Archive for the ‘ Library ’ Category

The Singing Librarian – being both


singinglibrarianI’m a librarian. I’m a performer. And being both makes me better.

Librarians have a key body of professional knowledge and a set of professional skills. If we didn’t, there really wouldn’t be much point to us.  Performers, too (whether professional or amateur) draw upon a set of skills and a body of knowledge.

In the case of librarians, the perception may be that we rely largely on knowledge rather than skills.  This is not really the case.  In terms of finding information on-line, for example, we don’t learn the ins and outs of every search engine, digital library, repository or on-line archive. We draw upon skills that we have learned (formally or otherwise) and then honed through experience to help us when we encounter new resources. Similarly, the ability to work out exactly what it is that someone is actually looking for is a skill.  On the other hand, performers do not (or should not) rely entirely on skill. There is a body of knowledge to draw on in terms of creating a character, using voice and so on. Perhaps more importantly, theatre has a language, etiquette and culture that have to be learned – sometimes, knowledge of this can avoid injury, so it’s rather important.

But how do the knowledge and skills from each side of my life relate to each other? In many ways, but in order to keep things relatively short, there are five main areas where I see my performing activities and my library work intersecting: memory, adaptability, use of voice, confidence and organisation.

Firstly, memory. It is a common misconception that librarians know everything – our job (or at least my job) is to help other people access information, not to know the answers for them. However, I find it is useful to have a lot of information ready to retrieve from the mental filing cabinet – whether that is the status of particular book orders, the location of books on the Spanish civil war or the best database to use for locating information on CTG. In my other activities, memory is just as vital. Lines, harmonies, dance steps, location of clothing for quick changes… the list of things to remember during a show is worryingly long. Thankfully, I am usually a quick learner, and I think this may be partly due to my work-life combination.  Each side of me exercises my memory storage and retrieval capacity, though in different ways, and so each side of my life enhances the other.

Secondly, adaptability. Sometimes, in theatre, things just don’t go the way they should. Someone forgets to enter for a particular scene, a prop shatters as you pick it up, words get jumbled or a follow spot operator has a bad day. As a performer or member of the technical crew, you just have to cope and carry on, preferably without most of the audience realising that anything went wrong at all. This is relevant in library life surprisingly often. I have to demonstrate various websites, software packages etc. to many different people, sometimes one-to-one, sometimes in lecture theatres. And, of course, things go wrong. A site goes down for maintenance, the internet connection decides on a go-slow or the network cuts out entirely. In these instances, I don’t pretend that nothing is wrong, but I either have to keep the audience entertained (as it were) or come up with an alternative plan. Improvisation is an important skill!

Thirdly, use of voice. As I don’t tend to engage in mimed performances, the use of my voice is rather key to the performing part of my life (most obviously when singing). I therefore know how to project my voice, and have strategies I can fall back on to keep my voice going when it’s tired.   I do so many lectures and workshops on campus that this is extremely important to me in the work environment as well. We have two training rooms in our library, and one of these has a microphone that can be used. I always book the other one to leave the mic. available for colleagues. I’m not a naturally loud person, but I know how to make myself heard. And when there are times of year when you go from workshop to lecture to tour with barely any breaks, being able to take care of your voice is important.  The techniques I’ve learned as a performer have thus been invaluable as an academic librarian.

Fourthly, confidence. I am not confident when meeting people I don’t know, or when being myself in front of people. On the other hand, I am (in some ways) confident when I get up and perform as a character. That may say all sorts of things about me psychologically, but the strange “I’m terrified, but nobody can tell” confidence I have on stage can translate into work situations, such as large lectures. To a small extent, I take on a character. His name is David and he’s a librarian. Yes, he’s me, but being able to perform in some way helps make the whole thing less disturbing. I also tend to leaven my presentations with a light sprinkling of humour, as any public speaker probably should.

Lastly, organisation. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not one of the world’s tidiest people, but as a librarian, I do have a certain professional appreciation for order, for the proper arrangement of information, for categorisation and sequencing. This can help me as a performer, particularly if a show has a myriad of costumes or other items to keep track of – everything has its place and all is well. It’s even more useful in other aspects of theatre. As a director or a stage manager, I am super-organised. I have lists and spreadsheets and diagrams and more lists.  Yes, there’s certainly plenty of room for creativity and spontaneity (lists can always be re-written), but the librarian approach to life definitely makes me more efficient and effective in the theatre. Managing and organising information is not a pointless skill beyond the walls of the library, it reaps bounteous artistic rewards!

Of course, none of these things are unique to librarianship or to performing, but it’s interesting how they interact and how different parts of my life feeds back into others. I firmly believe that as the Singing Librarian, I am stronger – librarianship helps make me a better performer, and performing helps make me a better librarian.

Beyond the dilemma of the work-life balance, how do your leisure activities impact on your work? Or vice versa? I’d be fascinated to know – leave a comment!

A free day in the library


Earlier this week, I mentioned to one of my friends that I had a day coming up where my work diary was empty.  This is a rare occurrence, as (even during July) the working week is liberally sprinkled with workshops, demonstrations, meetings and one-to-ones.  When I mentioned this, my friend then asked me what I do on ‘empty’ days, particularly when most of the students are off on holidays.  I expected to get at least one student ask for some help, but that didn’t happen.  Here, though, are the things which filled my working day when the diary was empty:

Stock moving. We have two collections of books moving to our library over the summer, so we’re having to make space for them.  To that end, everything else has been shifting around in the library, and on this particular day I helped to shift some of the history books.  This particular work helped free up some space in a particularly squashed area of the library, but will also have the knock-on effect of freeing up some shelves for the collection of music scores which is coming our way.

Writing. Our library is involved with many of the local schools, offering access to the building as well as training in information skills to sixth form students.  We give them lots of different handouts etc when they come, but we’d like to condense that down into one booklet.  On this day, I worked on the page about choosing appropriate keywords to help in the search for information.

Web editing.  I am one of the library’s team of web editors.  I made a number of small tweaks to the web site, including correcting a few rogue spellings, adding a link to a useful external website and tidying up some of the information on borrowing books.  I also made some changes to my subject guide pages – some factual updates and an attempt to integrate my Twitter feed in a visually pleasing manner.  Unfortunately, I have discovered that my method for doing the latter is not effective on small screens.  Back to the drawing board…

Searching.  I have been involved with a project to introduce reading lists management software to the campus.  The discussions I have had with academics and fellow librarians have made me curious about the impact of reading lists in general.  I therefore spent a small amount of time trying to locate any research which may have been done in this area.  Initial findings suggest that not a lot has been written on the topic, but I did find some interesting articles to read.

Updating.  I also updated several reading lists using said software.  The intention of the project is to hand responsibility for reading lists over to academics, but we’re in a transition phase, so I’m still doing bits and pieces.  Thankfully, it takes mere seconds to add items to lists (or remove them from lists, for that matter).

Line managing.  I approved a leave request from one of the three people I line manage.

Checking. An academic in the process of revalidation for one of her courses sent a set of reading lists through to be checked, in order to see which items are currently available through the library at my campus, another campus or electronically.  I was able to complete this by the end of the day, though checking to see what copies of the missing books would cost had to wait until two days later.  Checking these lists also allowed me to practice use of a new resource discovery system – I had previously been using it primarily to locate electronic material. Confusingly, these lists will not tie up with the reading lists project – I work for three universities at once, and only one of them has the reading lists management software.

Preparing. Various bits of preparation needed to be done.  I finalised my travel arrangements for a visit to a different campus the next day, along with what I was supposed to be doing when I got there.  I discussed the content of a training session (to be held in two days time – just a little bit of time pressure there!) with an academic. And I added the dates of some demonstrations and workshops to my diary.  These were for September and October, but I already have numerous dates booked in for 2014.

Quite a full day, with a variety of tasks. There is always a lot to do in my job, even when things are supposedly ‘quiet’.  I wasn’t able to remove much from my to-do list (which somehow ended up longer at the end of the week than it had been at the beginning of the week), but I still felt that the day was a productive one. And although I always say that the best bit of my job is face-to-face work with students, it was still an interesting day. So there we have it. That’s what the Singing Librarian does when there’s nothing in his diary. I can be fairly sure, though, that the next clear day will be filled with an entirely different selection of activities.

New things


It’s a season of new things in the life of the Singing Librarian. Of course, January is often a season of the new for many people, but there is no deliberate New Year impetus here.

The first area of new things is in terms of reading (having accidentally abandoned my month-by-month review of what I’d been reading, regular readers may be reassured to know I haven’t given up on books!). I seem to be alternating my general diet of fiction with a little more fact, including books on librarianship, philosophy and language. I have always read such books, but I’m picking them up a little more frequently these days. My fiction diet has widened as well – during January, I have already read work by W. Somerset Maugham, Armistead Maupin and China Miéville for the first time. I really enjoyed all three, and have already begun raiding the library shelves for more by the last two.

The other area for newness is the area of education (which, I admit, does rather overlap with reading!). I am trying out some new things in the information literacy sessions I teach and I am expanding my own horizons in terms of professional development. I have signed up for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from the University of Edinburgh entitled E-learning and Digital Cultures. This is a 5-week on-line course which starts next week, exploring on-line learning in a variety of interesting ways. As a number of the courses I support are taught at a distance and as almost all of ‘my’ students spend some time away from the university environment on placement, I am particularly interested in e-learning and what role (if any) it can play in the information literacy teaching and training I provide. I’m also interested in the concept of MOOCs as a whole, and doing one seems the most sensible way of understanding them. Enrolling on the course has already got me to sign up to Google+ for the first time.

I have also made plans to pursue a scheme at my workplace which would give me recognition for my contribution to learning and teaching and also, if successful, lead to Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. This will require a lot of work, gathering evidence about what I do and how it contributes to higher education learning and teaching. It’s not going to be easy, but even if I am not successful, it will be worth pursuing, as it will force me to reflect on my professional work more than ever, and the required reading will teach me an awful lot as well.

In addition to all of this, I am trying to understand the world of Open Access publication of research, which has led me to read all sorts of interesting things.

So, new things. Time-consuming new things, at that! I’m still keeping up the old things, though, which means my time management skills will have to develop at a rate of knots…

Calming the paranoid librarian


I seem to have subscribed, accidentally, to the paranoid school of librarianship.  This means that, despite my ‘nice feedback’ folder of job-related positive emails and despite coming up to 2 years in post, I end up worrying more and more.  The worst manifestation of this occurs if I have a meeting with people from outside the library, particularly one that’s not part of the regular routine of my job.  I often enter the room fearing that someone is going to turn round and tell me I’m doing a terrible job and they wish they had a different librarian.  Days with multiple meetings are therefore extremely tense.

For the most part, meetings are actually rather positive.  I know (and the students and academic staff know) that there are limits to the wonders I can achieve, but most groups seem quite happy with the work that I do.  Some courses are a little less reluctant to work with the library than others, but I have only ever had one student outright say that I personally was doing a bad job, and that was (I think) at least partly a reaction to me refusing to break the law for him.  I’m annoying like that, you see.

Having spent much of the week in impending doom mode, I had a revelation on Friday afternoon that the groups of people I find it hardest to work with tend not to work well with anyone outside of their group anyway.  Which is fair enough – people who we perceive as “other” in some fundamental way, not in terms of race or sexuality so much as in terms of being in some sense “like me”, can be hard to understand, due to having minds that work in very different ways.  Different, not better or worse.  And it works both ways – I need to see their worldview in order to help them see a bit of mine.

I also thought it was about time to go through my ‘nice feedback’ folder again.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to regurgitate it all here, but the first and last items in there are wonderfully different.  The most recent is from the end of October, from an international organisation.  Some librarians from Nigeria had been visiting them, and as our library was nearby, they came for a tour.  As they were interested in web 2.0 and its possibilities in libraries, I was tracked down and asked to speak to them.  My manager forwarded the subsequent letter sent by their organisation to me as it included this :

I would particularly like to thank [the Singing Librarian] for the talk he gave at such short notice.  This was delivered very well…

Aw, thank you!

The earliest item in there is from around 4 months after I started in the post, just after my first new intake of students and therefore my first intensive round of planned lectures, workshops and the like.  Our library holds a user group, and I received an email after this informing me that a member of staff wanted to minute that the

students were singing your praises about the support that they had received from you at their workshops and when they have called into the library to see you.

Which is nice.  It is relatively rare for the role of the library and its staff to be acknowledged officially, apart from when things go wrong.  I am lucky to work, across the 3 universities my role covers, with some exceptional people who do brilliant work.

So why have I written this blog post after yet another long silence?  Well, regular readers will know that my confidence levels are subject to many fluctuations and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.  I wanted to recommend a ‘nice feedback’ or ‘lovely emails’ folder for everyone – you can’t be perfect all the time (and I am well aware of the aspects of my job which I’m still not great at), but it’s good to be able to remind yourself of the positives if you tend to accentuate the negative.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bunch of other nice messages to read through…

Books of the Months – June and July 2012


Once again I’ve managed to lose a month in my chronicle of books read. So no further blathering, on with the post.
A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor, The Neon Court and The Minority Council by Kate Griffin

This is a series, or sequence, of four urban fantasy novels set in London. They focus on formerly-dead sorcerer Matthew Swift, who has returned both more and less than human and seems to keep getting caught up in battles where the fate of London may be at stake.  These are not nice books.  Very few of the characters are particularly pleasant, and nasty things happen to lots of people.  But the plots and ideas are intriguing, the allegiances of the various parties are never 100% predictable and although you rarely warm to any of the characters, you soon find yourself wanting to read more about them.  I enjoyed the first two books a great deal, and the later two not quite so much, but I definitely thought they were worth reading and I’d certainly return to the world of Matthew Swift again, if only to read more about Kelly, a wonderful character introduced late in the series.  I’m also intrigued to investigate the books written under the author’s real name, Catherine Webb.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

A darkly comic novel about a writer/professor who is pretty much washed up in all aspects of his life.  It somehow manages to weave together a bizarre collection of characters and objects – a tuba, a boa constrictor, a dead dog and more – into a nightmarish weekend in which things go from awful to so much worse at a rapid pace.  It has been filmed, but I don’t think I could bear to watch it – I’d need a cushion to hide behind to stop excessive cringing as the main character makes stupid mistake after stupid mistake.

A Man of Parts by David Lodge

June’s book group book and a bit of a disappointment.  A novel about the fascinating H.G. Wells sounds like an excellent idea, and I had previously enjoyed Lodge’s novels about the fictional (but worryingly realistic) University of Rummidge.  However, after a promising start, I soon went off this novel.  There is far too much emphasis on Wells’ sex life for my liking and far too often the glimpses onto his political life and writing habits were cut short in order to focus on his bedroom.  I’m sure this is fascinating for many people, but not for me.  It did remind me that I’ve only ever read Wells’ ‘scientific romances’, though, so I’ll be tracking down some of his other works.

Active Learning Techniques for Librarians: Practical Examples by Andrew Walsh and Padma Inala

I have been wanted to develop the teaching sessions which I run in various ways, and one of these is that I want to vary the ways I involve the students in their learning.  I already try to get them doing the things I’m trying to teach them as much as possible, but was looking for some ways to vary this.  The book is, as the title implies, full of practical ideas for activities and lessons which involve much more than the students listening to or watching the librarian.  Some involve web 2.0 tools, some involve the use of mobile technology and others are extremely low tech.  I found the book really useful, bot just for the specific ideas it contains, but also to spur me on to think about other ways I can make information literacy learning more active.

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

July’s book group book, and this one was an absolute joy.  Written in 1908, it is the story of two sisters who live very different lives, following them from childhood through to death.  It is not a rip-roaring page-turner, but it is utterly absorbing, drawing you in to the two women’s lives and painting them as absolutely real people.  They are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, as are the events around them.  The world changes, but in many ways they do not, and their stubborn pride is both exasperating and admirable.  I wanted to savour every page and I am so glad it was suggested for the group.  This is a remarkable book, and Arnold Bennett has now been added to the list of authors I need to read more of.  A list which seems to get longer every month!

The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was a re-read, as I am about to start rehearsals for a new musical based on the story, playing Utterson, and wanted to remind myself of the original.  It still holds up well, even if there is no longer any suspense at all about the ending.  The morality of the tale is far from black and white.  Indeed, it is rather unsettling to consider the concept of good versus evil in the context of this ‘case’.  Is Jekyll really as ‘good’ as he would believe?  I suspect this short book will continue to inspire film, theatre and television writers for many decades to come.

++++++++++

A bit of a mixture there, as ever, including two very different book group books. Without any shadow of a doubt, The Old Wives’ Tale is my pick of the month(s).  It’s not an exciting read, it’s not a quick read, but it is the most rewarding novel I’ve read in quite some time.

Books of the month(s) – March and April 2012


With apologies for missing a month, just in case there’s someone out there who has been waiting anxiously to find out what I’ve been reading recently.  Given that this post covers two months, it is surprising in some ways that it isn’t extraordinarily long.  On the other hand, the reason for that is one Monsieur Dumas.  So, in order of completion :

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Why I love libraries


Today is National Libraries Day, a fairly new annual celebration of the UK’s many public libraries.  Though the future of many libraries is in doubt at the moment, they are definitely worth supporting and celebrating as an important part of life both locally and nationally.  Of course, it would be very easy to note that I’m biased, being a librarian, though from a different sector of the library world.  I should point out that I loved libraries long before I even considered working in one.  But why?

First and foremost, the books.  As I grew up, the library was able to feed my voracious appetite for reading, something which my parents would never have been able to afford to cope with had they had to pay for all the books I got through.  I read the lot.  The complete works of authors such as Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton (yes, even the stories set in girls’ schools!).  The Mary Poppins books.  The Jennings books.  Classic books like Kidnapped, Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson.  And once I’d exhausted the area of the library dedicated to children, I started to raid the main shelves.  Agatha Christie.  Terry Pratchett.  Ngaio Marsh.  Plus the non-fiction, of course.  I had to learn about the world, and the resources that the library provided enabled me to read about the natural world, the arts and more.  These days, I buy a lot more books than I could ever have conceived of as a child, and have discovered many more authors and works which inspire me, but I still borrow from libraries.

Then there are librarians.  Generally not like the scary Madam Pince from the Harry Potter novels, though also not derring-doers like Buffy’s mentor Rupert Giles, I nonetheless respected and appreciated librarians in my youth.  They seemed to know so much, and were always helpful.  I now know that librarians do indeed know a lot of things, but their (our) greatest skill is the ability to find things out.  To know where to look to find the answer.  And no, even in the brave new world of information technology the answer isn’t always “look on Wikipedia” or “just Google it”.

Public libraries also offer a whole range of activities and services which I don’t make use of, but am glad exist.  They can be a major part of the social life of more vulnerable members of society – services like the mobile library allow books and perhaps more importantly people to reach members of the community who can’t get into the town centre.  Young children and their parents can socialise through storytimes or the intriguingly-named bounce and rhyme.  Then there are reading groups, the collections of talking books, the sessions for help with IT skills and much more.  All of these should be treasured and fostered.

Some people say libraries are irrelevant because everything’s online now.  Well, that’s not true.  Not everything is online, and even when it is, not everyone is able or willing to access it.  Even if you’re a believer in the idea that only the online is relevant, public libraries offer their members an increasing range of online resources, quality sources of information which they would otherwise have to pay for.  My local library service, for instance, provides access to biographical resources, sites for researching family history, an archive of classical music and selected services intended to help with homework.  Who, exactly, would provide all of this if it didn’t come from the library service.

I love libraries because they helped foster my love of the written word and encourage my curiosity.  I love libraries because they have wonderful staff.  I love libraries because their activities brighten the lives of many people in need.  And I love libraries because they have moved with the times, providing computing facilities, e-books and online reference resources.

Love them, visit them, support them – every day, but particularly today.

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