LibCamp UK 2012: Part 2

Here are the recaps of the after-lunch sessions…

Lunch was great, and topped up with additional and unnecessary cake, it was even better.  I think my favourite cakes are definitely the lemon based ones, and would choose them over chocolate any day.  At lunch time I had the chance to chat with a few people who had recently graduated from the course at Sheffield.  They had all found jobs, which was quite reassuring, although they warned that it was pretty tough and not everyone had managed to find something yet.  I took on board some useful advice about applying, and am not panicking yet!

Distasters in Libraries

The first post-lunch session was run by a former colleague, @Sonja_Kujansuu.  She’s thinking of doing her dissertation on water disasters in libraries and wanted to hear about everyone’s experiences, as there were a few leaks in the Law Library last year (although luckily nothing was damaged)!

There had been so much discussion about virtual/non-physical library spaces earlier in the day that it was interesting to be reminded that (some) libraries are still based in a physical space, and both the space and the hard-copy collections are still important.  The effect of floods and leaks on libraries can be devastating, although there are companies that specialize in freeze-drying flood-damaged books.  Cambridge has recently suffered unexpectedly severe flooding, and two Cambridge librarians were in the session, talking about the importance of disaster management plans and how their implementation doesn’t always go exactly as expected.  There was also another librarian from a very flood-prone area (I think his library was between a lake and a river!) so a flood-management policy was vital, and they knew exactly what to do in case of a disaster.  There was also a media librarian who was mid-writing a policy document for what to do in case of floods – especially important because in their archive there was a lot of unique material on tapes that might be lost forever if there was water damage.

A couple of decisions that had been made to combat flood damage: in the very flood-prone library, a decision had been made to move a lot of the stock onto a higher floor.  The media librarian was working on separation of assets – keeping two copies of the same bit of video in separate places so that if the worst came to the worst only one would be lost.  Another member of the group pointed out that general maintenance could reduce the risk of water damage, as something as simple as a leaking window could be very destructive if it wasn’t noticed.

Another worrying issue that was brought up was that although we probably think of water as harmless, flood-water can actually be pretty toxic, making it harmful for people as well as books.  One group member had got burns from a reaction from flood water and the printers ink in the books.  That led on to a warning that however much they want to help, you really shouldn’t let your readers try and save the books.

That said, it seemed that there had been some pretty positive reactions from readers noticing floods and pitching in to try and help.  One of the Cambridge floods had actually been noticed by readers, and they had conducted a makeshift rescue job for the books (I think it was out of hours) before a porter was notified.  And in a flood in Sheffield public library, the general public had been keen to help and had had to be turned away.  I think that’s quite uplifting because it shows how much people still care about the print collections, and about the library space.

The discussion went on to the wider effects of a mass flood-clean up on the library users.  At a time when libraries are having to work hard to be welcoming places for readers, it could be damaging if the library space is unable to be used for weeks at a time.  Loyal readers are likely to find somewhere else to go, and it could be hard to build up visitor numbers afterwards.  One of the Cambridge librarians was worried about this happening after her library was flooded.  The library whose stock was moved upstairs also had a suprising reaction from readers – apparently there were complaints that it “didn’t look like a library any more!”

Finally, we came to the importance of communication.  Having a flood-management plan neatly typed up and stuffed in a file, or saved at the bottom of a folder somewhere is all very well, but if it comes to the middle of the night and you’ve got porters and students trying to haphazardly save books, then it isn’t very useful.  We agreed that all disaster management plans should be circulated to all staff, including non-library staff in the building, such as porters, and that they should all be clear on what to do in an emergency.  Some people had even carried out flood-drills in their library, which struck me as very well prepared!

Because of the time limits in the session, we didn’t get round to talking in depth about any other kinds of library disasters but points that were touched on included books being stolen (in public libraries apparently DVDs are a target for that kind of thing), and IT disasters where records could be wiped clean.  It was a very interesting session overall, and I hope it gave Sonja lots of material for her dissertation.


I knew this would be a difficult session as the topic of volunteers in libraries is such a tricky one.  The session leader had had experience of using volunteers in libraries, and although she was against job replacement by volunteers, she was arguing that using volunteers to enhance your service (rather than replace paid work) could hugely benefit both the library and the lives of the volunteers themselves.  It sounded as though the volunteers she used often had health/mental health problems that meant that they couldn’t work, and the experience of volunteering had empowered them and made them more confident.

The discussion revolved round whether it is possible to draw a line between job replacement and this kind of supported volunteering.  I sadly came to the conclusion that in the current climate, the line is always blurred.  On one hand, you could say that a volunteer coming to help people use the computers in a public library is ‘enhancing the service’, but on the other hand that is a job that paid library assistants in academic libraries do.  And the more library services are taken on by willing and eager volunteers, the more the government (who actively want to cut paid roles) can say, “oh well, public libraries must have been overfunded before – look, all the services are still being provided and we don’t have to pay anyone.”  There was even the example of a librarian who had lost her job but had come in still to run a children’s session for free because she loved it – it’s obviously great that people are dedicated, but it was pointed out  that people’s dedication and enthusiasm may play into the government’s ‘big society’ hands and damage both the profession and library services in the long term.

We then moved onto some common misconceptions about volunteers:

1. They are free. They are NOT free – as well as all the admin/CRB checks etc. they also need support from paid staff if they are to provide the right level of service.

2. They will do the same work as paid staff.  They won’t – they are working for free, they don’t really have to do anything they don’t want to.  If they don’t want to engage with IT, or a particularly difficult customer, they don’t have to.

3. They can run a library.  Library staff are trained and experienced – a room full of books staffed by volunteers is not a library.  And what happens when their energy/motiviation/finances run out and their lives move on to other things? What happens to the public’s right to a library service? We discussed seeing Oxfam shops with signs on the door saying “Closed due to lack of volunteers,” and agreed that we need to fight against that happening to libraries.

Although I believe that volunteering can be empowering, and volunteer energy and enthusiasm can have a really positive impact on society , we are up against a government who actively wishes to cut the public sector in general and public libraries in particular. Public librarians are being openly advised to ‘consider volunteers’ as a political strategy to reduce the number of paid staff.  Now is perhaps not the right time to concentrate on the empowering nature of volunteering, or within a few years there will be no libraries left to provide properly supported volunteer placements.  We discussed whether now is the time to take a hard line on ‘no volunteers,’ even if it means the closure of smaller community or branch libraries, to show both the government and the general public that a publicly funded library services CANNOT be run by volunteers –  it needs to be run by trained professionals and have a decent amount of state funding.

[Just to say thank you to the leader of this session – it was bound to be controversial due to the topic and she made some balanced points from both sides of the ‘volunteers debate’]

Open Access

From open source to open access.  We started with the common misconception: “you’re a librarian, so you must be against open access.” You can see why people might think that – surely if everything was freely available online then there would be no need for libraries?  In actual fact, many librarians are fighting hard for open access, as it would mean a fairer and more equal access to resources without all the profits ending up in the pockets of the big journal publishers.  Open access, from what I gather, can be run on two main models – the Gold model, where authors themselves pay to publish in an open access journal, or the Green model, where authors deposit a copy of the article in an institutional repository (usually a final draft), and then publish the final article in a closed access journal as usual.  I don’t know much about the subject, but it was the general consensus that the Gold model wasn’t sustainable, as it just moves the cost of access from the library budget to the research budget.  Institutional repositories are still in their early stages, and there are a few problems with them – mainly because researchers in general are still desperate to publish in high impact peer-reviewed journals in order to further their careers.

We discussed whether by funding open-access publication instead of purchasing closed-access journal subscriptions, universities/libraries were actually spending less on their actual users and pretty much funding everyone else’s access to resources.  However, hopefully you could get to a point where putting up your open-access research would be so good for the institution that researchers would see an added value in doing it.  Also, it was pointed out that a lot of research is publicly funded, and therefore technically the general public have a right to see the finished results, rather than them being hidden away behind a (vastly expensive) pay wall.

We also talked about whether librarians should be curating the open access material that’s out there.  Librarians who work with this material believed that there was still a huge role for library staff to point their users in the right direction to get the right material and to evaluate it, even if the material didn’t belong to the library itself.  It also seemed that as institutional repositories got more popular there would be work for librarians there too.

That was the end of the day!  I didn’t win the raffle, which was sad, but we retired to the pub where it was lovely to catch up with people/meet new people before catching the train back up North.  Generally, I had a very positive and interesting day despite the undoubted fact that the profession is going through a very rough time.  It encouraged me to get involved more directly with library activism and advocacy, and am going to see if there’s anything going on in Sheffield at the moment.

On a last note, if there is anyone who blogged about the session about LGBT in Libraries I would love to read it, as I wish I had made it to that one!

Many thanks to the organisers, and I shall (hopefully) be back next year.

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…