Friday, 2 December 2011


Went to a talk last week by Aleks K where she demonstrated her Serendipity Engine.

It was very good. She was aiming to identify all the variables and apparently quirky decisions that we make every day that land us in a situtation that allow for the serendipitous 'happening' that may just alter the course of your life....forvever. Just think for a moment of the time your eyes met those of the tall dark handsome stranger across the room......but I digress. We are, of course thinking about the article you are writing, the research you are conducting. Following the talk I got into conversation with a colleague and was reminded about the difference there is between the physical browsing of a collection, a journal issue etc and the online browsing that is perhaps more typical (lamentably so by some) these days. A number of academics still bemoan the necessity of abandoning the physical browsing for the online, and they do have a point - don't they? After all, although online browsing is good fun and very good for procrastination, well, it's a different beast altogether. The argument goes of course, that you just have to stop whining and move to the online serendipitious browsing and get on with it! Surely!

But I wonder if we are being rather naive by advocating that it's ok to abandon reasearch habits that have worked well for many for so long. I compare the difference in serendipitous browsing to the differences that exist with reading a real book as opposed to reading a book loaded on your Kindle. Neither activity is bad (a self-confessed Luddite when it comes to reading books via a Kindle or even my newly acquired iPad!) per se, neither could be said to be better - in terms of research output. But both require different activities to achieve the goal of acquiring information and may inevitably (if we consider serendipity) result in different conclusions and different exit routes from the book.

This is not a bad thing but a different thing. Perhaps the main difference is that the skimming/scanning process with a physical item is in the end more focused and less 'skittery'. When I'm browsing on the web I tend to ditzy around following this link, or that, this related item, or that. Browsing a shelf load of books I'm already more focused. When I read a physical book, I have a sense of where I have come from and where I am going, but an ebook allows me to use it as a reference tool.

Where am I going with all this? I suppose I'm saying that those who bemoan the loss of the serendipitous physical browsing have a point because they have lost an activity that allowed things to be drawn together in their minds that might not happen otherwise. They fear they have lost the ability to do their job well ie research. Do we persuade them that online is better? I don't think so. I think we tell them that online is different, but that there as many eureka moments to be had this way as the other. Don't abandon the old just because the new is being forced on you! Do what you need to do in order to allow the creative muse to inspire, create and push you into making those research connections that you had never thought of before.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

If I had a fairy godmother....

...who could wave her magic wand....

  • and arrange for me to spend more time on the issue desk at work I would be happy - for a manager this may sound like a contradiction in terms and I am sure there are plenty who would say that the manager's role is not on the issue desk. But what a superb place to develop relationships with users! Granted we could do away with the issue desk altogether of course and introduce roving, or I could station myself in the social space in the Faculty. As it is my tactic is usually to potter strategically (no, I cannot describe my brisk walk as a potter - substitute potter for 'pass through the Faculty at a brisk pace' if you would) with coffee mug in hand entering into conversations with those I happen to bump into. Lets hope that those who have encountered me in the Faculty don't read this! The tactic does work very well actually but - just now and again the casual issue desk chat is equally productive in all sorts of different ways. Bring back issue desks I say.

  • and give me more hours in a day this would be wonderful - perhaps this just sounds plain greedy or like someone who should go on a time management course or someone who just hasn't got the work/home balance sorted. I truly love my job though and I want us to be better and better at what we do and what I do. So could I have at least one day a week which is maybe 36 hours long?

  • and arrange for the powers that be to understand the massive impact that personalising a library service can have. I have just paid a visit to a small specialist library where the context of who they serve and what they require is clearly understood. The services that have developed because understanding the context are personalised and yet community-based and just 'fit' the users - you get a sense of a favourite coat that fits really well and is practical and yet attractive, is yours and yet willingly lent out to another. In this library, the desk space can be booked and is yours, from one week to three years; the books from the library shelves that you have around you on the desk are yours, BUT others can borrow them from you if they leave a polite note. Your space is yours, but you empty the bin at your desk and you help the library staff with stockcheck; you re-shelve the books and you take a turn making tea for everyone. A personalised tailored service, based on understanding the context within which it sits but assumes that personalised also means there may be an element of a price to pay -your own contribution to the service. I loved the community feel and the sense that users look out for each other. The library does not have very many staff, but they have used their time wisely for the benefit of the users.

There is more that a fairy godmother could do for me, but lets not demand too much at one time!

(Photos courtesy of libatcam)

Monday, 15 August 2011

Leadership stuff

I was recently at an excllent seminar run by Jill Garett, Assistant Chief Executive of LT Consulting. She is a very unassuming person and I didn't know much about her until after the seminar. Her reference to a bit of research done when working for Gallup was interesting, but following my own research post-seminar, I realised that when she did the work she was Managing Director of Gallup......enough on the credentials.

I was reminded of some of the key issues that were discussed in the seminar today following a conversation with two colleagues which touched on the inherent difficulties of people management.

One of the key things that Jill was clear about was that people managers are not leaders. Leaders are visionary, they are strategic, and will often not be as good at people management. It was obvious when she explained it; and reflecting on my own current situation I wondered what this might mean for myself, but also what it meant for the library system that I am a part of. Are we all doing too much, trying to be all things (or a lot of things) to all men? Do we expect too much from our leaders? Do our leaders/managers understand how crucial people management is and how difficult it will be to operate at both strategic and people-focused levels?It seems to be very difficult to find a balance.

A memorable example that Jill gave was of a team that she worked with to improve productivity (my 'cost of service' ears pricked up at this). She asked them what it was they most liked doing in their job - the answer wasn't difficult. When asked why they spent so little time doing it, the response was 'admin'/'paperwork'. The challenge was issued! Look at all the processes that make up the working day and aim to be more efficient, effective and reduce the
time taken over the tiresome jobs, allowing more time for the preferred tasks.

It will come as no great surprise that these workers fairly soon doubled the time that they had available for the pleasant, motivating, enjoyable and fulfilling tasks. I thought this was such a lesson - for individuals and also for small teams, but why not for big organisations as well? We can feel hard pressed on every side financially, but with a bit of ingenuity and 'people management' we can do more with less and by all accounts earn good will along the way.

A final thought that jumps out at me wherever I am these days - including a fabulous trip to the 'other' place earlier this week - is that communication is the absolute KEY to anything - change, maintaining the status quo, you name it, it's essential. Of course MY form of communication may not be the same as YOURS - but that's another story.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Cheese Scone Moment

If you have never been to Cambridge then can I urge you to come and, if nothing else, sample the superb cheese scones at Michaelhouse Cafe.

It's a building that is more cafe than church but is also definitely the latter. I saw the most superb altar frontal there today - gorgeous colours and exquisite stitching.

I indulged in a cheese scone - and thought and scribbled and read while I munched. I was quite impressed with what I had accomplished by the end of half an hour. It made me think about how important cheese scones are.

It also reminded me of a talk that I went to about 10 years ago. It was called something like 'Are you a busy person?' I think I'm making this up actually but it's close enough to what it was about for me to leave it at this. During the talk the phrase that subsequently revolutionised my approach to work (and yet temporarily forgotten recently perhaps) was that busy people need to make time to go out and 'kick the leaves'. Literally this is no bad thing, but you need a permanent Autumn to do that; metaphorically of course what it means is that it is essential that you build in time when you walk away from what you are working from. Do something different enough that when you return to the task in hand your perspective has shifted just enough to allow the problem to be solved, the task you're doing is completed more quickly, the meeting you have coming up to be more fruitful etc... Now of course taking holiday could be one way of doing this, but holidays are when you try and completely forget your work. 'Kicking the leaves' is very far from this. It is a relatively short break, which allows the current issues and problems and all the unsolvable irritables of a working life to chugg along in the background of your mind whilst you physically do something and see something completely different!

For me - my 'kicking the leaves' activities range from shelving a trolley load of books, a walk through Kings College at lunch time, the cycle ride to and from home to work, and - yes - a cheese scone at Michaelhouse Cafe!

Now the point of this blog was actually to say that I won't be carrying on with cpd23 or even starting the new Cam23 Things. My scone reminded me today that actually the most effective work that I can do is not dependent on trying out yet another new 'thing' and constantly trying to fill my mind with new ideas and more and more cpd. It's about being selective and above all allowing myself time to 'kick the leaves'.

So - I shall continue to write occasional blog posts, and I will be very supportive of those who are part of cpd23. I think it's a great initiative but it's not for me, not now. I think I'll order another cheese scone.

Friday, 24 June 2011

To do or not to do?

Dithered about cpd23 but decided to start and see what happens..... So why do it? Hmmm good question? I guess I believe quite strongly in cpd in general - being a Chartership Support Officer for CILIP makes me quite fierce about it. That'll do for now!

So - that's Thing 1

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Are we flogging our USPs enough?

Challenged, as I was, by my deputy, about the fact that someone somewhere should write a little something about unique selling points and Cambridge libraries, here I am putting pen to paper (so to speak).

Actually I wasn't going to do this, as I am part cynical (yep - the powers that be will just rip the heart out of the service whatever I try and do), and part so passionate about the whole thing that I feared I would just rant and end up in a truly volcanic state. Those that know me well would suspect the latter would dominate the former.

But I decided to take up the challenge! Is it possible to be dispassionate and objective about how and why library services in Cambridge have USPs that should be valued, treasured and above all - recognised - in the face of the impending doom of financial cuts and economic cuts?

(The problem is that as soon as you start talking about USPs it's so hard NOT to be passionate! After all offering a 'unique' service is terribly attractive to me.)

On behalf of the Faculty I have been running focus groups for all year groups of undergrads to talk about the teaching they receive from the Faculty. All groups were really clear about two things - firstly the supervision system here in Cambridge is unique and special, albeit time-intensive on teaching staff, and that's one reason why they come here; secondly the off-the-wall, way-out lectures by eminent profs in the field that make them think, are another reason why they choose Cambridge. They were - yes - passionate about the impact that these things have on them. I would say these are unique selling points.

Unique selling points imply that there is a specific benefit to be gained. A USP is, of course, 'unique' which means that it is not offered elsewhere. It is compelling enough that people will be drawn towards what is on offer almost without realizing that they are, and inevitably many follow to find what's available. Cambridge clearly offers the undergrads a unique and beneficial teaching environment; the University's USP is vital for the future when undergrads will inevitably ask what they are getting for their 9K. However the Colleges, who pay for much of the supervision system are calling for a reduction in supervisions; they are running out of money just like everyone else. But if it is true that supervisions are one of the highly regarded USPs in Cambridge, perhaps it is a slightly short sighted solution. After all removing a USP may mean fewer future applicants. Cambridge needs to find all the USPs it can and market them unmercifully.

And so to libraries in Cambridge. What are our USPs? Which of them will disappear under a new regime of federalistion? Will we be in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in our short sighted attempt to save money? Will we throw out exactly those things that unwittingly our users are most attracted to?

In our Faculty Library the students tell us:
"I would go first to a librarian in the English Faculty for support re: resources, referencing, finding books than ....other places"
"the little touches of the screen with the daily quotation, the merchandise, the effort made on special occasions like Valentine's Day create the most fantastic atmosphere: your passion and energy is evident and really admirable"
"staff go beyond the call of duty time and time again - far from just providing books, the faculty library is a powerhouse of resources and accumulated wisdom"

Selling our services in Cambridge is such an important thing to do - we should get stuck into advocacy, gather our Library champions around us and tell Cambridge applicants that they will get a better deal here from the Library services than anywhere else.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Personalise, contextualise...and on to ‘boutique’

The LILAC conference is one of the excellent librarianship conferences around bringing many together to share best practice.

It was great to be able to attend all three days this year, and feel that as a result I could chart some of the themes that seemed to weave themselves in and out of many of the presentations much better than from just a one-day visit.

I was struck by the number of times that the LILAC conference presentations referred to the need to contextualise information literacy. The new SCONUL 7 pillars model suggests that different lenses are used to apply the framework – ie different user groups look and feel different. But it was almost as if this was all something new and revelatory. And yet, in one of the most traditional library structures known to UK librarians, this is exactly what we have been doing since....well, forever. I’m delighted to be able to say that the ‘lens’ that I can develop in my job is not just an ‘undergraduate’ lens but an ‘English Literature Studies undergraduate’ lens. This must surely be a distinct advantage for us in this staff-intensive, personalised service that we run?

A number of libraries in Cambridge have been working this way for a long time - Education, Business, Classics, Earth Sciences, Medical, Law to name but a few. One of the best things about Cambridge is that, as subject librarians, we can - and do - have an enormously variable approach to teaching ‘information literacy’. What we do from library to library won’t (and shouldn’t) look the same.The students will need our resources and services and the related skills to use them at different times and in different ways -depending on the subject, depending on the input from academics, depending on the style of teaching; depending on all sorts of things! Contextualising literacy training means spotting the needs and addressing them at the right time and in the right manner. To contextualise or personalise training so that we have buy in from our users is crucial. If it’s not relevant to them, I don’t think they care. We try to make them care by setting out to discover what buttons to push to get their attention. This involves knowledge; it involves knowing about them and the time frames that they work with; it means finding the context, tailoring the services, personalising content, embedding ourselves and our work in the heart of the specific part of the institution they – and we – are in.

One tangential thought I have had is the concern that I feel about how easy it is to patronise our students. The question is how to satisfactorily help (for argument’s sake) the 50% of the student body for whom some of the essentials of info lit might have eluded them in their secondary schooling, whilst maintaining the respect and appreciation of the other 50% who actually know and understand everything you are telling them and might resent being at a session in the middle of an extremely busy schedule. We don’t want to frighten off the first 50%, but neither do we want to alienate the second 50%.......Do we just assume that the second 50% have forgotten all they ever knew? . I definitely disagree with the suggestion that students forget all they ever knew in transferring from one part of the education system to another. Yes – the long summer holidays mean that primary school children often have to re-trace SOME steps at the beginning of a new term but I don’t think that there are very many who completely forget how to read and write! I digress! In an environment where you probably have one shot at doing something for all freshers I have in the past viewed the sessions (fortunately small and interactive) that we run as primarily about building relationships. I stand by this as being the most useful goal. The challenge is to have the icing on the cake where they all gain something more than this from the session – after all at the time they may not view building positive relationships with the library staff as the most important thing they could do with their time! It is possible that co-agency and community learning have a large part to play so that it’s not all about the content we include in a session but perhaps more about teaching methodology. In May we have a visit from colleagues from the University of Northampton and it will be useful to compare notes with them.

The term ‘information literacy’ was challenged at the conference. I’m not a strong advocate of it myself. We make all sorts of assumptions when we use it. We assume others who work with us know what it means. It’s on occasion used in a slightly odd one-up-man-ship type of activity between librarians. We use it to make academics think we know more than we do. We bandy it around as if ‘doing’ information literacy is the answer to all the problems our students have. Actually no! The very broad points that make up information literacy are bound up with other literacies and I was really pleased to be given a handout at one of the LILAC sessions demonstrating that ‘info lit’ is just one of many ‘literacies’ and that realistically it cannot just be librarians who are the answer to it all! Phew. In fact perhaps we should be promoting a ‘literacy’ curriculum – one that we have a role in? But even the word ‘literacy’ is fraught with interpretive issues. If you are invited to join a ‘literacy’ class, are we inferring that you (they) are ‘illiterate’? This was a point made at LILAC by Jesus Lau and it opened up all the problems in my mind that we frequently forget exist with library terminology! Ah well.....

This all inevitably bring me back to ‘boutique’ – the model, the themes, the book and so on....and even more inevitably to the fact that I really need to start working on my contribution.......


Just back from the LILAC 2011 conference with some of the highlights:

An inspirational speaker having produced a tool that I will be promoting to my users.
Katie Birkwood and Niamh Tumelty from Cambridge presented today - the success of their Teachmeets have already spread like wildfire around the country well before LILAC so I hope they bathed in the admiration of colleagues for adapting this idea to library world in the first place!

Day 2: Emma Thompson and From search to research; linking information literacy and critical research skills. I liked the use of the H2O playlist and was reminded of a few other tools that I need to also start to use like drop-box in order to pep up the information management strategy part of the Quickstart sessions we run.
Jason Eyre's Keeping up the Dialogue presentation was just plain excellent for engagement and entertainment.
More about Moira Bent and Ruth Stubbings' presentation on the revamped 7 Pillars in my next post, but the following debate about the usefulness of the model was timely and thought-provoking.
The finale for me for the day was Dina Koutsomichal's online polling session which was something that I immediately thought we could try at work - and might even suggest to the Computer Officer of the Faculty for student evaluation of lecture courses......
A great day.

Day 3: I made the mistake of assuming that I knew where I was going today - we changed location from the BL to LSE and for some reason best known to myself I had failed to print a map - just as well I had my Blackberry with me.........
Top of the list today were conversations with colleagues. Followed swiftly by the Pecha Kucha session with Wassail, Creative problem (or triage clinics), and Upgrade at City University which all provided food for thought.

Glad that I went to all three days this year.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Up, Close and Personal

Andy Priestner, co-organiser with me for the symposium on Personalised services in HE makes a very good comment when challenging us in his recent blog post to think about just how personalised is 'personalised'.

Having spent some time at work these last two weeks talking about how we can improve our customer service - and talking incessantly at home about it - my husband quietly presented me with an article called 'Shopping with a smile? I'm not buying it'. Strapline comment - 'What works for Mary Portas does not necessarily work in a Poundshop in Preston.'

Hmmm - up, close and personal doesn't always work. So how do we work out what is helpful and beneficial and what isn't? In a week where I have been receiving detailed evaluation emails on the impact of our skills programme in the Library, I am realising that, from the students perspectives, there is merit in personalising our teaching, but that some generic teaching is useful if part of a package where both styles feature. It's getting the balance right that's important. In an HE environment where students clearly feel that they have a lot of choice about what they go to, the package has to appeal to them!

What interests me in the whole personalisation thing is the subliminal messages that we give that seem to have the most impact. I just received an email from a student who was clearly impressed that a member of staff had painted a picture for the library in order to brighten a particularly dull spot. This level of commitment by the staff to improving the environment in a very quiet unobtrusive way demonstrates the sort of subliminal 'personalisation' that I am sure exists in many libraries around the world.

I'm not saying that a welcome smile and good eye contact for our users at the issue desk isn't important, but perhaps we underestimate that what we instinctively do already is providing a personlised service?

Friday, 7 January 2011

Conferenced out....

Too much information (is that possible?)

Cleared the desk on Tuesday and cleared the brain, but the libraries@cambridge conference filled it up again.

Echo chamber - thought the idea very relevant but was fascinated by all the echo chamber activity around me as I listened. Ned made that point really when pointing out the conference was full of librarians but to make matters worse - Cambridge librarians!

Thinking about the echo chamber I wonder about taking it a step further. Perhaps we should wake up to the fact that there are smaller echo chambers that are embedded within the wider institutional library environment or the big echo chamber of which all librarians are a part. Perhaps the 'wheels within wheels' picture says something of what I mean.

I'm not entirely sure that we always realise that they are there but a bit of meerkat action soon detects possibilities!

For example take the 'Thing' that I had to give up using - my head just wanted to explode from all the information contained there! My brain can divide itself up into approximately 6 compartments at any one time, and the 'Thing' doubles that number in one screens-worth of information! You take my point?

But I digress......
I can see the point of breaking out of my own mini echo chamber into the big wide world, but I wonder if there are just as many issues and perhaps damage caused by the lack of movement between our little microcosms, our mini echo chambers. Do we have a responsibility to engage with others in different parts of the same library environment as well as with the big wide world ? Whose responsibility is it? Your echo chamber - or mine?