LibCamp UK 2012: Part 1

Yesterday I got up extremely early and headed down to Birmingham on the train for a day of discussion about libraries.  I had attended a smaller ‘unconference’ at Brunel University last year and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to seeing the main event.  I also had happy memories of lots of cake, which was further incentive to get up at 5am.  Libcamp UK 2012 was generally a very positive experience, and we discussed so many things that I thought I would recap them here so I didn’t forget.

Session 1: What is a Library for?

The first session of the day didn’t get off to an inspiring start.  It was led by a consultancy company called Red Quadrant. On further research, it seems that they specialise in ‘transforming’ services in the public sector, and public libraries in particular.  Obviously, people are a bit suspicious of that kind of thing in the current climate of cuts and privatisation of services, which is probably why the RQ guy didn’t really explain what it was that his company actually did – saying instead that he wanted to be ‘controversial’ and provoke a ‘heated debate.’  The thing is, it didn’t even seem controversial because he refused to actually say what his ideas about public libraries were!  He argued that we weren’t defining the value of libraries in the right way, and that was detrimental to the service.  This is obviously an important issue, because libraries are currently called upon to justify themselves much more in order to get extra funding/any funding at all.  Sadly, I’m not sure he had any good solutions (or if he did he wasn’t going to tell us).  All I picked up from it was that he wanted to reach out to users and be part of the community, which seemed a bit patronising as most switched-on public librarians are desperately trying to do this anyway, but with no money to do it with.

There were some interesting comments about the difficulty of quantifying the value of libraries, and a suggestion about the importance of ‘curation’ from a guy who was trying to start up a ‘tool library’ and wanted a librarian to run it (which sounded an interesting idea, although apparently he had had a hard time finding librarians that wanted to branch into tools!).  Someone spoke about how she was conducting interviews with library users to collect qualitative evidence about the value of libraries, which seemed a good idea.  We talked about ‘getting people through the doors’ of libraries, and a non-librarian said that he didn’t use public libraries himself, so it was hard to see the relevance of them.  I always think a big problem with public libraries is that the main users are not people with any economic and political clout – the elderly, the young, mothers and babies, the unemployed wanting help with jobhunting etc.  We didn’t really address that in the session, although there were some strong arguments about people having a right to a public library service.

In the end, we left without any clearer ideas for solutions, or quite what Red Quadrant would do as part of a public library ‘transformation.’  Here is a critical blog post I found about them, although further research is needed to find out exactly what their agenda is!

Oh, and at one point we had to assure a non-librarian that we were only writing on notepads because the wifi wasn’t working, and not because librarians were ‘all about books.’ I have to guiltily admit now that I prefer to scribble notes in a nice notebook and then type it up afterwards.

Session 2: Open Source Software

After filling up on cake (lovely chocolate and orange brownies), I went to a session on something I know very little about – open source software, run by @preater and @liz_jolly.  It was very illuminating, as I fear that had I been a university/ local authority/ organisation approached by my library systems folks and asked whether we could change the Library Management System to open-source, I would have come up with most of the worries and objections criticised here.

1. How would it be supported, and who is accountable for it if it goes wrong?

2. Would it be as reliable as a closed-source version from a familiar name (like Microsoft?)

3. Would our staff be good enough programmers to be able to make it work?

We heard from libcampers who are familiar with implementing open-source software, and had interesting  responses to all those questions.  It seems as though if you use open-source software you still have to pay a company to support and maintain it, but it’s more flexible as if you’re unhappy with them you can change to another company without changing the software.  Also, as programmers are working on open source software all over the world, it’s actually easier to get support if it goes wrong.

Some of the people in the session had implemented open source software in their own organisations, and knew of universities in Europe who had been using it for some time without any problems.  They argued that the reason why our universities/companies remained with closed-source software was that they are stuck in a cycle of purchasing from known vendors that no one has the motivation to break out of.

Although this isn’t something I know much about, I gather the advantages to open-source is that you can fiddle with it, personalise it without going through a provider, and it has an ethos of sharing and open access.  One of the only dangers seemed to be was that you had to reign in over-enthusiastic programmers in your institutions from changing it so much that only they know how to fix it!

The group agreed that the main motivator for an institution changing to open-source was an ‘open-source champion’ in management who was prepared to advocate for a change.  They discussed barriers to change, which surprisingly often came from the IT department.  I would have thought there would be some ‘open-source champions’ among IT departments, but understandably even people who run open-source in their homes are much more cautious when it comes to the workplace.  I can definitely understand institutions like the NHS wanting to play as safe as possible, especially when their systems deal with patient data.

Open source is something for me to read up about it, as I’ve always been a bit of a Windows girl as it is nice and familiar, and I’ve never had to do anything complicated enough to experience any problems with it – but I came away from the session encouraged to explore other options.

Session 3: Librarians without Libraries

Third session of the day was run by ex Law Library trainee @theatregrad, who works in a media archive at a television company.  The discussion was focused on how librarians in non-traditional library settings should promote themselves/ reach out to their users.  Can you call yourself a library when you’re only a phone number or an email address, rather than a physical space?  We heard from charity librarians who support users all over the country and even the world, and health librarians who take their laptops round to support their users ‘on the ground’ rather than expecting them to come into a physical library

It was agreed that not having a physical space actually had its advantages, in that you could go out to your users, but disadvantages in that it was hard to promote exactly what your service did.  The importance of ‘corridor advocacy’ was brought up – the scenario when you’re chatting by the water-cooler and casually bring up that you are the librarian and could probably help the person do his/her work better!  Librarians without libraries often relied on word-of-mouth recommendations to bring people to the service, and were much more active in attending workplace meetings just to show their faces and remind people of their existence.

This led on to a discussion about whether you should call a spade a spade, or in this case, a library a library – or whether you should go for the likes of ‘information centre’ or ‘learning resource centre.’  Apparently there’s a library service in Ireland that has re-branded all its libraries to learning resource centres, and has now realised people are attached to the word library, so are re-branding them all back again! It became clear that it was a matter of context, and using the terms that your users are most likely to understand.  In a corporate environment they might well understand ‘information officer’ better than librarian, and ‘library’ might suggest an old-fashioned physical space full of books that isn’t really relevant to the organisation.  In an educational environment however, it was suggested that students still say “I’m going to the library” even if it’s called something else (although at Sheffield, the Information Commons, or IC, seems to have successfully entered the student language).

Interestingly, it seemed as though many of the problems faced by librarians without libraries were actually fairly similar to librarians with libraries in terms of getting out and marketing services, and that having a physical space was no guarantee that your users would get the most out of your services.

So that brings us to LUNCH (clearly the most important part of the day).  I apologise if I’ve got anything wrong about open source software etc. – these are very new subjects for me!  I shall return with part 2 very soon…

Leave a comment


  1. I think the library/LRC issue is a really interesting one, which was also brought up in the session on how to market libraries. I entirely agree that it depends on the situation. In some cases, especially with public libraries, rebranding can help with modernising the service and fighting the stereotypes. In my school, however, where the library was renamed the LRC last September, I have found that I am the only member of the school – staff or student – who does not routinely refer to it as the library. I think merely changing the name without noticeably altering or adding to the physical space and its functions is pointless really.

    • libraryem

       /  October 15, 2012

      That’s interesting – I’m never quite sure why the huge shift away from calling school libraries ‘libraries’ actually happened. Is it because there are less books and more online resources?

      • I think that’s a valid reason if there is a marked change in the resources offered, but at my school I can’t work out why they decided to change the name since, as far as I can tell, nothing changed but the name. We still deal predominantly with books, so sticking with library would’ve been more sensible.

  2. Ian

     /  October 14, 2012

    ” I always think a big problem with public libraries is that the main users are not people with any economic and political clout – the elderly, the young, mothers and babies, the unemployed wanting help with jobhunting etc.”

    Exactly that. That’s one of the reasons why we set up Voices for the Library. A lot of library users simply are not heard when it comes to some if the central discussion about public libraries. Guest posts on our site aim to do that, and they certainly helped when putting together evidence for the Select Committee.

    We’ve not had massive success in addressing this, but I do think it’s absolutely key to tackling some of the misconceptions around the public library service.

    • libraryem

       /  October 15, 2012

      Voices for the Library looks like a great project – I am going to try and get more involved with library activism this year in Sheffield.

  3. “They discussed barriers to change, which surprisingly often came from the IT department.”

    This is quite true. IT departments often resist the use of OS because it is more difficult to support from their point of view. I think you’re right in that a culture shift needs to happen in many institutions in realising the benefits of OS (although it’s not as simple as OS is good, proprietary is bad).

    • libraryem

       /  October 15, 2012

      I’m sorry for displaying my ignorance about OS, but is it more difficult to support because there’s no parent company to go back to with any problems? Or is it more difficult technically to fix if things go wrong? Definitely something I’m going to have to read up about!

      • Hi, sorry for the delay in replying. I think it’s generally a concern about whether or not they’ll have the skills. OS is potentially limitless in scope whereas If they stick to a set list of systems and softwares they can guarantee they have the expertise to support it. Also if you buy a piece of proprietary software you know you’ll have the support of the company that made it whereas OS is generally community driven and whilst this more often than not is adequate there’s no guarantee you’ll get the support you need.

      • p.s. don’t be sorry! You’ll be an expert in no time!

  4. Hello

    I’m the RQ guy  – thanks for your comments, it’s great to get such considered and immediate feedback!

    Sorry if the session wasn’t inspiring, I’d had a pretty terrible journey after getting up at 5.30 thanks to not realising the Victoria line was out, and Sarah Wilkie, our head of libraries, was stuck at home with a leg injury.

    I was actually quite surprised that people wanted to hear what we think – we produced some thoughts for last year’s LibraryCamp and got some negative comments about setting the agenda and suggestions that we say less and facilitate more. There was a different ‘feel’ this year though and had I been better prepared I would have been happy to share!

    But I really thought people would just pick up on the ‘three sterile arguments about libraries’ point and either agree and talk about better arguments or disagree.
    (The thesis was there are two or three arguments (A) libraries shouldn’t change and should simply be protected, (B) libraries are OK but need to change and modernise – with ‘efficiencies’ or cuts, or (C) “I don’t use libraries they are irrelevant now kindles exist etc etc” – and none of them really serve a positive view of libraries of the future)

    There was a lot of controversy about my session idea in advance, with one or two people weighing in, and I also think I assumed that more people were aware of this – a foolish assumption I now realise. What was also interesting is that there were a number of questions which came from a position I recognise, but which I couldn’t really relate to what we do. E.g. ‘is there a tension between what RedQuadrant do and the public service status of libraries’, to which I can only answer ‘no’ – we are consultants who assist all kinds of public services – but the underlying issues are, I think, (i) people seem to think we have a fixed position in favour of privatisation or similar – not sure why – but this wasn’t addressed and (ii) people think that there’s no place for private services at all in libraries – including I think consultants – and this wasn’t brought out explicitly either. We should probably have just done a ‘the private sector have no place in libraries’ and got those issues out and addressed!

    Check out our website or library-specific bit at which say more about what we do and the work we’ve done – and I promise you that we don’t really have an agenda – or nothing more hidden than

    What we produced in simple terms for the event last year:
    • Our values – we think that libraries are for:
     Social inclusion – including the most excluded in the mainstream, and providing space and a forum for ‘real social network’ (including literacy, English as a second language, internet access etc…)
     Amenity – enjoyment, hobbies, access, fun etc…
     Education – in the broadest and lifelong sense
    • Libraries should stop trying to be all things to all people all the time (in an undifferentiated way), and should define very clearly what they are trying to offer, to whom, and how
    • Form should follow function should follow purpose – i.e. you have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, then how you can deliver it – these all come before the (very real and relevant) arguments around volunteers, professionalism, ‘outsourcing’ etc

    • libraryem

       /  October 15, 2012

      Hi Ben, thanks for your comments. As I said – I think it is important to be able to define the value of libraries in words, otherwise we won’t be able to communicate that to the government/general public, and convince anyone of anything. Therefore looking at your three views of libraries is useful, and a discussion around them would have been interesting.

      I agree that you made a mistake thinking everyone would have attended last years camp/ seen anything you’d written before / heard of your work – I hadn’t heard of you as I come from academic libraries, and didn’t see the online controversy (I’m sure you realise that it’s very easy to miss things online as everything goes by so fast). Perhaps a bit of explanation about who you were and what you do would have helped this?

      You are of course right that public libraries need to be clear about what they’re trying to achieve and how to deliver it – where I think we disagree is that I believe that we do need to be having urgent conversations about funding cuts, outsourcing and job-replacement by volunteers otherwise before we know it we won’t be able to achieve or deliver anything like a good public library service. But, as you say, that would have made a good debate!

      Thanks for reading and responding – I’ll have a look at the websites you’ve linked to.


      • Thanks Emily. I certainly wouldn’t argue that the discussions about cuts, outsourcing and volunteers are urgent! Simply that they need to be informed by some clear vision of what each particular service is trying to achieve (at the service level), or at national level by a clearly articulated argument about what we are fighting *for* (as well as against). I do think Voices for Libraries, amongst others, are doing a decent job of this, and avoiding some of the bear-traps I hinted at.
        Best wishes

  5. I did not attend the conference so it is really good to be able to read about what happened – thanks! I am linking to this blog from my blog article.

  1. Library Camp UK 2012 | Trading Knowledge

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