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.

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.

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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.

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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Books of the Month – May 2012


This has been a month where I haven’t really managed to read very much, and I’m not at all sure why. But what I have read has been worth reading.

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn

Set on Fleet Street during the middle of the 20th century, this book is both highly amusing and rather sad.  It shows the newspaper industry at the end of it golden years, seen through the eyes of a few characters who work in an insignificant department, responsible for dreaming up crosswords and similarly cutting-edge parts of their publication (though they, of course, believe themselves to be dynamic journalists).  The characters are all deeply flawed, and Frayn draws them in such a way that you laugh at them, then are moved to feel sympathetic for them, even John Dyson, the pompous fool who is trying to make his name on television.  The disastrous press trip to the Persian Gulf which takes up much of the final few chapters of the book is a masterpiece of farcical writing.  An intriguing glimpse into a different time and world, this novel is decidedly worth reading.

Identity Theft by John Andrews

With the subtitle ‘Finding the missing person in you’, this is a Christian book about personal identity – both the general identity of a Christian as a child of God and individual identity.  This latter aspect is welcome, as a lot of Christian writing seems to imply that we are all turned out of the same mould and should be a homogeneous mass of identikit people.  This book sets out the reasons, both Biblical and otherwise, why this shouldn’t be the case, and encourages the readers to acknowledge both aspects of their identity.  I found the book challenging and encouraging, and have gone back to the beginning to read it again in the hope that I’ll actually remember what’s written here and live it out.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

This month’s book group book (though yet again I missed book group night).  I have seen the stage musical based on the book before and caught a mixed adaptation on television recently, but had never got round to reading it.  I didn’t find it one of Dickens’ best books, to be honest, though perhaps my feelings would have been different if he had finished the story before he died.  The chief problem is that the characters do not, for the most part, feel quite so vitally alive as his characters normally do.  Some of them, particularly Mrs Crisparkle and Durdles, are beautifully described, but there is a spark missing.  The big question of the book is this – what is the mystery?  Dickens made it clear in some letters that the obvious suspect is indeed the culprit, and all the clues are laid out quite clearly (for the reader if not for any of the characters yet).  So for me the mystery is how the guilty party will be brought to justice or who the disguised detective Dick Datchery really is (my money is on Bazzard, though that is again the obvious choice).  The mystery could be unravelled if everyone sat down and talked to each other, as each person holds a vital clue, but the likelihood of getting  such different people as Rosa Budd and Princess Puffer in the same room would be rather unlikely.  Reading Dickens is never a bad thing, but there are definitely better ones out there.  Oddly, leaving the novel midway doesn’t seem hugely frustrating.

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So not the most impressive list of reads this month.  In terms of impact, Identity Theft has been my most valued read, but Towards the End of the Morning wins in terms of enjoyment.

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.

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