Libraries etc.

Going to Brighton


Not on holiday, although I will prioritise my enduring need to paddle in the sea, but to a conference. Lucky, lucky me won the Briggs-Washington Bursary so generously awarded by the Commercial, Legal & Scientific Information Group (CLSIG) of CILIP; the only way I could possibly afford to go to this conference.

It’s my first conference in a few years but I remember the key points I think:

  • wear very comfortable shoes
  • display your name badge at all times
  • drink a lot of coffee
  • bring back some freebies for the children

This is my first conference where I have a clear direction, however. Previously I’ve been in a holding pattern, waiting to get my first proper job and seeing which way my career is going to go and as a result going to every possible lecture on every aspect of librarianship to cover all eventualities. Hooray for some direction. This is the first time I’ve been able to peruse a programme and know instantly which strands and which lectures will be the most relevant and useful to me.

Managing Information is the most pertinent strand for me and I’m looking forward to hearing from the best and the brightest about current thinking in knowledge and information management and hearing about some case studies – especially the Systematising Shakespeare lecture just because of the subject matter as much as anything!

I’m also keen to make the most of the Your Career strand as it’s high time I registered and got started on my chartership journey (having children really does make it a long slower to achieve career goals in my experience).

I’m very interested in a lecture by Lara Dodd about the use of social media by adolescents as a) one day my children will be just that and b) it’s a shockingly long time since I was that age and my info gathering then involved very little technology. This is precisely why it’s so important to keep updating your skills and not just rely on what you learned some worple worple years ago *ahem*

There is one really tough call on this programme, and I wonder how @ninfield feels about going up against Chris Riddell  in the schedule?

Enquiries from all and sundry

Fiona Green, the Head of Public Enquiries, explained how well-used they are as a service, fielding enquiries from the public, individuals and campaign groups, law firms and schools. They are concentrating on outreach work to reach new audiences, starting with a project in public libraries last year asking them to display a poster in the library, tweet a picture of it on display and monitor if it drives traffic to the website. This will be done on a larger scale during Parliament Week this year, 14-20 November 2016.

 This is an example from the outreach work in 2015:

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There are several leaflets and posters produced along these lines, they are free from the House of Commons Information Office


They are well-written and a great starting point for learning about Parliament. I have a set that I may well foist on my children’s school during Parliament Week!

Parliament’s Education Service also produce some smashing resources and run visits and workshops The videos on this website are short and informative. And someone has done some very nice work on the UK Parliament Facebook page, it has the lengthiest timeline of any page I’ve seen, going back to 1215 (Magna Carta, not lunchtime).

Aspects of Parliamentary History Exhibition

Last to speak was John Prince, Historical Sources Specialist, who encouraged us to go and take a turn around the exhibition containing many interesting sources, including one of my favourites: the London Illustrated Times. The articles, illustrations and advertisements are a great way to lose yourself in history.

He also told us that Hilary Saunders, the librarian from 1945-1950, was also the author of many spy stories and wrote the story that was made into the Hitchcock film: Spellbound. There was a nice film on the BBC website recently where John Prince takes a journalist on a tour of the library; so you could have just watched that and not bothered to read my efforts.

If you watch the video you will get a flavour of the tour we took; this included such snippets as the most popular books borrowed by MPs, a look at the record of Parliamentary proceedings that included the discovery of gunpowder in the cellars in 1605 and the delightful discovery that there are many works of poetry on the shelves. Amongst the popular periodicals in the foyer of the library, along with Private Eye, The Spectator and New Statesman I was very pleased to see the Which? magazine.

As we took the tour, we had a weather eye on completing a 20 item quiz we’d been given with the entreaty not to use Google. Whilst I was not too pleased with my score of 10 out of 20, I was comfortably ranking along with the majority, and in the company of information professionals I wasn’t unhappy with that.

Search Parliamentary Material

The newly-formed Research Information Service sits within the Research Directorate and supports the work of the subject specialists with current awareness services; indexing and tagging core material; producing bibliographic information (reading lists etc); resources training and support. This service was formed in April 2015 and works with approach that all library users are customers with different and changing information needs.

Throughout these staffing structure changes the library has also had to cope with being housed in a Grade 1 listed building that urgently needs extensive restoration. Options are being explored for moving out of the palace to allow restoration work to commence. A lot of the reserve collection is housed in the cellars of the palace, 2.5km of shelving in fact. Access to this and the logistics of moving it are tricky, Julia Keddie (Collection Management Coordinator) showed us photos of steep, narrow staircases with 180° bends. Similarly problem-bound are the archives department; they are located in Victoria Tower which is at the opposite end of the building to Elizabeth Tower which houses Big Ben. They have one cramped lift and 8.5km of collections to move. The archives is a shared service of the Commons and the Lords, it is not part of the library. The plans to move the archives will tackle many of the problems they currently have: poor workflow and space provision; severely limited public access and facilities; inability to control access to the repository; and the attendant issues associated with disaster recovery planning and salvage. If the archives vacate the tower it will release 7% of the palace, coveted space in an overcrowded building!

A word or two about cataloguing…

Having spent a lot of time in metadata, these are the kind of gems that I love: Liz Marley, the thesaurus editor in the Indexing and Data Management Section, had a few words to say about parliamentary language being precise and loaded and the key issues of context, the politics of naming things and occasionally getting it wrong.

An example of the latter was highlighted when representatives of the Bahá’í religion objected to a parliamentary indexing term referring to them as the ” Bahá’í sect”; after some discussion this was then changed to ” Bahá’í faith”. This is an example of the power of words and the need to get them right.

The names of countries can be politically sensitive too: whilst the UN refers to Myanmar, the UK refers to Burma as it does not recognise the legitimacy of the regime that changed the name in 1989.

The Independent Commission on Information Retrieval caused some head scratching as to how to index. In and of itself it gives no meaningful clues as to what the work of the commission involves. Research revealed that this is actually the commission to find where all the bodies are buried in Northern Ireland, to try to lay the legacy of The Troubles to rest.

And finally to Islamic State / ISIS / ISIL / Daesh / Islamic State Group. How are they to be indexed? The BBC have stuck to “so-called Islamic State” whilst David Cameron has recently referred to them as Daesh. The parliamentary thesaurus has all terms linked however, so a search for one will return all relevant results.

Finally Liz Marley introduced us to Search parliamentary material  This is a new federated search tool currently in beta which could be a very useful one-stop shop for all research on legislation and UK regulatory affairs. Have a play and see what you can find.

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House of Commons Library Open Day

17th February 2016

The House of Commons Library employs around 70 subject specialists to prepare briefing papers, research enquiries and provide confidential and impartial information for Members of Parliament.

It consists of 4 reading rooms that neighbour The Speaker’s apartments, a reference desk that is within jogging distance of the chamber and extensive collections of hard copy, digital collections and enviable access to online resources.


Figure 1

And it really does look like this.

It is an environment conducive to study, not least because the MP’s staff are not permitted access and so cannot interrupt. It must be said that those chairs on the left are very comfortable and are more conducive to sleep than anything else.

The open day got started in Portcullis House, across the road from the Palace of Westminster, with a series of lightning talks by librarians across the Information Services directorate. Here’s a brief flavour:

Lightning talks

The HoC Library field around 30 000 enquiries per year; they try to manage this load by producing as much information as possible and making it available online, via the Parliamentary Intranet and also on the internet. These information guides cover the full range of the work of government, here are a few recent titles:

Police and fire reforms 2016: The Government’s proposals for England

EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas

Shop opening hours and Sunday trading

Dealing with infestations in privately rented property (England)

Marine litter: “continents of rubbish”

and many, many more. These guides are written to give MPs the background to a subject that is about to be debated; but they are a great place to get background information on many subjects. They have been produced by a very well-resourced and skilled information service.

Other elements of the library’s role include public engagement and outreach, curation of heritage and indexing Hansard. Their work is used for parliamentary debates; scrutinising and informing legislation; media, e.g. Question Time; constituency surgeries, specialist interests and Select Committee work.

There is a still a high demand for hardcopy, especially newspapers and periodicals. Some MPs will use more digital resources than others, no different to any other library’s patrons.

Examples of HoC Library output:

Research briefings

Current awareness emails drawn from news aggregators

Second Reading, the House of Common Library blog

Twitter @commonslibrary


In staffing structure structure the closest comparison I can make is with an academic library even to the extent that they have recently restructured (2014) and have a customer service approach to MPs now. They changed the physical layout of the library, underwent behavioural training and a Continuous Improvement programme. I recently attended a Continuous Improvement talk at the University of York where they talked about how they achieved Customer Service Excellence, a government initiative in fact, and this restructure put me very much in mind of that.


Somewhat after the fact…Umbrella 2011 at the University of Hatfield, 12-13 July 2011

I work as a paraprofessional indexer at the British Library in Boston Spa. I enjoy my work and actively participate in wider professional activities too. So when the opportunity arose to attend Umbrella through the very kind sponsorship of the CILIP Affiliates Network, with help from The British Library, I didn’t need to be asked twice. It was an event I’ve always wanted to go to but could never afford. And what an event it was. My head is still abuzz with the huge amount of information that was delivered in the sessions.

 The conference opener was a keynote address by Gerald Leitner, the president of EBLIDA and the secretary general of the Austrian Library Association, a man whose CV almost defines overachievement! He spoke about what he saw as the two main challenges for libraries:

1. the need for both a Europe-wide policy on the role of libraries and to embed them in the educational culture of each member country, especially in the light of the PISA report which identifies educational attainment levels in each country

2. the challenges presented by the economic crisis, which results in a crisis for libraries across Europe. For example, he pointed out that South Korea as a burgeoning society is opening 180 new libraries this year whilst the UK are trying to close 400.

 It struck me throughout this address that we often lack a wider perspective from our little island. As Gerald talked us through the differences between the European Union and the Council of Europe, and what the legal implications were for a common library policy, I felt he had uncovered a huge gap in my knowledge of what happens in the rest of Europe; Personally I’m probably far more aware of US and Canadian libraries than European. The PISA report of 2009 identified Finland as having the highest levels of literacy due, he told us, to them having the best library system in Europe. The lowest levels of attainment were found in Romania. Approximately 20% of young people there are at risk from all that follows from poor literacy as they cannot be reached by the written word. Gerald concluded that libraries make an important contribution to a country’s culture, education and knowledge, and that they are part of civic responsibility and vision. Herr Dr. Leitner also pointed out something that resonated across the advocacy strand of the conference: that the press and politicians, like anyone else, hold preconceptions and prejudices about libraries and librarians; the difference being that they, rightly or wrongly, have the power to influence. What has been tremendously heartening has been the formation of Voices for the Library(VftL), represented here by the very impressive and seemingly endlessly energetic, Lauren Smith and the ever-entertaining and informative CILIP Vice-President Phil Bradley. VftL has been moving mountains in addressing those prejudices and when you hear the passion with which everyone at Umbrella speaks about the LIS sector it starts to feel like a fight we can win. We can show everyone our worth. Tuesday was a long day, but too exciting and interesting to let tiredness get in the way of more experiences. I’d started the day at 5am to travel from York to Hatfield, but I was glad I’d made the effort to dress up and head out to the gala dinner because it was a chance to hear Bonnie Greer speak. She opened with the news that MPs were going to vote overwhelmingly to refuse Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy BSkyB thus thwarting his monopoly over information flow in this country. This was met with rapturous applause and has pinned the moment to my memory of the conference, something I’ll always remember. Bonnie spoke about free access to information and the written word with great passion, we were all entranced by this impressive, charismatic and erudite woman who made us all very proud of the work we do. Over the two days I listened to presentations from academic, public, government, museum and other special libraries. I learned about working with digital, hard copy, photographic and digitised collections. I heard from non-professionals, paraprofessionals, newly-qualified librarians and very experienced specialists. I can’t see where else you would have the opportunity to experience the breadth of this profession, be inspired, motivated, confused, captivated and moved to tears in the space of just two days. The tears came with the ‘Libraries Change Lives’ award that was won by Kent Libraries ‘Making a Difference’ project, although all three finalists deserved recognition for their wonderful work. Some of what I heard was familiar to me, but much of it was outside my sphere of experience and I’ve had a chance to learn about information work across the sectors which has broadened my horizons considerably. I came away from the conference with a feeling of pride to belong to such a respected and august institution: as soon as anyone looked at my name badge and saw The British Library they were immediately impressed. Similarly when touring the exhibitors’ stands, as soon as the vendors saw I was BL they immediately switched off their hard-sell, from the SWETS representative to a vendor that specialises in outsourcing cataloguing and authority control; the latter because we’re already good customers of theirs, the latter because she knew that we do much of our metadata work in-house. It seemed to me that a lot of librarians look to The British Library to lead on best practice, especially those who work in small teams or as solo librarians who rely on our metadata in order to catalogue their own collections (this is certainly something I did when working at the National Railway Museum). Looking back over my copious notes from each session, initially I’ve hit information overload. But as I begin to digest and reflect on what I’ve heard, start to investigate online resources, and make contact with people I met, I feel confident that I have chosen the right profession; I really love the challenge of using the skills, the collections and the technologies to make a difference in people’s lives and I look forward to a long and interesting career. Helped along the way by all the free pens I got from the exhibitors!

DREaMy meanderings – research excellence

This week I have been reading a lot about social policy, for a specific reason but actually it’s tuned me in to stuff on t’Internet beyond what I normally read and that’s a good thing. For a librarian to only read library stuff is not so good. In fact, bearing in mind what Prof Blaise Cronin said to us last week at the LIS_DREaM conference it’s vital to know our place in the wider world.

When East Coast deigned to allow us to arrive at Kings Cross, Simon Barron and I hotfooted it round the corner to The British Library conference centre just in time for Hazel Hall to get started; (was there ever a better way to let people know you’re running late than tweeting that fact with the conference hash tag?) This conference was the beginning of a project whose noble aim is to develop a nationwide network of top quality LIS researchers. Prof Cronin got things off to a good start with a nicely provocative keynote, part of which was some fairly robust criticism of current LIS research and that’s what I’d like to think about here.

One of my fears about my MA research was that I was just taking a snapshot of public libraries’ online activity and that it’d be out of date instantly and therefore pointless. That it was just me prodding around online looking at library websites and and scribbling something down to fulfill my degree requirements. From my experience of being related to PhD researchers, once being married to one and having loads of friends doing one, it seems to me that a healthy feeling of fear is pretty much a constant for researchers. Sometimes it’s a good thing: it keeps you keen, relevant and scrupulous in your reading and current awareness. Sometimes it pushes you over into generalised anxiety, sleeplessness and misery. But underlying all of that you hope against hope that it has some point, that you’re putting yourself through the mill for The Greater Good. Well Prof Cronin has called us all on that one and pointed out how some LIS research is ivory tower, narcissistic twaddle. Stuff that gets published and keeps the researcher in academia but contributes nothing to the canon. That’s what I was worried about and I’m glad it’s been voiced because it leads on to something that Prof Nigel Ford said just the week before at Umbrella: that research and practice need to be a lot closer to one another.

Prof Ford’s lecture was called “Technology, Personalisation and Librarians: Research & Practice”. Nigel’s lectures are always entertaining and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to relive my MA days so went along to hear him speak. The thrust of his opening was that we can leverage the different information needs and information processing styles to provide personalised information services, this personalisation is the way we do our jobs in future, it’s how we prove out worth. But in order to do this we need far more interplay between LIS researchers and practitioners. So when Prof Cronin called for meaningful and rigorous research I immediately doubted my own efforts.

However, when I’ve reflected I think I’ve managed to convince myself that my snapshot was useful. I had a huge response to my initial questionnaire, so much so that I had to scale back what I could achieve with the data. So, practitioners who I surveyed clearly cared about what I was asking. There were some very strong feelings expressed. One of my initial hopes was that in casting my net to capture UK public libraries’ participation in Web 2.0 I would be creating a list, a resource, that others who wanted inspiration could turn to. I think I achieved that in some measure. I think that because after I published that research on my blog last year, I immediately got asked to write a guest blog post for UKOLN Cultural Heritage Blog, off the back of that I was asked to write an article for Ariadne magazine. I was asked to speak at a Oxford University Press Panel Day on Discoverability for Public Libraries. I wrote an article for CILIP’s MmIT group newsletter and have just had another article published in CILIP’s ISG group journal, Refer. So I’m thinking that people did give a damn about what I wrote, what I found and what I was able to point them towards. I think I’m pretty much done with it now, it’s ancient history really and I can’t sustain follow-on research (see my Chaos postings for why not!), plus I want to move on to whatever’s next now.

So all that meandering has led me to draw a line under my MA research, it’s time to move on. But I look back on it fondly, it got me some great opportunities and I think I’ve decided that it was good, solid research that did fulfill my ambition to be of actual use to practitioners.

The tyranny of tupperware

further to my earlier 2 posts I would like to add that I don’t think I’m particularly different in the demands of my life, I just think I could be a whole lot better at organising myself. I’ve been meaning to rearrange my kitchen cupboards for over a year now, every time I open one door, a cascade of tupperware falls onto the floor; I’m determined there’s an ergonomically-pleasing way to store storage but I’ve never given myself the time to work it out.

And just in case anyone wonders how it’s possible to write a master’s dissertation with a 7 month-old baby, I attach a photo in explanation. And now it’s time to relax for a couple of hours, safe in the knowledge that I have blogged today, although not impressively or meaningfully, but I can tick that box.

Collating and presenting results from Excel, nourishing my mind whilst nourishing my child.

and now I need to learn how to use Google +

Jesus H, I need a holiday.

“No amount of spider diagrams will sort my life out.”

Straight away I have to credit that title, Lauren Smith tweeted it last night, I read it on my way home from Umbrella 2011, the CILIP conference & expo, as my brain was still fizzing, my feet aching, my writer’s and tweeter’s cramp throbbing and information overload level surpassed for the umpteenth time this year.

I never even blogged all my exploits last ruddy Summer, I send myself emails from work to home, from home to work, from work to my Kindle, from my phone to work and occasionally accidentally to my dog. I might be an okay librarian professionally, but personally I’m information addict with a real problem. My approach to information gathering is hit and run, haphazard and with a barely-controlled level of information anxiety much of the time. I’m trying so hard to develop my career and get my first post as a professional (at my age, pah!), I’m trying to help set up a trial for donor breastmilk to be used on the special care baby unit at my local hospital, I’m researching health information for myself and my family, I’m teaching my partner how to use the social web, I’m balancing debts accumulated getting my master’s degree, I’m constantly battling with my hardware (I don’t want to have to know how to fix it and cobble it together all the time, I paid hard-earned cash, I just want it to ruddy work) but most of all I’m doing my best to be a good mother – and of course, researching the hell out of every possible parenting method I like the look of. And loads of other things I just can’t keep in my head all at once.

I was so lucky to win a place at the Special Libraries Association annual conference in 2008, so lucky. But I never really capitalised on my experience; I made some contacts and I learned loads and loads but I wasn’t so wise to how you have to follow up on those leads, write reflectively and make the most of everything straight afterwards, not let the vitality of the experience fade before you act. As soon as I got home I had to finish my dissertation which I couldn’t because I got ill, then I got pregnant, then I got ill when I was pregnant, then of course I had my baby. Which is the single most focussing experience of my life. For a while everything professional fell away as I immersed myself with my beautiful child and how having her made everything worthwhile. Then when she was 5 months old I started writing my dissertation up, submitted when she was 7 months old. I have to say, I can’t really recommend that as the ideal way to write up but I sure as hell started to manage my time ruthlessly, and it worked. Thinking all along that I just wanted to do a “good enough” job, get it finished, submit it then never think about it again, it seemed that I was incapable of doing a bodge job of it and ended up with a distinction from the University of Sheffield. Bloody hell! I surprised myself there, and slightly irritated myself for not being able to leave well alone, not switching off, letting my brain get carried away with itself again. I remembered why I’d chosen this profession, because I love it and I can’t switch off from it, I love to learn all the time and connect with all the great folk I’ve met in person, virtually and now both. I realise that I spend most of my time outside my comfort zone, that’s who I am and I need to accept that, embrace it and move on.

So here’s what I’ve decided to do. This idea fully crytallised this evening when I was watching our customary pre-bath, pre-bed episode of Come Outside (yes, inspiration strikes at the strangest times), Auntie Mabel and Pippin the dog were moving house and packing everything up in boxes, big boxes, little boxes, boxes for everything (you think I’m watching too much children’s television? I’m inclined to agree). She had boxes full of the crap you drag around your life, a box of buttons because you never know when you might need it. You know the kind of thing. I recently read a Lifehacker post that suggested having a box to put in all those little things for which there’s no home but which you can group together until it’s full then you can sort it out. Well that’s my house, that’s my brain, that’s my files and crap on my various devices. Conclusion: that day is never going to dawn. There will never be a time when I can sit down and review, categorise, sort and generally get all my shit together. Not going to happen. Life seems to be permanently set at breakneck speed, so it’s time to stare reality full in the face.

I’m going to draw a line in the sand, that line is going to be Monday 10th July. Anything that I set aside before that date, set aside to do later, read, think about, get to grips with: in the bin. Away with it. No keeping stuff in case it comes in handy one day. What’s the point in keeping gazillions of pdfs of academic papers from my master’s degree? If I ever need to refer to them, I’ve got my bibliographies and oh yeah, I’m a librarian – I will find it if I need it.

I’m drawing the line pre-Umbrella cos it’d be churlish in the extreme to cast that aside. I’ve got shedloads of notes and things to follow up on from that; current, relevant, bang-up-to-date LIS gold. So, in order to maximise the usefulness of all that splendour, I’m going to blog every day until I’ve milked it for all it’s worth. Not for some imagined reader who’s going to trawl through my drivel, for myself. I owe it to myself to let up on my perfectionism and just crack on with this.

I need to create a research strategy for myself, a way to move my other projects forward. I need to write everything down. I need to get that massive piece of paper and draw that spider diagram, extract priorities from it, devise strategies for addressing them and throw the rest in the bin. Leave it alone, move on.

A bold promise, perhaps rash, but I’ve got to give it my best shot.

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