Sunday, 15 August 2010

The post that wouldn't die, or Thoughts on communication in Cambridge

A post by Andy Priestner written to sum-up the Cam23 course stirred up quite some debate earlier this week and the ensuing discussion has been quite illuminating. Some of those who commented took exception to what they felt was the implication that everyone could get on OK by just working things out for themselves rather than expecting everything to be provided by the UL. Andy has made it clear that this was not what he was trying to say, and some UL staff have pointed out that of course they don't have life particularly easy. Indeed, many people in all sorts of libraries seem to feel that they're working flat-out, with little time for introducing extras, or consulting with others as much as they'd like to.

'Just do it yourself!'
I have no doubt that most people are doing the best that they can, wherever they're working, whether that's a small college or department library or the UL. But the thing is that 'the best that you can' is not a fixed amount. With a supportive environment a person or organisation will feel much more confident, and will be able to achieve much more than if they feel as though they are struggling along on their own, or against the tide. 'Support' can mean the provision of courses, or it can be softer: the provision of an environment in which new ideas are actively welcomed, and people have the time and freedom to try out new ideas. From what I've read across Cam23 posts, it sounds like the Judge Business School Library is a great place to work. People have reported how they've been able to try out new Web 2.0 ideas for improving the library service, and they've clearly had both the time and support necessary to do this. In an unsupportive or isolated environment, trying out the same new ideas might not actually be intrinsically any more difficult, but being, or feeling, isolated, especially in combination with the general malaise of too much work and not enough time, creates a sense of inertia which makes it hard to pursue professional development work or to take risks on new ideas.

Photograph of communications manhole cover
'Communication' by elycefeliz on Flickr
'Can anybody hear me?'
The debate chez Andy has recognised that the sense of aggrievement is in many respects borne out of poor communication and ingrained perceptions of hierarchy and privilege across the Cambridge library system. Communication has been an ongoing theme across Cam23 - there are, I think, more than a few people who feel that it could be improved (and I'm certainly one of them). Of course, it's not entirely clear how this can best be achieved, although a good first step would be to acknowledge that however hard people feel that they're trying to communicate, if some in the libraries feel like messages aren't getting through then there's probably still a problem. This needn't be taken as an accusation against anyone; when people feel like they're running just to stay still, and are implementing fixes and features in a hurry in response to urgent demands, it's surely very difficult to stand back and take a clear view of the overall situation.

Poor communication, whether about particular issues such as service developments*, or more generally a sense of just not knowing what's going on, of course contributes to a sense of isolation and disconnection particularly for those who work in small libraries, are lower-down the library hierarchy, and/or are new: all groups of people who will have smaller available networks of other library staff from whom to learn what's what. Cam23 has been great for making connections, but it shouldn't take a CPD programme like this for people suddenly to feel like they're connected.

At this point, I'm sure that you might be thinking that there are already lots of ways for Cambridge library staff to get in touch with each other, and that adding some other way is only going to make matters more confusing. You're right - there are already the Cambridge College Libraries Forum (which has, for example, monthly networking lunches), the brown-bag discussion lunches (not sure who's in charge of organising those), the ucam-lib-discuss email list, CamTools groups for Cambridge_Librarians and the CCLF, and the annual conference. When we look outside the University there's also the Cambridge Library Group, the CILIP East of England branch, the CILIP Career Development Group East of England division, and probably much more that I've not heard of.

So why am I complaining? Well, for one, it's hard to find out about these - I've been in Cambridge libraries for 4 years now, and I only found out about ucam-lib-discuss in June (thanks Aidan!). And neither the email list, nor the nice Web 2.0 groups available (such as the CamTools sites mentioned above), nor CILIP East of England seem to be a hub of activity (this may only be an impression given by their web presences, of course).  The perception that there's not much going on causes people not to bother to using them - a vicious cycle indeed.

There's now talk over at Andy's post that a wiki, or, even better, a concerted effort to use, improve, and market the Cambridge_Librarians CamTools group might be a way to improve matters.  I really hope that this does happen; it will need a critical mass of users and use for CamToos to become a regular port of call for library staff, but I think that this is something that could be achieved.  If we manage that, then we'll only have to worry about Libby's very good point that communication isn't just telling people things, it's allowing for the different ways in which people will understand them.  Food for a different post there, I think.

ETA: Andy has posted about this on the main Cam23 blog, and has set up a Doodle poll to try and organise an open meeting to discuss this further.

Further ETA:  The meeting happened, and a wiki detailing communication channels has been compiled on the Cambridge_Librarians CamTools group. Membership of the group is open to anyone working in any Cambridge Library.

*which, until the advent of the Service Developments blog, were announced only via an email list serving only senior staff who are supposed, but often do not, the forward the messages to their junior staff.


  1. It amused me to follow the Cambridge_Librarians link and sign in via raven to get the message "You are not a member of this site..." - really must follow the link and try and join ;)

  2. Communication is definitely an issue for me. Until 23 Things, I'd not heard of Camtools. I'm still not quite clear what it is, and couldn't find a FAQ or an About page on it anywhere. Today was the first time I'd heard of TeachMeet. It took three years of working in a dependent library of the UL before I'd even heard that there was an email list for staff, much less that I should have been on it! And until your post, I'd not heard of half those other things.

    I realise I'm not as proactive as perhaps I could be about finding things out, but it's hard to know where to start. Particularly as a junior - you rely on your line managers to tell you that these things exist, even if they don't use them.

  3. Diana - a case in point for what we've been talking about ! Thank you for posting this as a great example of the communication issues.

    I can make you feel better about not hearing about TeachMeet - that has only actually been in existence for 2 1/2 weeks and we've only really promoted it on Twitter and through our cam23 blogs so it's not surprising you hadn't heard of it.

    Another part of the problem that I'd thought about since reading Katie's post is that there are lots of overlapping circles here - I know about UL stuff but not CCLF stuff (because that's for college libraries), someone in a faculty might know about certain things but not be included in others, I can't tell you the difficulty I've had trying to get spaces online that are accessible to both the UL and the rest of hte lib@cam library people ... the whole CamTools Cambridge_Librarians thing is really the right direction as long as it really is open to everyone to join (which as far as I know it is, UL and non-UL).

  4. @Chris - I only heard about the Cambridge_Librarians site in passing at a Libs@Cam conference, I think.

    @Diana. I agree - 'knowing where to start' is the real problem - how can you go looking for things you don't know exist? This is what we're hoping to solve - one central location that will tell people everything else that's out there.

    CamTools is a 'Virtual Learning Environment' created by Caret, who do all sorts of techie things for the university (see It's "a collection of online tools for University members to use in their teaching, learning and research". Different groups, e.g. Librarians, faculties, colleges, and possibly clubs and societies and the like can set up groups to share documents, information, have discussions, an online calendar, and so on. Groups can be public or private. If you want to join the Cambridge-Librarians group, follow the link above and there should be a link to request to become a member. You'll need your Raven id and password to be able to login.

    Some documentation including the FAQs is behind the little 'find our more' link on the CamTools homepage - that links to here:

    TeachMeet is very new indeed, so don't feel bad about not having heard of it! We're having a fairly small event in Sept., with plans for something bigger after Christmas (including monster publicity drive)

  5. Your point about a supportive environment encouraging learning is a very important one. There were a lot of the 23 Things that I vaguely knew about, but wouldn't have looked at if I hadn't had somebody to discuss them with, and bounce ideas off, and get useful suggestions from. Doing the Things mostly in a cohort has been far more encouraging to persistence in exploration than doing them as a lone individual would have been.

  6. Thanks for this, Girl in the Moon. I've been following the comments on Andy's blog with a lot of interest but there are now so many comments it's become difficult to navigate and keep hold of so many threads, and I was hoping that someone would write it up. I think you've done really well to keep this so balanced and in perspective.

  7. Just to add the Cambridge_Librarians site is a public site on camtools so anyone can join. Although of course people do have to "join". You are not automatically in public sites - think of it like facebook and joining a group.

    We have had signup lists at events (the user ed day at English when there was a camtools session) and added people that way. Until there is more substance on it, it didn't seem worth continually promoting it.

  8. In case anyone's following the comments here - Andy's posted about this (complete with meeting-organising Doodle poll) on the main Cam23 blog.

  9. An excellent summarising blog post, as Helen says, much easier to read than all the comments on my blog! Thank you.