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…