Sunday, 24 April 2011

Book review: ‘This book is overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians can save us all’ / Marilyn Johnson.

I wish I had a cape
When I first caught sight of this book I admit that I was dubious about the extent to which it would free librarians of their stereotypes.  I have been categorically corrected, however, and was surprised and impressed by many of the stories contained within the covers.  I was left somewhat embarrassed at my own ignorance of the profession and in awe of some of our American colleagues.  I certainly have a long way to go before I can truly call myself an information professional and library advocate.

Marilyn Johnson is a journalist and author, who had no library or information background before embarking on this book.  She became interested in the subject after encountering an obituary of a librarian while working on her previous work, ‘Dead Beat.’  Concluding that librarians were the most interesting kind of dead person she decided to embark on research into the dim and distant world of librarians.

This results in a light-hearted meandering through conversations with information professionals, or people who have come to be called ‘cybrarians’, an all-encompassing term for those who endeavour to integrate the old mission of the library with the new technologies pressing on the profession.  These cybrarians are branching out into sometimes unexpected directions.  Johnson reveals those who are embracing technology wholeheartedly and participating in Second Life, blogging and teaching developing countries about electronic resources.  Alongside this, however, there are tales of ‘Street librarians’ who literally take to the streets to provide information that people might require, librarians who sued the American government to keep their patrons’ records private, and, a personal favourite, the Las Vegas ‘gentleman’s club’ called the Library where ladies wearing spectacles and not much else pole dance (a different interpretation of the stereotypical librarian).  We are also introduced to the library and archives of the American Kennel Club and the Great Boxing Archive.  Within these entertaining snapshots of institutions, wee gems of information are provided such as digital scraps and how we can save them, how to remove smells from old books (use a sheet of Bounce fabric softener) and the unusual items left on the shelves by patrons (I’ll leave you to read the book and uncover the secret presents for yourselves).

Marilyn Johnson
The overarching theme is that libraries are not so much just about books anymore but also deal with computers, films, community projects and children’s activities.  Libraries are places where information can be gleaned in whatever form is most accessible.  As Richard Susskind O.B.E. commented in a recent talk at Wolfson College, we need to consider what our customers want and decide how best to deliver it.  People do not use libraries because they want books but because they are in search of knowledge and the librarians have to decide in what manner we can best deliver it.  She describes a librarian as a navigator ‘whose job it is to create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.’

Archives feature heavily in this study and the whole concept of what ought to be saved is faced head-on.  Johnson is fascinated by those who try to bring the dead back to life and this is why she is so intrigued by cybrarians, who are the guardians of all there is to know and are attempting valiantly to keep every last piece of information safe and accessible for the generations to come.

In an interview with USA Today, Johnson stated that the reasons for keeping libraries are simple and multiple: “The middle class is squeezed and needs libraries more, information is multiplying at an alarming rate so we need librarians more, and the jobless are streaming to libraries in droves.”  Johnson certainly advocates the library in an impressive way and I am thoroughly encouraged to do the same.  This book will be enjoyed by all those who love libraries but will perhaps strike the right chord mostly with those already in the profession who are seeking titbits of inspiration and a celebration of their work.    

Saturday, 16 April 2011

St John's vs Trinity

The time came for the St John's and Trinity library tours for the trainees.  The proximity and rivalry between the two colleges meant that it was apt that we should be visited on the same day.  Only on Monday had I been faced with a peeved group of book binders, who had been turned away from the Wren library and were asking for a tour of John's Old Library.  It is at our discretion as to whether we show round those not related to the college and who do not have an appointment but, I must admit, I was keen to get one over on Trinity and gave them a thorough tour of the Old Library, for which they were most grateful.

Petty one-upmanship aside, I was looking forward to seeing Trinity and being able to compare it to John's.  The trainees started with me and I filled them in on the history of the libraries as well as the procedures and jobs fulfilled by each member of staff.  (I had gone round interviewing many of my colleagues in a bid to understand more fully in which ways they contributed to the overall running of the library - this was a very beneficial project and one I wish I had carried out earlier in my traineeship).  Fiona, the college's biographical librarian, came to talk to the group about the work that is undertaken in the library's biographical office since this is something unique to John's and on which I spend a lot of my time.  The trainees enjoyed finding out about this aspect of librarianship and were relieved to hear that you don't have to have a library qualification to get anywhere in the career.

We then moved on to Trinity and were placed into Tom's capable hands.  Trinity is a beautiful college with vast sweeping courts and fountains.  I was somewhat surprised to see the Working Library, which was full to brimming with books on oppressive shelves with very little desk space and few computers (around 10, compared to over 100 at John's).   I did, however, like the sign for the Greek literature section (which Tom, a Classics student, had never noticed).  There is a separate law library at the other side of college, which is in keeping with the exceptional treatment always afforded the lawyers.

The Wren library was very impressive with its wide chequered central corridor and the busts of Classical and English authors on top of the shelves (although there is an incongruous Englishman on the Classics side).  The statue of Byron, which has been removed from Westminster Abbey in order to prevent the ladies swooning, dominates the central section of the library.  (I must say, we all managed to contain ourselves.)  The library is open to researchers and also to the public at specific times each day.  There are exhibition cases and the pieces displayed seldom change in contrast to the exhibition areas in John's where there are continually rotating exhibitions.  (I and a colleague are currently working on an exhibition of the King James Bible for the Upper Library, I am also helping to augment the current Johnian Prime Ministers exhibition to include Johnian world leaders for the upcoming VIP visit and working on my own Working Library display for the Orange Prize for Fiction).

Trinity do not undertake outreach programs as John's do and John's seems to be leading the field in that respect when it comes to college libraries.  What Trinity do allow, however, is the use of the Wren library for tutorials (or supervisions, I can't get used to the Cambridge lingo).  This gives students a chance for hands on experience of the manuscripts and rare books.  John's does not tend to do this though I have seen the librarian, also a history fellow, disappearing up to the library with his tute groups to show them particularly relevant documents.

What was very interesting was a discussion with Bernadette about the Wren cataloguing project.  She pointed out with enthusiasm the importance of cataloguing and classification to the library world and that, no matter how techy the sector gets, these will still form the foundation of information services.  That's just as well bearing in mind how much cataloguing I have been doing this year!!  This visit demonstrated that the essence of all libraries is the same but there can be many differences in their treatment and delivery of it!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Tesco - admired but not loved

The Arcadia seminar on Tuesday was delivered by Nick Lansley, Head of Research and Development at Tesco and entitles 'Hunters, Gatherers and Groundhogs:'s Mobile Journey'.  I had no idea what to expect from this (and indeed how it related to libraries) but what transpired was a very enjoyable hour and an urge to do my shopping.

What became apparent to the R&D team was that in order to reach customers they had to appeal to all levels of technologically literate people.  It is not a case of 'one size fits all' and it was with this attitude that Nick approached  The team even installed cameras in 30 family homes in order to gauge how families go about making their orders online.  It was from this that the categories of hunters, gatherers and groundhogs were born:

  • Hunters - shoppers interested in the ingredients and like to shop at farm shops and markets.  They do not go shopping with certain meals in mind but are concerned with the constituent parts.
  • Gatherers - these shoppers think about the meals they will need but rely on the shop to guide them to purchase with what is on special offer etc.
  • Groundhogs - these shoppers rarely have a plan and have little time and will use 'repreat my last order' button on the website.
Hunter, Gatherer and Groundhog -ish

The ethnographic research came up with these three very different methods of shopping and the team had to come up with ways of supporting each of these at all stages of the shopping experience (not just the buying and paying).  This sort of approach is what is required in libraries.  Rarely will a library be serving people with identical needs.  It is up to us to discover the requirements of those that use our libraries and tailor our services and approaches in order to benefit the maximum number of patrons.

A particular highlight of the talk for me was seeing the February Tesco advert, which shows the new barcode scanning facility on smart phones, which allows you to scan any product barcode and it automatically puts it in your online basket.  A very cool and somewhat dangerous gadget! 

Nick pointed out that grocery shopping was something that people did not get excited about since you order lots of things, you do it frequently and it is perceived as a long and laborious task.  Hence he wanted to make it as exciting and straightforward as possible so that his customers would enjoy their shopping experience and begin to see it as a collaborative effort with inspiration gained from friends, family, TV and recipes.  Again this is similar to libraries where patrons come in wanting information which they require.  Often they are not excited about the daunting task in front of them but once we show them how accessible their information is and how they can use referencing tools, databases and catalogues, their library experience suddenly brightens!

The overarching theme of the talk was 'understand your customer'.  What Nick has noticed is that quite often the techy stuff will only benefit the tech-savvy few and leave the majority in the dark.  He is aiming to provide the services that are needed whether that means providing barcoding apps for the IPhone or a landline service for recording your shopping list.  Libraries too need to consider what patrons need and are happy to use - sometimes I feel that librarians are moving too fast for students and that the benefit is not felt by them since they are too busy getting to grips with their work to spend time fully appreciating the latest technologies.  Here it's not so much 'Know Thyself' as 'Know Thy Customer'.

N.B. In case you are interested, I am a Gatherer with the odd tendency to be a Hunter.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

British Antarctic Survey (CLG BAS XYZ)

The Cambridge Library Group hosted a talk at the British Antarctic Survey on Tuesday delivered by the Archives Manager, Ellen Bazeley White.

Ellen gave us an outline of BAS and the types of work undertaken, science researched and type of presence in the Antarctic.  She included many pictures from the archive in her presentation and the audience did not hold back in asking for explanations of their subjects, which ranged from the new Halley 6 base on an ice shelf to sonogram results on rolls of paper that resembled cigars.

From the BAS picture store
 The archive covers a wide range of material and subject matter and the archivists have to deal with papers, maps, reports, photographs, scientific data, films...the list goes on.  The archive collects anything that is related to BAS and to the staff therein.  It is this that separates BAS from the Scott Polar library and archives since the latter is a general polar library whole BAS only focuses on what has been produced by its own institution and members.  This results in a close working relationship between the institution with BAS offering a complimentary service to the Scott Polar.

We were given a detailed demonstration of the archival catalogue and I was very impressed by the sheer depth of description and detail that went into every item.  This makes the searching of the catalogue much quicker and straightforward for the user - the aim of every information professional!  During cataloguing the archivists work hard to preserve the provenance of the items, which can be difficult especially when we consider that inter-disciplinary subjects are become more and more popular!

From the BAS picture store
 There are on average 350 enquiries a year and 50 days a year are spent with enquirers in the archive.  These users and enquirers can be anything from individuals and ex-staff to artists and historians to publishers and people enquiring after copyright issues.

It was great to get an insight not only into archives in general but also into this fascinating institution which, I have to admit, I didn't really know about until the talk!!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

London (and Limoux) calling...

I was very adventurous over the weekend and went on my first solo-holiday, to Carcassonne.  I had always wanted to go following the reading of Kate Mosse's 'Labyrinth' and 'Sepulchre' and found the city absolutely enchanting (the dirty old French man who propositioned me 'pour l'argent' not so much).  On one of my excursions I visited Limoux and casually wandered into their public library

Sign on the door to the separate children's section
It was beautifully decorated from the outside with painted books on the windows each with a reference to Limoux and the region (eg. vin).   I was surprised to see 2 staff in the small library, which comprised 6 sets of shelves but, unfortunately, my lack of French and their lack of English prevented a comparison of our services!

View of the library from outside

Once back in the UK, the trainees had their first visit to London.  The Guildhall was the morning visit and the librarian, Andrew harper, gave us a brief overview of the rather chequered history of the library.  This was one of the first common libraries in the city and focused mainly on London history and is now recognised as the biggest centre for the study of London.  The constituent parts of the library have moved frequently during its history with the City Business Library recently returning to the fold and now occupying the ground floor of the library.  The floorspace of the Guidlhall library is fairly small with reference works on the shelves (5% of total stock on open shelves) and a very speedy ordering system up from the stacks (commonly a 5-10 minute process if the item is in the stacks).

The staff in the reading room, when not dealing with readers, are answering e-mail and telephone enquiries.  The first 15 minutes of research is done for free and, after that, enquirers are encouraged to visit the library in person or pay a fee for extra research to be conducted by library staff.

There is a large section of the library given over to computers and it is in this space that the popular program of events is conducted, which are open to the public and tend to focus on collections that the library houses.  There are several unusual and unique collections housed in the library such as the Lloyds shipping records from he 1920s-1970s, which record every ocean-going vessel, the ports they entered and any important details of the voyages.  There are also the records of Christ's Hospital, St Paul's Cathedral and the Stock Exchange. 

Guildhall view from Gresham Street
Andrew also gave us a tour of what used to be the library in the Victorian period and is now used as one of the many conference rooms in the Guildlhall.  The whole complex is beautiful with stairways leading down to the crypts next to vast conference rooms with formal banqueting suites and modern Gothic-style corridors connecting the separate buildings.  I came away with a very good impression of the Guildhall with its bustling atmosphere working in tandem with the highbrow and official events being accommodated - it truly is a place for the people.

Next up was a visit to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales.  I was looking forward to this visit since business libraries are not something that one gets in Cambridge very often and both my parents are accountants (and slightly baffled by the idea of having a library for accountants).  We were introduced firstly to the business centre, which leads through to the library in a seamless flow.  This 'business centre' comprised a cafe, reception area with sofas, journals area, computers and meeting rooms, bookable only by members and the inclusion of the library in such a public and busy area has increased awareness and its usage.

We were given a tour of the library and their small collection of open shelf books (most of their stock is held in a storage facility about 5 minutes away and is visited twice a day for collections and deliveries).  Various members of the library staff spoke to us about their roles in the library, spanning customer services, IT and infrastructure, budget and building the collections, cataloguing services and managing of the website.  One of the main issues facing the library is how to get information to members all over the world accurately and quickly.  I was surprised by the large number of library staff (soon to be 22), none of whom have 'librarian' in their title but have 'manager' or 'executive' - the head librarian, Susan Moore, pointed out that this was a deliberate measure in order to ensure pay rises since, being in the 'City' you have to learn to talk the talk of your peers.

The corporate atmosphere of the library and the whole institute struck me as a far cry from my work in Cambridge.  The services delivered are similar but on an international scale with clients being fraught business men rather than fraught students.  There were perhaps more similarities than I had expected - negotiating with journal suppliers, advocating the library to users in any way possible, stock vs. space issues and increasing pressure to deliver services quickly and efficiently.

All in all the day was very enlightening and my opinions of the 'City' and its library provision have definitely changed for the better.