Sunday, 16 December 2012

My first week. Or: How I learned to stop worrying and found the bathroom.

The first week of a new job is strange. You spend your time performing actions and doing things that will eventually be quotidian and dull; that will eventually fade into the background tedium of life and pass unnoticed as you go about your daily routines. But because it’s the first time, they have the sheen of the new and the exciting glamour of the unexperienced. Getting a London Underground train to work, entering the library’s staff entrance, getting some lunch from the staff restaurant, checking my emails at my desk, finding the bathroom (1), getting the Tube home. Soon all of these things will pick up the patina of the overly familiar but for now, for at least one week, everything feels different. Everything is different to Durham, to what I’m used to, to my life. Amidst all this difference and without the stabilising effect of routine, who am I? 

At 1030 on Monday 10th December 2012, I stood in the staff lobby of the British Library’s St. Pancras site idly chatting to a couple of other new starters and clutching an ominous-looking envelope emblazoned with the words ‘WARNING – DO NOT OPEN’ like the envelope that a spy would receive containing details of his/her mission or that an assassin would carry containing the name of his/her target. The lobby was unfamiliar: though I’d been in it before during the interview process, it still struck me as very different to my previous libraries. More than anything else, it reminds me of the Ministry of Information in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: from the excess of marble to the bank of four elevators from which people emerge and into which they disappear; from the electronic and futuristic clock-in, clock-out terminals that smack of mechanized bureaucracy to the bizarrely incongruous and Gilliamian statue of Mr. Punch which stands in front of the elevators like a creepy, diminutive sentinel. Amidst all this ‘newness’ – this ‘difference’ – my nervous energy was keeping me on my feet. 

(Not) the British Library's lobby.

Eventually two of us were chosen from the assembled throng to ascend to the 6th Floor. The 6th is the top floor of the building: inaccessible from the public elevators; inaccessible by stairs (2); highly secure due to the delicacy and rarity of the manuscripts and archives being digitised. The Qatar Digitisation Project currently occupies a custom-built office space designed for 42 people. There are 12 staff currently on the project (2 of whom spend most of their time in the conservation lab and digitisation studio respectively). We are spread throughout the room creating an eerie emptiness that somehow makes one feel closer to one’s scattered colleagues. In the quiet of the practically-empty office, someone singing softly to music can be heard on the other side of the room. 

Everything about my first day enforces the notion that this is something different for me. The scale of the British Library is different to any library organisation I’ve worked in. Among a flurry of facts and figures that my manager presents, I hear that the British Library employs approximately 2000 people. On the ‘new starter’ area of the website, Roly Keating, the Chief Executive, describes the British Library as “one of the greatest libraries in the world… operating at the cutting edge of the information revolution… [A] world leading provider of global knowledge in the digital age… look[ing] for the best and the brightest people…” I’ve heard it referred to as ‘the heart of British librarianship’, ‘the Mothership’, ‘the Death Star’ (3). Frankly it’s all a little overwhelming. 

And as my induction continued and I got a broader overview of the project, I was struck by the realisation that this is a different kind of work. As a manager talked through the project and what we’re trying to achieve over the next two years, the ramifications of the word ‘project’ hit me: we are trying to achieve something; there is a definite goal in place. In every other library job, I’ve been continuing an ongoing service: keeping an Army library open; providing continued access to e-resources for Durham University students. In this new job, there is a defined goal and one endpoint with specific deliverables which must be ready by that time. 

It reminds me of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (4). As a spotty teen, in lieu of partying and kissing girls and whatnot, I watched every documentary on each The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVD box-set. I watched that team of amazing film-makers come together and work for years towards a set goal. They found the best people and brought them together to use their skills in an atmosphere crackling with intelligence and creativity. I imagined how close the people on that team would be after struggling for years to create those films. Working together; socialising together; sharing ideas together; having fun together. I wanted to be part of a team like that. I wanted to create something as important as those films (5). 

As I met the project team last week, I was struck by how different we are. It’s like a stereotypical ‘crack team’ of people from different backgrounds. There are archival experts, cataloguing experts, tech experts, Arabic experts, medieval Arabic experts, project managers. And me. Why, I wondered, have I been brought onto this team? What niche do I fill? 

Another team of experts from varying backgrounds. I feel like the character at bottom-left.

On Tuesday 11th December, after my second day at work, I attended a lecture at the British Academy entitled ‘‘All the World’s Knowledge’: Universal Authors’ Rights’ delivered by Professor Jane Ginsburg of the Columbia University School of Law. The first section (6) was on ‘the dream of universal knowledge’ and digital libraries. Professor Ginsburg spoke about the history of the dream from the librarians of Alexandria to Paul Otlet to Vannevar Bush to Google. And I realised I knew all that: I’ve researched those figures and read around the subject; I wrote about digital libraries for my postgraduate dissertation; I’ve written articles about digital libraries. 

Our self-identity – how we define ourselves in our own eyes – can change so slowly, so glacially, that it seems not to change at all. To ourselves, we appear to be the same person from one day to the next. And sometimes it takes a complete change – doing completely different things in a different environment – for us to realise that we’ve gradually and imperceptibly become someone else. Amidst all the confusion and stress and socialising and networking of the past few months, I forgot that I know about digital libraries. Creating a digital library from scratch will be a challenge – even in a team as good as this one – and I’m scared… but maybe we can create something great. 

Everything is different now. But everything suddenly being different can remind you of who you are. 

(1) This was a job for the third day. My staff pass initially wouldn’t allow me access to the highly secure 6th Floor where my desk is so I was afraid to leave the work area to go find the bathroom in case I couldn’t get back in and I’d have to knock forlornly on the door while someone on the other side of the glass tried to remember who I was having only met me once and I’d self-combust in embarrassment and involuntary blushing and the incident would somehow end up in the library’s newsletter. 

(2) Ominously so. We can get down in case of an emergency (2a) but if we feel like exercising of a morning we have to ascend to the 5th Floor and then take the elevator the rest of the way. 

(2a) Likely scenarios were thoroughly and terrifyingly covered in the online induction training. 

(3) The canteen – a sprawling, high school-like canteen based on cashless payment cards and offering amazingly cheap subsidised meals – particularly reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s ‘Death Star canteen bit’. For some reason. 

(4) Why I’m thinking of The Lord of the Rings at this specific point in time is a mystery…

(5) While not that important in the Grand Scheme of Things, those films were important to me then. 

(6) Of three. Without going into too much detail, Professor Ginsburg’s thesis was that the dream of universal knowledge (or at least our current attempt to actualise that dream vis-à-vis large-scale digital libraries such as Google Books (6a) or the Digital Public Library of America) fundamentally conflicts with the dream of universal authors’ rights (ie. the right of every author to be recognised and compensated accordingly for his/her work). Although we desperately need updated copyright and intellectual property law to reflect the abundance of digital commodities, such laws should not be rushed through or ill-judged. For librarians, she also offered a cautionary note about libraries cosying up with commercial partners including Google and Amazon: when libraries do so, isn’t something lost? 

(6a) Also I cannot tell you how excited I was to meet, on my second day at work, someone at the British Library who works directly on the Google Books Digitisation Project: the Project I have studied extensively; the Project I enthused about in my postgraduate dissertation; the Project that aspires to the Total Library.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

An idiot's guide to Annual Staff Reviews

One of my last major tasks at Durham University Library was delivering performance reviews for several members of my team. At this point in my career, professional colleagues and friends are approaching similar levels: a level of semi-management where we’re asked to perform tasks involving supervision of co-workers, people management, and people skills. There’s a point at which a career built around a love of books and computers becomes a career about people and this task felt like a milestone on that professional journey. 


At Durham University, the Annual Staff Review (1) process requires a university employee to reflect on his/her performance over the past year (ideally with reference to his/her review from the previous year). He/she then meets with a supervisor to discuss his/her performance, to set some objectives for the coming year, and to identify any development needs.

Generic image of a manager and his young, dynamic, multi-ethnic team with only one woman. From Flickr user: Victor1558.

That’s how the process was explained to me at a Human Resources course. I was open-minded as I entered the ‘Old Library’ (2) at Grey’s College and availed myself of free (filter!) coffee and free (fresh!) cookies. I’d returned from London a day earlier than I wanted to specifically so that I could attend the course. I wanted to understand more about the process and to develop myself. But as the Human Resources representative spoke at length about the corporate philosophy behind the process and the pop psychology that undergirds the exercise, I felt my enthusiasm wane. The more the rep explained that it was not a ‘box-ticking exercise’, the more I felt it was. I drank more coffee and thought that the ASR process formalises something that should happen organically. True development – true growth – comes not from filling in forms or setting clear, quantifiable objectives in a report to be signed and countersigned by two heads of department both of whom are performing dozens of identical reviews themselves with dozens of employees and thus filling in more forms and setting more clear, quantifiable objectives to be signed and countersigned ad infinitum. Psychological development is free-flowing and natural following from what a person wants and chooses to do. Not everyone fits a rigid model of 12-month objectives and 5-year plans: some people take years to grow into themselves; some, in a spurt of months, suddenly become the person they’d always wanted to be; some push and push and still find themselves unable to change. I left the training course with a bladder full of coffee and a heart full of disappointment. 


However, my ideological objections were a cover to my real problem. I was scared. I’m not a manager and I’ve never thought of myself as a leader. At library school, I hated – and got the lowest marks in – the module on management. Aside from feeling like I lacked the requisite skills, I thought that I was no fit person to evaluate anyone else. I’m a lucky moron who, through some hard work and a lot of luck, manages to live a charmed life muddling through his career and his personal life. I also felt too ‘meta’: as if I’d always be standing outside the process looking in it while it was happening (3). How could I evaluate someone else? How could anyone? 

And what if I failed? Management, in some sense, requires taking responsibility for other people’s wellbeing. I felt responsible for helping someone to develop: for looking at him/her, evaluating him/her, and seriously and earnestly helping him/her to grow as a person and an information professional. That’s why I returned from London a day early for the training course and that’s why I refused to go home on that day despite a terrible migraine. I was responsible to those I had to review. 


Generic image of 'preparation'. From Flickr user: agrilifetoday.
As with any challenge, preparation helped. I organised dates and times to meet my reviewees, I booked rooms for the meetings, and I read their self-completed Annual Staff Review forms. I prepared scripts dictating how I intended to guide the hour-long conversations. Most importantly, I sat down and really thought about the other people. Who are they? What do I know about them? How do they work? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? How do they feel about that? How have they developed? This was a fascinating experience: how often does one really think long and hard about the experience of being another human being? One can attain high levels of empathy with good friends or those with whom one is in a relationship but co-workers can be a different matter. We can share the same room with them for 7 hours a day every day but never stop to consider their phenomenological experience, their stream-of-consciousness, their unique Dasein. Who is this other person and what it is like to be him/her? 


When the time came for the reviews, I dressed more smartly than usual and comported myself slightly more professionally than usual. I took the reviews seriously and hoped that my reviewees would follow my example and do the same. I continued to prepare to the degree that I would want a reviewer to do: made sure all was ready for the meetings and read through my notes.

I decided to conduct the reviews in a three-part structure covering past, present, and future (4). 'Present' outlined the procedure, gave a quick introduction to the ASR process, and told the reviewee what was going to happen. 'Past' involved a review of the year as a whole, a discussion of major successes, a discussion of failures, and any comments that the reviewee wished to make about how the library is run. 'Future' involved identifying development needs based on our previous discussion and setting objectives to meet these needs over the coming year. This structure seemed nice and neat and turned out to be a good way to drive discussion forward.

During the actual reviews, I pretended. I pretended that I was a confident manager in a position to evaluate someone’s performance. I pretended that I knew in what direction I was taking the conversation. I pretended to be an interviewer having had years of experience on the other side of the interview desk. I pretended not to be scared. 

And not only did I get through the reviews but they went extraordinarily well. I drew people out of themselves, led them to discuss their ambitions and dreams, set themselves goals, and uncover psychological and developmental threads that hadn’t been set down in the forms. I pretended to be a professional and a manager and I pretended enough that I came to believe it. If you pretend to be someone for long enough, maybe it becomes who you are. 


The rep in Human Resources said a lot about how to conduct reviews and how to treat people but I thought I could boil it all down to one phrase. A golden rule for management and a golden rule for how to be a human being: 

Don’t be a dick. 

Dickishness makes Jesus facepalm. From Flickr user: tonystl.
In some ways, this is a modern variation on Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”) which is itself a variation on Jesus of Nazareth’s Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"). Both of which are put differently by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” 

People sometimes tell me that I’m nice. Occasionally when I wonder why people are so nice to me, friends tell me that it’s because I’m nice to people. Delivering Annual Staff Reviews led me to realise that I am good with people: over the past two years, I’ve levelled up and am therefore capable of whole new tasks and a whole new skill tree that had previously been blocked off. When I move next month and open up a new area of the world-map to explore, I know I’ll be able to survive. 

The only way to survive and to succeed around other people is to think of them as people in their own right as valuable and important as yourself. Treat people with respect, manage them as you would want to be managed, listen to them, understand where they’re coming from, don’t be a dick. (5) 

(1) ASR. 

(2) A room which turned out to be neither particularly old nor, judging from the lack of books, a library. 

(3) I’ve done this in the past in interviews, dates, and other social situations whereby I ‘step outside’ the high-pressure event I’m taking part in and comment on it while it’s happening. These are generally descriptive comments about clichés that I notice, analytical comments attempting to analyse why I’m behaving in a certain way, or evaluative comments like “This is going badly” or, far more often, “This is going well.” 

(4) A Christmas Carol is one of my dad's favourite books and its influence continues to be felt on my psyche.

(5) Last Sunday, Charlie Brooker used this as his third rule for interacting with other people on the Internet but I have referred to the phrase as my philosophy before this and the tweet is somewhere out there to prove it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Gestalt shift

In psychology, a gestalt shift is when your perception suddenly changes. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein illustrated this with the duck-rabbit illusion: you can see either the duck or the rabbit but not both at the same time. Your brain switches between the two in an instant. Your perception changes. In life, there are longer term gestalt shifts: moments when your perception shifts and suddenly everything has changed. Afterwards, you see things anew and the universe clicks together in a different way (1). I can think of at least two times in my life when these gestalt shifts have occurred and changed everything. 

A German duck / A German rabbit

The first was on the 15th of July 2009 on the day I decided to become a librarian. After an interview for a graduate trainee position at Manchester Metropolitan University Library, I realised I had been more comfortable in that interview room with those other candidates – those library folk – than I had been in many social situations. I gave up a place at law school and completely adjusted my plans in order to pursue a career that felt… right. 

The second was the 18th of July 2012 on a day when I was in Chicago and realised that not only had I survived my trip to America – a trip involving confusion, exhaustion, anxiety, and fear – but I had enjoyed it. I’d enjoyed it more than almost any other experience in my life. By straining at the very edge of my social anxiety, I pushed through the barrier and discovered that I wanted to be around people and do things. 

Since Chicago, things haven’t been the same (2). When I came home, I wrote that I felt like Frodo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings

At the end of The Return of the King, after all his adventures, Frodo Baggins returns to his nice quiet home in the Shire. I always thought that Frodo should be so happy to get home, to write the Red Book of his experiences, and to finally relax after all his hardship. But, Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo before him, finds the Shire changed on his return: or at least, changed for him. He’s seen too much; done too much; suffered and fallen and won. How can you go back to the way things were? How can you ever settle down again? 

That feeling never went away. It seems absurd given all that I’ve done and seen in the past three years but I got into librarianship for the chance of a quiet life. To be left alone with books and infinite curiosity. But experience has changed all that and my curiosity reaches beyond the pages of books. 

A solicitor for whose firm I was doing work experience once told me that I was intelligent and that the curse of intelligence is boredom. He said that intelligent people grow bored easily and that they need – they crave – constant mental stimulation. Otherwise they collapse in on themselves. Since July, I’ve travelled to Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham, and London (several times) in attempts to stave off boredom and recapture the spirit of adventure. Durham – a charming city that I really like – has come to seem too quiet and the North-East has come to seem too empty. When I’ve not been travelling or meeting people or doing things, I’ve been bored. 

Life doesn’t change on its own: you have to make change happen through work, rigour, and intelligence. I’ve worked over the past few months to change things to match my new perception. This has meant a renewed focus on the people in my life, making some personal changes which I don’t want to go into, and making some professional changes which I do want to go into. 

And so, I have several announcements: 

1. I have accepted an invitation to join the Board of SLA Europe as Co-Chair of the Early Careers Committee. I will be taking over from Bethan Ruddock and joining Lyndsay Rees-Jones in organising the Early Career Conferences Awards 2013 (3). 

2. I have accepted a position at the British Library. I will be helping to co-ordinate the Qatar Digitisation Project.

And, as a result of the above: 

3. I will be moving to London. 

I have dreamt of working at the British Library for years. It sounds silly. Some men dream of walking on other planets, some of curing diseases, some of amassing great wealth. Since I read Borges' 'The Library of Babel', I have dreamt of the Total Library (4). The opportunity to work at our main legal deposit library - at the heart of British librarianship - is incredibly exciting. It comes at a point when it benefits me professionally and personally to move to London. And, for the first time in years, I'll be living with other people again rather than on my own: meeting new people and doing new things. 

I've very much valued my time at Durham University Library - particularly the people I've met there. I'm very grateful for the experiences there which have changed me into the person I am now. But it's time to move on.

The British Library at St Pancras in London

Everything is going to change. Gestalt shift. 

(1) For a better expression of this, listen to the song 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed (Death Anxiety Caused by Moments of Boredom)' by The Flaming Lips.

(2) Somehow it seems trite to say this. As if admitting how much that Experience meant to me somehow makes me less because there are people who have been through so much more. But I don’t care. Subjectively it was important. 

(3) A secondary purpose of this blog post is therefore to promote the awards. Look, new professionals! Look at the impact winning the award had on me!

(4) I wrote an essay on the subject for Panlibus and you can read that here. Funnily enough, I did most of the research for that essay in the British Library's Boston Spa Reading Room.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Librarians vs. users

Libraries serve humanity. 
Michael Gorman and Walt Crawford's first law of librarianship, 
Future libraries: dreams madness, and realities, p. 8.

Libraries provide a service to users (1). That is their raison d’être and we should never forget it. But there are circumstances in which conflicts arise between the service as envisioned by the user and the service as envisioned by the librarian: between the users’ immediate desire and the librarians’ professional judgement. There is a difference between ‘being good at serving’ and ‘providing a good service’. 

Campaigners in Manchester recently won their campaign to stop the “destruction of hundreds of thousands of books at the UK’s largest municipal library”. Manchester Central Library is currently undergoing renovations and, as part of the process, discarding a lot of non-fiction books. In June, a group of authors and writers – led by Melvin Burgess and containing Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Simon Armitage, Mike Garry, and others – called for a halt to this destruction. Manchester City Council has acquiesced and the books will be stored in a warehouse until a decision can be made. 

From Flickr user: d.billy.
As librarians know, weeding is a necessary part of librarianship and collections management. Old books must be discarded to make way for new books. The UK publishes 206000 new books per year: libraries buy these books, fill their shelves with stock, and weed the less-used books. Non-fiction reference books – dictionaries, encyclopaedias, computer books (2) – have a limited shelf life and at a point – the publication of a new edition, the obsolescence of the software – they must be considered to be of little to no historical value and discarded. Libraries are finite buildings that contain the infinity of the written word… which is very poetic and magical and all but there’s no such thing as magic, there’s no Santa Claus, and library management is a practical job. 

It’s no longer acceptable for institutions to have basements of unknown collections, often the legacy of indiscriminate and undocumented collecting in the past. So we need to take the initiative in working out what we have. This is something that Manchester Public Library have been doing during the current refurbishment: they’ve been assessing what was, and what should be, stored in their closed stacks, and working out how that can be used in the future.
Katie Birkwood, 

This is a clear-cut situation (3) in which the users’ immediate desire conflicts with the librarians’ professional analysis of the library management situation. The users want all books to be kept regardless of their utility in the collection; the librarians want to trim the collection down in order to conform to Ranagnathan’s Fourth Law – “Save the time of the reader” – and make the collection more usable. In a situation like this, how does the librarian best serve the user? By doing what the user wants? Or by doing what the librarian knows to be best for the user?

Insert your own example from your workplace here. Do you ban a book because a user is disgusted by it or keep it on the shelves because you know intellectual freedom to be more important? Do you catalogue every item of digital ephemera on a reading list given to you by the faculty or do you keep the catalogue smaller and more usable? Do you spoon-feed users or encourage them to develop their own research skills? Do you allow users to eat food in the library or ban it because you know it attracts vermin?

Librarians are beholden to our users. It is our users who pay for the building, the books, and our salaries. In Higher Education, there is some concern that higher tuition fees will lead to a corresponding rise in student expectations. In university libraries, the words ‘user focus’, ‘added value’, and ‘customer service excellence’ are being floated around and partly used to justify more acquiescence to users’ demands. We regularly rely on input from our users in areas like acquisitions because they know their specialist subject better than we do. If we deny users what they ask for – and pay for – on the grounds that ‘We know best’, we open ourselves to accusations of elitism (4). And occasionally we need users to correct us: whether right or wrong, Nicholson Baker's Double Fold provided an outside perspective on print disposal practices and opened a seam of professional discourse.

From Flickr user: Celeste.

On the other hand, librarians are professionally trained, we have a base of Professional Knowledge and Skills on which to draw, and we adhere to a Code of Professional Practice. We have been taught how to weed, how to catalogue, how to acquire books. Broadly speaking, we know what we’re doing and the users do not. In the case of Manchester Library, the implication on the part of the council is that they think that the users know better than the trained library staff. That the ability to write words in a poetic order and construct compelling narratives qualifies one to manage a major metropolitan library and that the informed opinions of the librarians can be disregarded. This kind of judgement questions librarians’ professional competence and arguably indicates changing social attitudes towards the status of library staff.

Libraries serve humanity. The definition of the word 'serve' makes this a more complicated statement than it first appears. When the users' desire does not align with the librarians' judgement, to whom do we listen? The answer is probably balance, a nuanced approach, exercising individual judgement, not making sweeping generalisations about every possible situation, etc etc. As ever, life turns out to be more complex than tidy little aphorisms would often suggest.

(1) Or patrons. Or customers. Or readers. Or visitors. Or members. Or etc.

(2) Even the most ardent book-lover could not but feel sheer staggering levels of indifference when holding a dusty, heavy copy of Microsoft Access 2001 for Dummies with a scratched accompanying CD-ROM.

(3) This is a lie. Nothing is ever clear-cut. This post isn’t about defending Manchester Libraries’ collections management policy since I know nothing about it. For all I know, they are indeed throwing away First Folios by the armload. However at the Rare Books and Special Collections Group Annual Conference 2012 a month ago, Neil MacInnes, head of Manchester Library, denied that the heritage collections were under any kind of threat.

(4) This is Devil’s advocacy. I agree with Bob Usherwood in this post that “At a time when we can see all around us the dangers of a celebrity and consumerist culture public librarians have a responsibility to provide and promote more worthwhile material. They should seek to influence rather than slavishly follow populist trends. This is not, as some critics maintain, an elitist position but one that will increase people’s enjoyment and open up new opportunities and experiences.”

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Reflections from the midpoint

I no longer feel like a new professional. I discovered librarianship as a profession over three years ago (1) and since then I’ve defined myself as a new professional in LIS, struggling to break into the profession, get a permanent job, and make my mark. The informal, folksonomy-type definition of a ‘new professional’ in LIS is one who has been in the profession for under five years and so according to that definition I have approximately two years left on the clock before I tick over into ‘seasoned professional’. Nonetheless I feel like I’ve reached a midpoint in my career. 

I’m well into my second job in librarianship (2). This is a position which, according to this theory by Ned Potter, can be the most important in one’s career. I’ve had most of the major ‘firsts’: first professional post, first big conference, first epic US conference, first award. I’m into the habit of presenting at conferences and writing articles. I’m active and semi-well-known within the LIS blogo- tweeto-sphere, etc. I’ve made professional contacts and good friends throughout the profession. I’ve paid my dues and now I’m settled and happy in a post that plays to my professional interests, that is helping me develop my skills, and that I enjoy doing every weekday. 

The goat is a metaphor. From Flickr user: Jungle_Boy
The midpoint (3) is an interesting position to be in and one that is, I suspect, universal not only across LIS but to a range of different careers. It feels like some sort of weird limbo in which I find myself halfway along a rope bridge: too late to turn back, no way to go but forward, stuck in the middle. There follows a series of illustratory positive statements followed by ‘but…’ and accompanied by examples from last week alone. I have real responsibilities at work – colleagues turn to me for decisions about book moves and later this year I’ll be conducting staff reviews for some of my colleagues – but I get no formal recognition of this. My opinion is valued and specifically sought out – over the purchase of resource discovery system software – but I feel unequipped to give advice on such major issues. I’m privy to all the ‘dirty laundry’ of the library’s inner workings – [example redacted] – but don’t have the power to change things. I earn enough to live comfortably – over the weekend, I deliberately went out to buy luxury items with disposable income – but feel that my salary doesn’t reflect the responsibility, particularly supervisory, of my position. I feel comfortable enough and entitled enough to complain about these issues but I feel vaguely guilty for doing so: 

You are young. You will get your recognition. And honestly, it is absolutely ridiculous to be two years into your career and counting your ideas. Everything to you is an opportunity. And you should be thanking me every morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day.
Don Draper to Peggy Olson in the seminal 4x07 episode of Mad Men

This is the midpoint: where I want to be but not quite able to make the changes I want; overeducated and overworked but underpaid and – it feels – underappreciated; reaching for some vague next step but not sure where or what it is. The goals I had as a new professional have been reached and so I need to begin the process of redefining my identity and my surrounding support network of formerly-new professionals (or soon-to-be-formerly-new professionals). 

And being in the midpoint is affecting me psychologically in a couple of interesting ways: in terms of impostor syndrome and in terms of ambition. 

The midpoint is making my impostor syndrome more acute. A Google search for ‘impostor syndrome librarianship’ brings up hundreds of relevant results including the one I was looking for: this excellent summary post by Laura Woods. Impostor syndrome among librarians is a well-documented psychological malady in which one feels that one is an impostor who has managed to trick his/her way into being successful despite not really knowing what one is doing at any given moment and that there are people far more qualified, hard-working, and better at their jobs who simply haven’t been as lucky and that if one doesn’t continue to work myself to exhaustion every single day and blog something insightful and important every single week that everything will fall apart and people will see through the façade and so any minute now everyone will realise all this about me which will lead to humiliation, ejection from the profession, and being shunned by all my friends and colleagues who will realise just how fucked up I really am and how I’m not special or deserving of praise and how everything would be easier if I just kept myself to myself and lived a quiet life of non-ambition but I can’t because of this desperate narcissistic desire for the love and adulation of a wider community and the need to prove myself, be the best, etc. etc. as some sort of compensation for being the proverbial ‘Ugly Duckling’ when growing up. And so, as more people rely on me and call on me to do things, this feeling grows rather than, as it should rationally do, diminishes. I’m pretty sure this is just something I’ll have to live with while gradually adjusting my self-identity to be the person that people think I am. 

I have discovered that achievement does not mean the end of ambition. [Un]fortunately there’s never going to be a point where I can say “Right, I’m done now. Everything is achieved.” This relentless drive – this sound of distant drumming – is never going to end. Even more irritatingly, my ambition seems to be constantly one step ahead of my reality such that my achievements never give the satisfaction I imagined they would. I wanted to be published, I wanted to be called a genius, I wanted to get a Distinction, I wanted to go to America: all these things happened but, after the momentary flush of satisfaction, they didn’t perceptibly change anything. Our expectations change as our world changes. Ambition is burning with hunger for food that does not exist. 

'The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for… After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are… LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.'
'You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.'
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

I recently read D. T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace who, in the midpoint of his career, not only wrote about ambition and the cage that success creates but felt himself to be trapped by them. Wallace worried that “to know him too well would be to dislike him. Or at least dislike him as much as he disliked himself. He felt a fake, a victim, as he would later write, of “imposter syndrome.”” David Foster Wallace was a genius – who I’m sure would hate the fact that I idolise him to such a great extent – and his writing, particularly Infinite Jest and the short stories 'Mister Squishy' and 'Good Old Neon' (4), truly captures how I feel better than I can express it myself. I read his biography in an attempt to discover how he lived with his impostor syndrome and his raging ambition even though I knew that ultimately he didn’t and took his own life in 2008. 

The best advice he gives is in his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College where he says that “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Life is meaningless and so you have to learn how to choose to your own meaning as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. You have to learn to see the invisible cages that you’ve built around you – ambition, relationships, self-identity, doubt, fear, etc. – and you have to choose to not be in them anymore. 

So now I’m in the midpoint. I’ve run so far and so fast to get here that I can’t see where home is anymore. I’ve reached all my destinations. I’ve had the education; I’ve got the good job; I’ve made the friends; I’ve got my independence; I’ve won the award; I’ve proven myself. Now what? 


(1) Which discovery involved realising that there are people who care about the same things I care about, that librarianship can combine a love of books and computers, and that there are organisations which will pay me to do things I enjoy. In one of my (digital) notebooks, I have the date jotted down as ‘Either the 8th or the 15th July 2009’. 

(2) Second full-time library job. If we include part-time pre-qualification positions, I’m on my fourth (or arguably sixth (2a)) job. 

(2a) Long story. 

(3) ‘Midpoint’ is a poor choice of words but I have nothing else. I'm well aware that I'm actually very much at the start of my career. I’m 25: if this is the midpoint of my career then it will last until I’m about 50. 

(4) Which is about a “young man whose personality is built on the need to impress others. And the more he succeeds in impressing them, the more of a fraud he feels.”

Monday, 10 September 2012

The fundamental interconnectedness of all things: the impact of networked knowledge systems on cataloguing

This is the text of a paper I delivered at the CILIP Cataloguing and Indexing Group Conference 2012 in Sheffield. The presentation slides are below:

What is cataloguing? Really, what is it that we do? 

This is “the dawn of a new era in cataloguing”. In these times of change, it’s good to get back to first principles and ask the philosophical questions. What are we doing here? What is it that we do? What is our value? What is cataloguing really? (1)

If you asked a hundred cataloguers, I suspect you’d get a hundred answers. But I choose to think of cataloguing and classification as the process of describing the bibliographic universe. As librarians and information professionals, we are familiar with the world of books, journals, information, data. We know about the secret web of connections and links and citations and themes and genres that connect the millions of information sources that we deal with every day. We have chosen to live in this bibliographic universe: to wander its streets together; to climb its mountains; to congregate in its squares; to see what lies down every dark alleyway; to explore every inch of it. And among information professionals, cataloguers and classifiers are the ones who have chosen to map the bibliographic universe. We are cartographers of the abstract. We chart the world of books, journals, and information: describing what we see, encoding it in a usable form, and sharing the results with our users and with each other. This abstract mapping is, I would argue, the true value of cataloguing. 

Nowadays we have new tools at our disposal to do this. FRBR – Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records – is one such tool that we can use to describe the bibliographic universe. It’s one attempt to define the arrangement of the abstract entities that information professionals work with. It defines the relationship between these things: between the ‘work’ as envisioned by the author all the way down to the physical ‘item’ which a user can hold and touch. As well as defining the relationships between different versions of the same ‘work’ – between Group 1 entities – it defines the relationships and the links that works have with people and corporate bodies – Group 2 entities – and through this, defines their relationships with each other. FRBR is a framework on which to base our maps of the bibliographic universe. That is its abiding value. 

RDA is built on a foundation of FRBR and will be another useful tool. It places a new emphasis in cataloguing on “clustering of bibliographic records” and using metadata to define the relationships between works. Previously the relationships between one edition of a book and a later edition of the same book or between the print version of a book and the ebook version have been somewhat ill-defined if not totally unexplained by a catalogue record. FRBR and RDA are tools to help accurately describe the universe of information and so they’re both heavily informed by epistemology and ontology: two separate but linked branches of philosophy. 

Epistemology is the study of knowledge systems: what knowledge is, how it’s arranged, and how we can have it. It’s been studied from the time of the Ancient Greek philosophers – from Plato and his pupil Aristotle – through the Enlightenment philosophers – Descartes, Locke, Hume, Schopenhauer – to the present day when the debate continues and has been renewed by new scientific discoveries and what seems to be an ever-expanding world of knowledge. The World Wide Web has emerged as a quasi-physical embodiment of our abstract world of information – our realm of knowledge – and so the debate is more physical, more real, and more important than ever. It’s said that Socrates was in constant communication with a ‘daemon’ who supplied him with all his ideas and inspiration: today, we can all communicate with hundreds of people everyday who give us fresh ideas and invite us to interesting events. The Web and these changing paradigms of communication have changed our view of epistemology and I’ll get to that later. Ontology is the study of being and existence. It’s relevant to considering the bibliographic universe in terms of trying to define that universe’s metaphysical status. By this, I mean the questions ‘What kind of entity is information?’ and ‘What kind of thing is knowledge?’ Ontology tries to define what things are: is the text of a book a purely mental construct or does it have some kind of physical reality? Can a ‘work’ be said to exist in the same way as a chair? 

Because FRBR assumes the existence of a bibliographic universe with some ontological status and it’s the predominant intellectual trend in cataloguing, we go along with that. Partly because of the introduction of FRBR and RDA, epistemology and the ontology of knowledge are of central importance in modern cataloguing, indexing, and classification. We need to consider what shape knowledge has, how it’s arranged, and how we can accurately describe and represent this for our users. 

For centuries, knowledge has been represented as a hierarchy and this has informed the traditional classification systems that are in use in librarianship and bibliography today. Dewey, Library of Congress, LCSH: they’re based on ideas of hierarchy and taxonomy; of dividing and subdividing subjects like the branches of a tree. The conceptualisation of knowledge, in particular the ‘tree’ metaphor, has a long history. 

One of the first, if not the first, representations of knowledge is in the Book of Genesis: God provides the first humans, Adam and Eve, with the ‘tree of knowledge’. After that, one of the first real articulations of the concept of hierarchical knowledge comes from a library – from someone who was trying to work out what knowledge looks like so that he could organise his books. Aristotle, the great philosopher, had the largest personal library in Athens and to organise his collection accurately he envisioned knowledge in his work the Organon as a hierarchy based on the now-familiar principles of taxonomy and categorisation. His ‘tree of knowledge’ concept become codified as information theory developed and there are numerous examples stretching from Ancient Greece to the 20th Century. Linnaeus’ classification of the natural world in his Systema Naturae divides things by genus and species and subdivides into nested groups. In 1605, Francis Bacon published The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human which divides all knowledge into History, Poetry, and Philosophy which were then subdivided and so on into different branches. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson catalogued his collection of books – a collection that would go on to start the Library of Congress. Jefferson divided the world of knowledge, similarly to Bacon, into Memory, Reason, and Imagination broadly corresponding to History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. There are hundreds of other examples – Diderot’s system for the Encyclopédie; John Wilkins’ 40 Universal Categories – and in terms of classification, we have examples closer to home. 

The classification schemes that we still use in libraries today are heavily influenced by hierarchical thinking. Enumerative classification schemes – Dewey, Library of Congress, Cutter’s Classification – explicitly “treat knowledge as if it were a unity which can be subdivided into smaller and smaller units. At the top of the tree is the whole universe, which is divided and subdivided to arrive at all the different entities, events and activities represented in the subjects of books.” Faceted classifications and analytico-synthetic classifications, though more flexible, also exhibit an essentially hierarchical structure with the small building up to form the large. The tree of knowledge – our centuries-old conception – continues to inform our epistemological systems and our thoughts on the ontological status of knowledge. Broadly speaking, our current maps of the bibliographic universe look like trees. 

Now we’ve rethought this conception of knowledge as a tree and are starting to think of different knowledge systems. A new model – a new intellectual paradigm – is emerging. It’s the idea of knowledge as a network rather than a tree: a web of interconnections between ideas, concepts, theories, data. 

A network can be defined as a system of interrelations: “individuals function as autonomous nodes, negotiating their own relationships, forging ties, coalescing into clusters. There is no “top” in a network; each node is equal and self-directed.” As science and philosophy have advanced and the universe of human knowledge has grown, we’ve discovered connections and interrelations between things that seemed totally unrelated. It turns out that the branches of the tree of knowledge are all connected in different ways. Everything is connected. The universe appears to be holistic in that everything depends on everything else. We’re beginning to see, in the words of the great detective, Mr. Dirk Gently, “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”. The abstract world of knowledge turns out to be more complex – far more complex – than a tree shape and the more appropriate visualisation is something like a web or, better yet, a rhizome seed. 

In a 2010 paper, Lyn Robinson and Mike Maguire of City University adopt Deleuze and Guattari’s image of a rhizome as the better metaphor for information organisation. A rhizome is essentially a root: an underground mass of shoots and stems that grow in unpredictable ways in complex, laterally branching networks with different nodes shooting off in different directions. Deleuze and Guattari use it as an “image of thought” which represents complex networked knowledge systems. Robinson and Maguire’s paper is well worth reading as an excellent discussion of the changing concepts of knowledge structures. 

Broadly speaking, we are moving from the tree to the rhizome. And we can see this shift towards networked systems in a range of subjects and different areas. In physics, chaos theory tells us that everything is linked: that one tiny imperceptible event can cascade to significant consequences in a seemingly random and impossible-to-predict way that is nonetheless based on cause and effect in a networked system. In social life, we readily talk about social networks, recognising that human relationships can be mapped onto a network with each person connected to every other person: Stanley Milgram’s small world theory tells us that this can be done with a maximum of six degrees of separation. In technology, computer networks surround us, transferring data along connections between computers and servers and routers. They form the conceptual foundation for the Internet and the World Wide Web. 

In academia, we’re recognising the importance of the citation network – a network of references to and from various papers, journal articles, books. You may have heard of the mathematician Paul Erdős. His work was so prolific that any mathematician working today can be connected through citations to Erdős: an estimated 90% of mathematicians are connected to him through no more than 8 links. (2) 

Of these examples of networked systems, the citation network most closely relates to the networked systems of knowledge which are important for cataloguing and classification. We’re recognising that knowledge can’t be neatly divided into hierarchical categories and that in the bibliographic universe everything is connected in strange and sometimes complex ways. For an example, let’s look at Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: in my humble opinion, one of the greatest books ever written. 

When we come to catalogue this book – here’s the catalogue record for the book at Durham – when we come to catalogue it, off-hand we’d say it’s a philosophy book – it’s one of the cornerstones of modern formal logic – and at Durham, we file it at 192 for Modern Western Philosophy of the British Isles but we could also stick it somewhere in 160 for logic, or, depending on how much you consider its implications, somewhere in 110 for Metaphysics. It depends how you interpret it and there are a lot of interpretations. 

That’s straightforward hierarchical classification and it puts the book neatly into a distinct place on a shelf but it’s not the whole truth. This doesn’t represent the links that the book has with everything else in the bibliographic universe. What about its links to science, language, mathematics, and possible worlds theory? What about the links to Wittgenstein’s other works? His other masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations, is a whole different genre of philosophy and refutes bits of the Tractatus: the two are nonetheless conceptually linked. What about the books written about this book: the different theories; the different interpretations; the books that owe their existence to this book? What about the Prototractatus: the original manuscript version written in the trenches of World War I? What’s the relationship there: is it the same work or not? Whatever the answer, there is some kind of strange link. What about the different translations: this is the Pears and McGuinness translation but what about the German original, the versions without Bertrand Russell’s introduction, the far more confusing Ogden translation? What about the links to the fiction inspired by this book? 

Even something as simple as this 80 page book is connected through a thousand interrelations to myriad other books and other nodes in the bibliographic universe. When we look at it closely and think about it, this book is a centre of a web – of a rhizome – connected to intensely different books, journal articles, people, and ideas. If we accept that it’s our job as cataloguers to describe the bibliographic universe accurately and represent it as truthfully as possible, then we need to think about how to represent these connections. A MARC-encoded, AACR2-standard catalogue record doesn’t do justice to the complex web of connections and interrelations that surround this book. Or any of the other books, journals, ebooks, ejournals, and other publications that exist in our libraries. 

This is, I think, one of the central issues in cataloguing today. How do we represent networked knowledge systems and adjust our practices accordingly? Electronic resources are growing in importance in librarianship (3) and are fundamentally arranged in a network. We’re all going to be interacting with information arranged in networks and we should we thinking about mapping the digital world. Thinking about networked knowledge systems is an important consideration for doing this. So how do we catalogue in a network? It’s an open question but broadly speaking, I think we need new practices, new technology, and new thinking. 

In terms of cataloguing practice, RDA isn’t necessarily the answer to all the riddles but it’s a definite step forward. RDA is based on FRBR and therefore has a footing in ontology and serious thought about the bibliographic universe’s structure. RDA as a new practice will help us to think about the connections between items, to look at things in a new way – for old and new professionals alike – and to better appreciate that information exists in a rich, complex, shifting epistemological network. How do we actually catalogue to reflect this? Do we use more access points? Do we index more fields? Do we add a bunch more fields in the 700s or do we need to more fully define relationships using 500 note fields? RDA is the biggest change to cataloguing in 30 years and so hopefully its implementation will give us the opportunity to consider some of these issues and perhaps rethink how we view our collections. 

We also need new technology in cataloguing. Our modern epistemology – this vision of a networked universe with everything connected – is beyond the scope of our current technology for cataloguing and data representation. Though there are interesting things going on with e-resource management and linked data and things like that, these haven’t really affected day-to-day cataloguing which is still based on flat, hierarchical MARC records. MARC needs to be replaced and the replacement needs to be able to show relationships more clearly, needs to help users to find information within a bibliographic network, and needs to make use of the links that integration with other software and other systems can provide. 

The development of new Semantic Web technology can help with this. The development of OWL and other web ontology languages can help us to define domain-specific ontologies (4). RDF is a language that helps to define classes and sets within an ontology and also has the potential to be utilised for accurate description of bibliographic systems. Semantic Web languages – the development of Web 3.0 – will help us to map the digital frontier and make it into a true mirror of our abstract knowledge systems. 

And then there are data visualisation tools which can take metadata and turn it into something more visual and usable. The UK Institutional Repository Search produced by Mimas in Manchester can produce a basic visualisation of search results and the networked links between them. The results from a search term are grouped in different colours by subject – economics, technology, biology – and you can move them around and click on different nodes to produce more results similar to the ones you’ve clicked on. The more you click, the more complex the network becomes and it can actually get quite beautiful. This is a beta code powered by Autonomy software and it gives a demonstration of what can be done with data visualisation. 

Most importantly – more importantly than practice or technology – we need new thinking in cataloguing. We need to think about networked knowledge systems and move on from the hierarchical bibliographic philosophy that has dominated librarianship and information management. Instead of Linnaeus and Dewey, we can look to d’Alembert, Paul Otlet, Vladimir Vernadsky: all of whom have advocated networked knowledge systems of one form or another. Crucially, we need to think about what networked cataloguing can achieve. Cataloguing is a way to map the bibliographic universe and in the act of mapping, we can bring subjects together and see the intellectual landscape more clearly. The biologist, Edward O. Wilson, uses the term ‘consilience’ to refer to the unification of knowledge: the belief that different academic disciplines don’t represent completely different domains but are part of a single ontology. One knowledge system. One network encompassing everything. “...a maze of mazes, a sinuous, ever growing maze which will take in both past and future and will somehow involve the stars.” Consilience encourages interdisciplinary research and bringing together seemingly disparate intellectual strands to form a single map of the world of knowledge. I researched consilience for both my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations and I think this kind of synthesis will be a major intellectual trend in the 21st Century. Networked cataloguing is one way to achieve consilience and it’s here that modern librarians can make a real impact. 

Cataloguing and indexing a networked knowledge system requires changes to our practice, our technology, and our thinking. RDA, FRBR, new ontological languages, linked data, and ever-developing software are helping to bring these changes but we as cataloguers need to embrace them. We need to encourage and accept the change. We need to start thinking in networks. 

I’d like to end by contradicting everything I’ve said. I have argued that the most accurate – the most real – depiction of knowledge and the bibliographic universe is in the shape of a network. However I’m aware that I and the prevailing intellectual trend could be as wrong and misguided as we now believe the hierarchical theoreticians to be. My favourite writer, the Argentinean poet and one-time librarian, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote that “…obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative. The reason is quite simple: we do not know what the universe is.” He reminds us that all our human schemes for arranging knowledge are provisional and potentially deluded. Learning and discovery is a process of continuous development and who knows what we’ll discover on the journey towards consilience and networked knowledge systems? In the words of Socrates, the only thing I know for certain is that I know nothing.

(1) When I ask ‘What is cataloguing?’ possible answers are either describing the bibliographic universe or, depending on your thoughts about the ontological status of knowledge, creating the bibliographic universe. In other words, applying order where none actually exists. That discussion is beyond the scope of this paper and there’s some philosophical assumptions later on that depend on the first interpretation. 

(2) The source for that statistic is Wikipedia so… yeah.

(3) Slight bias here: I'm an e-resources librarian. 

(4) The word ‘ontology’ is used here in a slightly different but conceptually linked sense to the philosophical use.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

On the fundamental interconnectedness of all things

7 years ago, an 18-year old boy sat in a room in a hall of residence at The University of Sheffield and made a decision. 

How many times in life does one have occasion to tell another person that one is happy? There are very few social situations in which this kind of bold statement about emotional, physical, and general socio-cultural wellbeing is encouraged or even appropriate. Unless one is the kind of relentlessly cheerful human being who goes around telling people how happy one is (1), there are very few occasions in which happiness or lack thereof is openly discussed in the public sphere. The only circumstances I can imagine one telling another person that one is happy are comparatively intimate situations: to a loved one; at a family gathering; among one’s parents; etc. This appears to be because, despite being a resoundingly positive statement, discussion of one’s own happiness involves vulnerability and a psychological journey into the very core of one’s emotional firmament. We don’t want to look inside ourselves – we’ve seen the dark thoughts that have consumed us on long summer nights when it’s too hot to sleep; we’ve felt loneliness at the core of ourselves even when surrounded by a crowd of people whom we feel we should feel more affection for; we’re scared of what we’d find if we opened the Pandora’s Box of our minds (yes, there’s metaphorical ‘hope’ at the bottom but think of all the crap one has to get past to get there) – and we certainly don’t want to be responsible for making other people look inside themselves: asking probing emotional questions that cut to the heart of the questionee’s lifestyle and choices makes the questioner seem a. overly familiar, b. loaded with an ulterior motive, c. generally weird, or d. all of the above. And so, questions of happiness or unhappiness or, far more likely, the state in-between are not so much ignored as simply not discussed openly. It’s not polite and it’s certainly not British. 

The boy was away from home for the first time having been led along a path – from school to college to university – that he now realised, in the darkness of an October night, he hadn’t chosen and that had been laid in front of him since birth. 

And so, I found it unusual and – for reasons that may or may not become apparent later – significant that this week I was twice asked questions by people that forced me to answer, truthfully, “Yes. Yes, I am happy.” Not only does this represent an anomalous frequency of discussions regarding happiness or potential lack thereof but it comes while I stand on the cusp of an event that – as may or may not become apparent – is significant or at least – to use a less grandiose and more subjective phrase – important to me. Which is why, loath though I am to write a blog post which astute readers will have realised is essentially a lengthy way of saying “I am happy” and focusing entirely on personal matters and the ‘Personal Introspective Adventures of Simon Barron’ (2), I am writing this blog post about the situation in which I currently find myself and its potential significance (or not).

The people he saw on television shows were experiencing the ‘real world’ while he was stuck in a university experience that drifted further and further from the experience he felt he had been promised by friends, teachers, the very television shows he now took fresh advice from. He’d never had a job; never done the 9-to-5 thing; never not been in education. 

On Monday, a colleague at work – a colleague with whom interactions had previously been brief and transitory extending no further than jokes in the staff room – asked if this job was what I wanted to do. In that moment, it seemed strange and – horror of horrors! – uncool to say that I love my job and that I love where I am in my life. My social instinct told me that the more socially appropriate response was to complain: to say, ‘No, this isn’t perfect’; to say that I’d rather be an astronaut or a well-paid soccer player or a tall doctor; or to say any myriad number of responses that would leave me less emotionally vulnerable than the truth. But I didn’t say those things. I said, “Er… yeah. Yeah, this is what I want to do. I’ve wanted to work with ebooks and stuff since library school (3). This job is perfect for me. I’m happy here.” It was the truth. I love what I do right now and I love where I work right now and I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I’m perfectly content to organise ejournals and make spreadsheets and be happy to be going into work every morning. At which point my colleague said, “Aww, that’s good” and, on my part due to not knowing in which direction to take the conversation, we returned to our work. I felt I should ask the same question in return but found myself unable to bypass the aforementioned strongly ingrained social conventions against asking such a probing question. (4) 

The boy simply wasn’t having as much fun as people said he would or should be having and so, being scared and confused and alone, he decided to run. To run all the way home. 

Later this week, I was having a text conversation with a friend about the future and assorted life stuff: the kind of conversation that, in my experience, is easier, less personally uncomfortable, and much more enjoyable, over SMS text message (5). As I considered the future and my plans for the next few months, I felt so excited and so exhilarated. In terms of career, career development, future plans, possible life changes, and so on and so forth, everything seems to be in a perfect position. Like an alignment of the planets, this seems incredibly rare: that everything should be almost entirely as I want it to be. Again, I was forced to say that I’m happy. 

On that night in Halifax Hall in Sheffield, the boy decided to drop out of university and find a new path. It was, at the time, the biggest decision of his life and, more importantly, a real decision: a binary decision that he could either make or not make. A fork in the road. “Two roads [diverging] in a yellow wood…” A choice. A real choice. That he alone could make. 

How many times in life does one have the opportunity to see the outcome of a single choice? Life is such a network of different choices and decisions and events-that-we-have-no-control-over that everything becomes so mixed up and complicated that we can’t see which choice led to which path and why. Life is complicated and messy and beautiful and it’s a tapestry made of threads so closely woven that we usually can’t follow one thread from beginning to end. 

Next week, I’m returning to Halifax Hall to deliver a presentation on a subject that I care about deeply to an audience of my professional peers, many of whom I already know me from positive online interactions, and I will get to return to that building where I made that terrifying decision knowing, with as much certainty as I ever have about anything, that I made the right decision: that that decision – made under unhappy circumstances in 2005 in a small student bedroom – led me down a path that led to other places and other people and other decisions that led me to a point where I am happy with the present and excited about the future and that that decision was, unequivocally and absolutely, the start of the chain of cause and effect that has led me right back to the geographic location where the decision was made. I honestly never expected to go back to Halifax Hall: to that building in which I spent so many lonely nights as a teenager. How often does one get to see the consequences of decisions contrasted with such pristine clarity against the backdrop of the decisions themselves? How often does one get to see oneself utterly vindicated after 7 long years? 

My presentation is called ‘The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things’: a title I proposed months before I learned the venue of the conference and its personal significance. Which I guess is the crux of this blog post: that the circumstance in which the presentation will be delivered serves to remind me of the presentation’s central premise which also happens to be the seemingly simple belief that is, notwithstanding and despite its simplicity, the only belief that I hold with any kind of certainty. 

What comes before determines what comes after. And therefore everything is connected. 

(1) Which, ironically, most other pop-psychology-savvy human beings would take as indicative of a distinct lack of happiness and/or personal fulfilment in a kind of denial-slash-wish-fulfilment kind of way. 

(2) Loath partly because I fear it is of no interest to anyone apart from myself and partly because writing about oneself seems at best lazy and at worst indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder. Or indeed may cause readers to attribute to me the denial-slash-wish-fulfilment kind of thing alluded to in footnote (1). (2a) 

(2a) To be honest, in writing the post, the purpose of the writing became less a case of sharing this personal story and more a case of experimenting with sentence structure. Style over substance. 

(3) Folk at library school called me ‘Simon ‘ebooks’ Barron’. A true story that makes me sound like the biggest nerd in library school: a not inconsiderable achievement given the aggregate personality characteristics of the average attendees of a library school.

(4) Footnote outside the main narrative flow of the text: It further seems significant that while writing this blog post and, as custom dictates, flicking between Twitter, Facebook, et al., I saw a Facebook status update from Adrienne ‘sphericalfruit’ Cooper which I hope she won’t mind me pasting verbatim here: “I LOVE MY JOB!” 

(5) SMS also allows one to consider one’s responses and only send the, as it were, cream of the crop thus making one appear more intelligent and articulate than one would appear if the conversation were happening ‘live’.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The implications of FRBR for e-resource management

FRBR is a framework for organising materials in librarianship and, as the first formal codification of ontological principles in bibliography, it’s a useful tool to apply to a range of bibliographic issues. FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) was published in 1998 as an attempt to define the relationships between books (and other materials). Basically it presents a description of how the bibliographic universe is arranged (1) and can therefore be used to work out how to organise materials within a library. FRBR says that: 
a work “is realised through [an] expression [which] is embodied in [a] manifestation, [which] is exemplified by [an] item.” 
IFLA, 2009, Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records

Confusing. One of the best visualisations of FRBR is this one by Thomas ‘orangeaurochs’ Meehan. 

The arrangement of print books is a major preoccupation for librarians: it involves shelving arrangements, classification schemes, day-to-day shelving and straightening, and even architectural design. As E-resources Co-ordinator at Durham University Library, I’m more preoccupied by how to arrange electronic resources and lately I’ve been considering what implications FRBR has for e-resource management. E-resources are ethereal – if they can be said to ‘reside’ at all (2), they do so in a loose network of data connections, servers, and user terminals – but they still need to be arranged and organised and it’s the responsibility of e-resource librarians to consider how best to do this to meet their users’ needs. 

A quick note on defining ‘e-resources’: I’m sort of using the word interchangeably with ‘e-resource records’ since that’s what I actually arrange. We don’t host any ebooks or ejournals on our servers so all I organise are catalogue records and links to external material. By ‘e-resource records’, I mean records for ejournals, ebooks, and databases. 

There are several ways to arrange electronic resources. The catalogue record (or bib record) is the main digital presence of an e-resource: it provides all the data on that resource in the form of a MARC record to AACR2 standard (3). The first way of managing electronic resource links is to add the URL directly into the bib record using the 856 field which, on Durham’s OPAC, then appears like this: 

The advantages of this arrangement are: simplicity; keeping all your data in one place; everything can be done within the LMS’ cataloguing module. 

Another method is to use a separate ERM (Electronic Resource Management) module and to store ERM data separately from the bib records. At Durham, we keep a large coverage database which contains a limited amount of information about every e-resource: which provider they belong to, the title of the item, a unique identifier (ISSN, ISBN, control no.), and – most importantly – a URL. The LMS then creates checkin records which are automatically attached to the appropriate bib records (4). These two records – the bib and the checkin – together form a complete e-resource record and display to the user like this: 

Though more complicated, this method has distinct advantages over the 856 method. Most importantly, the coverage database is the data used by our OpenURL link resolver software which makes resources more discoverable for users. This method also allows us to specify multiple sources for a single e-resource (5): if, for example, the ejournal Analysis is available at more than one website, we simply attach multiple checkin records to a single bib record like so: 

It would be possible to have multiple 856 fields but they wouldn’t display as nicely and, as mentioned, wouldn’t feed into the OpenURL software. 

Other methods for e-resource management are available. If you’re feeling crazy, you can use 856s and coverage together but the result is messy and redundant (6): 

Paul Otlet, the co-creator of the Mundaneum, was a visionary figure in bibliographic thought: he was one of the first thinkers to conceive knowledge as a ‘web’ – a networked knowledge system as opposed to the hierarchical knowledge systems predominant in epistemology and LIS. The foundation of Otlet’s philosophy is that the arrangement of documents mirrors the arrangement of the world. By arranging documents in a certain way, we create a mirror of the abstract world of the ideas expressed in those documents. 

“Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory.” 
Paul Otlet, 1935, Monde, essai d'universalisme: 
connaissance du monde, sentiment du monde, action organisée et plan du monde

In considering electronic resource management, my preoccupation is how best to reflect the world as it actually exists. As well as being an intellectual puzzle, I think asking how to arrange resources in a logical and commonsensical way is the best means of helping users find materials and understand the arrangement of a library catalogue. Catalogue arrangement should reflect the world with which the users are familiar. This requires us to consider the ontology of e-resources and it’s where FRBR comes in handy. 

The first question is ‘what kind of entity is an e-resource?’. Based on the coverage method that Durham uses, an e-resource record is two separate blocks of data knitted together – the bib record and the coverage. FRBR defines an item as a singular entity and so arguably it would be more accurate to keep all the data for an e-resource in one place à la the 856 method. And consider when an e-resource has multiple sources and therefore multiple coverage entries: for example, an ebook that is available on both MyiLibrary and Cambridge Books Online. As copies of the same publication, they seem to be the same manifestation but since they have different digital presences they seem to be different items (7). Therefore they should probably be kept separate but linked in the catalogue: does the method of separate coverage reflect this or should they have completely separate bib records? Looming over all this is the question of what counts as an ‘item’ for an e-resource? 

A larger question is the differentiation between print and digital versions of the same work. One of the issues I’ve been considering is whether, in the long-term, print and electronic records should be merged. The technology allows us to do this and, to some extent, encourages it: rather than keep separate bib records for electronic items, we simply attach the coverage checkins to the existing print bib records. This wouldn’t disrupt the OpenURL software and from a certain perspective it would make resources more easily discoverable to the user: if they’re looking for the journal Analysis, it’s easier to have one record which contains information on the print copies and the electronic versions than two records which must be opened separately. 

Using FRBR, do print and electronic versions of the same work count as separate expressions, manifestations, or items? This partly depends on the state of the electronic version: is it a scan of the print version or a separate copy of the text contained therein? My reading of FRBR suggests that print and electronic versions of the same work are different manifestations which means that the bib records should be kept separate to accurately reflect this. This ontology is fairly woolly and so different interpretations are available. 

This discussion leads to much larger questions about the arrangement of library catalogues. Should we try to the mirror the ontological arrangement of the bibliographic universe? Should we do this according to FRBR’s pre-defined ontology or not? The most important questions are: what arrangement is most useful for the library user and what arrangement best reflects the status of reality? And can there be conflicts between the two? 

(1) More precisely, it presents IFLA’s description of how the bibliographic universe is arranged and may not necessarily reflect the views of others. I have philosophical issues with FRBR but this is not the time to discuss them. 

(2) They can't: that’s a category mistake. But in this kind of ontological discussion, the language gets a little fuzzy and I can’t be bothered to perform the linguistic circumlocutions that would make this post 100% philosophically accurate (2a) so I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me for any slip-ups I make later on. 

(2a) It would also make the writing dreadfully academic and dull. The philosophers in the audience know what I’m talking about. 

(3) If you're reading this in 2014, replace 'AACR2' with 'RDA'.Or if you're reading this further in the future, replace 'MARC' with 'RDF' or whatever structure has replaced it.

(4) Ideally. Nowadays I’m pretty good at getting them to attach correctly but occasionally e-resource checkins get attached to print bib records or don’t attach to anything which means I have to go through them and attach them manually. Which gets quite laborious. 

(5) There’s an ontological leap in that sentence but bear with me and I’ll get to it. 

(6) By the end of this week, these multiple-URL records won’t display like that in our OPAC anymore. Call me overly cautious but I didn’t want to delete the URL data for 200,000+ ebooks so I’ve been changing the 856 fields into non-displayed custom 956 fields. It’s a bit inelegant but it makes no difference to the user and saves the data in the bib record for a rainy day. The multiple global updates required for this process have been taking a long time and are, as of publication, ongoing. 

(7) I’m assuming that print versions and digital versions are the same expression. My interpretation is that ‘expression as a text in English’ covers both print and digital text.