Posts Tagged ‘ libraries ’

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.

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…

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.

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.

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.

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