mission, publishers have responsitilities to profits and copyright, etc.

So I wondered where we should be going, given the uncertainties of the electronic future and reduced funding.  It seems to me that eventually we have to achieve a "just in time" model, where material is selected and ordered at the point of need by the reader for the period required.  Library staff would enable this establishing the licensing and budgetary framework within which it would operate, and would then be able to deploy ebooks as part of their boutique service; specialist knowledge would be crucial to its effective implementation. Print (via POD) and electronic could be provided according to individual need; the library "collection" would be an evolving and changing organism.  But how Cambridge achieves this just as funding becomes ever more restricted is a bit more than one blog post can describe ...

Visiting Rievaulx after the conference, I wondered whether the the last remaining monks felt the same sense of apprehension in 1538 as I do today, and what became of them when their beautiful monastery was destroyed.  Did they reinvent themselves, and if so, how?

13 February 2011

The passionate librarian

I’ve an action plan for outcomes
Will you meet my user need?
My reading list’s updated
And my budget guaranteed.

Accession me, receive me,
I’m your item here in hand;
My physical description only
You will understand.

Your chosen subject headings
Barely meet my vital traits
So use those hidden fields beloved,
Keep them for your gaze.

Oh, add me to your holdings
A mark to me assign, as I
Develop your collection.
Be my Valentine.

7 February 2011

Libraries gave us power *

Purley Library, where I learned to read
I’ve been thinking about the proposed cuts to public libraries, opposition to which has largely focused on the work that public libraries do to encourage children to read and enjoy books, and the role they play in creating communities.

True, this work is valuable. But I have another concern to share with you.

I used to work for Cambridgeshire public libraries.  While we attracted readers of all ages it seemed our library was stereotyped as a provider of books to young children and the over-60s.  We were considered too small to do anything else.  Keen readers were disappointed because we were unable to rotate the stock fast enough for them, and people coming in for anything like Sherlock Holmes or a Booker Prize winner had to place an order and join a waiting list – they didn’t stay.  On one occasion we had to make a huge fuss to order a book on Assyrian sculpture from the British Library for a reader with mobility problems.   Our issues declined and in the end the library was closed in a previous round of cuts.  Since then, Cambridgeshire Libraries, like other counties, has developed services which are much more responsive and community oriented within very restricted budgets.

Public libraries were created as a hub between the 19thc expansion in book publishing, the drive for self-improvement through education and the widening franchise; the Victorians were desperate to ensure the lower orders could make informed choices if they were going to get the vote.  Now the internet has become the place where most of us would go for information and debate; now we have ebooks, both are quoted as a justification for cuts.  So why bother with public libraries?

Firstly, we've got to keep them as a shared space at the heart of a community because, despite its many merits, not everyone has, will have, or will be able to afford access to the internet, and they are a place where active community engagement happens.  Secondly because in a country with such a rich literary culture it would be careless if not criminal to get rid of our traditional local gateway to literacy and the pleasure of reading books – books as books – for all ages.

Here a word on ebooks.  They are great for certain uses, print books are great for others; we can enjoy both.  But the former does not replace the latter; you pay for each ebook, whereas borrowing one from a library is free.  Ebook publishing is being driven by the manufacturers of the handheld readers who want to tie in publishers and authors to their particular device, both for their own immediate profit but also because they offer fantastic opportunities to market more product.  They are not in it for the texts themselves or the joy of reading
This brings me to my third reason.  The Victorians were right.  In a proper democracy we have to be assured of independent, authoritative sources to make informed choices.  Council tax payers fund public libraries so that everyone, including those who don’t pay, can use them.  They have a duty to be impartial and can’t be censored or their content suddenly removed. In whose interest do they operate?

Meanwhile, we are also paying Dell, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Apple, Tesco, Google, Amazon et al to provide us with information.  But in whose interests do they operate? 

So support public libraries because they are ours, shared and publicly accountable.  Without them we may move towards the privatization of both our information supply and the pleasure of reading.

The hobbit hole
 Mongoose librarian 

 *Maniac Street Preachers – Design for Life.  Famous in our family for the Mondigreen “Libraries gave us power, then “What Camera” set us free”.

8 January 2011

Beyond the echo chamber

This is the first post on this blog, which I would like to use for a personal view on professional issues, plus probably a few random jottings.

I've just been looking at Libby Tilley's post about the libraries@cambridge conference 2011 which prompted a few thoughts. I was particularly struck by the afternoon talks, all of which were excellent sweetmeats in a Gaiety Selection Box opened up by Andy Priestner.

They appeared to reflect three types of process : Institutionally driven eg Affiliation, libraries@cambridge and the music pilot; Grassroots initiatives eg Cam 23, Teachmeet, Community learning and Freshers' Fair, and Grassroots initiatives moving into institutions, eg ebooks@cambridge and librarians in training.  (I appreciate I've missed out a few of the talks here as I'm simplifying).

The Grassroots initiatives were being carried out with enthusiasm and imagination following a "Just Do It" mantra.  In comparison the Institutionally driven services and processes seemed so much more staid and worthy, tackling challenges on a far broader scale with the usual scant resources; while those on the move between the two states are trying to retain their initial enthusiasm in moving to their new environment. (I wonder, is it a co-incidence or not that the two initiatives in transition between the two states were both started by the Colleges?)

I am sure this all fits A Guru's model of enterprise and development.  What fascinates me is that at the top of the food chain it seems we have an image which is years out of date.  We are bound together through online services but are hierarchically structured without  the necessary policies and decision-making bodies to place us at the heart of teaching and research, and with a great internationally renowned specialist research library being seen as the natural administrative body for a wide and disparate group of independent, locally accountable libraries.  Meanwhile ad hoc enthusiasts are pushing our expertise creatively in flat, teamworking structures outside the established boundaries, accountable to themselves and their followers.

This leaves us with several challenges ...

How do we all keep abreast of the different Grassroot initiatives?  How much time can any individual librarian give to them?   If you are one member of a library team of one-and-a-half  people, how do you arrange your working week to accommodate new ideas while fulfilling the requirements of those who pay your wages and wrote your job description?

How do we develop a consistent body of knowledge for all library staff?  What *should* we all know about?  Web 2.0? Cat and class? Enquiry services? Teaching skills? Digitisation? Special collections?

How do we bridge the knowledge gulf between those who direct library policy and what is going on at grassroots level?  Who has a grip up there on what is going on? (The discussion about communication between librarians which emerged from Cam23 is pertinent here).

The efforts of Grassroots teams working together across institutional boundaries clearly show what can be achieved with very little expense and tons of commitment.  We as individual librarians must continue to state our case professionally ad nauseam but there is a limit to what we can do at our level.  Let's hope our achievements are valued, encouraged, celebrated and communicated in clear, effective advocacy at the highest institutional levels so that we can break out of any echo chamber.