2011 UKSG Conference, Harrogate : libraries and the ‘discovery deficit’.

photo In 1931 the critic Walter Benjamin described in his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ the intimate side of collecting books, how each book brings with it a particular memory or association: ‘the whole background of an item adds up to a a magic encyclopedia’. He goes on to develop this idea further in the influential Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction(1936), where he describes how modern works of art (such as photography, film) lose this unique ‘aura’ of association, once they can be copied over and over again,

image credit:Nesster

whereas older forms (such as painting, sculpture) still keep their ‘authenticity’ intact. As a result of this changing mode of production, new relations between author and public develop, the artist loses their separatedness, and readers turn into writers.

This struck me as a good thread to follow through the talks at the UKSG conference I recently attended. In his keynote address, John Naughton (The Open University and Cambridge University Library) referred to what he called the disruptive innovation’ of capitalism, and its effect on markets where ‘the basic unit of communication is shrinking’. He gave as examples both Amazon, that now sells Kindle Singles alongside books, and also iTunes where individual ‘tunes’ are now downloaded instead of ‘albums’ (this is where some of us get misty-eyed and reach for our vinyl). The digital age creates new, sometimes temporary, forms of consumption that have shattered artistic ‘auras’ long ago. What would Benjamin have made of the enhanced e-book, I wonder?

Many libraries and publishers have not yet fully woken up to this yet. Andy Powell’s talk Open, social and linked – A ménage à trois of content exploitation’ showed how Web 2.0 has revealed new forms of social relations that challenge our ‘academic inertia’. He drew on work by Dave White of Oxford University on ‘Visitors and Residents‘,which moved beyond concepts of ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to identify new categories of student users.

Whereas the web is social and-behaviour changing (see The Machine is Us/ing Us‘ video); libraries are still content-centric, and we often show a ‘mis-match between repository architecture and real-world social networks’. (And to add to that, I would say we still manage library systems that were built on the book, or a list of books, rather the article or the chapter; publishers still bury content for us in large, unwieldy aggregated e-resources, and some of them even build ‘discovery tools to help us discover their own content – which is nice).

Publishers face similar disruptions, and as Philip E. Bourne pointed out in Digital research,analog publishing : one scientist’s view , even the PDF (that ‘irreducible’ commercial unit) is being open up to semantic tagging of PDF. So researchers are suddenly commenting on, and sharing texts, as scholarly  communication is socialized, and there is a corresponding flurry of new pricing models for students – the most obvious of which is ’patron-driven acquisition’ (PDA) for e-books.

Terry Bucknell’s review of current e-books practice at Liverpool, Buying by the Bucketful advocated a mixed economy but also advised caution in getting the best deal. Sarah Pearson’s session on KBART showed how it was difficult to achieve consortial agreements with publishers on common knowledge base standards for link resolvers. KBART is making steady progress here, and that means sharing publisher metadata at the micro-level .If you look beyond the comfort blanket of a standard model license, the fragmented nature of the e-journal market with all it different pricing mechanisms is all that you see. That effect is multiplied the more we deal with agents, and agents of agents.

Multiple market-led technologies are still driving this change, so the question is not just whether or not It’s a Book, but how many formats is this ‘stuff’ available in? As Rick Anderson put it, in The Future of the Collection Is Not a Collection : before the Internet,libraries were an ‘information temple with the librarian as high priest to grant the sacred knowledge, now they are ‘one of many store fronts offering access to information at a price’. The key word here is many : theplatform fragmentation’ that so bedevils the mobile world (versions upon versions of apps and software that don’t always work together) is rife in other media too, such as  Blue-ray v. DVD.

That’s where us librarians come back in, helping to navigate our students through the format jungle. We need not only to develop tips and tricks ourselves (like the ones Tony Hirst talked about) but also be aware of how many different ways there are to search for, and to comment on, an ever expanding universe of texts. (see for example my comment on a quote from Benjamin which I recently tweeted from my Kindle : the ‘plurality of copies’ he talks about in his essay looks forward to our digital age ).
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The ‘magic encyclopedias’ have gone – but the ‘discovery deficit’ (as pointed out by Cameron Neylon) is still with us. This ‘stuff’ is still buried within institutional and commercial silos, and we need to shine more light on it.

Or as Groucho Marx put it :
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read’.

How I got into Librarianship

This blog post forms part of the Library Routes project started by Ned Potter & Laura Woods. I’ve meaning to write this for some time, ever since I attended the New Professionals Information Day back in October 2010, so not too overdue then… At every talk the presenters emphasised the importance of enjoying what you do and many discussed the creativity, variety and flexibility that working in libraries often affords reminding me in some ways of why I wanted to work in libraries in the first place.   In fact much of the advice given was not new to me but was worthwhile being refreshed.

So how did I get into libraries…

I could start with how I worked in the library at secondary school for my last year at school one day a week but I can’t really remember much about it (‘twas 16 years ago!). While studying for my A’ Levels and it came to making choices for UCAS librarianship came up but I decided to opt for Psychology (for various reasons I needed to live at home if I went to university and there was only one local library course so I was advised not to choose this). So in the year 2000 Psychology degree complete, uncertain about what I wanted to do but knew I wanted to use my degree in some way so I got a job in a secondary school supporting students with learning difficulties. After a year there I did my PGCE and taught A’ Level Psychology for three years at an FE college.  Whenever asked what I did at the time people would always say something along the lines of “Oh teaching at A’ level… I bet that’s better than working in a secondary school… the students will be motivated… they’ve chosen to study” and each time I would need to de-bunk that myth.   Those three years were pretty stressful and by my third year I knew I needed to be doing something different. But what? I briefly flirted with the idea of teaching at degree level but that was quickly dismissed. I was still eligible to access the university careers service from studying my PGCE. These sessions were really useful as it helped me decide that I wanted to work in libraries. The transition from teaching to libraries was not a smooth one though and I found it difficult to get my foot in the door. I left FT teaching in August 2005 and spent the next few months applying for jobs and not really getting any interviews, all quite demoralising and at times made me question whether I’d made the right decision. Then I’d remember how I’d cried on the way to work because I really didn’t want to go in and that strengthened my resolve. I started asking for feedback on my application forms so I could improve my personal statements and make sure I was hitting all the criteria with explicit examples. Staff selecting in academic libraries seemed used to this and gave some useful tips. As a result of one conversation I signed up to do ECDL so I could prove my ICT skills. Staff in public libraries seemed surprised I would ask for feedback. I didn’t get shortlisted for one public library job as I had not put I could use a telephone (they rang me to tell me this). I arranged to shadow librarians at two academic libraries and an NHS library which confirmed I was making the right career choice. These things helped and I got a couple of interviews for PT work on Saturdays as a Library Assistant at local public libraries and then… I had two jobs to choose from. PT work was obviously not ideal but I had my first library job, yay!   Around the same time that I’d been offered my job in the public library I was also offered FT work as a Personal Adviser for Connexions. It was a busy week as I’d had three interviews in the space of as many days. I took up both roles at the start of 2006 and was working 6 days a week. I was really enjoying my PT  library job but not so much my role at Connexions (I’d been based in a pupil referral unit) so continued to look for other library jobs. I’d applied for a job in July 2006 as a Library Assistant at UCE, four weeks came and went so I assumed I’d been unsuccessful. Then in October 2006 HR rang and asked if I was still interested in the post and whether I’d like to attend an interview, “yes please”. I was interviewed for both FT and PT posts and was successful in gaining a FT position and started as a Library Assistant (Serials) in January 2007. I’ve been at UCE, now Birmingham City University, ever since. My roles have changed in that time and before becoming the Serials Librarian (my current role) I also spent time as a Library Assistant in Document Delivery. Moving around and gaining experience in different departments has given me an overview of working in an academic library and certainly helped when I was completely my MA Information and Library Management which I studied via distance learning.