Archive for the ‘ Library ’ Category

The point


What is the purpose of an academic library?  Why do universities sink so much money into them, buildings and services which bring in little or no revenue and eat up staffing, equipment and stock resources at an alarming rate?  Why are they one of the key points in many students’ decision-making processes when they’re applying to university?  What are they supposed to achieve?

I specify academic library, because I believe the key functions of a library in a university are not necessarily very closely related to those of a public library, a school library or a private library in a large firm.  Each of these has a purpose and each involves vastly different challenges for the people who work for them and different levels of expectation from the people who use them.  The stakeholders, for want of a less ridiculous word, in an academic library are many and varied.  The students, of course, make extensive use of the library’s services, but even they have differing needs.  A first year undergraduate fresh out of school wants some things, but the desires of a doctoral researcher returning to higher education after decades in employment barely overlap with those.  Then there are those who teach the university’s subjects, the members of the local community who may or may not have access to the facilities and the university’s management who need the library in order to meet the objectives on their strategic plans and long-term policies.

But what is it there for?  An academic library should, I believe, be many things, but it should not just be a building where books and periodicals can be found on shelves, a repository.  Physical stock is very important, and access to information is clearly one of the defining features of a library.  But the information doesn’t necessarily have to be in printed form in row after row of shelves, much as I adore books.  Information exists in a near-endless variety of forms.  Audio-visual information on cassettes, CDs, DVDs and other media is increasingly vital for many subjects, and information stored electronically even more so.  In addition to the traditional printed word, the shelves and cupboards in my own library house CDs of classical and world music, video documentaries, language learning cassettes, films and operas on DVD, educational posters, CD-ROMs, maps and probably more that has slipped my mind.  All of these resources are needed by the students and all of them are an important part of what the library provides.

Libraries also provide access to a wealth of electronic resources these days, in the form of databases and repositories accessed via the internet and hidden behind a wall of passwords and usernames.  These electronic resources include collections of periodicals which can be read on-line, collections of archived sound, photography and video, interactive maps, backdated newspapers and electronic facsimiles of documents which no undergraduate student would normally get within a few yards of.  There is an increasing move towards providing electronic access to these resources, even when academic libraries could provide the physical alternative.  With ever-increasing student numbers, with many of these being part time or learners at a distance, it can be more efficient and cost effective to provide electronic access to something, allowing more users to view it than could be achieved with even two or three copies of a book.

But none of this is the key reason for an academic library’s existence, as far as I see it.  Libraries would be pretty useless if they didn’t provide students and staff with the books, articles, films and so on that they need, but there is a greater role in the value added by a library.  The skills, expertise and time of the staff.  Librarians are experts in the realm of information – how to find it, evaluate it, store it, use it and so on.  In public libraries, this is generally used to answer questions on behalf of the users, but in academic libraries, there is a greater emphasis on imparting these skills to students.  Through skills sessions, enquiries, casual encounters, documentation and tutorials, the library staff can, and should, provide another strand to the learning undertaken by the students in their university life.  Those on a history course should not simply learn about (and maybe even understand) history, they should learn how to search for relevant information effectively.  Students of film should learn how to track down particular works they wish to analyse.  Scientists should be taught how to keep on top of the most recent research on their subjects.  There is so much more to information-seeking than a quick Google search, a glance at imdb or a read of the New Scientist.  Google is good, but librarians can teach students how to use it to find more relevant and useful information, or they can point the way to a search tool that is specifically targetted to their subject area.

That is the point of a university library – to provide access to information and to provide students with the tools they need to find and use that information to best advantage.

Flatpack university


The University of Doom is running out of space.  Not just for its library books, which continue to laugh at all vain attempts to get the collection to fit on shelves, but for its students, for living space and teaching space.  The library situation is being addressed, in the form of a swanky new Learning Resource Centre which will be built, eventually, on the present site of an ugly concrete monstrosity of an office building from the mid 20th century.  This being an old town with more History than you could shake any number of sticks at, this will involve an archaeological dig at the site before reconstruction begins, and the destruction of the building is already behind schedule, so it is most definitely the ‘mythical new learning centre’.

The students are a rather more tricky proposition.  A large herd of them has been stabled in accommodation belonging to one or other of the London universities, which randomly has a satellite site in a small town which is only three stops away on the train.  Free transport is provided (in horseboxes for all I know) and I’m sure that every effort is being made to ensure that these youngsters don’t feel too cut off from the rest of the student body.  A series of e-mails also came the way of all staff of the University, imploring us to offer any accommodation we could in return for a farthing or two.  Sadly, given that my house is (due to a mad conversion project, transforming it from a dental practice to a shared home) mostly a large pile of boxes with a few beds hidden here and there, I didn’t feel I could help in this matter.

Teaching accommodation is also at a premium.  Local residents have been remarking for years that we seem to be buying up half the property in the city, and it is true that our logo appears on a wonderfully random selection of buildings and we may well rival the cathedral for ‘most property owned’.  But no matter how much the University buys, it never seems to be enough.  Particularly when a new room bookings software package is purchased and then throws a wobbly, hiding bookings under the sofa and behind the fridge every so often.  And so, this week, the University of Doom has begun the wonderful process of dealing with the problem.  Temporarily.

A fleet of flat-bed lorries has been making its way through the twisty turny streets with the shells of mobile classrooms on their backs.  Fantastically air-conditioned, as they have no side walls, these have been winched by crane over the flint walls that surround the campus and moved into position.  However, it was observed on Friday that there seemed to be far more mobile classrooms arriving than could possibly fit in the two places which have been set aside for them – the back of the student support services building and the tennis courts.  No, no more tennis for anyone – I’m sure the Sports Sciences department doesn’t mind.  Even assuming that side walls are going to arrive for these classrooms, what are they going to do with them?  Pile them up on top of each other and allow access via rope ladder?  Float one on the pond?  Set up an outpost in the neighbouring prison’s exercise yard?  The mind boggles.  The Head of Library Services suggested that it looked like they were setting up a very large-scale game of Jenga.

The University, needless to say, seems to have been surprised by this space crisis, as one assumes it would have been more useful to address the issue in August.  The cause seems to be a mystery as well.  Not to library staff, though.  We spotted a slight clue in the most recent staff newsletter.  “Record student numbers recruited.”  I think that may have something to do with it…

Questions are asked and answered


There is a meme going around, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed, where bloggers interview one another, and end up giving really quite interesting (or in my case, really quite long) answers.  I think the beauty of this meme is in the nature of who is doing the interviewing.  It’s not people that the bloggers know in their day to day life, who would most likely be fishing for particular bits of information that they already know.  It’s also not people completely disconnected from them, who would end up asking entirely generic questions.  These are people who know their interviewees through the blogosphere, a curious form of social interaction which is simultaneously very open and very reserved, as each word can be chosen, pondered and held back.  All of us leave a whole number of gaps in the narrative of our lives as we blog away, and many of the questions and answers I’ve seen have been filling in some of these gaps, which the blog authors may have been entirely unaware of.

So the meme has been floating around, and I’ve seen it whiz through the periphery of  both the comics blogosphere and the theatre blogosphere, and now it has entered the realm of the blogs that I read more regularly.  I finally decided to be brave and ask for some questions following the questions that Aphra posed to Reed.  Reed, or possibly her ever-present Editor, posed five questions, and warned me that they “are all prompted by the fact I am a NOSY woman”.   As a result, this is probably one of my longest posts ever.  If you really don’t want to know about the real Singing Librarian, look away now and come back in a few days when I start wittering about something less personal.

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Whales, jumpers and spoons


Communication.  The key to the successful functioning of any organisation or social unit, yet something we seem to be terribly bad at.  Each day is filled with dozens of misunderstandings, ambiguities and missed opportunities to connect in any way.  Something which all trainee librarians learn is that the question being asked by a user is not necessarily the question they want answered, and even if it is, you may not understand it in quite the way it was intended.

The classic example is the librarian sat at an enquiry desk who is asked to help someone find information on ‘migration in whales’.  The immediate response is to send the user in the direction of biological information, specifically the behaviour of Cetaceans [599.51568 or thereabouts in Dewey].  However, it may be necessary to pause a while.  Did the librarian really hear an ‘h’, or did they just assume it?  Their enquirer might well have no interest in the movements of marine mammals, they may be researching economic migration in the United Kingdom, specifically in Wales.  Dewey would class a treatise on this subject with a hideously long number somewhere in the 300s, but journals and collections of statistics would be a more likely source for this information.

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Library Mythconceptions


It strikes me that most people don’t have a clue what I actually do all day at work.  Hopefully my fellow inmates at the Library of Doom have at least a vague idea, but in the wider world my actual activities are about as well known as Chandler Bing’s job title in Friends.  In other words, everyone thinks they know, but nobody really does.  I think this is largely due to a variety of myths, rumours and misconceptions that surround the world of librarianship.  I won’t bore you with the details of exactly what I do, but here are some things which aren’t entirely true.

It must be lovely, being able to read all those wonderful books.  Well, yes, the Library of Doom is indeed full of books, both wonderful and otherwise, and I have handled a large proportion of our stock (getting on for half a million items), and probably seen almost everything, even if only the spine of the book out of the corner of my eye.  However, I don’t get to sit around during working hours perusing this storehouse of knowledge, as, strangely enough, I’m being paid to do more useful things.  The only time when some of us might get to sit down and read is if we’re stuck on a late shift on the issue desk over the summer, when you see approximately one and a half students per hour.  If you’re lucky.

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What you do is not who you are


My blogging identity is a handle I’ve used on a few other sites.  The Singing Librarian.  Recently, however, a real-life friend who knows of this blog commented that they didn’t think the handle really summed me up, that they wouldn’t think of me in those terms.  So I wondered.  And pondered.  And sat on the thought for a while.  Is the Singing Librarian really who I am?

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Being an endangered species


Books Upon BooksPeople think I’m mad for all sorts of reasons, with a chief cause for doubting my sanity at the moment being my pursuit of a librarianship qualification.   “Isn’t librarianship obsolete?” they ask.  Others are quick to inform me that “computers are taking everything over!”  To an extent, they may be right, but they’re also talking utter rubbish.

Librarianship is a vastly changed profession, and has to evolve constantly as technology advances, new laws are introduced and society undergoes occasional metamorphoses.  No longer custodians of books, jealously guarding them from the outside world, librarians now exist to facilitate access to information in a whole host of forms, both physical and electronic.  Books are still a big part of our world, of course, but the Library of Doom, for instance, is also stuffed to the gills with videos, DVDs, CDs, maps, artefacts and CD-ROMs.  In addition to this, there is the vast electronic world, with a horizon that is ever expanding, showing no signs of slowing down.   Yes, computers hold all of this information, but librarians act as a guide, helping people to access, search, use and understand this information.

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