It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because I’ve been buying a house and finding it fairly incompatible with writing, or thinking, or remembering to do anything else really. But even though I’ve had to give up most of my brain, I did get a WHOLE HOUSE in return, which seems like an ok deal. And as I prepare to do things I’ve never needed to do before, like buying a lawnmower and choosing carpets, it seems that this roadsign (which genuinely did appear in front of me en route to collecting the keys) may say it all:
Saturday was my first Library Camp, and my first visit to the very lovely Senate House Library at the University of London. As I was on my time, not work’s, I deliberately chose sessions to attend that sounded interesting and/or different, not necessarily the ones most relevant to my day job or where I already had knowledge/expertise. This meant that I a) listened rather more than I talked (for a change) and b) learned a lot. So while I was sad to miss a discussion on open access, how could I pass up the chance to take part in rhyme time???
The first session I went to WAS quite relevant as well as interesting: hidden collections led by Katie Birkwood (@girlinthe) and based on this RLUK report. It’s a huge issue but also one that exists in microcosm in my own library. ‘Hidden’ refers to uncatalogued material, but with increasing user expectations that everything is available online, in terms of perceived accessibility it can also mean non-digitised material. (Or badly catalogued, or in card catalogues…) That’s a lot of hidden stuff! It’s very difficult to make user-focused decisions about what to ‘unhide’ even when the resources are available to do so, because by definition users don’t know what they are missing. Katie has written up this session (and others) very thoroughly already, so I’ll just expand on some small recent developments in this area at BLDS.
1) Since 2010 we’ve been running a government-funded digitisation project working with African and Asian social science research organisations to make their publications available in a digital repository. This is based on our own print holdings of these materials (often the only copies) so it boosts the visibility of our collection as well as the online profile of our partners (we make links in both directions between our catalogue and the repository).
2) We have recently launched our own institutional repository and as we had a small amount of funding to populate it before moving entirely to self-deposit, we were able to select some content to expose/digitise. This has mostly been decided through liaison with research teams, but we’ve also been able to talk to our enquiry/reference/document delivery staff and offer some ‘reactive’ digitisation – ie. a request came in to our document delivery service asking about a project led by our institute in the 1990s, whose outputs we had catalogued but which were not online. Rather than scan them for 1-to-1 document supply we decided to put them online permanently in the repository (we own the copyright) for 1-to-many open access, and they have already been discovered and downloaded multiple times.
Other sessions I attended:
- Radical libraries (pitched by @alicecorble and @librarian)
This was something I chose because I knew nothing about it, and it was really instructive (about a range of socially important projects) and thought-provoking (about the definition of a library, a librarian, a profession). As Alan Wylie said in the session (great to have him there), all libraries and librarians are ‘radical’ – it’s a radical concept – but this is something that gets lost in institutional structures (and is actively under attack at the moment), so as ever the really exciting work happens autonomously and on the margins. I think it’s important to make the distinction between ‘community’ libraries where volunteers have effectively been forced to fill a gap left in public provision, and proactive voluntary libraries with a political mission (often created by professionals in their spare time). These are some of the libraries we talked about: the Feminist Library, Street Books, Radical Reference, A47 mobile library. This session also caught the interest of some of my non-library friends following remotely on Twitter, and it was great to see the famous Itinerant Poetry Library in action, ink stamps and all!
- How do you solve a problem like… the printed book? aka collaborative monograph management (pitched by @davidclover)
This probably isn’t something that would affect my own work directly, as we were discussing how large (national/HE/research) libraries might approach weeding and physical stock management collaboratively, doing for monographs what the UK Research Reserve does for journals. But it was really interesting to unpack some of the barriers to this (which seemed to multiply the more we talked about it!) and to get a British Library perspective from Stella (@miss_wisdom) and Andrew (@generalising).
- Rhyme time (pitched by @spoontragedy)
Not a session about rhyme time, but an actual rhyme time, complete with singing, clapping, jumping around, puppets, toys and parachute! I used to go to these sessions at Seaford Library all the time when my daughter was little(r), and it was a great way to get out of the house, into the warm, occupy the sprogs and meet other parents. (And borrow books of course!) I’d never really considered that it could be mood-enhancing and beneficial for grown-ups in child-unrelated ways, but I did feel energised, happy and more comfortable in my body and in the group once it was over – a perfect mid-afternoon diversion. Linsey and Jodie also had practical tips for running sessions (applicable to other group/kids events too) and we talked about it being one of the most popular services that public libraries provide, and why.
- Librarians and personality (pitched by @rosiehare and @preater)
No library event would be complete without a bit of navel gazing, and this was a packed session that made me want to discover more about personality types and especially the way that individuals and organisations can use them productively (rather than seeing things like ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ as fixed categories or merely fodder for an online quiz in an idle hour.) It was great to hear from the managers in the group who had taken on board ways of working that fitted with the personalities of their staff, and also to talk about personality traits that were suited to librarianship (the stereotype and the reality). One trait that did stand out for me (first mentioned by @sarahwolfenden) was empathy – whether you’re a coder, a cataloguer, a subject librarian or a circulation assistant you need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the user.
Speaking of personality, I will admit to being slightly apprehensive about the unconference format, being a typical introverted cataloguer who thrives on structure and pre-planning, but I got at least as much out of it as any traditional conference and felt less drained at the end of it too. The best thing for me (not counting the fabulous crowd-sourced lunch feast!) was mixing with people from other types of jobs, libraries and sectors, which doesn’t often happen at formal events structured around a sector or a professional role/area. For example I almost never get to share ideas with public library staff (other than my sister!), but they were really well-represented here, and full of ideas and professionalism and enthusiasm despite the massive cuts that are hitting their sector harder than any other.
Last night’s Lewes Skeptics in the Pub talk was the first one where I felt that some of my own beliefs (or at least lived experiences) were going to be challenged, as I attended a Steiner school for four years and have mostly positive feelings about it.
Andy Lewis is clearly a very good and thorough writer, presenter and rational thinker. But like most persuasive skeptical speakers he has some tricks up his sleeve – the main one employed in his talk last night being the cherry-picking of the most extreme and nonsensical viewpoints espoused by Rudolf Steiner and his followers. I do think it is important to scrutinise Steiner’s writings, especially his views on the spiritual hierarchy of different racial groups, and to note that there is no empirical basis for most anthroposophical beliefs/approaches (aka they are INSANE). However I don’t agree that Steiner’s views constitute damning evidence against Steiner schools. Many philosophers and scientists in the early part of the twentieth century wrote and believed things that seem fanciful, outrageous or plain wrong today. Disciplines and movements based on the thinking of one individual are not bound forever to every word that individual wrote. This doesn’t excuse Steiner but we shouldn’t conflate the man (then) with the movement (today).
Lewis also quotes from a Steiner academy FAQ that admits ‘some teachers may believe in reincarnation’, but this is hardly controversial in itself. Statistically, some state school teachers must believe in it too, as do approximately 900 million Hindus worldwide. State Church of England schools may teach the existence of heaven and hell, Catholic schools may teach the literal truth of transubstantiation. Even the most mainstream, standardized state education is not based on rigorous scientific principles. As most state school teachers will tell you, it is driven by methodological fashions, policy based on flawed or partial research, and arbitrary targets set by politicians, with very little reference to what we know about child development. None of this means that Steiner schools should NOT be critically examined, it’s just that a lot of the criteria for ‘failing’ this examination would see other forms of schooling fail as well.
The focus on Steiner schools is admittedly timely since they have been approved to participate in Michael Gove’s Free School programme, although personally I have a bigger problem with my taxes paying for actual faith schools (eg. 4000+ Church of England schools and 2000+ Catholic schools) than with non-denominational ‘spiritual’ schools becoming academies. And as a parent my biggest worry about Free Schools is that the standard of teaching will be even more patchy than it is in the current state system. But Lewis does make the very fair point that Steiner schools seem especially ill-prepared for state integration and the greater scrutiny that will bring.
Speaking of scrutiny, Lewis believes there is an endemic lack of openness in anthroposophical enterprises and schools, citing the evasiveness of Steiner teachers he has spoken to about the extent of their belief in Steiner principles, and Steiner’s own suggestions to deliberately tone down hardcore anthroposophy/religion when talking to parents and visitors etc. This is definitely worrying, but it’s a claim that is hard for the Waldorf school movement to counter. (Not that it is prepared to try, officially – its policy is not to engage with critical bloggers, which in itself looks damning from Lewis’s perspective.) Many audience members last night protested ‘but they have been open with me’. The response was that they only seemed to be open and in fact were presenting a misleading facade. Lewis has never visited a Steiner school, which he defends by saying that a visit wouldn’t tell him what he wants to know – the facade would be in place. He is quite possibly right, but there is still a massive methodological issue with deciding what you’re going to find before you find it. It sets up a Catch 22 trap for any defender of the Steiner school cause: if you reject scrutiny you have confirmed you have something to hide, but if you appear to allow it you won’t be believed.
Overall it was still an important debate to have, and more interesting in some ways than ones which simply reiterate that no, water (aka homeopathy) can’t cure cancer. The very problem with evaluating whole education systems (ie their rightness or wrongness is not really subject to empirical testing using the scientific method) is also what keeps the discussion open. And it’s to Andy Lewis’s credit that he was able to maintain a civil, enlightening and rational conversation even when under attack by articulate, intelligent but vocally partisan sections of the audience.
*Spoken by Vladimir in ‘Waiting for Godot’, Act 1 (paraphrasing Proverbs 13:12)
I’ve been thinking about what it means to wait, lately. In my writing life there’s a lot of waiting between entering competitions/submitting to magazines and the time when I find out if I’ve been placed/had work accepted. Almost always the news is bad (or more accurately there is no news, which is the same as bad news). In my personal life I’m currently waiting for the purchase of my first home to go through, which is a whole new order of anxious anticipation. And in my work life there is a constant (if less proximate) uncertainty about the future.
When all of these types of waiting converged recently I started to feel slightly crazy, and being a librarian/nerd I decided to head for the academic literature (well Google Scholar) to see if there was any psychology behind the state of waiting for news that could help me understand what I was going through (or at least massively distract me from the lack of phones ringing or emails arriving).
There’s quite a bit in the medical journals about a) waiting times for surgery/treatment and b) waiting in waiting rooms, and how they affect patients and the reputation of health services, but luckily none of the waiting I am doing at the moment falls into this category. There’s also a whole literature about the expectation or anticipation of pain and how this can affect behaviour, which does somewhat tie in to behaviour when waiting for bad news. Getting closer. I eventually found a fascinating book by sociologist Douglas W. Maynard, Bad news, good news: conversational order in everyday talk and clinical settings. Maynard describes the ‘interruptive and sometimes utterly disruptive feature of getting and giving news’ (bad or good) which represents a breakdown in the taken-for-granted everyday world (p. 4). This is why people have what’s known as ‘flashbulb memories’ of major life events (whether personal or public) meaning they can vividly recall the circumstances in which they heard the news.
But what about the condition of waiting for news, Douglas? Ah yes it turns out that in phenomenological terms, I’m going through a ‘noetic crisis’. This means that as the anticipation of expected news becomes acute, I experience cognitive disorientation and am unable to assemble sensory impressions (‘noemata’) into a coherent object. In other words, stuff gets weird. Clock time may appear to contract or expand, many alternative scenarios (or ‘imaginative rehearsals’) may rush through my mind, I may hear phantom phones ringing, feel suspended in time, or feel detached from reality as though watching a film. Basically I experience the world as unreal and indeterminate until the other shoe drops and I receive the awaited news.
You could I think read Waiting for Godot as the ultimate dramatic expression of this kind of thing, if you were so inclined. It certainly explains why I’m not very productive at the moment. To quote Beckett again, there’s nothing to be done, except go back to obsessively checking my email.
In February I took over our digitisation project and since then we’ve signed up six new partner institutes and met our target of 1500 full-text documents in the Digital Library – three months ahead of schedule.
In October we launched the other ‘wing’ of DSpace, our own institutional repository. We were expecting to do a lot of outreach and hand-holding and move gradually towards self-deposit, and yes we still have a long way to go to achieve systematic usage across the institute, BUT we have also had spontaneous self-deposit from several academics and their administrators, and plenty of interest from almost every research team.
I personally feel as though I’ve come a long way from the awkward cataloguer who couldn’t speak in meetings without blushing and was plagued on a daily basis by impostor syndrome. I’ve made decisions, presented at meetings, delivered training, written policies, done some guest blogging, presented at my first conference and had an article published.
And it seems fitting to end the year by adding that article, in which I presume to pass on the wisdom gleaned during the transition to my new role, to the repository: Trigger’s cataloguer: professional development by default.
* yes I did, I just quoted Cliff Richard in a post title. What of it?