You can’t win ‘em all…

24 Jan

This is the 100th blog post on thewikiman blog, and some of them have been seen more than others. The more widely distributed your stuff, the more likely people are to dislike it. Or rather, the more people who would dislike it if they saw it, see it. So it was inevitable that my Slide-deck about what to expect if you want to work in libraries would eventually recieve some flak as it’s the most viewed thing I’ve done.

Due to being featured on Slideshare’s homepage, and Liked/Shared on FaceBook + linked to from Twitter nearly 1,000 times, it has been viewed a lot – nearly 15,000 times at the time of writing. By my normal standards, that is stratospheric. It has been favourited 30 times, downloaded 114 times and embeded on 68 websites, including non-English-as-native-language sites, such as Bibliosession. Bibliosession acknowledged a couple of other French sites that had drawn their attention to the deck, and it was because of that I was able to read a comment on, which, I have to say, is the best piece of criticism I’ve ever read!

Angry French comment

Click to view in situ

I used Google Translate to get a better (yet still, I realise, innacurate) idea of exactly how cross they were, here’s what it came up with:

Translation: it is "clear " in that these ten laws deserve a place in the annals of cliches and bullshit professional. Even the crap short: in the era of PowerPoint, it is not surprising to see the aphorism as a substitute for thought. And devotees jumping for joy.  Not surprisingly: it comes from Britons. And in the land of France, we are always taking the last Anglo-Saxon nonsense.

"Aphorism as a subtitute for thought" - it's as good a description of my output as any...


Anyway, Google Translate is always a hilarious source of entertainment, especially when you translate things through multiple languages and eventually back to your own. I mauled this quote through Afrikaans, Croation, Basque, Malay, Traditional Chinese, and Swahili, via a bunch of other languages, ending with Korean – then back to English… And got this:

In fact, silver, Thanks for the information to the Dominican lahar: "This is the correct picture is one tenth of all the dust, Power Point itself, the meaning of the law and professional opinion and, remarkably, not joy, he jumped right is another clear expression ...  This is not surprising: the Saxon English inches - including the country of France, always pay close angle. Saxon are all fools - but, Angle, does not mean that. To determine the reference information, and he to the public, answer questions, and where, instead of changing their beliefs, he said, as well as libraryes ..

Saxon fools!



In other news

[NB: Don't click the link in this bit if you read those Harry Potter books and are not yet finished the final book / waiting for the final film to find out what happenes.] A library in Norway has found a truly excellent way to ensure their books get returned when they’re overdue. Is this twitpic of a letter sent to a patron – – real? Who knows – either way, it’s a genius idea… Thanks to @Slewth for the link!

- thewikiman

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Trying to measure a library’s success by its footfall is like…

19 Jan

… trying to count the number of people entering a country by only checking the airports, and ignoring those who come by sea or land.

It’s like trying to count book sales just based on what has been sold in the shops, and not online.

It’s like trying to measure BBC viewing figures without taking iPlayer into account.

It’s like trying to measure an album’s success just by CD sales, without taking downloads into account.

It’s like trying to measure a newspaper’s success just by physical sales, and not by use of the website.

It’s like trying to judge a supermarket’s success without taking into account online shopping.


Picture of an angry man

How I feel.

Let’s settle this once and for all – as I’ve written before (PDF), and previous to that Ian Clark has written before, and any number of others have pointed out: library use has changed, people do stuff online now. People renew books online (around 40% of renewals happen online, according to my research – every single one of those is a visit to the library building saved), people reserve books online (around 18% of reservations happen online according to my research – every single one of those is a visit to the library building saved). And people access the library’s resources online – e-books, e-journals, e-newspapers, databases, and so on and so forth. Take my local library, in York – in three years, online user activity (which is to say, searches of online library resources – not ‘use of computers in the library’) has gone up by 9,385%. That’s over NINE THOUSAND PERCENT! So stop telling me that because less people visit the building, that means the library is being used less – it is a hopelessly anachronistic paradigm and no longer fit for purpose, damnit!

So thanks, BBC Breakfast, for your ill-considered piece this morning which did NOT take that into account (despite the best efforts of library campaigners who gave you their time), and was editorially led, rather than balanced.

Of course, this post is nothing more than an impotent rant that will be read only by Information Professionals who already know everything I’ve just said. Aaaaargh! How do we get this information beyond the echo chamber? How can we make people understand that footfall doesn’t cut it as a measurement of success on its own any more?

In the meantime, if you wish to make your feelings known to the BBC about the report, you can do so via the BBC’s feedback page. If we all do this it WILL make a difference.


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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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Now for some good news: we’re BUILDING a library!

10 Jan

In a world where almost everything you hear about libraries is bad news, it’s amazing to find out you can create some good news yourself. Just before Christmas @Jaffne pointed out on Twitter that you could buy India a library, via, for just £1,250.

Info on the India Library - click to go to and view in situ

Click this pic to view information on the site

Clearly that’s a lot of money in some ways, but in others it seems a tiny amount – they build the library from scratch, kit it out with furniture, fill it with books and staff it for TWO YEARS with that money. Furthermore, you can get a donkey-drawn mobile library in Africa for just £100! Unbelievable. In each case, the libraries bring books to areas which previously had none.

Anyway, while I was marevelling about this with Jan Holmquist on Twitter, Andromeda Yelton pointed out that although she didn’t have £1,250 lying around herself, perhaps Twitter would do collectively? It’s a simple but brilliant idea – crowd-source enough money from librarians on Twitter, to fund a library for a charitable organisation.

As soon as we had time to put it all together, Andromeda, Jan and I, roping in Justin Hoenke for the ride, set up Buy India a Library. It’s a PayPal donation based system, and so far people have been incredibly generous – we’ve raised nearly £500 and the campaign is only three days old! There is a lot of discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #buyalib – there is a twapperkeeper archive of the tweets here – and loads of people have clicked the donate button and given what they can.

Do you think you could help out? If everyone who reads this and my Twitter feed gave the price of a coffee to the cause, we’d have enough already. If you feel able to donate anything at all, please click the button – let’s create some good news and open a library at a time of closures!

[PayPal button removed -the campaign has now closed]

It goes without saying, the PayPal accounts we’re using (mine until I reach my withdrawal limit, then Andromeda’s thereafter) are only being used for this campaign. Whether you’re able to donate or not, it would be fantasticly helpful if you were able to spread the word about the campaign, either by linking to the main Project website on your blogroll, or telling friends and family about the campaign, or putting something in the staff bulletin drawing people’s attention to it. We’ve set ourselves a pretty ambitious target, and we need all the help we can get! If you’re able to tweet a link to this post, or Share it on Facebook, that would be amazing.

What I really like about this, apart from the obvious thing of Information Professionals making a huge difference and creating libraries where currently there are none, is that it is such a tangible process of charity giving. Rather than just adding money to a pot of existing money, we’re coming together to literally BUY something specific, and real. Things will be created and pressed into service, books will be sourced and purchased – because of what we’re doing here. Even if the campaign stopped right this second, four mobile libraries would be made, stocked up, and begin to move around Africa, bringing books to children who need them. Can you join in and support the project?

The Buy India a Library FAQ

If the information above is the main feature film, this bit is the DVD extras. For those who want to know more, here it is:

Which charity administers this?

The company through which we are buying these libraries is UK-based, and called It is the brain-child of the Charities Advisory Trust, a registered charity with more than  25 years of experience. What’s great about GoodGifts is that the money is guarenteed to be used for the specific purpose advertised – it doesn’t go into a general pot of cash, it is used specifically for what the customer chooses. So, libraries will come into existence which were not in existence previously, thanks to your donation! GoodGifts charges a £4.95 handling fee on top of the cost of the gift – we will pay this fee, and the entirety of the money we raise will go directly to the charities involved.

More info on the charities that take over at that point (the Rural Literacy and Health Programme, and the Africa Educational Trust) below.

Where exactly will the money be spent?

Once we buy the libraries, they are provided by specialist charities. The library in India will come from the Rural Literacy and Health Programme (RLHP), set up in 1984. To quote the organisation’s website, the RLHP “…operates in 56 slums and 25 villages in Mysore, Mandya & Chamarajanagar districts of Karnataka State in South India covering a population of 50,000.”

The donkey drawn libraries are delivered by the African Educational Trust a UK registered charity formed more than 50 years ago, dedicated to support education in Africa. The mobile libraries are aimed at kids, and contain around 100 fiction, non-fiction and reference books – the libraries travel to schools in Somalia, Sudan and Uganda (all of which are low on supplies of books, due to being former war zones).

What happens if you raise less than £1,250?

If we raise less than the figure needed to buy a permanent library in India, we will buy multiples of mobile libraries in Africa (each costing £100) based on how much we get. If we don’t get an exact X-hundred pound figure, we’ll buy Book Grants (of £35 each) to make up the difference.

What happens if you raise more?

We buy more libraries! Ideally we’d like to raise £1,350 so we can buy a permanent library in India, AND a mobile library in Africa. If we make much more than that, we’ll buy more mobile libraries and book grants with the difference.

Who are the people behind this campaign?

Just four Information Professionals who talk to each other on Twitter. Justin Hoenke and Andromeda Yelton are public librarians from the US, Jan Holmquist is a public librarian from Denmark, and I work in an academic library in the UK.

Why are you using a basic PayPal account for this?

We spent a looong time looking into the options here – we looked at places like but they don’t support this specific charity in this specific way, and we looked at the options to upgrade our PayPal accounts to business ones but opened a whole world of problems – the net result of which were less money for the charity.

In the end we opted to use a basic PayPal account (mine [EDIT UPDATE - now Andromeda's]), which won’t be used for anything else except this campaign. Once we reach the limits of that (one can only withdraw so much from a PayPal account in a year) we will switch to Andromeda’s PayPal account. PayPal take a very small cut of the money, but not a prohibitive amount – for example if you give £20, we’ll recieve £19.12.

Why spend money on libraries abroad when our own are in trouble?

This is a good question, a fair enough point, and one a few people have raised. Should librarians be spending their hard-earned library salaries on building libraries elsewhere while our own insitutions are closing around us? Here’s my view:

- It only costs 100 pounds – 100 pounds! (that’s about 155 dollars) – to set up a mobile library in Africa, to reach parts of the continent that have little or no access to books. It costs 1,250 pounds to build an entire permanent library in India, kit it out with furniture and books and staff for TWO years! Neither of those amounts would make much of a dent on the UK/US library situation, but would make a huge, tangible difference in the poorer parts of India / Africa.

- People have no real mechanism to give to libraries in the UK or US in the same way. Even if you had $5 you wanted to donate to a library, how could you? We don’t think we’re taking money AWAY from any libraries in our own countries – we believe we will catalyse spending that wouldn’t otherwise happen. That said, if we can start some kind of movement towards giving to libraries at home too, that would be amazing. Libraries for all!

- Libraries are closing all over the place. Let’s open one and have some good news for a change…

Let me know if you have any more questions about the project and here, once more, is the donate button.

[PayPal button removed -the campaign has now closed]

Thank you.

- Ned

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