Archive for the ‘ Library ’ Category

The blonde factor

Moving from the Library of Doom to a state of the art learning centre has been an interesting, exciting, tiring and sometimes frustrating experience.  The new building has been open for 10 weeks now and everything is beginning to settle down.  We understand the technology, we no longer forget which floor everything is on and we are adjusting to the open plan office etiquette rules and the students’ newfound freedom to talk, eat and drink almost anywhere in the learning centre.  One thing, however, has not settled down, and that is shelving.  In any library (sorry, learning centre), shelving is a major logistical issue involving more trolleys and members of staff than you could ever imagine.  In fact, the task seems to consume as many trolleys as are available – you can purchase a couple of dozen extra trolleys, but within a week you will find yourself needing more.

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Show the librarians some love!

Sometimes you find the most surprising things in the book return box.  First thing on a Thursday morning, this is one of my tasks, carried out as part of the routine of getting the temporary library up and running for the day.  Gone is the hideous wooden thing lurking in the corner, replaced by a much older, but more aesthetically pleasing blue metal drop box.  Given previous form and stories of drop boxes across the world, you might expect to find bacon rashers, dead squirrels, old underwear or hastily stashed contraband in there.  However, the only item I’ve found in there so far which wasn’t part of library stock was much more unexpected.  This:

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Farewell to the Library of Doom

So, on the day of the penultimate Hot Mikado performance, we closed the doors of the Library of Doom for the very last time.  Since then, most of our stock has gone into storage, while the merry band of librarians and library assistants have been scattered to the winds, dispersed across five different buildings on the university campus.  My team is based in a Temporary Library in an examinations hall, and we are all waiting out the summer, in anticipation of the grand opening of our big new, shiny learning centre.  Each day, as we go about our business, we can see the old library building being gutted, as teams of builders prepare it for a new life as a collection of teaching labs. 

It was hardly a perfect building. It leaked, sometimes causing large chunks of paint to fall from the ceiling.  It flooded once, which was rather exciting as an old storm drain suddenly made its presence felt in the foyer.  A shelf once came loose and made a valiant attempt at decapitating me.  The carpet tiles made endless attempts to trip people up.  The building was always either too cold or too hot.  The book return box was an eyesore.  It had slopes in inconvenient places which made it difficult to wheel the trolleys around.  Some of the light switches were behind shelves of music books.  The layout didn’t make sense, even after nearly nine years of working there.  There was never enough space for the books.  It had wheelchair access issues and a frightening lift.

I miss it, though.  I was the final member of staff to go through the closing-up routine and even as I passed the dodgy shelves, switched off the inconvenient lights, wrestled with the complicated doors on the first floor and took in each of the building’s faults, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss as each room was plunged into darkness and sealed away from marauding students.  I locked the Group Study Room and remembered the Children in Need fundraiser event, S Club Library.  I chuckled as I saw a few videos which reminded me of our Easter Egg Hunt (bags of mini eggs were hidden inside some of the video cases).  I passed the office with the hideous yellow shelves and remembered the student who came in there and asked for photographs of the Great Fire of London.  Almost eight years is a long time to work in one building, and had clearly allowed many memories to build up.  The different areas we’d sealed off with hazard tape from time to time.  The hysteria I’d shared with a colleague when the shelf tried to kill me.  The desk where I was sitting when I got the email asking me to perform in Aladdin.  The secluded part of the Open Access Area (computer lab) where I’d done some of the assignments for my librarianship qualification.  And more, of course.

All gone, now.  But the stock remains (and believe me, some of the books, DVDs and equipment have memories attached to them) and more importantly, my colleagues are still around as well.  I couldn’t hope for a better group of peers.  We share a lot of laughs and the odd tear now and then.  Whole shelves of librarians turn out to watch my shows, and we have regular trips to the local noodle bar and other eating and drinking establishments.  Frustrations are shared, ideas are passed to and fro and we seem to cope with anything, from the complete loss of our library management software (otherwise known as The Month We Do Not Speak Of) to unspeakably rude library patrons, and from yet another brood of ducklings in the garden to malfunctioning exit doors. 

So in a strange way I miss the nasty old Library of Doom, even as I look forward to the new building.  Whatever the environment’s like, I know we’ll be forging some new memories there.  I just hope it never becomes the Shiny Learning Centre of Doom…

Snow joke

I love my country, and am proud to be British, but sometimes I despair.

Weather is a fairly common occurrence here on this lovely group of islands. In fact, it is such an important part of our lives that I would have thought it was our most common topic of conversation, even if we tend to grumble about it in all its variations. Come rain or shine, come gale or snow, sleet or hail, drizzle or heatwave, the British can be counted on to complain. It will be too hot, too cold, too damp, too dry, too windy or too calm. And in extreme circumstances, such as the appearance of frozen water from the sky, we simply retreat into our shells and hide until it’s over.

Today, it seems that snow brought the country to a standstill. Or at least it brought London to a standstill and this had a knock-on effect across much of the nation, partly because it seems all the trains had been sleeping in London overnight and were therefore not available to transport anyone to their chosen destinations. In my part of Kent, the snow made a vague attempt at doing its job, but mostly looked pretty and melted. It would be very generous indeed to suggest that we had an inch of it. Further west, roads were harder to travel on due to the lack of gritters. Quite why gritting had not happened, I don’t know. Snow on Sunday and Monday was forecast before the weekend, so there was plenty of warning. To be fair, the major roads around here seemed to be fine, but reports from colleagues and friends suggest that this was not true everywhere.

The Library of Doom held out longer than many places. Plenty of High Street shops remained closed today, and most of the rest of Kent’s institutions of higher education either never opened or shut up shop at lunchtime. We sent home those people who were having public transport difficulties, then continued providing our usual librarianic services until 6 o’clock, when we put the books to bed and turned out the lights.

Reports suggest that other areas were hit harder by snowstorms, but it is clear that the levels of snow were and are nothing compared to snowfall in places such as Russia, Canada and Scandinavia, where life seems to continue happily during even the bleakest winter. Here, however, our winters are less harsh than they once were, but they seem to affect us in ways they never did before. Suddenly, many places of work and education are closed, public transport throws in the towel and the radio is warning us of impending doom. Is it the wrong sort of snow, or is the country just a bit pathetic? I suspect more of the latter, but tinged with a lack of preparation, an amazing ability to be taken by surprise by something we all knew was coming. One suspects that the rest of the world (and probably other parts of the United Kingdom as well) is sniggering at us behind their hands. If so, I really don’t blame them.

In which the Singing Librarian is positive about libraries

It has been suggested recently that a reader of this blog might possibly come to believe that I love singing and hate librarianing.  It is undeniable that there is more content here related to theatre and music than there is to libraries, and I have ranted about library patrons more than a few times.  It is also true that performing is my passion, one of my greatest joys.  And yet, I do like working in a library – it’s not as bad as I may have unintentionally suggested.  So what’s good about it?

Helping. I like being in a job where you know that you are helping people.  Perhaps not quite as obviously as a nurse or a fire fighter, but my primary purpose at work is to help people.  I may be helping them borrow some books, or I may be helping them find the information they require on an on-line database.  Perhaps they need to get hold of an esoteric text about witchcraft in Wales, or perhaps they just want to know how to spell ‘tautological’.  Whatever it is, my job is to help them access the information, whether by telling them a simple fact, directing them to a specific text, or teaching them the skills they need to search for the information themselves.  I may retrieve items from a store, order a book from Edinburgh University’s library or explain the use of the library catalogue.  Sometimes people thank me, sometimes they don’t, but it is good to know that I have helped them in some way.

Eclecticism. You really never know quite what you’ll encounter in a day at the library.  Sometimes you spend the whole day doing those things which the world at large associates with librarians – stamping books, shelving and asking people to be quiet.  Sometimes you attend meetings.  Sometimes you’ll deal with a succession of intriguing queries, from people looking for audition songs, the history of the university, the mating habits of snails and details of referencing schemes.  This can be particularly rewarding when queries that match your own interests come up.  It’s not often that students are looking for information on musical theatre or the eighteenth-century novel, but it does happen – it can be hard to stop helping with those queries!  The staff are also eclectic, with special interests ranging from the Earl of Rochester to theatrical design, and possessing a wide variety of degrees at all levels.  Some are easier to work with than others, but as a body, they ensure that there’s never a dull day.

Knowledge. I am fond of telling people that librarians, contrary to popular wisdom, do not know everything, but rather know how to find everything out.  Nonetheless, it is useful to know things, and the longer I work in librarianship, the more I learn, not just about information science, but about every discipline you can imagine.  I will never become an expert in the subjects that are not already ‘mine’, but it is a joy to discover things, whether it is the meanings of book titles from the sciences or health care, or some of the findings of the research students.  There is always more to learn and always will be – supporting the work of a higher education institution is an education in itself.

Order. There is something innately pleasing about classification schemes for me, and particularly the lovely Dewey Decimal system, which is the one I use.  It is perhaps foolish to try to categorise and classify all of human knowledge, and all such schemes have their flaws, but the ways in which the creators of such schemes attempt this task are fascinating – sometimes elegant, sometimes awkward, but with an odd beauty.  I do wish that Dewey wasn’t so Western- and particularly Christian-centric, but I do love it dearly.

Shelving. Related to the joy of classification schemes is the joy of shelving.  It takes a particular sort of person to enjoy shelving, but it is an immensely satisfying task.  You start with a trolley full of books and a number of shelves which look like a swarm of locusts has attacked them, and you end with books in neat ordered rows, spines facing front in beautiful straight lines, pulled to the front of the shelves and looking like… well, like a library.  A terrible day can seem much better after a session of shelving. Not only is it a good physical workout, but it is good for the soul to transform chaos into order.

So, you see, it’s not all ignorance and rudeness.  There are certainly good things about working in a library.  You learn something new every day, you can appreciate a sense of order, you can help people and you may even get a ‘thank you’ or two.  It’s not a bad job, it’s just that the frustrations probably make more amusing blog posts than the joys.

Excess fire alarms

In the past week, I have been involved in evacuating two large buildings after fire alarms went off.  Oddly enough, those buildings were a theatre and a library, given that it often seems as though I barely spend any time anywhere else.

First, the theatre.  The cast had bravely battled through our second performance – a Thursday matinee – and had breathed that strange sigh of mixed joy, relief, grief and emptiness which came at the end of Titanic.  Then, a mere second or two after the curtain hit the floor, we could hear a muffled announcement being made in the auditorium.  Puzzled glances were exchanged among the cast before a member of the crew told us to get out by the nearest exit, which was (for added drama) one that none of us had ever used before.  So, in our many and varied costumes, we trooped out into the car park.  The surviving female characters were mostly wearing their husbands’ coats, uniforms were half on/half off, one lady was barefoot, and we were accompanied by a gaggle of children and a very large dog.  As we gathered to have our names checked off, the men of the cast who were still in jackets gradually gave them over to the ladies, since it was rather cold outside and their dresses were not the warmest items of clothing known to man.  The audience washed past us, out into the darkness, calling congratulations and good wishes, thanking us for an excellent show.  The roll call seemed to last for hours as the large cast, orchestra and crew were all accounted for one by one.  Then, huddling together, trying to keep out of the way of the fire engine, we began to sing.  Mr Guggenheim (or rather the actor playing him) started us off on ‘Godspeed Titanic’ and we gradually all joined in, fairly quietly, but in harmony, conducted by our musical director who stood on the other side of the road.  The sopranos and tenors chickened out of our final screechy C above the staff, but it was nevertheless a rather lovely moment of togetherness among the company.  A few minutes later, we were allowed back in, and not a moment too soon.  It was beginning to rain, and the microphones we were still wearing would not have been very pleased.

Back at work the next week, trying to catch up with the backlog of queries that clearly nobody except me could answer, I was sitting offering “User Services Support at the Issue Desk” when I heard a familiar sound.  “That’s odd”, I thought, “they normally test the fire alarms much earlier than this…”  The ringing persisted, and a few seconds later, we leaped into action.  Announcing in a loud voice that those in the foyer should leave, I made my way over to the help desk, where I was issued with one of the evacuation routes and set about dislodging the students.  As I headed through the periodicals, I discovered that most of the students were still sitting at their desks, happily ignoring the rather loud alarm bells.  Thankfully, it is much harder to ignore a librarian with theatrical experience bellowing “Can you please leave!” at top volume, which is, believe me, very loud indeed.  After a few minutes of pointing people in the direction of their nearest fire exit (because the big green signs obviously aren’t clear enough), my designated areas of the Library of Doom were cleared, and I was able to leave by my allotted exit and make my way to the car park with my colleagues.  Sadly there was a distinct lack of singing this time and also a distinct lack of people telling us how good a job we were doing (even though the library has an excellent fire evacuation plan).  The all clear was soon given and we filed back inside, somewhat irritated to see that the students had been allowed back in before the library staff.

Neither of these evacuations was a planned drill as far as I could ascertain (I don’t think fire fighters normally turn up to drills), and I am still in the dark about their cause.  I have a taste for them now, though.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I am evacuated from, or help to evacuate, another building next week.  They do say that things come in threes, don’t they?

An anniversary

Today marked the 8th anniversary of my arrival at the Library of Doom, a nervous young graduate entering his first full-time job, as a humble Library Assistant.  I seem to recall that the day was sunny, and three ladies started at the same time as me, though none of them work here any longer.  I had been staying with two friends, who had generously opened their home to me while I searched for somewhere to set up camp.  I live with them again now, as we have purchased a house along with another friend, but in the intervening years I had four other addresses which were not also theirs.

In that time, I have moved from Library Assistant to Senior Library Assistant, with a four-month diversion when I was seconded into an Assistant Librarian position.  I have seen many members of staff come and go, watched students start and end PhD theses and become academic staff members, seen several new libraries start up, processed many thousands of inter-library loans and watched far too many ducklings grow up in our enclosed garden.  I have seen floods, leaks, power cuts, falling shelves and masonry, escaped animals, fire drills, injuries, potential law suits and deeply unpleasant bookmarks.  I have laughed, I have worked hard, I have lost motivation and found it again and I have, on more than one occasion, cried.

I have had to fill in only one medical self-certification form, for two days off work due to head trauma.  I had walked into a lamp post.  I have completed an MA in Literature and a Postgraduate Diploma in Information and Library Studies.  Outside of work, I have performed in eleven fully-staged shows and too many concerts to count, both classical and popular, with a slowly growing fan club of fellow library dwellers, alongside assorted others.

So what did I do at work today, to celebrate such an anniversary?  I attended a development workshop where one of the tasks involved writing a story about being a member of staff at the University of Doom in 2014.  I sat on a help point for two hours and helped only one person.  And I peeled stickers off books as part of transferring them from short loan back to the main collection.  All in all, a thrilling day!

Stock editing

Sometimes, every library has to do something which does not come easily to its staff – get rid of some precious, precious books.  Sometimes they are sold, and librarians witness the strange spectacle of people fighting to pay for a book which nobody has wanted to borrow without charge for several years.  Sometimes they get traded to another library or donated to schools or literacy campaigns.  Sometimes the books are of no use to anyone and simply get recycled.

The Library of Doom has a space crisis on its hands (if libraries can be thought of as having hands), and has had this for quite some time, as I’ve mentioned before.  We don’t have enough room for all the books currently in the collection, which makes it quite interesting trying to add new acquisitions to stock.  In an academic library environment, there can be considerable resistance (generally from outside the library) to removing anything from stock, but it simply has to be done on a larger scale than usual.  This process is known as ‘stock editing’, mostly because terms such as ‘weeding’ and ‘withdrawals’ are seen as negative.  So why should items be edited out of library stock?  None of these can be hard and fast rules, as there will always be exceptions and special cases (I wouldn’t ever want to dispose of a holy book from any religion, for instance – it would seem disrespectful), but here are three key factors which justify editing.

1 – Condition

The easiest way to justify removing an item from the shelves is that it is falling apart.  Bibliographic Services teams in libraries can work wonders on poorly books, transforming them with their array of exciting tools and a bewildering variety of sticky substances, but sometimes the effort is not worth it and that book has to go.  This is even easier with audiovisual material – if a video has been exposed to an electromagnet, or if a DVD has been placed on the record player, there’s little that can be done to save it.  Of course, if items get into a disreputable state, they’re probably being used a lot, so a replacement may well have to be ordered.

2 – Obsolescence

Books become obsolete at different rates.  Certain subjects taught at the university are particularly prone to this – law and health, for instance.  In these subject areas, stock editing is already fairly rigorous, as you don’t want students learning out of date clinical care practices or working on the basis of laws which have altered.  The government frequently changes its mind about social welfare or the educational curriculum, which means that practical books from these subject areas can unexpectedly become obsolete.

Even in less obvious areas, new editions of books are brought out, superseding older ones.  Sometimes there is value in a chapter which only exists an old edition, but it is only worth keeping one copy, rather than a dozen or so, which take up half a shelf between them.  In these modern 2.0 times, print resources can arguably be superseded by electronic equivalents from time to time, particularly for key reference works such as the Grove Dictionaries of Art and Music.

Related to this are those books which have not had a more recent edition published or have no obvious successor, but are still misleading, inaccurate or out of date.  Material on teaching genetics in schools which was published in the 1970s, for instance, though these are quite intriguing if only for the jumpers worn by the children on the covers.

3 – Relevance

Books in some areas never really become obsolete, most notably in the arts and humanities, where new ideas and new interpretations are often seen as alternatives to older theories rather than as new truths.  However, this does not mean that collections of material concerning music, literature, history or theology could never require ‘editing’ in an academic library, as they can become irrelevant without becoming obsolete.

For instance, there may be an academic who has a particular interest in the Victorian novel and teaches a number of modules on the subject.  If he or she were to leave the university, their successor could well be a specialist on eighteenth-century poetry or on literary censorship.  It is likely that such major figures as Dickens, Hardy, Eliot and perhaps Wilkie Collins may continue to be studied, but material relating to minor figures such as George MacDonald (one of my favourites) or Charlotte Mary Yonge will become irrelevant.  Students are not studying their work any longer, so shelves of books concerning them may go unused for years, taking up space which would be better served by increasing the library’s provision of material on, for instance, eighteenth-century poetry.

Modules and entire degree courses come to an end surprisingly often as a result of political or economic factors, and this can be a major cause of academic libraries filling up with irrelevant stock.  If we no longer teach agriculture, why should we have more than a very basic collection on the subject?  If the music department now concentrates on the classical period, do we need thousands of volumes examining the baroque composers?  I think not.

With exceptions such as major research institutions or legal deposit libraries, an academic library should always be a useful, relevant, living resource.  As Charles Cutter, an influential American librarian, said in 1901, “The library should be a practical thing to be used, not an ideal to be admired.”  It’s been over 100 years since he expressed this sentiment, and it’s more true than ever.  Libraries are often seen as outmoded institutions with little to offer in our networked world.  Careful editing of stock can be part of the process of challenging this perception by ensuring that users find the material that they need and want without having to wade through a sea of dust emanating from shelves of books which haven’t been out for a decade or two.  I think that’s worth the effort, personally.

A real librarian

It’s time to update the ‘About’ page on this blog as a number of points have been rendered untrue over the last week.  Specifically the following:

The Singing Librarian is not, technically speaking, a librarian.  He has been working in a higher education library in Kent (UK) since Autumn 2000, but does not yet have a librarianship qualification and is therefore only a quasi-librarian.  His job title is ‘Senior Library Assistant’.


The Singing Librarian is in the process of obtaining a librarianship qualification, but already has a BA (Hons) in English Language and Theatre Studies, as well as an MA in Literature.

One small thing has ensured that these statements are no longer true.  On Monday I received confirmation that I have passed everything necessary to obtain a Postgraduate Diploma in Information and Library Studies.  As this course is accredited by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and I’m currently continuing my secondment, it appears that I have become a real librarian in the eyes of the profession as well as the eyes of the world.

There were no trumpets, fireworks or choirs (unless you count the Titanic rehearsal on the night I found out) to accompany this new stage of the Singing Librarian’s life, but it is quite significant.  An accredited library qualification opens up a number of career possibilities within the information world, which are attractive largely because of the interesting nature of the roles rather than the money (anyone who thinks librarians are rolling in money clearly doesn’t know any librarians).  Subject specialisation, cataloguing or secondary/further education librarianship all appeal.  I don’t know where I’ll go next, but it is nice to know that I am finally a real librarian.

Invoice the puppy!

One thing made my day today.

It wasn’t creating a PowerPoint presentation about reciprocal borrowing schemes. Honestly, if PowerPoint makes your day, you really need better days.

It wasn’t browsing the bookshops at lunch time. I really can’t afford to buy any more books at the moment, so that was actually mildly depressing.

It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t have to reconcile the stupid library till at the end of the day. That was quite pleasing, though.

It was having to withdraw two copies of popular books from library stock.

Yes, that’s right. Normally, this would be very annoying, and probably the result of extreme vandalism, or on one memorable occasion a terrible accident with a bottle of cherryade. Today, though, a student came in sheepishly with two books in terrible condition. She was most apologetic, and offered to pay for replacements. ‘You see’, she explained, ‘my new puppy got into my room and attacked my library books.’ This time, the dog came very close to eating the homework. We could even see the tooth marks.

So, no, I am not going to invoice the student for replacement copies, though I did toy with the idea of sending an invoice to the puppy. The incident brightened my day so much that I could have forgiven the young lady for any number of library sins. How often do you get to dispose of a book that has been mauled by a puppy?

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