Knowledge Cafe Reflections – Proving a Research Service’s Value

Last night was an evening of firsts and lasts. I attended my first ever Knowledge Cafe with David Gurteen and Allan Foster thanks to SLA Europe, ASLIB and the International New York Times. Sadly, it was also my last event as SLA Europe’s events committee chair (I’m stepping down as next year I’m taking on the role of SLA Europe’s president-elect). It is the Knowledge Cafe that I would like to reflect on here though.


As it was my first cafe-style event, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The concept is really rather simple though – an idea or question is floated to the room, and in groups of 3-4 people, this idea is discussed, debated and dissected for approximately 10 minutes. The groups are then rotated, and the discussion begins again.


Our question last night was something along the lines of how do you justify to a sceptical manager that the work your library and research service undertakes is required and justified (the exact wording escapes me). As I cycled through the groups, many practical solutions were put forward for specific situations, and these started to be collated together into broader headings:

- using metrics – prove your worth through stats and financial figures

- reputational risk – if the library service isn’t available to fact check, who will? Would you need to hire someone anyway to fulfil the same role, but less effectively?

- if it gets to the stage where the question is being asked, then really it is too late. One needs to be visible and prove their worth constantly, not wait until the point that it is questioned.

Some of the most interesting points during these discussions came from vendors that were attending the evening (publishing houses, professional membership organisations, and database providers). They are used to hard-selling, dealing with numbers and justifying purchases, so some great tips were gained from these interactions. It also reinforced how too often in the information profession we only talk to librarians, as opposed to encouraging vendor-librarian discussion. We’ve a lot to learn from each other.

Following the group stage, the room came together for a larger discussion of the points that had been mooted. Here, two additional thoughts resonated with me – ensuring that you are speaking the same language as the person you are justifying yourself to (ie. If they are the CFO, use figures), and to get the buy-in of partners/key stakeholders in advance of meetings. Don’t just expect to be able to drop your biggest users into a meeting and ask them to support you and your service without warning. Always speak to them in advance, and make sure they agree with what you would like them to back you up on.

A few other points were also made throughout the evening:

- often you have only 5 minutes of a senior manager’s time. Be sure to put your key points across first in case your meeting gets cut short.

- whilst having a bank of enquiries to draw on is useful for high level meeting prep, make sure all your staff are well versed in the value that your service provides to the firm. A chance encounter in a lift may mean that your senior manager speaks to another member of your team before you. Ensure that they can sell what you do just as well as you can.

The café was a great way to share ideas, and a refreshing change from a PowerPoint presentation. Thank you to David and Allan for giving up their time to come and run it for us, and to the International New York Times for sponsoring the evening!


Re-thinking “To Do” Lists

This week, I’ve been putting some of the final touches to a webinar that I’m going to be delivering alongside John DiGilio. We’ll be discussing productivity tools. The challenge of selecting the key sites, apps and technology to discuss in our webinar got me thinking about my own productivity. Whilst I use all the tools that I’m going to discuss, just how productive am I on a daily basis?

The main problem that I come up against is exemplified in my blog. Prior to this post, my last entry was way back in May. At first thoughts, this makes me feel like I’ve been rather unproductive. I haven’t kept on top of my writing. Or have I?

In the months in between, I haven’t been unproductive, I’ve just been rather busy. The SLA Events Committee of which I am chair held some high profile events, I spoke at the SLA annual Conference and the BIALL annual conference, and I have written a paper with Marie Cannon for Legal Information Management.  

Whilst the blog has been dormant, it isn’t for want of not undertaking the same kind of activity. My writing and reflection have continued, but in different forums. I have learned to classify activities not by the place in which they occur, but rather by the type of activity that I’m undertaking. This has meant that I haven’t felt weighed down by the constant need to blog, as I know that I’ve fulfilled my writing needs elsewhere.

To encourage a sense of achievement and keep up CPD related morale, I would therefore encourage people not to look at tasks they need to do through the medium in which they will complete them, but rather to look what you are doing in a broader category. To better illustrate this, I’ve illustrated how a to-do list might therefore differ:

List One – Organised by Medium

- write a blog post

- go to the gym

- play squash

- finish drafting an article

- catch up on “committee A” admin

- catch up on “committee B” admin

List Two – Organised by Activity Category

- creative writing/CPD related writing

- exercise

- admin

Whilst the second list therefore wouldn’t actually remind you what you needed to do for each category, hopefully it would keep up motivation by feeling like you had accomplished more on the list, rather than seeing an endless list of unfinished tasks.

All of this of course also ties in to prioritising tasks, and making sure important deadlines are met etc. but hopefully taking stock of all that you do will decrease any stress related to other tasks that may drop off your radar for a short time. Of course it is also important to remember that the amount on your to-do list should only be the right amount of work for you – not anyone else!

Thoughts on Distance Learning and the BIALL Legal Foundations Course

Last year I received a bursary to cover the cost of taking the BIALL Legal Foundations Course, previously known as Law for Law Librarians I believe. This has meant that from October 2012 through to this month, I have been listening to one law lecture a week, and completed a series of questions based on the content covered. Below are some thoughts on my experiences (although I do still have one lecture left to take!).

The course is all run remotely, gone are the days where the lecture was held at Westminster Uni on a Monday night. There was an initial (non-mandatory) meeting in London for those taking the course to meet in person, but other than that all interaction has been via BlackBoard through the University’s student portal. The experience has therefore been unlike any course that I have taken before. I’m used to seeing lecturers in person, and whilst I’ve had plenty of experience with WebEx meetings, simply seeing a slide on my screen and listening to a recorded lecture alongside it is a rather different experience. Having said that, some lecturers did make good use of technology, and had uploaded a video of themselves giving the lecture alongside their slides – something that I found to be much more preferable than an audio only option with a slide deck. Perhaps other course attendees haven’t found it quite a strange as I have, but part of me might have preferred an online “live” lecture on a specific weekday night for a couple of hours. Obviously, going back to the old format where all lectures were in person once a week is not an option as it severely limits the ability of those outside of London to attend the course.

As mentioned above, every week a new lecture is released, providing a basic grounding in a different area of law, ranging from Banking Law through to Immigration and Human Rights. The lectures have varied radically in length – the longest clocking in at over 3 hours, where as the shortest was around 55 minutes. Thankfully, all the lectures can be paused – one of the joys of online education that wouldn’t come with a “live” lecture! When allowing time to answer and complete the exercises, the time commitment connected to each lecture becomes relatively substantial on top of a busy working week.

Once a lecture opens, it is accessible for a period of 4 weeks, meaning that if you do not have time to complete it one week then you can always come back to it a bit later (although by then you will have two to catch up on!). I have taken this approach a number of times, as I have found with other commitments (SLA etc) I simply haven’t had time to complete the lecture during my weekday evenings. Sunday therefore quickly became BIALL LFC day, and has remained as such for the last few months. It is something to bear in mind when signing up though – if you aren’t able to complete exercises during your working day (I don’t imagine many people can), then you will need to make sure that you have a good allotment of time set aside each week to do so.

Over all though, whilst it will never live up to a lecture in person, the online system works well, especially considering the people it is targeting. It is all well and good me wishing that I could go along in person, or sign in once a week at a set time to listen and interact with the lecturer, but when push comes to shove, the flexibility of pre-recorded lectures comes out on top. When you also factor in the additional people that can attend the course remotely (one attendee is in the US), it really does begin to make sense.

So, having harped on about the structure, what about the content? Firstly, I’ll deal with the target audience. The course states that it is aimed at those with 1 year’s experience in law libraries. Personally, I think this description should be changed to those that are just starting out. If you can do the course straight away, do so. Whilst I’m still new, some material would have been useful to me earlier on, and some other material I was already familiar with through my day to day work (content in the EU lectures, and introduction to the English Legal System for example).

The course gives a good overall grounding in the basics of different areas of law, and spreads the topic areas out nicely. Whilst in my current role I am not going to be referring to Family Law, but it is good to know that I’ve got a basic understanding, just in case. Similarly, having covered the ‘academic’ side to Company Law, it has put some of the research I carry out into context. No course you ever seem completely applicable to your current role straight away, but education is about a commitment to your future, and that is what the course provides. A strong grounding to build upon.

It is also important to remember that the course does not teach you how to be a law librarian. It is simply a grounding in the basic principles of different areas of law – it doesn’t explain the nuances of the EU’s legislative observatory for example, or the many failings of The grounding provided will feed into your research though (it has already helped with some enquiries) and will hopefully provide an additional level of confidence and guidance when starting a complex query. You will find that aspects of your role such as reference interviews will become easier, All in all, whilst I enjoyed some lectures more than others, I would definitely recommend the course to anyone who was starting out in law librarianship and looking to get a wide, basic understanding in key areas.

The content covered (loosely): an introduction to the English Legal System, Tort, Contract, Sale of Goods, Criminal, Employment, EU, Immigration, Human Rights, Wills and Probate, Civil Procedure, Family, IP, Media, Land, Company Law, Finance & Banking

PS. Thank you again to the BIALL Awards and Bursaries Committee for funding my place on the course.

Collaborative Events

I would like to briefly highlight the importance of two different types of collaborative events, and the benefits they bring to the library and information profession.

1) Libcampldn

Last month I attended Library Camp at Senate House library – #libcampldn. This was my third unconference experience – the first being at SLA 2011 in Philadelphia (the Legal Division ran an unconference session) and the second was Library Camp in Birmingham two years ago.

Sometimes at events there can be a certain sense of impending gloom, especially at the moment with the library world facing tough times. I was pleased to come away from the day feeling energised, content and felt I had learned quite a bit!

There have been numerous posts all over the place covering the nitty gritty of sessions (see the #libcampldn wiki for a collated list of them) so I won’t go into depth regarding anything I attended. Instead, I want to stick with a broad view about the importance of this kind of cross sector event in which anyone and everyone is encourage to contribute.

Libcampldn was open to all; library workers, information staff, knowledge workers – whatever you or your job title refers to you as. This meant views were challenged, and view points were put forward from people at all stages of their career providing a fresh outlook at the sector.

On the day though, I was surprised that I didn’t see a few more people from the “Corporate” world. There were some health librarians in attendance, and a few “unusual” library locations (librarians without libraries for instance), but the majority of attendees were from academic or public libraries. A lot of the conversation was therefore had a different approach to what is experienced in most events I go to. This was extremely refreshing, and an excellent way to reconnect to the wider profession and avoid ideas and viewpoints from becoming institutionalised! All you corporate librarians out there – we’re not so different to academic and public libraries, so come along to the next one!

2) CLSIG, BIALL and SLA Europe Graduate Open Day

My experience of the graduate open day was very different to the unconference – mainly because I was presenting, and sadly was unable to stay for the whole day. What I want to highlight from the event is the importance of seeing three professional organisations come together to put on a great day for recent graduates (or those interested in working in “special” libraries). I very much understand the problems in organising events between associations, but this was very worthwhile. If a rise in collaboration between organisations will be seen is something to watch – obviously there are a lot of challenges to overcome, but the open day is a great step forward.

The two events provide two types of collaboration – one at grass level with participants shaping and guiding the way, the other showing how organisational collaboration can run a great event. All in all, both are a reminder of what a great sector the information world is, and the excellent breadth of events out there.


CLSIG, BIALL and SLA Europe Graduate Open Day

This year has been a busy one so far, much to the detriment of my blog. I’m sorry to say that it has been pushed to the bottom of the priority list whilst other commitments occupied my time. Having just spoken at the CLSIG, BIALL and SLA Europe Graduate Open Day, I thought it high time to dust off my blogging skills and put together a few notes on what I said at the event. The slides for my presentation will be hosted on the CLSIG website soon I believe. Once they are up, I’ll link to them from here.

My presentation was entitled “Library Success in About 10 Slides”. The idea was that corporate PowerPoints can be rather dull, so I tried to make as little use of the slides as possible. As one of my “about 10 slides” was the title I decided that I had better get going after this.

Slide two was a potted history of my career to date, moving from the world of a history graduate in the height of the recession through to the current day chartered librarian that I am. Along the way I stopped off to mention volunteering and gaining work experience in various institutions to help decide what area of librarianship I wanted to focus on (it turned out law was the one for me). I also included a brief mention of my Librarianship MA and the route I took into my current “fully qualified” librarian role.

Having established who I was and therefore why I was talking to a room full of graduate trainees and new professionals, slide three summarised what I was actually going to talk to the attendees about. Law libraries were pretty well represented on the day with two other corporate law librarians and one academic law librarian, so rather than a “day in the life of a law librarian”, I instead tried to pull together my opinions on the skills that a new graduate needs, how to go about getting them, and finally a few ways to then promote yourself so that employers know that you have said skills.

Slide three came with a caveat. I took time to stress that my presentation and points therein are all derived from my own personal experiences. There are many different routes into librarianship, and many different experiences to be had. Mine is but one of these, and what is right for one person may be wrong for another. As with life, take it with a pinch of salt.

Slide four aimed to make special library jobs more approachable. I have been asked in the past how I got into law librarianship, and the simple answer is, I applied for a job in a law library (I’m not being facetious, honest). The point to this is that it is not much different to applying for a job in an academic or public library setting. I’ve tried to explain myself below.

I view skill sets as having two sides – core skill sets and applied skill sets. Core skills are those that any and all librarian or information professional will have. They may be at various levels (ie basic cataloguing as opposed to advanced hardcore cataloguing), but they will be there in some form. Acquired skills are those that often you will pick up in a role; experience of database X and Y for example. Many job applications will state these acquired skills as a requirement, but do not let this put you off applying for roles. Simply identify them as an acquired skill, and strip it back to its core. Maybe you have parts of the required skill? Database use may consist of information literacy, and the ability to use advanced search techniques. State that whilst you don’t have direct experience of Database X, you have used others similar, and have good core Information Literacy skills (but do back up with examples).

There will always be core skills, and there will be those that are more specified. Once you’ve identified the core skills required, you can work to build the acquired ones, often on the job. Employers are willing to train up new employees if they have a strong ground work, so show that you do! This hopefully explained how one can then approach breaking the illustration that I included on slide 5 – a deadly circle of not having experience so can’t get a job, to, haven’t got a job so I can’t get experience.

I also touched on volunteering to build up core skills, either through work experience schemes or volunteering on committees.

At this point, attendees were asked to have a chat to one another to identify what they perceived as core skills, and what might be classed as an acquired skill. Slide 6 summarised these points as such (note, this list isn’t exhaustive or comprehensive!):

Research Skills
Information Management
IT literacy
Team skills
Current awareness skills

Legal knowledge/research
Commercial knowledge
Product specific knowledge
Understanding of cost information

Slide 7, 8 and 9 provided a few quotes provided by members of the legal information sector around the world (US, Australia, UK, Europe) about the skills and attributes that they would look for in a new professional when hiring. The idea of this was to highlight that none of the skills or attributes looked for acquired skills, all were core skills and a strong base to work with.

Attributes in a New Graduate
“Enthusiasm, a fresh set of eyes, up-to-date digital skills, new ideas”

“Drive to achieve and progress”

“Open to new ways of thinking and doing things”

“A natural curiosity”

Skills in a New Graduate
“Eagerness to learn”


“Good grasp of general knowledge”

“Shows initiative”

“People skills and can quickly build a rapport”

I also popped in a contentious quote from one respondent; they were looking for “cheaper labour”. Please note, this isn’t cheap, but cheaper. The recession is still biting, and it might be cheaper for an employer to hire someone with less experience and train them up rather than hire an experienced information professional at a higher salary.

Finally, slide 10 covered a few ways that you can stand out on your CV and broaden the range of that you can talk about at interviews. I briefly covered blogging, and was pleased to see many people already had blogs. Tweeting (sensibly if from a named account) was also recommended, and getting involved in things such as #uklibchat. Both are great for showing current awareness. Finally, I stressed that all graduate trainees and new entrants to the profession should ask to get involved. There is so much going on in the profession that it can be daunting, so I have found grabbing onto something and getting stuck in to work wonders. If you wait around for someone to ask you to join a committee, how will people know to approach you? Put up your hand and ask to help out. Committees are always after more help!

Similarly, applying for conference and course bursaries is a great way to help kick start your career. I’ve been lucky enough to win the SLA ECCA to travel to the SLA Annual Conference in Philadelphia, the CLIG bursary to attend the BIALL conference in Belfast, a BIALL bursary to fund the Legal Foundations Course, and am going to my second SLA conference in San Diego this year thanks a generous bursary from the SLA Legal Division. There are loads of opportunities out there, and spending a little time to apply for them really is worth while.

Finally, as it was “about” 10 slides, for numbers 11 and 12, I popped up the practice name and invited questions.

Do Librarians Dream of Electric Books?

At a recent get-together I was trying to work out which major Sci-Fi movies and books have made the transition from far-fetched dreams to everyday reality, and which of these now affect how I carry out my day to day work. For instance, I realised that whilst Star Trek’s prediction of automatic doors has not dramatically altered my life*, others have. Using physical gestures to control a computer are now part and parcel of living room gaming, and voice control via Apple’s Siri and Android is making great progress, even if it still has trouble understanding some of my more basic requests. Massive computer networks have been realised through the Internet’s development, and whilst Skynet hasn’t yet become self aware *yet*, we are able to upload documents to “the cloud” and access them all over the world.

And yet, I do not know of many current sci-fi predictions for several generations time. What I read in the tech development sections of the news is usually devoted to the latest smartphone advancements, or an IP infringement on an existing technology. Sci-fi writing seems content to picture a bleak apocalyptic future – I’m yet to come across a work where by any ideas are put forward that make me think “ooh, futuristic… That’ll never happen though, but it would be cool if it did.

The closest I have come to major advancements and reality was as a teenager playing MGS2 encountering the idea of nanobots and their applications. But even here, this technology is now starting to come into practice – what I’m really looking for are predictions way down the line, not just a few years.

Perhaps there are many problems here. Maybe, I’m simply looking in the wrong literature, or watching the wrong, standard Hollywood blockbusters, rather than obscure indy films? Maybe I’ve been tricked into that Victorian mindset of thinking everything worth inventing has been invented? Maybe the information industry has had all of its major revelations for this generation? The Internet combined with hardware advancements has proved to be a massive game changer that many are still struggling to come to terms with. From a librarian’s point of view, these two things alone have amended the ways in which it is possible to interact with, visualise and adapt data. Maybe I should be content with making the most of what current advancements have given us?

After all, there is no shortage of users who need help using their latest gadgets, suppliers who need to be badgered about making their content user friendly, or data that can be visualised in a new, innovative way.

And whilst I love playing around with the latest developments that the information world is able to produce or adapt, part of me still longs to ponder what sci-fi, the news or scientific press can predict for 50-100 years down the line. It is here that I’m just not seeing anything, and that makes my inner geek sad.

If you have any thoughts on what may be the future of data, libraries and technology 50-150 years down the line, or can point me to a good sci-fi book that was written recently, please do let me know. Alternatively, please share your story on how Sci-Fi predicted developments have altered your day to day work.

*with the exception of being able to carry more bags from the supermarket to my house without having to open an extra set of doors

Touring the Wellcome Library

*please note, the information below is what I have been able to remember from my tour, during which I didn’t make any notes. An inaccuracies are due to my memory!*


On Thursday evening I attended a tour of the Wellcome Library. This is owned by the Wellcome Trust, an extremely influential charity supporting biomedical research. The Trust was originally set up by Sir Henry Wellcome, a man who amongst other things (such as hoarding and collecting pretty much anything that interested him) managed to perfect pill making. The Trust has managed Henry Wellcome’s legacy well; it passed many his collected objects to other museums and libraries the world over (such as much of his Egyptology collection which went to the British Museum, Petrie Museum and Durham Oriental Museum among others), but kept most the biological and medical artefacts. The Trust is now able to support open access biomedical research through its fund of approximately £15 billion. The Wellcome Library is distinct from the Wellcome Collection which holds most of the artefacts Wellcome collected, but both aim to help researchers, students and members of the public, as well as highlight many areas of human and animal biology and medicine.


Our tour of the library started off by heading to a staff only area – the collection and preservation room. We were able to see part of an ongoing digitisation project, steaming book spines to release their pages so that they can be scanned for adding to an electronic archive (the hardcopy was being kept too, don’t worry).


We then moseyed down a corridor to have a peek at some of the art that the library collects. Their collection policy for art was interesting – anything ranging from lithographs to formal portraits are collected, providing they hold a medical interest. The curator regularly scours Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction catalogues to see if anything of interest is coming up for sale (what a job to have!). When selecting works for the collection, the quality of the art work was not deemed to matter so much as the subject depicted. Our wonderful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide also used the art collection to also emphasise that the Library’s collection is not just limited to Western items – items in the collection spanned Japan, to the Near East as well as the UK and USA, as well as paintings by Hogarth and etchings by Goya. It truly is a very diverse collection. Some works are photographed and available to consult electronically - if not, you can order a painting down to have a look at in the reading room!


We then went down into the archive where we had a look at their rolling stacks, safely organised to be below head height to avoid any precarious ladder work in retrieving materials. The room was fitted with both water and fire detectors, and air conditioning, and was rather swish. Whilst in the archive, we had a look at some caricatures depicting health ailments, as well as some still frames from Muybridge’s work photographing movement. 


After this, we moved into the public library space. Any one can register for a reader pass to access the library, all you need is proof of your address. The pass is then active for 3 years and provides access to all of their books (with the exception of some very delicate texts) – you don’t need to be a researcher steeped in fame to have a look at the materials that they hold from the 1400s. A very noble, open policy if ever I saw one. The only caveat is older materials are only allowed to be consulted in the rare books room (understandably) and all material is reference only, except for some researchers and staff who can obtain limited borrowing rights.


The library uses 3 different classification schemes. One is an in house system, one I have forgotten (sorry) and the third was an unusual system called Barnard, which is also used by the Royal College of Surgeons (or Physicians, I forget which). The classmark is slightly odd as the first section contains reference to a topic, the second to a geographical area, and the third to a time period. The works are then sorted alphabetically by author. This seemed to make for a somewhat erratic shelving system, but users are encouraged to simply leave books at their desks and let staff put them back correctly. I did spy Alcoholism next to Atomic disasters on the shelves though, and wondered if there was somehow a link between them?! Helpfully, the Wellcome catalogue contains a map for each record showing you where in the library the book is located, minimising the number of readers wondering around the shelves looking confused.


The library had an enjoyable mix of modern work space, grand reading room, and cosy nooks to burrow away in. I got the sense that readers would have a good range of spaces to choose from that would suit their own individual working preferences. The main library reading room was originally build at a sculpture gallery when the building was first erected in the 1930s, and had its purpose changed in the 1960s. As such, there is a lovely upper gallery where the larger folios are stored, and the room itself is a delight to be in. We were informed that there is talk of changing the layout of the library, and using some of this space for exhibitions instead of study, so it will be interesting to see if that develops. We also stopped by a section covering syphilis and prostitution, but I won’t dwell on that for fear of Google not indexing me for being smutty – it does emphasise the breadth of the library’s collection though.


We were also treated to some numerical stats. The library receives around 36’000-38’000 readers per year. Many of these pop in once or twice and then do not return, but we were informed that there is a strong core of regular researchers. Around 70 staff are employed, most of whom have a focused job role and become highly specialised. The library also is partly involved in the excellent work that the Trust does to promote open access information – if you haven’t heard of PubMed Central before, and are after quality, authoritative health research, go and have a look. It was interesting to hear that the Trust will approach journal publishers to ask how much it would cost to make the journal, or certain articles open access for hosting on their database for all to read. If it is an acceptable amount, the Trust will then proceed to make it so.


All in all, it was a great tour well suited for a great library. The work that the Trust and the library do is fantastic given that it is a charity (albeit a very wealth one that gives our money as opposed to taking it in). Given that the library is essentially a private collection belonging to the Trust means that it could have easily been locked away and had its access heavily restricted. The work that the Wellcome Trust does to make its collections so accessible is highly laudable. If you get the chance to go to the library, or visit the Wellcome Collection’s exhibitions (to see weird and wonderful medical things), please do so.


Thank you for CLSIG and the Wellcome Library for putting on the tour.


As an aside, if you are interested in Henry Wellcome (and you should be), I highly recommend his biography, “An Infinity of Things”. 


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