Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category

Save Our Libraries, 5 February

23 hours ago on Facebook, I shared a link about ‘Save Our Libraries’ Day, that had originally been posted by both Girl in the Moon and Lottie.

19 hours ago on Facebook, I set the following as my status:

and started a 21-comment-long thread of great ideas and enthuasiasm.

6 hours ago on Facebook, I created a group called “Save Our Libraries flashmob” and contacted the police, the library, the council and the shopping centre that houses the library …

… what’s it going to be like in 42 hours’ time? Come along and find out : )

Use libraries …

"Use libraries and learn stuff" poster

This is my top favourite poster at the moment (and maybe of all time). It decorates my office door and is also the centrepiece of the Research Skills posterboard. Like so many good things, I found it via Twitter – GeoShore created it as a tongue-in-cheek twist on the Keep Calm and Carry On poster that’s everywhere at the moment.

I love it so much that I enthused about it to a student at Freshers’ Fair, who promptly asked me for a copy! Let’s hope she’s put it on her door too …

Love and a shoestring, rebooted

Of all the texts you really don’t want to get first thing in the morning, one that reads “I’ve got norovirus. Could you call me when you get this?” has to be pretty high on the list. The more so when the texter is the colleague who has done all the organisation for the Freshers’ Fair stand, who has all the gear for the stall, and who has a car to bring it in

All Cambridge bicycles have large wicker baskets (it’s a Cambridge thing) and my basket is quite amazingly capacious, but I didn’t think it would fit 3,000 flyers, a fold-up banner, a laptop, and a mouth-watering selection of books by Cambridge alumni, as well as two cushions, a throw, and a bunch of QR codes on lanyards. For not only did we run a stall at the 2010 Freshers’ Fair, we proudly decked it out as a cosy living-room-cum-study – complete with a coffee table and bookshelf supplied by Liam – and installed a friendly librarian to welcome students in …

Libraries Freshers' Fair stallLook! It’s lemurph! (image by Suzan)

All was well in the long run; Cambridge is not short of taxis, and we had our study unloaded and set up long before the first Fresher came through the doors of Kelsey Kerridge. Over the next two days a team of 15 librarians from across University and college libraries smiled at students, handed out flyers, and told everyone who would listen about the new Library Gateway. They cheerfully made time during the busiest week of the entire academic year, shouted themselves hoarse over the din, and scarcely got to sit on the “sofa” (two stacking chairs cunningly decked out with the aforementioned cushions and throw) because they were so busy enticing prospective library users (“Access the library from your bed!” was one of my favourite lines).

Being at Freshers’ Fair was a first for Cambridge Libraries, not merely in that it was the first time libraries had had a presence there: it was also our first outing as a joined-up library service, under the banner of libraries@cambridge. Along with the Library Gateway and the promotional film The Perfect Desk, the Freshers’ Fair stall was the outcome of a grass-roots movement towards greater communication and collaboration amongst all the individual – and autonomous – libraries across the University. Our stall, the banner, and, er, the taxi fare were paid for by the University Library, but the idea, the planning and all the work was done freely and joyously by Cambridge librarians who contributed their time, creativity and expertise. And this time we didn’t even need the stimulus of caffeine.

By the next day we were down to 600 flyers, my colleague had recovered from his norovirus, and Sarah had created a Flickr stream of all the other stallholders whom she’d inveigled into showing off our postcards!

… and (almost) the perfect library search engine

Cambridge now offers an integrated, fairly seamless search interface for its libraries’ holdings – no mean feat when you consider that there’s over a hundred libraries within the University. It’s based on the AquaBrowser software and offers significant improvements on the traditional library catalogue, particularly in terms of discoverability. Coverage includes article databases and the DSpace@cambridge repository in addition to print holdings, while the interface itself is far more intuitive and visual. Best bits: excellent search result faceting, and the funky word cloud.

My MLIS research, which was an analysis of OPAC transactional logs,
made for depressing reading: the vast majority of searches were for known items, meaning that discovery was happening elsewhere; there was little evidence of clickthrough from one record to another (‘pearl growing‘, possibly the silliest library metaphor ever); and the number of searches carried out for article titles was enough to make me weep.

As anyone who went to ALPSP now knows, my mantra is that we should make library catalogues attractive places where people are encouraged to spend time: to linger and explore, to make connections between stuff they know about and new material. Discovery is a major element in AquaBrowser’s mission, and together with the much friendlier, more visual interface and the Google-style search box, I’m hoping that the word cloud and faceting will open up our holdings to researchers in a lot of new ways.

Almost perfect? Well, the interface is still in beta, and we’re hoping for comments and feedback so we can continue to improve the service: it’s very flexible and customisable.

Oh, and a name – other than ‘Library Search’ – would make it absolutely perfect!

Check it out at

The Perfect Desk …

The Perfect Desk, a film showcasing the various aspects and services of libraries in Cambridge University from the student’s point of view, was launched officially on 7 September. A true grass-roots initiative, the film was funded by sponsorship from Heffers and Cambridge University Library, but was conceived and realised by a group of librarians from across the University. And it’s great! Check out the guy in the giraffe suit …

The bite of the backchannel

I attended an Institute of Historical Research conference a few days ago on the impact of newspaper digitization for researchers working on the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a lively, fascinating day, and I enjoyed some of the best lunchtime conversations I’ve ever had at a conference. I also spent the greater part of the day feeling quite shaken, as I’d just had my first negative experience of the Twitter backchannel.

Early in the day James Mussell of Birmingham University gave an insightful talk on the urgent need to teach not only media literacy but also digital information literacy. His discussion of the often unforeseen perils attached to working with huge volumes of digitized information was enlightened, well-argued, and arresting. It had me bouncing up and down in my seat and tweeting like a madman. I agreed with every word he said … except that it seemed to me one key word was missing. Librarian. In the question session afterwards I asked about this, commenting that as a profession we’ve been aware of issues around electronic information seeking and management for over a decade, and couldn’t we work together in the classroom and on research methods courses to address some of these problems?

My comment evoked the following tweet from another audience member:
tweet from historical newspapers conference

Now, I’m aware that because I’m passionate about my profession I’m often frustrated by the surprise with which our ability to teach information literacy is greeted. I know that my enthusiasm can be overwhelming: one colleague described it as leaving her breathless (I suspect, not in a 100% positive way!). I also appreciate that being impassioned can be interpreted as being pushy, and that outspokenness can be heard as combative. But savage I do repudiate. Savage to me means derisive or dismissive, and I can’t see how either of those applies to an invitation to collaborative working. And I’ll admit it: that hashtag hurt.

Twitter bird kicks another bird off branchImage: Duane Hoffmann /

Not knowing if there’s a protocol for this situation I just did what seemed best, which was to reply to the writer, using the conference hashtag, to ask why she found my comment inimical. A couple of interesting points emerged from our Twitter conversation after this.

Firstly, the author appeared to be extremely taken aback that I’d read her tweet. Yet the conversation was about digital literacies, which surely include social media literacy. Why be surprised that someone who teaches information literacy uses Twitter? And equally, why be surprised to discover that a comment you post on a public forum, with a contextual and searchable hashtag, might be read by its subject?

Secondly – and following on from this first point – it doesn’t seem as though the author was actually following the conference hashtag stream, since she should have seen several hashtagged tweets from me along the lines of “Yes! Please come talk to your librarian!” during Jim’s talk. She would therefore have had plenty of warning about my viewpoint before I spoke up – over an hour, by the time all the speakers on the panel had finished presenting. If my opinion struck her as professionally inappropriate she could have tweeted me before I said anything (although the Twitter audience following the conference potentially outnumbered those who were physically present in any case).

Put together, these points indicate someone who doesn’t quite ‘get’ Twitter – in terms of either its visibility, its immediacy, or its impact. For example, within 15 minutes I’d had several amused, surprised or supportive messages which helped reassure me that my comments hadn’t been out of order. This begs a couple of questions: firstly, why use it if you don’t get it; secondly, and more seriously, what if you think you’re making the equivalent of a sotto voce comment to your neighbour, when actually you’re shouting it from the rooftops?

Man Holding Loudspeaker

I’ve only once seen a projected Twitter feed at a library conference, but surely it’s only a matter of time before it’s universal. And while backchannel bitching directed at the speaker is no longer a new phenomenon, it would be interesting to see what effect a lively intra-audience exchange might have on the room and the speaker. I’m not sure I’d welcome the equivalent of raised voices going on behind my back during a presentation.

For this reason I really like these tips for managing the backchannel while presenting. I find it particularly interesting that while the tips are geared towards a new phenomenon in the conference room, they nevertheless go back to the roots of good presenting behaviour: prepare, engage with your audience, respond to feedback. danah boyd’s awful backchannel experience was ultimately caused not by the lack of her laptop, the unexpected room setup or even the expectations raised by the Twitter feed: the problem was that she couldn’t see her audience, and therefore couldn’t gauge reactions and respond accordingly.

The experience reinforces my belief that while presenting may look like a one-way ‘sage on the stage’ opportunity, listeners will – and should – always find a way to make their feelings known. It’s just ironic that the whole situation arose out of my choosing to do so using the old-fashioned analogue method of verbal communication …

Edited to add that you can find the excellent James Mussell on Twitter at @jimmussell.

Are we there yet?

Here’s the abstract for my (as yet unwritten) talk at the ALPSP conference in September, called ‘Are we there yet? Digital discovery routes and e-textbooks’ . All constructive feedback gratefully received!

Unlike the printed book, digital material can effectively reside in many places at once. As Clay Shirky writes, where there is no physical constraint, “there is no shelf … the links alone are enough”. But where should we put the links to maximise the discoverability of e-textbooks by library users? What pathways are our users following, and where do they start?

Recent research on the information needs and behaviour of students and researchers reveals gaps not just between demand and provision, but also between the ways in which libraries present information and the places our users look for it. This talk will look at how libraries are moving to close these gaps and to discover the information routes that our users are taking in the digital age.

Love and a shoestring in the UL Tea Room

There are two qualities I’ve noticed in the planning for the most successful events I’ve been involved with: a kind of serendipitous “what the hell” feeling, and the University Library Tea Room. In fact I suspect the two elements are closely linked: there’s something about having your meetings in an atmosphere of academic noise and caffeine that seems to spark inspiration.

In May of 2009 I met a colleague for coffee and a Plan was born. We would organise an e-resources fair aimed at academics that would serve as both an update for their practice and an introduction to new online sources. We would invite publishers and suppliers to come into the library for an afternoon and set up their product stalls on the library desks, and we’d offer the entire Faculty wine and nibbles to entice it collectively through the door.

Thus in the space of one coffee we came up with the entire blueprint for ‘Food for Thought’, which took place less than a month later with remarkably little more organisation.  It turned out to be a roaring success. Suppliers were delighted to come and talk directly to academics about what they want, and to showcase their newest products; academics and researchers enjoyed the presentations and the chance to browse information at their own pace, wine in hand. And aside from food and drink, there were no other costs involved.

“We do it on love and a shoestring” is a phrase I find myself using a lot about the various information ventures I’m involved in. I don’t remember whether I stole it or coined it, but it sums up perfectly the kind of approach I enjoy most. The best events are resource-intensive, but the resource in question isn’t finance: it’s people – their creative thinking, their time willingly given, their engagement and expertise. With those ingredients it’s amazing how far a shoestring will stretch.

Mongoose world

According to Rudyard Kipling, “The motto of all the mongoose family is ‘Run and find out'” – a motto that applies equally (though perhaps at a slower pace) to research skills and information management, and therefore to what I train students and researchers in every day. As a passionate advocate of lifelong learning, however, I believe it should also apply to the library profession as a whole … So in the ever-inquisitive spirit of the mongoose, here’s to new experiences – starting with the Cambridge 23 Things programme!