Monday, 30 May 2011

CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference

Last Tuesday, I went to the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference at University College London. The topic was ‘Libraries under Threat’: a topic that affects more or less everyone in library and information work in one way or another and a topic that, as a member of Voices for the Library, is very important to me. To go with the term ‘threat’, the underlying theme of the conference seemed to be conflict: not between the delegates who were all excellent and lovely people but between less tangible things. Between the past and the future; between the old tradition of books, annotation, marginalia and the new tradition of digitisation; between historical libraries / collections and destruction in the name of progress.

The Hurd Library: a library under threat
Threat necessarily involves conflict. When two sides – organisations, ideologues – have opposing views, one or both will likely feel threatened by the other. Throughout the conference, we were given examples of conflicts with libraries on one side and other bodies on the other. These included physical bodies and conflicts like the Hurd Library’s conflict with those who would sell the Hartlebury Castle that contains it and the University of London Library which faced a very real conflict with German bombers during the Second World War. There were also abstract conflicts – conflicts of philosophy and ideology – such as the Supreme Court Library in Melbourne which is threatened due to the restrictive legal rules that underlie its creation and the newspaper / serial collections of the UK which are threatened by funding problems and changing attitudes to the importance of the press.

One of the most interesting conflicts discussed was the conflict highlighted by Professor Andrew Stauffer of The University of Virginia. Prof. Stauffer discussed the importance of unique books for academic research into topics such as literature and poetry. He used the example of the popular 19th Century American poet Felicia Hemans and how research can be conducted into the lives of people of that period using the annotations and marginalia found in different copies of Hemans’ books. One book contained a fragmentary narrative of a young woman and her lost love told through the medium of notes in the margins of a book of poetry. The conflict is with today’s practices of digitisation: libraries and organisations like Google Books tend to digitise one copy of a work and so all the unique attributes of different versions of the same book are left undigitised and unpreserved. This is a conflict between new methods of storing / presenting information and the age-old methods of historical research. Zdenĕk Uhlíř of the National Library of the Czech Republic provided almost a counterpoint by telling the story of a successful digitisation project and what digitisation is really about.

This highlights something that was discussed later in the conference: the conflict between what we as information providers want to do and what the users want us to do. This is a conflict at the heart of library and information provision. It may be cost-effective and exciting to digitise a wealth of material but close collaboration with scholars and researchers is required to ensure that we do this in a way that still enables them to work. The relationship between information workers and users is an important issue for libraries under threat. It’s also a complicated issue that unfortunately we weren’t able to discuss in full.

Paul Otlet, founder of the Mundaneum
It’s perhaps appropriate that, in a conference discussing conflict, I was filled with internal conflict. I was delivering my first ever conference presentation and though I’d written it weeks in advance and practiced it over half a dozen times, public speaking always makes me nervous. My presentation was about Paul Otlet’s failed bibliographic project and library, the Mundaneum. It prompted some interesting discussion (partly about the user/librarian relationship highlighted above) and everyone was very friendly and receptive. To learn more, my presentation is here and my script is here.

(As an aside: I followed Bethan Ruddock’s advice and used my Kindle for my presentation script. It worked perfectly and would be great for anyone who uses notes when delivering a presentation. It saves messing about with paper, reprinting the script when you make changes, and you can adjust the text format to suit you on the day.)

All in all, it was an excellent conference: it’s always good to be part of discussion and sharing of ideas with other information professionals. Thanks and congratulations to the Library and Information History Group for organising it and for University College London for hosting. Afterwards I nipped off to see, in contrast to a conference on history, the futuristic Out of this World science-fiction exhibition at the British Library. It’s a really well put-together collection of books, periodicals, and cool stuff and I recommend it to everyone whether you enjoy science-fiction or not: you may discover that you already like it more than you think.

For more information on the conference, check out Katharine Schopflin’s excellent and comprehensive report available here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

North Yorkshire libraries saved

At the end of last year, North Yorkshire County Council announced massive cuts to the county’s library service and the prospect of closures on a scale which was among the worst of any council in the country. On Friday, it was announced that these plans for North Yorkshire’s libraries have been scrapped.

After Save Our Libraries Day on February 5th, the plans were amended to include only libraries outside market towns and to look at creating volunteer-run libraries. Now, in a move which will be fairer and will save well-used libraries, the cuts to the service are being spread across the county’s 42 libraries and will hopefully mean no closures at all. This result is down to the efforts of campaigners across the county who, particularly at the start of this year, made massive efforts to persuade the council to listen to the public.

Easingwold Library. A wonderful library saved from closure.

It’s a great victory and personally I’m very pleased that, unlike other councils, the North Yorkshire councillors have listened to what the people wanted. But this is only one victory in the ongoing national effort to save threatened public libraries across the country: please look at this Guardian blog post for a great summary of the national situation. Have a look at Voices for the Library’s ‘what you can do’ page and email or write to your (possibly newly elected) councillors if your area's libraries are affected by proposed closures.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Four things Kindle can help you to do

In December, I hoped that my new Kindle would become for my books what my iPod is for my music. Although the Kindle has become a device that I take everywhere and use everyday, it’s less for reading and more for the other things that the Kindle can do. For Kindle users and potential Kindle purchasers, here are four things that the Kindle can help you to do.

Reading

The Kindle is primarily designed to be a reading device and it does this very well. As Bethan Ruddock wrote,

The Kindle... is magic. The enchanted book which is a different story every time you read it; the magic box filled with 1001 stories: this is primal, fairy-tale magic. It’s the sort of thing you can understand at a gut, rather than intellectual, level.
Beth’s blog post gives a lot of great tips on enhancing reading on the Kindle: I’d particularly recommend the Magic Catalog of Project Gutenberg which enables instant download of thousands of public domain ebooks and the SendToReader button which can send full webpages from your PC browser to your Kindle.

Browsing

On the Kindle with 3G, the ‘experimental web browser’ is one its best features: a perfectly functional browser which can be used to access the web for free anywhere. It’s great for checking email or Twitter while travelling or for quickly looking something up while lounging on the sofa.

Here are a couple of tips for enhancing browsing on the Kindle. First, use mobile versions of sites where possible. The Guardian website takes ages to load on the Kindle and sometimes crashes the browser: the mobile Guardian website has the same content and loads in a couple of seconds. I recommend the mobile versions of Google, Gmail, Twitter, and Google Reader. Second, use bookmarks. Typing a URL on the tiny Kindle keyboard can be difficult so it’s easier to set bookmarks for all the sites you’re likely to visit.

Exploring / geocaching

Since I moved to a rural area last year, I’ve done a lot more geocaching in my free time. I’ve also been travelling a lot more for work, for CPD, and for Voices for the Library stuff. In the middle of a strange place, the ability to quickly pull up a map of anywhere can be a lifesaver. KindleMap.net offers a version of the Google Maps API optimised for use on the Kindle: it can bring up a map, load a StreetView, or give you directions to anywhere. Wikitravel, the free collaborative travel-guide, is also a great site for finding local landmarks, places to visit, or getting background on an area. For geocaching specifically, the full Geocaching website works fine or, if signal strength is low, the WAP version serves the purpose.

Gaming

From the Kindle’s Home screen, if you press Alt + Shift + M, you can access a version of Minesweeper. Then press G to access a Noughts and Crosses game (comparable in difficulty to playing against the supercomputer from WarGames). In the US, it’s also possible to download a couple of word games: Shuffled Row and Every Word. For UK Kindle-owners, if you go on the Manage Kindle page on the Amazon website and change your location to the US, you can download them and then switch back to the UK (I haven’t tried this so take with a pinch of salt). 

Assorted tips

If you explore the capabilities of the device, you will discover that the Kindle has other hidden abilities. A few extra useful tips:

Use Alt and the top row of letters to type numbers without using the Sym menu.

Press Alt + Shift + G from any screen to take a screenshot. It’s also possible – though complicated – to change the screensaver images.

Use shortcuts. There are a series of @ commands that you can use in the search bar of the Home screen to quickly access things. There's a list here.

Change the font to make reading easier. I’ve read a lot more on the Kindle since I switched from the default ‘regular’ font to the ‘sans serif’ font. Change the text settings until you reach an optimum comfort level for your eyes.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

'First they came for the public libraries...' Thoughts on professional duty

The CILIP Career Development Group New Professionals Conference is a key library event for young librarians and information workers and this year it looks like there will be loads of great presentations. Laura (@theatregrad) and Sam (@shw34) will be presenting on what makes an information professional; Katie Birkwood (@girlinthe) and rarelysited will be presenting on special collections outreach and community engagement; Helen Murphy (@lemurph) will be presenting too.

My proposal was not accepted so, for the sake of posterity, here it is. I wrote it just before I read Laura Woods’ blog post on a similar theme. For the full paper, I had vague ideas about examining how public library closures impact other information sectors, talking a little about the work of Voices for the Library, discussing Kant’s moral philosophy (his concept of moral duty and the categorical imperative), and generally arguing that keeping silent in these difficult times is the wrong thing for library workers to do. Hopefully I would have made it a little less preachy than this proposal comes across:

“First they came for the public libraries and I didn’t speak out...”
Is library activism a professional duty?

Public libraries face serious threats: closure, funding cuts, and deprofessionalisation in favour of volunteer-run libraries. In these difficult times, should each sector take care of itself or do professionals from other information sectors have a duty to come to the aid of their colleagues in the public sector?

Fragmentation of the profession became a talking point this year: in a discussion on the CILIP LinkedIn Group forum Mark Field wrote, “The information professions are highly networked but poorly integrated.” It makes sense for non-public library professionals – those working in academic, legal, health, or private sectors – to maintain their distance from public libraries which are suffering from increased scrutiny and political battles for survival. Is it logical to integrate fragmented sectors and risk painting all libraries with the same brush?

On the other hand, it can be argued that being part of a professional body means supporting one another. It means sharing the difficulties in the bad times as well as sharing help in the good times. Part of the founding ethos of the library campaign group, Voices for the Library, is that librarians from a range of sectors should speak out on behalf of public library staff who may be prevented from speaking against their council employers.

 The CILIP Code of Professional Practice states that library and information professionals should “Act in ways that promote the profession positively, both to their colleagues and to the public at large.” I argue that in desperate times ‘promotion’ extends to activism on behalf of libraries and that for professionals of all sectors – including new professionals – entry into the profession confers a duty to fight, to the extent one is able to do so, alongside one’s colleagues.