Libraries at Cambridge Event

11 Jan

Last week I attended the Libraries@Cambridge event, and it was excellent. Laura and I were due to present on the Echo Chamber together but, in what is rapidly becoming known as The Curse of the Echo Chamber*, once again one of us ran into problems – this time Laura had Flu so I had to go solo.

The keynote was from Alex Wade, Director of Scholarly Communications at Microsoft, no less. He designed the search functionality in Windows 7, calling on his expertise in information retrieval, acquired during his time as a librarian. This is an interesting use of a librarian’s skills, and another example of the myriad career paths potentially available to the Info Pro. The thing which most caught my eye in his presentation was Academic Search, a free service from Microsoft, which at the moment is in beta. Currently heavy on the Computer Science side of things but soon to be expanded to cover more subjects, it nicely allows the user to navigate to scholarly papers via various different means. It’s a very attractive interface, and easy to use: it shows that presenting data in a more visual way really serves a purpose beyond nice aesthetics – here’s a screengrab, showing Alfred V. Aho at the centre, and all of his co-authors around him:

Picture of academic search from Microsoft, screen-grab

Click to go to this actual search and play around with it

If you click on the lines between the authors it shows you how many publications they’ve co-authored and takes you to them if you want to drill deeper, and if you click on any of the co-authors then the whole matrix re-centres on them. It looks really useful and is perhaps indicative of what 3.0 generation library catalogues could usefully do to make navigation easier for users.

Alex had to rush his presentation as he had more to say than he had time to say it in – he literally skipped 20 or 30 slides. This baffled me somewhat – we all knew well in advance how long we had to talk, so why not tailor the presentation to fit the time? No one HAS to say yes to an invitation to present – if you don’t have enough time to prepare properly, time your talk etc, why agree to do it? I was up late the night before, timing my talk, finding it was 3 or 4 minutes too long, and then cutting bits out and timing it again until it was right – because I was honoured to be there, and didn’t want to disrespect the audience, the organisers and my fellow presenters by over-running. Turns out I’m quite high-horse-ish about running to time…

Next up was me. I have to say it was pretty amazing to be doing a plenary session in front of 250 people at such a venerable institution – one to which I owe my very existence, as my parents met there. I refered to this in my introduction with a ‘thank you for having me’ gag, and the way the audience responded completely relaxed me – I knew it was going to be fine after that, despite not knowing the bits Laura normally does as well as my own sections, and having added new bits and a re-structure for this presentation. I’ve never spoken to that many people at once before, and I’ve certainly never used a screen that big – it was literally about the size of my house!

Picture of a really, really big screen

Look how small the podium is compared to the screen!

Although I don’t really get nervous when I present, I do worry about the technical side of things – I need to know, in advance, that everything is working, or I get stressed. I was really glad I asked that we check everything was okay before the conference began, because both times that Alex removed his laptop so we could hook up the ‘general’ one most of the rest of us were using, it didn’t like the Projector and took ages to display on the big screen. Thankfully there was a break before my talk during which we could iron this stuff out.

Having got up at 4:45am I was worried I’d be tired, but adrenalin and the four-shot coffee I’d had at the station earlier carried me through. It was great to do this presentation to a crowd that was really mixed in terms of age, seniority and so on, and who weren’t all familiar with what I was talking about – sometimes I fear Laura and I preach to the converted ABOUT preaching to the converted. The talk went well, I remembered everything I wanted to say (I think) and it really was far better not using notes than the New Professionals Information Days where I did use notes. People did a fantastic job of tweeting the presentation – you can read the twapperkeeper archive here – and really got the points across well, which is good as I didn’t have time to amplify this event myself by setting up any auto-tweets.

People were really kind in what they said to me afterwards, and there was lots of positive feedback. It was particularly good to hear a lot of people say they found the presentation fresh and engaging even though they’d read about it all on this blog, on twitter etc, in the past. Because I really believe in the echo chamber idea and its importance, I was really pleased that many of the afternoon sessions referred back to it – I think the concept stuck. As ever, if you’re interested in reading more about echolib, there is a Netvibes page with all sorts of information in one place.

The updated Prezi used on the day is below – this is restructured and improved from previous efforts, so check it out even if you’re familiar with the subject matter (and of course feel free to embed it on your own site):

Escaping the echo-chamber on Prezi

There was break-out sessions after this – I chose to go to one which contained a useful talk by Tim Padfield on copyright in Special Collections, very relevant to my current work with the LIFE-SHARE Project. At lunch time I talked to the Graduate Trainees who seem to be really switched on and forward thinking about the library profession – and also went outside to look at a tree my Dad fell out of when he was a choir-boy in Cambridge…

After lunch there was about a million mini-presentations around the theme of working together in Cambridge (by and large, the more senior the presenter, the less likely they were to run to time…). I particularly enjoyed Katie Birkwood (@Girlinthe)’s talk about Open Libraries in which she made excellent use of Prezi (and an exclamation point therein, in particular) and talked very entertainingly; and the Graduate Trainees’ presentation; and the summary of the TeachMeet movement which began via a speculative tweet or blog post fuelled by wine. (The movement did, not the summary.) There was excellent use of theatre in a very good talk about the Fresher’s Fair (and the funniest use of the phrase ‘unexplained chasm’ I’d ever heard) from the twinkly-eyed and very laid-back Huw Jones. I also very much enjoyed Andy Priestner‘s look back at Cam23, and some random aerobics (with kissing noises) he made us do in the middle of the session!

There was a theme running through a lot of these sessions – or rather two related themes. Firstly, many of these projects and movements came about because someone just decided to ‘do it’ – I’ve talked before about how much I think we all can just achieve things ourselves now, often via the web2 tools available to us, rather than waiting for someone more senior, more influential, or cleverer to do it for us. People just tried to make things happen, and they did, and the things that resulted were a success, and will be repeated. Which brings us to the second theme, which is of the trouble with formalisation. A lot of these projects were and are informally run – there aren’t people taking minutes, or even necessarily people having meetings. People just communicate via modern channels, show up on the day and get things done. This malleable model really seems to achieve a lot – it allows people the freedom to act quickly and creatively (and is in stark contrast to the bureaucracy CILIP often gets bogged down in, for example, and it is by no means just CILIP who suffers from this). Voices for the Library seems to be the ultimate exponent of this modern approach, but it’s happening all over the place. The problem is, it often becomes quite hard to keep informal when things start working really well. Up-scaling and informality do not often go hand-in-hand. Particularly when money becomes involved, the accountability that results often hampers the very creative endeavour which the funds are rewarding. It’s an interesting problem, and not one for which I have a ready solution.

It did put me in mind of Bethan Ruddock’s outstanding presentation at ILI2010, though. In her talk, entitled Do Libraries Have a Future? – you can see a transcript of it on her blog – Bethan says this about a LinkedIn discussion on the fragmentation of the library profession:

“I found ‘supergroups’ notion intriguing – the idea of self-selecting groups that can constitute themselves according to what they want to accomplish. What I found surprising, however, was the fact that no-one in the discussion explicitly acknowledged that this is already happening. It’s happening right there in the discussion, as disparate professionals are coming together to discuss problems and issues that are common to all.

I’m fortunate to be involved with another couple of these self-selecting, self-forming groups. The first is LISNPN – the LIS new professionals’ network. Set up by Ned Potter, this is a virtual space where hundreds of new – and not-so-new! – information professionals are gathering to talk, to collaborate, to share ideas and experiences. The network is independent – it’s not affiliated with any of the prof organisations, it’s run by new professionals, for new professionals. It’s not sector-specific, it’s not country-specific. Most of the users are from the UK, but on one random page of users I also saw members from the US, Canada, Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands, Finland and Nigeria, highlighting the truly international nature of some of the issues facing information professionals.

LISNPN has recently graduated from a purely virtual network to involving some face-to-face events. Theses have been social events so far, organised by members. There’s been no approval to get, no committee to go through, no worries over the target audience – just an idea of ‘wouldn’t it be nice to meet-up for a drink and a chat? Let’s do it! Everyone welcome!’.

Does this sound like a profession that’s fragmenting? To me it sounds like a profession that is embracing its differences, and finding its commonalities.”

I love the message of hope in this! And I think it is relevant to the formalisation debate, too. Perhaps the answer is that we need both informal and formal groups, as both serve their purposes and allow their opposite to function more successfully, too.

Anyway, it was a great day. It was great fun to meet so many people I’d had online interaction with previously, in the flesh. Thank you so much to Andy Priestner, who lobbied the organising committee to have two New Professionals no one had heard of to do a plenary session at a big event; I’m really sorry Laura couldn’t be there, but I had a great time. My only regret is that Andy’s spectacular Star Wars related Echo Chamber incident (this post went viral) happened too late to be included in the presentation – I think it’s my favourite echolib escape EVER. :)

There are some more blog posts about the day, from Annie Johnson, from Katie Birkwood, from Libby Tilley, and from Sarah Stamford – let me know if I’ve missed any.

- thewikiman

*Okay, no one is calling it that. Just me.

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  • Ned Potter January 11, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    [#lac11 blogpost] Libraries at Cambridge Event – via #twitoaster

  • Cosmo Anderson January 11, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    RT @theREALwikiman: [#lac11 blogpost] Libraries at Cambridge Event – via #twitoaster

  • Losbiblio January 11, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    RT @theREALwikiman: [#lac11 blogpost] Libraries at Cambridge Event – via #twitoaster

  • Andy Priestner January 11, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    RT @theREALwikiman: [#lac11 blogpost] Libraries at Cambridge Event – via #twitoaster

  • Girl in the Moon January 11, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    Ned, thanks for such a thorough and interesting post about the day. It’s interesting to see how such a Cambridge-focused event is seen from someone from the outside. I second your thanks to Andy – it was great to have such a current, practical (in the sense that it’s something that we can all act on, not a ‘big issue’ that might affect us at some point in the future) issue discussed right at the heart of the day. And it was the first time that I’d been to one of these things and actually *heard* of any of the speakers in advance! (Though that says more about my increased engagement than anything else, perhaps)

    I think that the conflict between formal and informal is felt very strongly in Cambridge – that’s quite possibly why the success of Cam23 and other grass roots initiatives have come as such a revelation to many of us.


    P.S. Thanks for the kind words about my talk and prezi.

    P.P.S. I was a bit baffled by the conspicuous timing issue, too. If nothing else, if you’re a representative of a company or organisation, having a talk run like that doesn’t reflect very well on them!

  • thewikiman January 11, 2011 at 3:10 PM

    Katie – 23 things programmes generally seem to do very well – perhaps that’s more down to the informality of them than we realise. The interesting thing about Camrbidge from the outside is the fact that you have more libraries than many Universities have staff just highlight the same problems with internal communication and fragmentation that we all have, but somehow make them hilarious… :)

  • Annie Johnson January 11, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    Great summary, and your presentation has definitely had some sort of effect already in Cambridge because I’ve heard phrases like “but are we just talking to the echo-chamber here?!” being thrown about quite a lot this week!

    It wouldn’t have been so bad if Alex’s slides were going to be put up somewhere afterwards, but skipping through a dozen interesting looking slides and then not putting them up online because the presentation is too long is being a bit of a tease :P

  • thewikiman January 11, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    Annie I’m really pleased about that! Like I said, with the echo chamber as soon as you become aware of it you suddenly think, wow, that’s us! Then you immediately start taking steps to address the problem.

    It is a shame the Microsofty slides didn’t go up afterwards, yes!

  • Lyn Bailey January 11, 2011 at 5:02 PM

    RT @theREALwikiman: [#lac11 blogpost] Libraries at Cambridge Event – via #twitoaster

  • Lyn Bailey January 11, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    Great summary – we were honoured to have you speaking to us. Highlight of the day and I think most of us were thinking along the same lines as you about the first speaker. Especially as the later slides looked more interesting and relevant than the earlier ones as they flicked past at high speed.

    As Annie said the “echo-chamber” term has gone viral in Cambridge now – lets hope we can all spread our work outside the Cambridge chamber.

  • thewikiman January 11, 2011 at 6:10 PM

    Lyn that is a very kind thing to say, thank you! Viral echo chamber For The Win…

  • Huw Jones January 11, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    Lovely post – really enjoyed your talk and Annie is right, it has definitely had an impact here in Cambridge.
    My eyes were twinkling even more brightly after 4 glasses of wine at the reception …

  • thewikiman January 11, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    Huw, I originally wrote ‘laconic’ as I thought that’s what you were, and suddenly wondered if I knew what it meant – so I typed it into Word and pressed shift-F7 to get the thesaurus and sure enough it didn’t mean what I thought it meant at all! Good times. So I changed it to twinkly-eyed, which is something else entirely, really. TRUE FACT.

    I also really enjoyed win at the reception – I don’t think I’ve used wine as thirst-quencher since before my baby was born. Woof.

  • Annie Johnson January 11, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Oh also, Erin has written a great report of the morning sessions and I rehashed the post from my blog for the CATALOG website here:

  • thewikiman January 11, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    Cheers Annie!

  • Sarah Stamford January 11, 2011 at 9:36 PM

    It’s refreshing to read a summary of “our” conference from an outsider, thanks. I agree completely re Alex Wade and preparation, and appreciate the trouble you took over yours. Hope we’ll find an opportunity to have you back again.

  • Ned Potter January 12, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    #lac11 post: review of the Libraries at Cambridge Event, plus – is formality the enemy of creativity? (Yes…)

  • Sam Oakley January 12, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    Having a play with Microsoft Academic Search beta after reading @theREALwikiman 's blog

  • thewikiman January 12, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    Sarah, I’d love to come back. And I completely agree with you about all the grass roots stuff you mention in your blog post, by the way. I wonder who’ll be the first Head Librarian to successfully walk the line between old-school and new-school, old media and new media, organised and free-form, and make it work..?

  • [...] I was in Cambridge for the #LAC11 conference, the whole afternoon was given over to presentations on these kinds of initiatives – 23 [...]

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