Wednesday, 11 June 2014

*That*, Detective, is the right question....

Or so it goes in the film 'I, Robot' with Will Smith asking questions of a hologram.

Questions are tricky things - you may, or may not, be asking the right question, and you may, or may not, be asking the right whoever or whatever it is you use for answers. In the context of higher education, I have wondered whether a student would anticipate or expect that their questions  (which may not, of course, be the 'right' ones) could be answered by a library? It's probably no great surprise to find that a quick google search for 'library FAQs' reveals that there are hundreds of sites to go to. But do library FAQs include the right questions? Do they answer the questions that are being asked? Are they even close?

Do students have the 'right' questions? Well, not always, but for them, they ARE the right questions. They're the ones which impact them NOW.  Examples: I need to urgently print my essay for my supervisor - how do I do that here? How do I use the copier?  How can I write a better essay? How can I improve the structure of my essay? What does this word mean? How can I read more quickly? How do I prioitise the books to read? Why isn't this book I want on the shelves?

I'm not sure that we should be surprised when students don't ask library staff many in-depth important reference-enquiry style questions. That's not where they're at (even if they should be!). We may often give them information that doesn't register as useful. Perhaps we're not asked questions because a) students don't realise that the question they have is about 'something quite different'  and b) they don't realise that the 'something quite different' just might be library-related.

So - do we try and train our students to ask right-er/better-er questions or do we accept that the questions they have are ok and work out how to put ourselves into the firing line of those questions?  I think we should spend time finding out what it is they want to know and manouvering ourselves into the right position and be the people that answer whatever queries they have. They just may come back for more.

 I've also been thinking about what people (me, you, students, academics, my children, my husband etc) DO when they have a question - about anything. What someone DOES probably depends on the urgency of the question or the need. A curious child's question of  'why does the grass grow?' (generally repeated endlessly despite the answers a patient parent gives) is different from 'how do I get hold of a taxi?' or 'how do I use this new can opener?' or 'where's AandE?!' The last three imply a need that would be useful to have fulfilled fairly quickly even if only the last one actually seems life-threatening. A student might want to know how on earth they get hold of some of the key books to read for an essay due in tomorrow.

What would you do if you had these questions? Some options:
  • use smartphone/ipad/computer to get to the internet, google maps, youtube video for a demo (I actually had to do that with the can-opener thingy I bought recently). It's pretty quick to type in the keywords 'cambridge' 'taxis' to get a phone number - like wise the hospital. Use google books for the essay.
  • no internet? I'd find a person - anyone would do at all for the taxi and hospital, but a knowledgeable friend - or teacher, would do the job nicely for the grass growing question. A friend who had already DONE the essay would come in handy at this point.
  • I'd work it out myself (muttering - I can do this, I am capable) for the can-opener. For the essay a student might be creative and submit a timed exam essay on their supervisor - 'I thought it would be useful to see what I could do in a timed situation rather than read widely'.Or email the supervisor for some top tips after explaining why you couldn't possibly get the essay done earlier.
  • Find a book - ideally online, maybe already one at home in my bookshelves - or maybe browse the library shelves.
Are students generally going to Google, or their friends or the nearest person they can find, or even just finding inventive ways of avoiding the issues? Probably.

Why don't we see what we can do to impact the places that students already go to for their answers. Students seem to think that their teachers are worth listening to, so perhaps this is where we should start; Pelligrino certainly seems to think so. Training our academics to send their students to us with their questions could very easily be our top priority for getting students engaging with us in our  virtual or physical library spaces. Students *might* listen to their teachers more than us and, if we gain from that in the long run, what's not to like? I hope that *that* is at least one of the right questions........

Monday, 28 April 2014

More on tea@three

Just in case you hadn't had enough from me about tea@three - here I am trying to make it just a teensiest bit posher than it really is. But then the title is a bit of a give-away really: Ethno-thingy stuff: stories or stats?

That's all for now folks.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Did I cry at my daughter's wedding?

Actually, strictly speaking, no, although since I was asked this A LOT during the day itself, I have been thinking about why not! To be honest, yes I confess I did cry, but not at the wedding service, not when she came down the aisle, not at the first dance, but at odd quirky times.
Saying thanks and goodbye to the lovely ladies at Emily, the dress shop, was peculiarly emotional; likewise when picking the flowers up from Emma at Katie Peckett, and the final goodbye and thank you to Jennifer, the event manager at Millennium Galleries, brought tears to my eyes. My lovely brother, Jem, who allowed half his house to be taken over by Rach and me arranging all the flowers, and then let me leave an appalling mess behind at the end of the weekend, made me cry. I don't think I quite cried, but was awfully close to it, when thanking the most amazing Bakers who have loved, and cared for, and housed my daughter, and been the best Sheffield 'parents' to both Steph and Andy. My wonderful Cambridge friends, Wendy and Rosie and Steve, who were such a support, debriefing over cups of tea afterwards, helping clear the venue the next day - yes, you too brought tears to my eyes. And, of course, my super supportive best friend and husband - yes you made me cry!

Seeing Steph get married to Andy was just SO right, SO perfect, that it would have been illogical to cry; but crying about the amazing care and love of not just friends and family, but also, people who are basically strangers but with whom for a short period you've shared your life seems absolutely right and proper!

So there - I've thought it all out and worked it through and I'm pretty content with where I'm at.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas stockings!

Have you ever left a Christmas stocking untouched? I thought not! What sacrilege that would be!

Many, many people (perhaps including you), do not always appreciate librarianly advice - perhaps not even ASK for it.

So, I know you haven't asked for this, but let me do the honours and 'unwrap' the contents of a virtual Christmas stocking - just for you, dear Engling. The collective wisdom of five library staff have put these stocking 'fillas' together...............I am sure that you will enjoy every one!
  • Watch David Tennant, and others in 'Much Ado About Nothing' on Digital Theatre Plus (check here for login details)
  • Read a Cambridge Companion online- just so easy to download a chapter onto your paperwhite Kindle paperwhite to take on that skiing trip you have planned
  • Pinterest - our Library's newly purchased books and DVDs. You might even spot the perfect dissertation secondary crit book there
  • Think differently - read the 'Ragged-trousered philanthropists' (staff member recommendation)
  • Mug  - bring to the first tea@three in the Library in Lent Term
  • UbuWeb - what, you've never heard of it? Somewhere in the ether it says that: "UbuWeb was founded in response to the marginal distribution of crucial avant-garde material"
  • London Underground Shakespeare map - a very very cool map for the visually minded and the RSC have been especially inventive in promoting it. Quick- you might get a tea towel for mum for Christmas.
  • USB powered electric pencil sharpener - to use just before you go into the Manuscripts Room at the UL
  • Bookfinder or AddAll are good sources for finding cheap copies of texts that you want to scribble in - highly recommended by library staff who get twitchy when you write in books
  • ejournals@cambridge....hmmmm....the best evah site to find ALL the online journals Cambridge has - pleeeese don't just use JSTOR
And just in case all of this is not enough you could get some wonderful (occasionally useless, but fun all the same) 'stocking filla type' information by following us on Twitter or Facebook

Well - we've dredged what's left of our collective brains and there's nothing left.......ENJOY your Christmas stocking and have a very good vacation.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Tea@three: engaging students in focused conversation over a cuppa

What is our library service about? Well, I hope it’s not about us, or our collections, or our space, but about YOU! By ‘you’ I’m thinking of an actual, or possibly future, user of the library collections, space and services. If you want a fun introduction to what a local media company  - Tripos Productions (tweeting as @TriposMedia) thought our service was all about then look at this really short promo video of theLibrary that they made for us.

And why are ‘you’ so important? 


Bottom line, without you we have no mission, no purpose and no need to provide support for excellence in teaching and research. This very basic premise is what many of my colleagues in Cambridge, such as Andy Priestner have been trying to communicate within the institution and beyond, in the broader information landscape - ie that there really is no point in providing all of the above if they’re not needed or wanted or perceived to be useful. Librarians have typically given lip service to this issue over the last ten years or so, but have still held tightly onto their current roles and collections and……….without actually asking themselves what it is that students need. The danger in asking this is so obvious; which is why many of us don’t do it. Why dangerous? Well, you might have to change what you do every year, you might have to accept that some parts of your current library space, collections and services are actually useless, you might need to look at how to become more efficient to be more effective, you might need different skills; you might just have to change. 

So, at the English Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge, we try to address the above issues by thinking of different ways to engage with our students, so that we identify with their needs and change our service accordingly. The model we use is similar to the ethnographic approach frequently in use by library services exploring student behaviour and study habits. This is not to say that we are perfect or, indeed, overly strategic about this. Happy accidents happen too. Take the current example of our two ‘rooms’ that we will let students book, ostensibly for group discussions. In reality what is happening this year is that graduates, who take a teaching role here and supervise English Literature undergrads for one-to-one tutorials, are finding university rooms that might once have been free to book for tutorials, are no longer so. We have had more than 60 room bookings within 4 weeks of this term, compared to the same number of bookings for the whole of last academic year. I’m delighted that our Library is providing a much-needed service. And in any case, the students come to their supervisions and then, usually….borrow books. Win win.

Tea@three is just one avenue for gathering ethnographic, qualitative style data. It started because I wanted to provide some TLC for hard pressed students in exam term, also because I wanted to get to know them better, and because, hand on heart, I wanted to find out how on earth an Arts student went about their work (I worked in a Science Library before this,  and have a Social Science background).

The details:
When: at 3.00 pm, varying times a week, more frequently during exam term than in other terms, lasting 30-60 mins depending on conversations etc. Sometimes I tailor tea@three for particular year groups, the grads or societies, Faculty student reps etc, or just to say thank you to particular student or academic groups. 
Where: usually in my office which is large and spacious and can take about 20 students at one time – at a push. Sometimes we move to the Faculty’s Social Space for all sorts of reasons, mostly because my office is not sound proof; communication between staff and students becomes less of a priority then.


  • Students often say…..‘I’ve been meaning to ask you..’
  • Learning student names, building relationships that last. Picking up anecdotal information about:  the latest party, the favourite academic, the best play production, the different methods used by teachers. We then use this information in obvious situations: teaching new freshers, at the issue desk, in conversation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, other academics, or at Student Consultative Committees.
  • Sometimes there is a ‘I don’t suppose you could…..’ type of comment such as ‘Is there any chance that you could summarise the exam times for us and put them up on the website?’ If we think the suggestion is helpful and sensible for us to do, we do it. Most of the suggestions are NOT typically library-related ones, but by helping them with one thing that isn’t what we think of as connected to library work, they then come back to us with questions that are.
  • Impromptu career sessions – for example, an alumnus doing TeachFirst came back this half term, came to a tea@three session and ended up talking to two year 3 students wanting to do this next year once they graduate. One of the best careers conversation.
  • Gaining an understanding student language: for example asking students what would be the best label for our ‘subject guides’?
  • Opportunities to welcome visiting academics
  • A specially invited tea@three group which morphs into a focus group exploring for example changes to the curriculum. Eg What do students think are the implications for the Library?
  • Making lego and puzzles available– an interesting tea@three session in exam term resulted in a lego model depicting ‘tragedy’ proving to be an interesting medium with which to continue their revision in an unusual collaborative mood whilst drinking tea! 
  • Students dropping by outside tea@three times and just chatting about work, library changes or for help with a quick question about Zotero or…or… 

There is plenty out there about ethnographic research, or user-centred design, and to that end I have been gathering articles and information that helps inform what I do.  Colleague, Andy Priestner and I have also written extensively on the subject of developing user-centred library services.
See the publicly available Zotero group tea@three bibliography developing.




EVIDENCE of how tea@three engages with students

  • In our ‘comments book’ in June 2013
    Student comment
  • A comment from graduating student in the 2012 NSS: "the faculty library always does little things to brighten their students' days (tea@3, chocolates, puzzles)"
  • Regular emails from students addressing me in a friendly manner ‘Hi Libby….’ . The barriers between staff and students is much less apparent
  • Establishing connections with the undergraduate ‘English Society’ – we now run a regular annual event with them.
  • Students have been recently involved in the interview schedules for new Deputy Librarian
  • A group of students last year offered to help us run several of the larger tea@three sessions, including our Valentine Day tea@three well-advertised by them using poetry.
Valentines Day t@3

The $6 million question – how can we afford to do this?

I never underestimate the advantages of being in an environment such as Cambridge where I can target a very specific subject group; getting under their skin, almost becoming one of them, whilst maintaining the ability to drive through change for the better that impacts student lives. Tea@three is possible because it’s Cambridge and it’s for English Literature students who have flexible working hours. But overall, it represents the principle of engaging with students IN ORDER to better understand their needs and to enhance relationships. 

I can’t think of a better use of my time.

Monday, 30 September 2013

How I (sometimes) work

Challenged as I was by Georgina to answer the questions about how I work - I thought it rude not to do so..........but consider yourself warned - it ain't pretty. There is a plan - if only I could find it.

Location: Cambridge (UK)
Current gig: Faculty Librarian, English Faculty
Current mobile device: iphone 4
Current computer: Probably Dell (Uni has an agreement with them) with  - yes a very nice widescreen flat monitor.
One word that best describes how you work: one word? eek? impossible - I will allow myself two: focused and forgetful

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? GoodReader, Google calendar, facebook, Google maps (lapsed Geographer), Thunderbird (I love email)

What’s your workspace like? Ah, depends when you look. Currently looks quite pretty with new chairs and a hand-made quilt wall hanging.......
Mostly my desk is roughly akin to the many many layers of sedimentary rocks that you might see in the Grand Canyon. Yes, I've lost the odd thing, but mostly I know where everything is. Once the piles of paper start to topple then I might have a tidy up.

What’s your best time-saving trick? Always go out at lunch break for a brisk walk. Saves making  a huge numbers of errors, and generally I've solved one of any number of problems by the time I get back.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? Google calendar is brilliant for a project management approach to a task, breaking it down into manageable chunks of stuff that must be done by x or y. When things are serious good old pencil and paper to-do lists.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? ipad

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? Moving at the speed of light during a 5 minute conversation with staff from one subject to another, to another. We're all exhausted at the end. Also - sending emails with instructions. My logic is - send an email before I forget what I was thinking about. (see last point below)

 What are you currently reading? Trashy novels - can't even recall the current title. Though recently I have avidly read some 'Rough guides...' for Vancouver and Grand Canyon. (told you, I'm a lapsed Geographer.)

What do you listen to while you work? My own voice muttering.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Introvert definitely. Love my own office, can come out to play when I choose.

What’s your sleep routine like? Well for someone who has 'done' kids the one thing I'm brilliant at is getting up early in the morning.

Fill in the blank: I too would love to see Heather Lane answer these same questions.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Keep asking questions

Is there anything else you’d like to add? To deal with the two words up above: Focused - When stuck into working at something I don't need to switch off email etc etc to concentrate; I just don't notice anything else. Forgetful - it could be an age thing, or just there's too much in my head to keep it contained and I just cut swathes of conversations and information clean out of my head - hence the prolific emailing.

Well - I told you it wasn't pretty.

On how car rental experiences made me think........

Airport rental cars and libraries - anything in common? Well, they're a service, they have 'customers' who need a resource. What's not in common? I suppose the rental resource is very identifiable; a car is....a a car - right? Libraries – well they’re just more complex but still a service.

An odd comparison you might think, but my very recent user experience of the one made me wonder about the other.

A centralised rental car system (such as in Phoenix) works as follows: As the consumer, I still have choice about who I book with. But I have no choice about where I physically go to deal with the booking on arrival; there is only one bus stop to find at the airport, one type of bus to look for to travel in and one place to pick the car up. With all rental car services under one roof, all the car servicing, checking, 'keys handing over' is dealt with completely separately to the booking-in system. One building means economies of scale, and so I have access to food, bathrooms, and lots of frequent buses getting me to and from the airport.

What's not to like? I suppose there was that slight frisson of worry when the bus set out on what appeared to be a 3 hour long journey to the rental centre from Phoenix airport, with no information given out about how long it would take to get there. 'We must remember to allow plenty of time when we come back', we muttered to ourselves.

For a customer, car rental services have certainly done their homework and worked out exactly what it is that people want. Customers clearly still want choice, they want a person looking after their needs on the other side of the 'Alamo' (in my case) desk, and someone to hold their hand as maps are explained in order to negotiate the hellish road system about to be confronted. But the process of getting to the centre, documentation vetted, through to picking up the car (two upgrades, and a free bottle of water to cope with 35 degree temps merely 10 mins later), and then the utter relief of how easy it was to return said car and get back to the airport in plenty of time for the return flight was brilliant.

So why think of libraries? The car rental service was centralised and the process was beautifully efficient and effective. I assume it's cheaper to run it this way. But in our second airport they were in the middle of changing over from one system to another and I accosted the poor (yes, Alamo) lady at the service desk and asked her what the change to a new centralised system was like from her perspective. She was very kind and, though slightly shocked, gave me two answers that I thought rang all too true for the current library centralisation scheme I find myself in the middle of.

  Firstly, she didn't like change. Not rocket science at all, but it makes the clear point that many of us do not like change, especially change that we cannot understand especially well and, by definition, that change management is absolutely crucial to win over good people to a new system.  Just because one person thinks centralised is good certainly doesn’t mean that the next one will.

  Secondly she worried about the lack of control over the bus drivers: they would not belong to the company, Alamo, any more, but just be generic drivers employed to run buses for ALL the rental car services. Would they be loyal? Would the service desk people know the drivers' names? How easily could they deal with problems?  Would the service the bus drivers offered match their current standards. Wow! Familiar or what?! What good would a generic library assistant be at my issue desk wondering where the heck we had stashed the ... extra barcodes; the sellotape, the reservation keys, a spare pencil etc. I’ve experienced this – and it was BAD!

She finished by saying 'But I'm sure it will all be ok'!! Well, day 1 of the new system we returned our car and I think there were some niggling problems they were facing ( eg the new buses were all much longer than the previous ones and causing traffic jams!). Funny how often the devil is in the detail. But, on the other hand what a relief for us to catch a bus that runs every 5 minutes to the airport, rather than waiting (as we did on arrival) all tired and worn out, for 20 minutes before an Alamo bus came our way.

So - I was left with a few questions - what is perfection for our customer? What does that look like? Have we 'got it' yet? Can we combine the premium offering of REAL choice, along with useful centralisation in our libraries? Is it possible for Cambridge, that extreme bastion of choice and 'boutiqueness', to get something right and combine the quality and engagement that personalised service choice offers with a few choice centralised polices and processes that actually make a difference, or will they muck it up? Only time will tell.