Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category

Getting it wrong so you can get it right(er)

Image: Haragayato on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Image: Haragayato on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Last week I had the huge privilege of giving a keynote talk at the Cambridge Libraries 2017 conference. Not only were there some great speakers present, both external and internal, but I’ve worked in various roles at a number of Cambridge libraries and attended many a CamLibs conference in my day: so to be asked to keynote at one was enormously exciting, gratifying, and above all TERRIFYING.

As it turned out, it was one of the best days of my life. Being given a platform to talk about issues that mean a great deal to you – in this case the importance of failure in learning, research, and teaching – and to be received with empathy, recognition, thanks and hugs, is one of the most amazing things there can be. I don’t know how to express my gratitude that it’s happened to me.

I’m always fascinated by how people use scripts, prompts and other aids to speaking. I don’t usually use much in the way of notes, relying on my slides to keep my argument on track (yes, this can sometimes go a bit wrong!). This time I didn’t want to wander too far off-piste, especially as my slot was 90 minutes long and I had visions of my audience petrifying with boredom, so I scripted the talk much more tightly than usual. Of course I added a bunch of revisions at the last minute all the same … so for fun or in case anyone is interested, here’s the version I spoke from, with all its scribbles and alterations, to complement the neat and tidy transcript that will appear on the CamLibs site in due course.

The talk is a wild melee of random things that go round in my head a lot, but there are many important anchor points that come from other people’s thinking. Most of these are attributed in the script, but there are three that aren’t and deserve to be:

“the Ow factor” was a phrase used by Hazel Rothera in talking (very postively!) about her experience of the peer review process

“you never get to be a good teacher” (because it’s an ongoing balance) was said by Michelle Bond

And I’d either forgotten or never knew that the wonderfully comforting “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” – which I suddenly remembered mid-flow and managed to include – was written by G K Chesterton.


Information literacy of the heart

Among its many unpleasant impacts, Brexit has done information literacy a wry service: it demonstrated how well-founded was the fear that people either would not, or would not be able to, question the source and veracity of the information they were supplied. The appallingly misleading ‘Facts’ leaflet is surely going to replace as librarians’ new favourite instance of misinformation, while the use of brand names and logos – including that of the NHS – to grab both attention and allegiance was, unfortunately, as effective as it was unscrupulous. I’m not even going to mention the biggest lie of all, the one that was literally the size of a double decker bus.

Yet beyond the lies and the deliberately misleading information, there was on many parts a sheer wilful desire not to hear a message that was unwelcome, information that challenged comforting assumptions, implications that didn’t fit with beliefs and world-views. The phrase that I pray will haunt Michael Gove’s career, “People in this country have had enough of experts,” sums up this resistance to criticality. What Brexit demonstrated is that IL is not only a matter of taking a questioning stance towards information in the outside world: we must also point that same critically questioning focus on our own motives and beliefs, on the way in which we construct and  interpret reality and the meanings we impose on it.

We need to look with clearer eyes at the stories we tell ourselves and about ourselves. These oral narratives are information just as much as are the the textual and visual artefacts we more usually analyse, or the formal knowledge structures we work in. The labels we use to present our selves to others – “feminist”, “scientist”, “recovering Catholic” – are also value-laden and socially constructed, and as such they too require to be evaluated, interrogated, unpacked: just as do those labels that we hang, unasked, onto others. It is in those bits of shorthand, those conveniently abridged fictions, that bias is born.

There is a euphoric affirmation in subsuming our individual selves into a collective social identity, whatever its political status – football supporter, Labour party activist, supporter of Richard III’s reputation, anti-war marcher, choral singer. But if it weren’t for the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about others would not bear such an overwhelming capacity for harm. Because it’s when those others become Other – when their labels place them in opposition to us – that we allow ourselves to believe that the people on whom we’ve hung them aren’t people any more. They’re Tories. Or Leavers. Or neoliberal scum. Or, for that matter, tree-hugging bleeding-heart Liberals. It’s not the politics that matter, but the act of homogenising.

Hatred starts with homogeneity: the refusal to allow people to be individuals. Once people are diminished to the level of a despised group characteristic, they are no longer people. The stories we tell about Others are so reductive, so obviously simplistic, that an atom of discernment would surely bring them into incredulity, if it weren’t that the horrifying, betraying Otherness of “those people” (whoever they are this time) overrides all evidence, all intelligence, all integrity and all humanity. And by that stage not only have They become responsible for everything bad that’s ever happened to us, but it seems perfectly fine for us to do something about it.

So let’s remember that critical integrity around information is far from being a matter for the academic classroom, or to be directed only at search results and internet content. It is also, and fundamentally, a matter of our emotions, our values, the narratives through which we construct our identity, and the stories we tell to make sense of our reality. Information literacy is not an academic exercise. It is the human capacity to admit that our categories might be wrong, that our opinions aren’t facts, and that it’s possible we may be mistaken. It is having the strength and humility to “lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

Goodbye, #AcWriMo (and hello #DecWriMo!)

I’m amazed – and frankly dead chuffed – at having made it through #AcWriMo. Yes, I set myself a low target (10-12 train rides; no pomodori for me!) and deliberately kept my aims fuzzy (to quote from my plan: “let’s call it ‘expanding each chapter from skeleton to emaciated flesh'”). I have just about enough wisdom, or experience, by now to ensure I do both those things, otherwise I set myself up for full-blown I AM FAIL mode from the start. But I’m still astonished that I managed 11 train rides and did get some flesh on those zombie bones – even though, er, I decided to completely rejig the structure and rewrite the whole aim of the book along the way *kicks table leg sheepishly*

And I’m even more astonished that with November over, I want to keep going. What the what … ? There I sat on the train yesterday looking back at my completed record for the month, relaxing in the glow of having finished something, and then all of a sudden I was writing a plan for December…

DecWriMo plan

… and then I was sketching a literature map …

literature map

… and somehow now it’s not that I have to write because I’ve signed up publicly for #AcWriMo, it’s that I have to write because I’m impelled to, because that’s how I make sense of all the things still going round in my head.

I had no idea that the power of Don Diego could be such a force!


Thank you again to Julieta and Don Diego, @charlottefrost, and the whole #AcWriMo community. If you want to join the December writing bunch, you can sign up on the spreadsheet and tweet your progress using the hashtag #AcWri.

Happiness snapshot

I’m going to come out and say it: I love commuting. There, you weren’t expecting that, were you? And no more was I. Last November and December, when I knew that in the new year I’d be working in Norwich and living in Cambridge, trickles of apprehension would regularly visit my spine at the thought of spending three hours a day on a train.

And now I struggle to remember why I was afraid. The sense of public exposure? Fellow-commuters’ pinstriped elbows and noisy music? Eating my season ticket in a moment of stress? In fact I suspect it was chiefly timetable fear: the anxiety of being bound by public transport, of living under the rule of Greater Anglia. The soggy dread of missing the school bus.

Yet here I am: sitting with my feet up (shoes off, of course) in a moving picture of fenland greys and greens. I have a table and a double seat all to myself. I can read, doze, watch for wildlife. Some mornings there are attention-seeking, tiger-striped sunrises; on other days the black groundrow of the trees has a gentler, dove-coloured backcloth. Branches are ornamented with cutouts of sleeping birds. Occasionally I astonish myself and do some work, in my special train notebook – but that’s a bonus, not a base-line.

Working to a timetable, bowing to someone else’s routine, is surprisingly pleasant: it relieves you of having to make timekeeping decisions yourself. It reminds me of the time I got stuck in the Tower lift at the UL. Lifts have always scared me, and being caught in a broken-down one was a favourite nightmare – so the first few minutes were spent warding off a panic attack and wondering when the emergency system would stop talking at me in a repetitive metallic voice and finally connect me with a human. After that, though, I felt a totally unexpected sensation of peace. I sat cross-legged on the lift floor, trying to remember all the verses of The Lady of Shalott, and occasionally being cheered by colleagues shouting reassurance and updates down the lift shaft. I felt vacant, relieved of all responsibilities. Nobody could blame me for not doing something, because there was literally nothing I could do: I was outside time, poised between floors, all agency suspended. And it felt wonderful.

Commuting, for me, brings the same sensations: a feeling of being still while the world outside moves; the space regained in the joints that comes when you stand up after a yoga session. Nothing is expected; it’s the fallow season. Which is precisely what’s needed in order to be productive.


Things I have learned from my commute:

Getting up at 6 a.m. is nothing that espresso can’t fix.

Every Fen dawn is beautiful, even the misty ones. (Maybe especially the misty ones.).

And no-one ever gets on or off at Spooner Row.

Fen Sunrise by meg_nicol

Image: 'Fen sunrise' by meg_nicol,, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How I work (what, me?)


So there’s a Lifehacker thing going the rounds where “productivity heroes” share their habits and in turn invite others to do so. I don’t know where I stand on the productivity scale, but I do know I’m one of the most disorganised researchers I’ve personally ever come across. This is great for teaching – it means I can be a sort of living Awful Warning to my research skills students – but whether it makes me a good candidate for productivity hero is definitely questionable.

But how could I resist Andy Priestner’s invitation – nay, command?

So here we go …

Location: Cambridge University Library

Current gig: Research Skills and Development Librarian

Current mobile device: elderly iPad (no camera!)

Current computer: Toshiba laptop with a missing plus key. (It got stuck on endless repeat and I eventually got fed up, prised it out of the keyboard and chucked it across the room.)

One word that best describes how you work: Chaotically.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?: Spider Solitaire. In times of stress I play it obsessively.

What’s your workspace like? I should do some shredding. And some filing. And some general desk entropy measures. I’m sure I had a chair once.

What’s your best time-saving trick?: I have no time-saving tricks at all. I drafted a ton of self-deprecating reasons as to why not before I realised that this is not an embarrassing omission or a character flaw: it’s a deliberate policy. I don’t want to save time. I want to spend it – wisely, profitably, joyously, frivolously. I want to seize opportunities, take on new projects, meet and create ideas with people, walk all 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I could save time easily by doing none of these things. But what would I do instead?

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?: The stash of scrap paper that I cut down to A5 and hold together with a bulldog clip.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? My Moleskine 18-month weekly notebook diary.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?: Well, I’m pretty shit-hot at Spider Solitaire.

What are you currently reading?

  • The Oxford Book of English Poetry
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh
  • The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy – Malone Dies – The Unnamable (that’s been ongoing for a while now)
  • Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn (with rising irritation)

I guess another time-saving strategy (see above) could be just reading one book at a time, but why would I want to do that?

What do you listen to while you work?: The general conversation in our open plan office – by turns funny, informative, supportive and just plain bonkers. It’s the best office environment I’ve ever worked in.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?: A very highly-functioning closet introvert.

What’s your sleep routine like?: Erratic.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see Helen Webster answer these same questions.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?: “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”(Full disclosure: Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t actually say this to me personally.)

Is there anything else you’d like to add?: Metaphors around ‘being productive’ are often based on motion: spinning all the plates, juggling all the things, dashing around getting things done. In contrast, every research skills session I give is based on stopping and being still for a little while. They’re an invitation to pause and take stock, to look unjudgementally at how you do what you do.  Paradoxically, the best way to be productive as a researcher may be to periodically stop doing and allow yourself to reflect on where you are:

“Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

(T.S. Eliot)


Image by Rama V,, CC BY 2.0

On not working with books (or, on having *that* conversation)

We’ve all had it. Every member of library staff ever, anywhere, has undergone some variant of this conversation. Y’know, this one …

Me: “I’m a librarian.”

Other [big smile]: “Oh, you must read a lot of books!”

There are varying responses you can offer depending on whether you want to perpetuate the stereotype or burst the bubble. For the record, here’s mine – you can decide for yourself which, if either, it does …

Me: “I don’t have anything to do with books. I work with information.”

Other: “Oh.”

Me: “In fact, I don’t even work with information in the generally accepted sense of the word – meaning knowledge that’s been recorded, published or otherwise externalised. What I work with is the information that’s still inside people’s heads, that’s not yet structured or fully articulated, that’s the result of the creative encounter between an individual and a learning context. It’s a chaotic, innovative, ongoing engagement, and it has to hold in play many sophisticated arguments and conflicting viewpoints. And on top of that, in the academic world we demand that this creative simultaneity be converted into a linear and sequential argumentative form and presented according to stringent, highly formalised yet generally very badly explained academic conventions.”

Other: [opens mouth. Thinks better of it.]

Me: “So you see, most of what librarians have done traditionally has been about organising and curating information that’s already been expressed – stuff that’s been published in containers like books and journals. And most of my colleagues still work with that stuff. But what I get to do is work with the people who are working with the stuff and making new information and knowledge.

“Isn’t that the most amazing job ever?”

By this point, of course, quite a few of my interlocutors have been desperately finding an excuse to edge away from the mad librarian. But every now and again – and more often than I would ever have expected – I get this response:

“Yeah, that really is the greatest job ever.”


The genius of Laura J, or, what does a stage manager keep in her pockets?

Pockets have long been a trial to me. Oh yes, I’m totally serious. Men’s clothes have functional pockets: deep, roomy, useful containers designed for safe harbour and porterage of the symbols of Western society’s material security: wallets, keys, phone, small change; iPods, train tickets, Swiss Army knives, bits of string … Women’s pockets, on the other hand, are designed to be entirely decorative and non-functional. Honestly, have you ever tried putting your purse in your pocket?

Of course the failure of the pocket is also the raison d’etre of the handbag – one of the most gloriously silly and delectably desirable accessories in existence. But there are some situations in which you just can’t carry a handbag. The Krypton Factor assault course is probably one such. Backstage in a theatre while a show’s going on is another. Here’s a small sample of what I need to have about my person and immediately accessible during a show …

What a stage manager keeps in her pockets

Some months ago I indulged in a pocket rant to another librarian, bemoaning the uselessness of the feminine version even in combats or cargo pants, with a side whinge about the annoyance of having to buy men’s combats in order to carry all the stuff I need backstage. Unbeknownst to me, however, Laura J can sew … and what’s more, being a librarian, she can recognise that sometimes what the reader asks for isn’t exactly what the reader needs.

The solution? Portable pockets! A short apron – black, naturally, to be invisible backstage; and short enough to climb the ladder to the fly gallery in.


Laura not only came up with the idea; she actually made me the apron too. Here it is in action, backstage at the ADC Theatre during a performance of The Producers. And yes, all the items pictured above (and more) fit in the pockets.

Strangely enough, I know another Laura J who’s also a genius … but that’s another story.

Writer’s blog

A taste of fame! I’ve just been live-blogged by a roomful of people. Please form an orderly line for autographs …

Back in the real world: yes, 9 incredibly hard-working people spent a total of 30 minutes this afternoon trying to capture the vagaries of  conversation on information literacy between Niamh, Helen and myself – but it was a practice session for the all-day live blogging they’ll be doing on Monday at the Internet-Informed Patient Symposium, which is the culmination of Isla Kuhn‘s Arcadia Project research. Doug Clow of the OU led the session and had some great insights on the art of live-blogging.

The conversation itself was very enjoyable and stimulating, but even more interesting was the variety of reactions to the blogging experience. It’s pretty tough listening and typing at the same time, particularly when you’re not an expert in the subject under discussion, and even more so when all three participants are talkative, engaged and passionate, delving eagerly into the theoretical as well as the practical aspects of their topic.

So what was hardest about it? Here’s the interesting thing: everyone had a different issue. One participant wanted to process and filter the information before outputting it: ideally she’d like to make notes on paper, then create a minutes-style document setting out the discussion. Another wanted the time to be able to categorise and apply a hierarchy. Yet another was concerned about maintaining writing quality and readability. The variety of ways in which writer’s (or blogger’s) block can strike was not something I’d foreseen!

In research skills terms this is particularly interesting for me because finding a way to break loose from the constraints of ‘proper’ academic writing is one of the toughest things about doing a PhD. In the ‘Managing Your Information’ course we’ve looked at techniques like messy writing and tools like 750 words, but “what makes it hard for you?” is something I’ll be asking class participants more in future.

Save Our Libraries – flyers and handouts


Image by Phil Bradley

All in .pdf format, with CC images. Please feel free to print, guillotine and distribute!

Save Our Libraries: resources

Some context for the Save Our Libraries flashmob

  • You can keep an eye on which UK libraries are under threat, and see a list of cuts by local authority, at Public Libraries News.

Best of all, here’s a great piece of writing by Girl in the Moon that we’ll be distributing on Saturday.

Librarians being the zany, creative people they are, there’s no shortage of great advocacy resources already available. I’ve been inspired by, and borrowed from, the following sources today …

Thank you all, not just for the images but for inspiration and encouragement.

Edit: For more flashmob action, there’s a read-in at Arbury Court Library from 2-3pm.