For the New Year, a new job…

I am more than a little delighted to announce that, from 5th January next year, I will be library assistant at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. This is a full-time position and I will be working for the librarian Nora Khayi.

The main purpose of this blog post for #citylis-ers is to say that, when I started the Library Science MSc in September 2013, I had no experience working in a library. Thanks to the great team at Reading Libraries I was able to volunteer and then get a Saturday job which led to lots of casual hours; all of which taught me at least as much as my lectures at City.

But the main point is that I am sure that the skills and methods instilled in me by #citylis were a crucial factor in landing the job – a Twitter presence, a blog, networking through CILIP, a positive, forward-looking vision for libraries. If any of you – particularly the more introverted amongst you – are wondering if doing all of that can really make any difference, I assure you, it can.


HUGE thanks go to Lyn Robinson, David Bawden and, of course,
Mr Impact – Ernesto Priego.


See you in the library.*












*Not at St Hugh’s, though – you’re not allowed into that without an appointment.     😉

It feels like I’ve written my dissertation

Here’s the (draft) abstract:

This research project examines how the library building accommodates books and how the library catalogue allows the management and use of those books; all in the context of the great increase in book numbers after the establishment of printing with moveable type in Europe from about the year 1500. The following subjects are studied in particular: furniture for storing books, how this is laid out and how it develops; the intellectual and practical concerns behind the development of the library catalogue; the design of library buildings, particularly internally, to house, provide, and preserve increasing numbers of books; the intellectual changes brought to the catalogue by physical developments, such as paper slips, cards, and computerisation; the era of the remote library warehouse, accessed only indirectly. Examples are sought throughout Western Europe and North America, with particular attention paid to two of the UK’s legal-deposit libraries, the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, and the British Library. The project finds that these institutions anticipate a reduction in the number of printed books and other matter that they must ingest but are unable to reliably predict when this will occur and have subsequently planned for a short- and medium-term of continuing growth. 


That’s about five months of reading/note-taking/thinking and seven weeks of writing (part-time), coming to about 22,000 words for the main chapters (excluding intros, appendices, etc.).

I look forward to being able to publish it here in the new year, for anyone who is interested. Having said that, my line manager at work told me I was writing the most boring dissertation imaginable; but she’s always ready with the joke.

CILIP President Jan Parry talks Career Planning and Advocacy

On Wednesday 7th October CILIP in the Thames Valley was honoured to receive a talk from none other than CILIP President herself, Jan Parry, at RISC in Reading.

Jan started the informal presentation with a brief roundup of her career, including how she got into librarianship, and how she got out of it again but used her professional skills to great effect in a wide range of applications. Of course, she was more modest than this but her CV includes senior Whitehall civil service positions working with Secretaries of State and other ministers and more recently being a member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Secretariat.

Jan was not ashamed to admit that, having attained her degree in Librarianship and Information Management a little later in life after starting her career at the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate library, she discovered that she was ambitious.

She didn’t let on to anyone else – even her family – but quietly went about her duties confident that there was almost always a better way of doing something. She also believed that she was capable of discovering and implementing those improvements, and that the only way to achieve them was building a case for them using evidence and demonstrating that they were effective by collecting data and communicating them.

The key to her message to us CILIP members at various stages in our information careers was that the very same principles apply to us as individuals. We should be able to communicate what we do, and its value, easily and quickly. And for this, librarians, “you need your business head on.”

If someone asks you what you do, don’t give the passive response “I’m a librarian” or “I manage a library service.” Better to say something like, “I’m an expert in finding information from a wide range of sources, and fast.” You might not be a natural self-promoter but becoming one will help to advance your career.

Jan told an anecdote about one civil service colleague who sought out his boss every day to give an informal report on what he was doing. Some in the audience thought this might become counterproductive, but this employee apparently got a bonus every year for his efforts. Jan recommended an alternative tack for those of us who don’t want to look like the school swot (because, lets face it, how many of us actually were the school swot?). Instead, write a weekly email to your superior, copied to his/her manager, outlining your achievements and ideas that week. Do this religiously. After a year your manager will have ample material with which to perform your appraisal, you will definitely have been noticed, and – perhaps most importantly – you will have had to stretch yourself in order to have written about your progress, week-by-week.

As to what that progress might be based on, with information services forever having to justify their resources – even existence – you should find ways to gather evidence, whether it be qualitative, such as written feedback or quantitative, such as user numbers, resources accessed, costs saved, etc.. All of this should be documented and ready for if – when – your service is under review.

In short, get a career plan. Don’t wallow in the “duvet of librarianship”. There are no longer jobs for life so you need to be ready to measure, improve, and move on and up.

Inspiring stuff; and it was easy to see why Jan has been so successful.

Philosophy information resource guide 2015

Here’s something I compiled for a recent university assignment. I made a PDF that behaves somewhat like a webpage using Adobe InDesign but I would like to create a true HTML version in the not-too-distant future. The PDF has both internal and external links will work best in Adobe Reader but your browser should also let you view it if you click on the link below…

Philosophy information resource guide 2015

Whither the book – A blog post about session 10 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

As the module, and indeed the taught part of the course itself, comes to an end we are left looking to the future and speculating on where it will take the book… and publishing… and libraries. Helping us do this was Alaistar Horne of Cambridge University Press, who had been at the London Book Fair that week with lots of other people who were likely wondering the same thing.

The answer – at least for now – seems to be that the future is complex, plural and diverse. There is no one killer app, or platform. Formats, channels and audiences will be multifarious. Take the e-book, for example. Much press was made when Amazon’s book sales in the UK tipped from being mostly print to mostly e-book nearly three years ago (how much that was due to 50 Shades I don’t even want to know). At the beginning of this year there was another slew of stories reacting to figures suggesting that the printed book was fighting back and e-books were going out of style.

It turned out that the origin of the story was Waterstones’ MD saying that sales of Amazon’s e-reader Kindle had all but evaporated in the chain’s shops. If I point out that this has little to do with the popularity of e-books vs. print books, I wouldn’t be the first. E-ink readers are now the Sony Betmax of digital books. People buying e-books from Amazon are doing so via the app on their tablets and phones.

The fuss was also fuelled by sales figures that showed a decrease in the rate of decline of print book sales. Again, not really big news.

A productive class discussion led by Horne threw up some interesting contradictions. Most of us preferred ink on paper as providing a better reading experience, but that turned out to mean simply that it was easier on the eyes. We tried to argue that printed books can have ornamental and sentimental value, and can be shared, but we could also all reel off the true benefits of ebooks: cheaper (if only a little), instantaneous, space efficient, not tied to one physical location, lighter (what’s easier on the eyes isn’t easier on the shoulders), etc.. There is also the as yet seldom realised potential of ebooks/apps/whatever to be simply better than print books at presenting content, certainly in a non-linear and more interactive way. And they can have audio, video and gaming elements. They can use the device’s sensors – mic, camera, accelerometer, GPS, etc. – to provide feedback.

As for the basic e-book, it turns out we like both formats and would buy either for different reasons in different circumstances. I personally think the book publishing industry could do its customers a favour by making buying a book more like buying a film on disc. Why not get a downloadable digital copy for the cost of the hard copy? Film companies probably do this to undermine the market in pirate downloads of their catalogues. Book publishers probably don’t feel the need to do the same. Similarly, the way in which Spotify almost gives away music for nothing only makes sense when seen as a response to digital piracy and the music labels’ fluffed response to digital in general that fed it in the first place.

Subscription means access for as long as you pay your monthly fee. But people want to own books, right?

Tell that to public libraries, which are now experimenting with e-book lending themselves, thanks to publishers’ belated agreement. Libraries been giving it away for years. No wonder the suits are finally trying to close them down.

Its only just beginning…

The end is nigh – A blog post about session 9 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

As I write this my last day of lectures at #citylis looms. However, you still need to hear about last week’s session, which was comprised of two guest speakers: Matt Finch and James Baker.

I won’t try to describe what Matt does for a living as you might not believe me, but you can read it from his own hand here. Matt gave a very engaging and inspiring presentation describing some of the events and activities he has made happen around the world, particularly ones promoting literacy and public libraries as vital community resources.

This chimes with the overarching theme of the #INM380 module, namely that digital technologies are changing the way that the information ‘industries’ have conventionally worked, giving rise to many challenges and opportunities, not least for public libraries, which need to widen the scope of what they do if they are to have a secure future. According to Matt, some of this might involve zombies and burlesque artists. In fact, he’s already proved how that can be a great success. Perhaps my favourite policy of his was taking the trouble to go back to the catalogue and improve metadata on a library’s stock and make sure that patron’s search results give better results. Focus this on titles of particular interest to young and Google-savvy readers and it could make a real difference.

James Baker is a digital curator at the British Library (BL) and has spoken at #citylis before and always has many interesting things to say on the subject of digital humanities, although he doesn’t like that term. He provided a very good example of how to grasp the issue. The BL has many large datasets as part of its collections – both metadata on its own materials and discrete datasets. Take its Digitised British newspaper collection – far too much text for any human scholar to process, but it can be done computationally.

When you start to think what could be done like this it seems a great pity that the majority of the BL’s 56 million catalogued items will likely never be digitised, at least not before technology advances enough for us puny humans to be redundant anyway.

In which case we might all be holed-up in our remaining public libraries as our digital overlords debate what to do with us. So, until that distant time, if your local library organises a zombie apocalypse, shuffle along as they’re training you up for the FUTURE.

‘Oh no, not again.’ – A blog post about session 8 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Our last session before Easter (yes, I know I’m a bit late writing it up but my excuse is that I wrote the assignment essay for this module instead, hah) was on the subject of Reference works; past, present and future. We heard from Diane Louise Bell and Katharine Schopflin, both of whom know a thing or three about the subject as it relates to libraries.

With academic libraries in particular, the conventional distinction between reference works and others is being blurred by changes in the way that readers now access information, thanks to technology. Reference works were the ones in multiple volumes, with expensive bindings designed to last longer than you, that you were permitted to consult but never to borrow. They were too frequently referred to – and expensive – for that.

But today we get a lot of reference information online, either from Wikipedia, or from online versions of established reference works that our library subscribes to. We don’t need to borrow something that we (and any number of others) can (simultaneously) read remotely. Digital publication also has the advantage that updates are much faster and less expensive than with printed volumes.

Douglas Adams famously predicted the handheld interactive information resource (think Wikipedia on a tablet) with his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978). This was positioned as a refreshing antidote to the stuffy Encyclopædia Galactica (originally Asimov’s concept) –

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopædia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover. [© Douglas Adams]

Hearing from Katharine how the classical encyclopaedias were compiled got me thinking about alphabetisation, which is something that I’m hoping to research as part of my dissertation. It might sound a bit basic but it is interesting to me that entries written into a book in an arbitrary order would be later cut out and filed in a different order to aid retrieval. This is essentially the transition from book the book catalogue to the card catalogue, which we use today, albeit in digital form.

It is fascinating to think how, for a project that would take decades to complete, a scheme of entries and cross-references could be compiled in advance, before the articles themselves were written. And, of course, they didn’t need to be written (or rewritten) in alphabetical order.

Before this it would have been much more likely for reference works to be organised according to a schema derived from some perceived great order of things, with God at the top, naturally. In that sense, alphabetisation is one of the foundations of modernity. A bit like the Hitchhikers Guide.

I can’t believe it’s not printed; or spreadable-media – A blog post about session 7 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Last week’s lecture was concerned with the state of trade publishing today and we were given many insights into that very thing by Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Penguin Random House UK, and our course leader Ernesto Priego Here are the key things I took away from the session:

• Much of the editorial process consists of understanding an audience, filtering and curating – all of which equally apply to librarianship. We can also add to this list the importance of discoverability (the ease with which your products and services can be found online).

• Multimedia is so 90s. Today it’s all about cross-media, or spreadable media.

• Waterstones, to name the UK’s largest chain of bookshops, takes its stock on a sale or return basis. This means that the onus is on the publisher to print just the right amount for each title. A lot of work goes into getting this right, to keep costs to a minimum.

• Penguin Random House UK’s revenue is split 75% print / 25% digital. I should have asked if the profitability of each sector is roughly equal.

• Dan had hotfooted it back (early) from SXSW, where people were talking about how digital is influencing print.

• The media may be changing, but storytelling is as important as ever. Tech firms – e.g., WeTransfer – are investing in stories to promote their digital services.

• The EPUB3 standard allows for fixed layout ebooks with interactive features. Re-flowable text was the USP of the original standard but some documents, such as picture books, require that the layout does not change according to screen or font size. I happen to be developing brochures in EPUB3 format for a multinational industrial client and I’ve had problems getting all of the features to work on all platforms. Apple is the best. Microsoft is the worst. Android is somewhere in-between. Who knew?

• Penguin Random House UK has its own in-house app platform that editorial staff can fill with content in order to publish an app; so far, this is used for cookery apps.

• Audio is also a large and growing sector of digital. Car manufacturers are developing digital dashboards and want custom content to sell with them, for which they turn to publishers.

• Penguin Random House UK also has an ‘author portal’, where its authors can login and get live sales data and more on their titles.

• Dan also shared many other examples of digital content – much of it far more than just an ebook version of a print book. For example, a cross-media edition of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, which combines scene’s from the film with the text of the story. Gimmicky, you might think, but Greene wrote the screenplay before the book.

The bottom line is that, despite the proliferation of media – much of which is technically far more accessible to individuals who might want to publish something – content is still king, and publishers are still a trusted source of good content.

Case in point? If you self-publish and have a hit you’ll get offers from trade publishers that will lead to your being signed, making money, and reaching a significantly wider audience.

Dan seemed pretty relaxed about the future.

ACCESS DENIED – A blog post about session 6 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Last time I mentioned that an upcoming session would be dedicated to Open Access (use title case and you signify the movement, or Movement), and session 6 was it. We had an excellent presentation from Martin Eve, who has written a book on the subject which, thanks to its being open access, you can read for free online.

As he said in his presentation, the trouble with allowing people to read your book for free online is that people will assume it’s rubbish. But as you look into how scholarly publishing – both journal and monograph – is financed, and the consequences those conventions have, it becomes clear that it is a subject worth questioning, at the very least.

The whole thing goes round in a big circle so it’s not always clear where to begin but let’s start with the academic researchers who write up and publish the results of their work. Such people tend to be employed by universities which, in Europe at least, are essentially state-funded. In fact, where the money comes from to make the research possible is not all that important because, under the conventional publishing model, anyone who wants to read that output has to pay to do so, whether they helped to fund it or not. In practice, university libraries spend large proportions of their budgets subscribing to packages of scholarly journals and purchasing print and ebook monographs from their corporate publishers for the use of their students and staff. One of the advantages of being a paid-up student is that you get online access to a wealth of scholarly material that is not available to other people.

So, count one: work that would benefit everyone is not freely available to everyone, even to those who contributed to making it happen. Count two: accessing it enriches corporate publishers (the largest publishing groups make substantial profits). As having an article accepted by a scholarly journal also tends to entail giving up the copyright on said article, researchers sometimes find that they cannot even access or reuse their own work in its final published form without paying to do so. Let’s call that count three.

It should also be stated that there is – to take UK higher education as an example – an overwhelming imperative to publish for any ‘research active’ university employee. Ratings and funding flow from having the greatest ‘impact’, which means research output that is read and cited in other works. Because of this, the body that allocates taxpayers’ money to such things HEFCE mandates that the results of its funding must be published open access. In practice this means a form of open access known as Green, by which the author is required to upload a pre-print (text before final formatting) to his/her institution’s repository (digital library).

Yes, you’ve guessed it – the publishing process otherwise works in the conventional way. The alternative to this is Gold open access, in which the publisher forgoes charging for access by instead charging for publication. Again, something that – rightly or wrongly – comes with an air of suspicion, especially in scholarly publishing. If you have to pay to publish something, is its merit for publication overlooked?

The debate continues, not least because for monographs, which constitute a greater proportion of scholarly output in the humanities, open access is less developed. There is also the fact that many scholars – not least because the funding system rewards it – want to publish in the most exclusive journals, which have little motive to adopt any form of open access.

Assumptions and prejudices need to change for open access and its benefits to become conventional. Publishers certainly add value and those costs must be met. Fortunately, it looks like the movement towards making more information more available is, at least, on the right path.

Scholarly publishing – A blog post about session 5 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Session 5 of LAPIS concerned scholarly publishing – particularly the history/present/future of academic journals. Starting with the Philosophical Transactions (of the Royal Society) in 1665, such journals are often the organs of learned societies, although they may be published in association with a commercial publisher. Their remit is to inform members of the society, and anyone interested in the field, of new research. Philosophical Transactions established the now common principles of scientific priority (an early example being the Newton/Leibniz – both Fellows of the RS – argument about calculus), and peer review.


Peer review is essential to the credibility of such publications, particularly in an age such as ours, in which anyone can publish, one way or another. The greatest titles derive their cachet from their illustrious histories and exclusivity, and the assumption that any article that makes it on to their pages has undergone thorough scrutiny from experts in the field who have pronounced it eligible for publication.

This isn’t a guarantee that mistakes cannot slip through – many have been documented and appear in the news every once-in-a-while, if the journal is well known, such as Nature, which recently addressed problems with peer review itself here. However, this is free for all to read as it’s a news article. Try to read one of their scientific articles proper and you’ll hit a paywall. Open Access is something we will cover in more detail later in the course but the economics – who pays, who profits – of scholarly journal publishing are very much under debate. The UK Government now stipulates that publicly funded research should be available to the public to read or, as explained in one The Guardian blog:

Open access gained a boost this year when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) announced that all UK research post-April 2016 must be open access in order to qualify for funding assessments.

How, or whether, this impacts upon an article’s status is yet to be established. Academic libraries spend huge sums (thanks to high course fees) on digital subscriptions to scholarly journals. Public libraries can only dream of having similar access, though the Access to Research [] collaboration goes some way to address this, but rather on the publishers’ terms, although this is a good reason to visit a public library as you can’t access it from home.

As one contributor to The Guardian – Impact of research Blog mentioned above writes:

Open access has been for some time now a hub of innovation in publishing technologies, promoting the emergence of academic publishing start-ups and researcher-led projects. How to take those to the mainstream, to be recognised by senior academics, administrators and funders, is in my opinion the biggest challenge.

Taking a step back from the historical process that has led to the state of scholarly publishing today there is clearly a significant amount of work required to formally publish articles, which needs to be paid for. It is equally clear that allowing the widest possible access to scientific research is a public good. The scholarly journal, whilst somewhat old fashioned, is very much fit-for-purpose. But publishing, after all, is about providing access. The digital revolution going on around us should allow publishers to do that even better.