Archive for the ‘ Ramblings ’ 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!

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…

Superhumans and national pride


I’d imagine very few people in the UK are unaware that our capital has been playing host to the Olympic Games over the last two weeks.  The newspapers, television and radio have been full of little else and it has proven to be a topic which can enliven even the most awkward lull in conversation.  And now we have a brief lull before the Paralympics and…then what?  Certainly the journalism industry is going to have to look a bit harder for news items to fill their pages and minutes, if nothing else.

I always rather enjoy the Olympics. I’m not much of a sports fan, but the coverage of a collection of very different sports, with the opportunity to watch just brief snippets of each is wonderful.  And the idea of the world coming together for a fortnight of friendly(ish) competition is even better.  There’s the joy of seeing countries you’ve barely heard of earn a medal or two, and the way in which the entire country can suddenly become experts on fencing, synchronised diving or the pole vault if it looks like a British athlete stands any chance in the sport du jour.  Having it in my own nation adds a bit of patriotic pride and excitement to the mix, even though I didn’t even enter the ballot for tickets, let alone attend.

The whole thing got off to a simply stunning start, with an opening ceremony which showed off the things which this strange little country is so proud of and showed an amazing theatricality.  I was in awe at the Pandemonium segment where chimneys rose from the stadium floor and the Olympic rings were forged in the sky, I grinned with delight when the Queen met James Bond, I felt inordinately proud of the NHS, our musical culture and the eclectic, multi-ethnic randomness of British society.  I felt quite emotional watching it, and indeed shed a tear towards the end.  The moment when it became clear that the cauldron would be lit not by a world-famous athlete, but by seven young people that most of us had never heard of made me glow with excitement – the symbolism of passing the torch on to the next generation and the thought of what those youngsters must have been feeling really struck me.  But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer beauty of those copper petals rising and coming together to form that beautiful cauldron.  Simple, yet utterly beautiful.  Add the fact that each petal was brought in by a different country, and I was gone.  That moment exemplified what the Olympics should be for me.

Then the actual competition got underway.   I saw bits of diving, gymnastics, handball, athletics, tennis, swimming, fencing, rowing, cycling, sailing, water polo and probably other sports which I’ve forgotten about.  As each event continued, I was in awe of what these people could do.  Even the last placed competitors were doing things which you wouldn’t think would be humanly possible – so fast, so high, so strong, not to mention so long, so graceful, so controlled, so coordinated and so on.  Whether I enjoyed the sport or not, I found myself open-mouthed time after time.  I also found myself shouting at the commentators and interviewers quite frequently.  They often seemed distinctly disappointed if the British hopes got anything less than gold (for shame, they’re only the third best athlete in the world!), even if it was a surprise that said competitors even made it to the finals.  And in one swimming relay, the commentator shouted “oh no!” – a team had won gold and broken the world record, but they still hadn’t gone quite as fast as he’d hoped.  I’m sorry, but they’ve just swum faster than any other team in history, and you’re disappointed?  Madness!

The things I’ve seen blew my mind.  In the diving, I was impressed simply by the control in their handstands, let alone what twists and turns they went though on the way into the pool (where they somehow have to avoid splash).  The table tennis moved too fast for me to follow.  The long jump covered ludicrous distances, and the pole vault is mind-boggling.  Men and women carrying on through serious pain, and everyone (apart from maybe a few badminton duos) giving their all even if they were so far behind the rest of the field.  Concentration, determination and humility.  And yes, some very large egos as well.  The Paralympics will be just as awe-inspiring, I have no doubt.

The closing ceremony didn’t quite live up to the opening ceremony, partly because it didn’t seem to hang together as well.  It did have some excellent moments to it, though, particularly the opening segment with the newspapers and street parties, and the inspired pairing of Jessie J with Queen.  It did continue to prove the point that this country has produced some amazing music and musicians, though.  Lord Coe’s speech was obviously quite emotional for him, and it would be hard to argue with his assertion that “we did it right”.  While marvelling at the abilities of athletes from around the world, arguing the merits of various sports and enjoying the warm, fuzzy feeling which comes from the world coming together, the 2012 Olympics reminded me that this country (while far from perfect) is capable of being truly amazing.

Mountains and molehills


I have various talents in life, and one of them is an amazing ability to make a huge mountain out of the smallest of molehills.  This is most evident on stage – a case in point being Guys and Dolls.

I performed in Guys and Dolls last month, playing Nicely Nicely Johnson (otherwise known as “you know, the one who sings ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat'”).  Things went really rather well, if the audience’s reaction is anything to go by, but there was one particular night which allowed me to demonstrate my mountain-making talents in addition to performing.

Things began well with the ‘Fugue for Tinhorns’, but in the dialogue after that, something very unusual happened.  I dropped a line.  I was so busy reacting to what the character Nathan had just said, that I momentarily forgot that I was supposed to say something.  Luckily, he covered for me by  adding a reaction comment of his own, which allowed me time to recover and come back in with the line.  Hardly earth-shattering, but as I have a reputation for knowing not only my lines, but everyone else’s as well, certainly noticeable to cast and crew, and cause for much self-annoyance.  Already cross with myself for this momentary lapse of concentration, I then managed to annoy myself further in the number ‘Guys and Dolls’, which has a dance break half way through.  At one point in this break, I managed to get a beat or so out of time, so that it looked as though myself and my duet partner were in canon with each other rather than in synch.  I doubt the audience would have noticed (when there are only two of you dancing, moments like that can be got away with to an extent), and I soon got back in to it, but I was still mightily annoyed with myself afterwards.

The Singing Librarian as Nicely Nicely Johnson, surrounded by the gamblers.

These little things, and a couple of others (also things which the audience would not have noticed and most people would just shrug off), began to mount up during the evening until we got to ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.  This is surely the best song in the show, and was great fun to perform, but on that night it wasn’t quite so enjoyable.  At the start of the third verse, I had to leap up on to some benches.  As I did so, my subconscious decided this would be a good time to inform my conscious mind of something – that my costume for the finale of the show was in my dressing room.  Not a problem, you might think.  However, it wasn’t supposed to be there.  It was supposed to be in a quick change room by the stage to ensure that I had time to change costume, put on my tap shoes and strap on a bass drum.  The thought of having to dash down to the dressing room, which would involve going through about 5 doors and down the stairs, was not a fun one.  For a moment, it distracted me and I stumbled over the first line of the verse.  By the fourth word (laughed, if you need to know such things) I had recovered, and carried on as before.  However, I was exceptionally annoyed with myself, and it did worry some other people as well.  One of the ladies in the chorus said she thought I might not sing the verse at all, the musical director was rather concerned, and one of my fellow gamblers reported that I suddenly went deathly pale at that moment, which must have been quite alarming for him.

With the song and the scene over, I was fuming at myself, annoyed about all the small mistakes I’d made, annoyed that I had forgotten to take my costume up to the quick change room, and particularly annoyed that I had let this distract me on stage, even for a moment.  As soon as we were able to move, I dashed off towards the dressing room.  I managed to collide with two other gamblers on the way, then fall over on my way down the stairs.  I managed to get back in time for the drum, but by that point was extremely frustrated with myself and just wanted the evening to be over and done with.  As I checked, in a very flustered way, that all the buttons on my costume were done up, I accidentally worried another of the guys in the cast, who thought I was on the brink of a heart attack, and knew that a bass drum strapped to me would not make dealing with this very easy.

After the show, I was simply mortified.  Small mistakes which with hindsight I can see hardly anyone would have noticed, had assumed monstrous size in my mind, and I felt that I had let everyone down due to not living up to my reputation.  The mistakes probably amounted to five seconds of stage time in total, if that, but to me that was more than enough to make the performance a disaster.  I have since been assured that it really wasn’t, and I did soon realise that a little perspective was rather necessary.  Mountains and molehills.

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Mental Health Awareness Week


About once a fortnight on Facebook, at least one of my Friends will run a status update beginning with the words “This week is Mental Health Awareness Week”.  These posts will then remind everyone to be aware of mental health issues in some way, offering a call to end the stigma often attached to conditions which affect the mind.  I was not convinced that all of these weeks could possibly be Mental Health Awareness Week, and a little research showed that in the UK, the week beginning 21st May is the 2012 week of that name, at least according to the Mental Health Foundation and the NHS. Hence this post.

One side of my family has a history of mental illness, and I am no exception to this.  I have written about it before, but not for quite some time, and I think perhaps this is something I should be more open about, so this Week seems like a sensible time to mention it again.  Over the years I have found that others who know that I have these issues have felt able to come and talk to me about their own struggles with mental health, whether temporary or ongoing.  I am not always able to give them any sensible advice, but sharing our experiences seems to help both parties.

The theme of the week for 2012 is that doing good is good for you – random (or not so random) acts of kindness can be just as good for the doer as the receiver.  It is most definitely true that what you do has a big effect on how you feel, whether you have a recognised mental health condition or not.  The intent is not so much to raise awareness of mental illness, but to help everyone learn more about how to improve their own mental health and wellbeing.  Previous years have had a focus on anger, fear and loneliness, all of which affect everyone to a greater or lesser extent.  It will be interesting to see how widely publicised the week is and how much it encourages people to engage with its ideas.

Although the Facebook status updates mentioned at the start of this post are not all accurate in terms of dates, they do offer a glimpse of reality.  For those who have a mental health condition, every week is automatically Mental Health Awareness Week.  In my case, sometimes I’m mostly OK, sometimes I’m really not, but it would be very rare for a whole week going by without something happening to remind me that the chemicals in my brain are out of balance.  Whether it is unwanted thoughts, a loss of appetite and energy, unprovoked tears or even minor visual or (more likely) auditory hallucinations, something or some things will remind me, even on a good week, of the negative things my brain can get up to, making every week an awareness week in a quite different sense.

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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