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”. 

Thoughts on Chartership

I’ve recently become Chartered with CILIP, slightly less than a year after I formally started (I backdated some of my portfolio). Having finished the process, I thought I would reflect (I became good at that over the last year) on what being Chartered in the legal sector means (if anything).

The majority of people I know who hold Chartership are from the academic and public sectors. A select few that I know through SLA (Special Libraries Association) are chartered, and I know a few people in BIALL who have also gone through the process, but not many.

Firstly, I think I’ll be frank. Outside of the academic and public sectors, I do not think I have ever seen a job requirement that states you have to be chartered to apply. I think I may have seen one once that stated it as a desirable criteria, but that may have fallen under a broader heading of “interested in professional development” or such like. If a sector doesn’t demand it for promotion opportunities, then of course that will instantly reduce the amount of people who will follow it through.

The other main problem for Chartership outside of the academic and public sectors is that CILIP is seen by many to have little/no benefit in special libraries, despite having Special Interest Groups such as CLSIG. Organisations such as BIALL or SLA are deemed to offer more value/relevance, often for a smaller yearly fee – something that is especially important in budget constricted times (I’m not going to discuss the CILIP in special libraries argument here – there is far too much potential for a Can of Worms to be opened). To Charter requires membership of CILIP, plus two £50 payments, which if you can only afford one membership, puts many in a predicament that often ends with renewing BIALL or SLA membership. This combined with not needing the qualification to advance in your job role will knock off quite a few potential applicants.

Thirdly, in theory, Chartership does not give you access to any more professional development activities than you would otherwise be able to join in with. If you are sufficiently motivated, you could do just as many activities as a Chartership candidate, and save yourself the time from having to reflect/write about them.

So, given the above factors, why did I choose to Charter?

As I have written about before, upon finishing my Masters, I was concerned about a lack of focus for my professional development. Chartership provided me a way to focus on new goals within a manageable framework that I could use to assess myself. It also provided me with a second mentor (in addition to my mentor provided by SLA off the back of my ECCA in 2011), someone who I hope to keep in touch with throughout my professional career. I’ve been very lucky as both mentors have given me valuable advice so far. They are a resource that I value highly.

Undertaking the process also provided me with the chance to formally record activities that I was already undertaking. At no point during the year did I feel that I was simply undertaking an activity for the sake of ticking a box in the portfolio criteria. I enjoy blogging and reflecting on librarianship as a profession, and volunteer in a range of capacities (SLA, #UKLibChat etc). I am also already committed to professional development, and am currently taking the BIALL Legal Foundation Course. The experiences I was recording in my portfolio are all things that I would have done regardless of being enrolled in the Chartership process, but it did allow me to explore a different side to them, and keep a more formal record of what I undertake. Through my portfolio I was able to explore different angles to reasons why I give my time to volunteer, and in turn made me realise how valuable an experience I find volunteering to be. In all honesty, I never would have done this if not forced to by the construction of my portfolio – but I am glad I did.

What has Chartership meant for my career? Well, given that I’ve only been Chartered a few weeks, not very much at the moment. It will not provide me with any kind of immediate promotion or salary increase, although I have received congratulations from my line managers and colleagues. Other than a sense of self fulfilment, I do not perceive any short term benefits. Rather, I expect any worth to be gained long term. The process enabled me to develop a different way of recording my time, and looking at the value I extract, and put back into, the profession. Hopefully, as I continue my career in librarianship, this will develop and provide a strong underpinning for how I conduct myself as a professional.

All things considered, I would recommend Chartership, but it is a bit odd. Other than forcing me to reflect and record my activities, it has not really changed how I engage with the profession. That said, do not underestimate how valuable a skill I have found reflection to be (for instance, it has enabled me to look at similarities between sectors, enabling me to highlight common problems that librarianship as a whole faces). If you are already involved in different activities then it won’t take much extra effort, and if you aren’t, it could act as a jump start to your professional development. It was different to what I was expecting though. I think this is because all my previous qualifications have been academic, and in a University environment. Chartership is practical, and you really do get as much out of it as you put in – far more so than many academic courses where you are spoon fed knowledge and information. Bear this in mind during your Chartership year and you will find it much more rewarding.

As an aside to the end of this post, I recently had a discussion with someone in the LIS recruitment industry. They felt that due to ongoing dilution of the LIS profession through a wide range of job titles and roles, in a number of years the profession will come full circle and value the Chartership badge very highly. I’m not sure what I make on this, but it certainly is something to think about.

A little knowledge…

…is supposedly a dangerous thing.

After a recent encounter, I would take the it further than that. I would say that knowledge about the knowledge and information sector is a very dangerous thing.

I recently had a discussion with a member of a professional body that focuses on knowledge with a capital K. I listened attentively to what the body did, and the benefits that it provides to its members with a degree of interest – the work and ideas that were promoted sounded excellent, and seemed to cross into much of what I do as a professional librarian. Then came a crushing blow. A question was asked if there were any particular areas of the body that would be of special use to library and information workers. The reply? None. The body would facilitate connections to others working in LIS, but the individual felt that the content and events that it ran would probably be of little use to LIS workers.

The explanation for this was because they felt that the role of an LIS worker was primarily to tag resources, catalogue data, and to collate information. Dealing with collecting and disseminating knowledge from various categories such as tacit and implied knowledge was deemed to be of a higher role and a different function. Some thing that belonged to a knowledge role.

Needless to say – this irritated me somewhat – to the extent that I not only voiced my disagreement with the thinking behind it, but also filling me with irritation right down to my fingertips, in turn causing me to exercise the irritation out of them by tapping my keyboard until this blog post was produced. Grr.

I pointed out that the body provided training for areas such as training (and had specifically covered gamification lately, in which libraries are making huge innovations), serendipity to uncover knowledge (show me a library course that will not cover this at some point!), and how to disseminate knowledge (it was felt that all knowledge should be shared with everyone – I disagreed with this. For instance, I doubt that lawyers want everything to do with areas of law they don’t directly practice in, with some exceptions).

In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. This seemed a shame as the body is therefore not promoting itself to library staff, due to its own strange perceptions of what they do, despite having valuable content. It also left me with another concern. If there are people within the knowledge and information sector that consider cataloguing and collecting information the role of library and information staff,  and training, and dissemination of information etc as a “knowledge” role – how on earth are we to explain to those outside the sector all that we can do? As far as I am concerned, all of the above is covered in LIS. To differentiate within this, to split the sector into distinct parts seems a dangerous and dark path. Why must everything be pigeon holed?


Place LIS staff here

Perhaps I’m falling into a trap that I’m all to aware of – knit picking over names and terms that mean so many different things to different people that they do not mean anything anymore. LIS roles are often titled as knowledge roles. It just irked me that such a stark differentiation would be made against the “library” that I consider to offer so much. It was also one of the first times that I have seen an “information role” branded alongside “library” as somehow being inferior to a knowledge role – and for that reason alone I thought it worth recording.

Please do say if it really is just a case of names not meaning anything, that would make me happy. The alternative is that there are those within the profession that consider some core library skills to no longer be as valuable as others, and that to me is truly concerning.

Becoming Permanent

I have recently been made permanent for the first time ever. I am absolutely thrilled, and finally have that thing called “job security” that has alluded me for years*.
My career so far has been a veritable hotchpotch of fixed term positions, interspersed with education. Each stage of my life so far has been working towards a specific goal. Sixth form was two years spent working towards obtaining the IB. University was three years working for my degree (and a job). My year spent as a library assistant was spent trying to gain as much experience as possible prior to my MA, which in turn was spent trying to gain as much knowledge as possible to get back into work.

My first position following the completion of my MA was a fixed term, maternity leave contract. It served me fantastically well (I’m still there!), and following the initial contract period it was extended, then extended again, before becoming permanent. So now what? My brain has been conditioned to working towards the next goal, be that work or education.  How do I motivate myself further?

Thankfully, on one level, that is a really easy question to answer. My role is fantastic, diverse, and I can  become involved in projects that keep me busy. I therefore am able to tick the job satisfaction box that some would say is the first thing that most work towards.

But maybe over time I will feel stuck in one place? Perhaps a bit like those protesters a few years back that stuck themselves to parts of RBS including the trading floor?

I don’t think I will. Not one bit. Firstly, professional development keeps me occupied and gives me a sense of career progression. I am still involved in the SLA Europe Events Committee, and now as part of the board itself. I’m also involved with the SLA Legal Division and with #UKLibChat. Professional involvement is a great way to help skills continue to grow, and to develop alongside your day job.

Bored in the library is not the same as being on a library board.
Picture, “library visitor” by umjanedoan via Flickr CC

Most importantly though, I am able to really knuckle down into projects at work. Prior to becoming permanent, my biggest fear was not having an end point to focus on. I have always used fixed term roles as a way to prove how much I can achieve in a limited time frame, to leave a lasting impression. I had thought that a permanent position would therefore leave me somewhat at a loss.

I’ve realised that this is not true though – I can engage with longer term projects, and become more committed to a wider range of tasks. Appraisals will help me to monitor my progress.

For quite a few years I have jumped around various fixed term contracts; I’m relishing the thought of staying in one place and really getting to know my role inside out. I’ll keep you posted on how I get on.

*My first experience to library work in my local public library during sixth form was technically a permanent post, and I was offered at pension at 16, but it was only for 5 hours on a Saturday, so I’m not counting that.

Time management musings

I occasionally find striking a balance between being busy and being swamped a difficult line to tread. Due to the nature of my commitments, as with most peoples’, it is not always possible to control the flow of work that comes in your direction. Sometimes your day job is busier than usual, and sometimes tasks associated with additional commitments take longer to complete than expected. Whilst on holiday, and feeling suitably relaxed, I had a think about why I take on additional tasks, and what I get out of them.

Firstly, I totted up what consumes my time. Obviously, I have my day job,and this takes priority over everything else. After all, that’s why I get paid (and I love the work). Then I have volunteer committee positions. There are four of those. Following that, I have my taekwon-do, which is very dear to my heart and takes up a sizeable chunk of my spare time, both in weekday evenings, and at weekends. Then there is some occasional leisure time (and I also joined the gym recently, but am yet to actually go…).

I have found that when the above are quiet, and there is less going on, I tend to slow down a bit. Tasks that I would usually dispatch swiftly are tackled over a longer time frame. Conversely, when everything gets a bit manic, I find that whilst there is less spare time, I become somewhat more efficient (at least most of the time anyway…). Due to time pressures, I am able to prioritise tasks, and apportion them a more realistic amount of time that is deserved to them. This is not to say that I rush tasks, but merely do not spend longer on them than required.

I was therefore wondering to myself, if I did less, would I achieve more? In theory, I would have more time to devote to each, but according to the above, would I merely take longer to complete a task? I’m not entirely sure. I’d be intrigued to learn how others manage volunteer work and fit it in to their other commitments.

The Trouble With Trying To Compare Library Skills

Having visited a number of libraries across various sectors and compared the various services, provisions and space that they are able to provide, I thought it would be of interest to attempt to produce a matrix diagram of the skills that each needs to ensure success in their sector. My aim was to highlight any key differences between librarians and information professionals across various sectors, and more importantly, highlight the similarities and key criteria that are needed to operate as part of any information service or library.


I started to plot the matrix diagram using 5 columns. Four of these columns were for the special, university, national and public sectors. The fifth would contain the skills needed to operate in that sector successfully. Whilst I realise that the four sectors are in no way representative of the many areas that libraries and information services operate in, I wanted only to compare libraries in areas that I had visited to avoid making any presumptions. The initial chart looked as below.


  Special University National Public
Current Awareness        
Managing Users        


Once I started to compile the chart, I realised that it was inherently flawed for a number of reasons. The first problem that I encountered was trying to make a list of the skills I witnessed in those libraries. If I wanted to be comprehensive, then the list would end up roughly as long as CILIP’s draft Body of Professional Knowledge. If I were to summarise, then I felt I would be misrepresenting key aspects of the work carried out.


The second problem I encountered was how to attribute these skills to the various sectors. Whilst I have visited a lot of libraries, and met a wide range of staff, I have by no means encountered the full range of library and information staff that are present in these organisations. I had agreed with myself that I would only record skills that I had seen when visiting libraries or information units to avoid presumptions. Whilst it felt noble at the time, I realise now that one only really sees a small proportion of what staff do – i.e. the customer facing aspect of a librarian’s role.


For instance, when I answer an enquiry at work, the user will only see the manner in which I present myself and the service, and the end product of their query; be that the results of a press search, compiling some research for them, or updating a piece of legislation. They do not see the search strings compiled, the information literacy skills used to work the databases, or the work that has gone into organising our catalogue, and these are only a small proportion of our roles. A user at the enquiry desk will not know the work undertaken in providing training to users, negotiating licenses, compiling current awareness, developing our intranet pages or investigating new technologies to make their roles easier. Other areas of the firm will see these, as we are sure to work with other departments and to promote the work that we do, but that enquiry desk user will not.


When I visited other services, I was the equivalent of that enquiry desk user, and that is why it would be wrong of me to compare and contrast the skills of librarians in a table, reducing skills and technical abilities to a tick box. Instead I will continue to learn about other sectors and the work that others do in a more in depth manner – reading blogs, building relationships at networking events or by studying professional publications.


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