Thursday, 28 October 2010

Librarian as Teacher: moment of revelation

So, I'm a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. It's nothing to be ashamed of (I tell myself): we all have our blind spots and occasionally take a while to cotton on to the most obvious of things. I've heard a lot about the Librarians as Teachers network over the last few months, and each time it came up I've thought, 'What a lovely thing. A shame it's not relevant to me'.
I've had a lightbulb moment... (Photo from morgueFile)

Not relevant, eh? I spent Tuesday running and helping to staff a public exhibition of literary rare books and manuscripts in the College Old Library. I spent the day answering questions about manuscript production, palaeography, language change, the book as object, architectural history, and so on, and so on, and so on. In the past I've run sessions at which families learned how to build their own model astrolabe. I've shown school groups a copy of Kepler's diagram of the heliocentric solar system and talked to them about cosmological theories.

Not relevant?

I don't know what I was thinking: I do library outreach for a living. If I worked in a museum, it would be called 'education', not 'outreach'. Maybe I'd have got the message more quickly then. It's not necessarily the 'teaching' that you might first think of a librarian doing: information literacy rarely features on my 'curriculum', but it's certainly teaching of a kind.

I've joined now. Better late than never, eh?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

On anonymity

I started this post hoping that it would be summary of last night's very interesting and enjoyable Cambridge Library Group discussion forum about the Cambridge 23 Things programme run during the summer. But the post had a mind of its own, and has morphed into one that I have been meaning to write almost since I started this blog, on the subject of anonymity online. This was one of the major topics discussed at the CLG meeting, but not the only one, and I'm sorry for not doing justice to other topics such as what we might do to carry on the cam23 learning momentum, the rate of Web 2.0 change, or evaluation skills for librarians. I'd be very happy if other attendees wanted to comment on those other aspects here or elsewhere, and, as ever, welcome comments from all comers on the contents of this post.

At the meeting some people expressed the opinion that they didn't like the number of anonymous blogs in Cam23, and that, by extension, they do not like people having 'anonymous' identities online.  This was an opinion that I've heard before, including during 23 Things, but it's one that's quite different to my own.

Thoughts personal

When I started this blog back in June this year, I made the deliberate decision to make it anonymous.  I did this for a number of reasons:
  • Because it would be easy to change my mind and attach my own name to the blog, but impossible to do that in reverse. Initial anonymity was a good hedging-my-bets option;
  • Because I felt that the blog started out as a place to reflect on Things, not a place to reflect about me. I didn't think that my opinions would be significant enough to librarianship or the world at large to warrant being traceable to me;
  • Because I wanted to make my mistakes in private. This is my first blog, and my first real foray into Web 2.0 as creator rather than consumer, and I thought that if I'd be more likely to experiment fruitfully if I thought no-one could identify me with my errors.

Thoughts general

There are a multitude of other reasons for remaining anonymous online, far more than those I cite above. Few of these seem to me truly troublesome, outside deliberate impersonation of others and attempts at fraud, although many may give those in positions of power and responsibility cause to think. If someone is blogging anonymously about a service which you suspect may be your own, I can understand that you might be interested to know who they are. But, equally, I can see why they wouldn't want you to know...

It's worth considering that there are many different kinds of 'not-using-your-own-name' on the internet - thus far I've been using 'anonymity' in an unhelpfully broad-brush sense:
  1. True anonymity in which there's no consistent identity and no trail: this might be posting comments as 'anonymous', without any identifying name or image.
  2. Complete pseudonimity, consistently applied. This might be someone with a clear online identity in one place or across several places, such that their views can be examined over time, though there's no way of working out who their offline persona is.
  3. Pseudonymous but identifiable to those in the know. A consistent identity with enough details relased that those nearby in the offline world can identify the person.
The next stage in this sliding scale, which is outside the realms of anonymity but still relevant is the use on an online moniker in association with a real name.

'Venetian Carnival Mask' by gnuckx on Flickr
'Venetian Carnival Mask' by gnuckx on Flickr
These formats are good for different things. Posting as 'anonymous' is no way to get your views listened to seriously - with no back story it's hard to evaluate the worth or possible motives of a comment. But the other variations all have their uses. A pseudonymous writer might not inspire confidence at first, but as an identity is built up over time their values, knowledge and biases can all be evaluated. Knowing someone's 'real name' might seem like an easy way to sidestep that process - surely then, especially if they're in your institution, you can use information about their job, interests, previous contact you've had with them, and so on, to interpret and understand what they write online. That's true, but it's also a very easy way to pre-judge what you think they're going to say. I really enjoyed the anonymity of much of Cam23, because it meant that I could read and be read on the worth of what was written and what I wrote. I didn't fall prey to thinking 'well, x works at the y library, so he/she would say that...', and I was hopefully saved from some of that myself. That sounds a bit paranoid, I know, but I wonder if it isn't also true, at least to some extent.

Having multiple identities isn't a new, web-based phenomenon. It's something most people do in most of their lives: one persona for work, one for home; one for friends, one for family; one for older relatives, one for younger siblings... the list goes on.

Thoughts personal, redux

These days, as you may have noticed, this blog isn't anonymous - my name, in all its distinctive-surnamed-glory, is up there in the profile information. So why the turnaround chez Girl in the Moon?
  • I wanted to participate in Library Day in the Life, and my job title and role is so distinctive that naming or describing it pretty much names me. So I included my name and job title on the Library Day in the Life wiki, and described my job and place of work here on the blog.
  • I got involved in organising the Cambridge Librarians TeachMeet through commenting on blogs as Girl in the Moon, but the organising, and the event, happened in the offline world. At that point it became silly not to associate Girl in the Moon with Katie, at least in TeachMeet spaces such as the wiki.
  • Once I'd done that, there was little point really maintaining the pretence over here. These days the blog has a more general professional development and reflective focus, and on Twitter I've got to know a range of librarians some of whom I meet at CILIP and LISNPN events. If I'm going to network with people then they will want to know my name so it might as well be available to them.
  • Ultimately, I feel more confident now, in my technical skill and in my opinions. I'm happy for people find this online me and associate it with the offline me they might already know. Social medai presences are said to be an important personal and professional marketing tool, and I'll be hunting for jobs soon, so every little helps.
  • Oh, and it's also just easier not to have to self-censor identifying information.

Final thoughts (and a new cat among the same pigeons)

At the CILIP New Professionals Day and the LISNPN meet-up that evening there was some discussion about the value of having one's own picture as an avatar. Clearly having a mugshot as an avatar makes it easier for people you've not met before to recognise you, but a comment was also made that it's good to be able to look online people in the face when communicating with them. Again, there seemed to be some hostility to people who have pictures of cats, fish, cartoons, or whatever else to represent them. Is it duplicitous not to reveal if you're fat or thin or blond or auburn or black or white or green? I'm not sure how much it impedes communication if your consistently used avatar is not actually *you*.

With my personal name online I wonder why I feel cagey about putting my face up there to match, but for the time being I'm staying a brown-ish book, not least because it's a tad more aesthetically appealing...
Bibliography of posts that have inspired this post:
Thing blogging, 'Batgirl and me, or, The disorder of multiple personalities'
The mongoose librarian, 'Who *was* that masked mongoose?'
Discovery, 'Identity Crisis'
Books make noise, 'The paranoid post - or why I enjoy Librarians as a community of pure spirits'
Phil Bradley, 'Yes, but what's your real name?'
Jack of Kent, 'On blogging pseudonyms'

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Back to school

Today I went on a visit to the Library of Harlington Upper School as a guest of the school librarian Jenny Horler. I hadn't been into a school library since I left school some ten years ago, so I was very interested to see Jenny's library, all the more so for having heard some of her thoughts about school to university transitions at last month's TeachMeet.
'School Room' by Rob Shenk on Flickr
'School Room' by Rob Shenk on Flickr

It's unwise, of course, to form an opinion on a sector based on a single example, but I'm probably on fairly safe ground when I say that school librarianship is noisy and busy.  I don't know what I was expecting, really: I'm sure my own school library wasn't nearly as quiet and peaceful as I vaguely remember it being, and I'm certainly not sure that the peace that I think I remember was the product of high levels of library use.  I don't necessarily think the levels of activity I saw were a bad thing, but, *boy* it does look like hard work!  And really, although we sometimes complain about undergrads being high maintenance, they have *nothing* on 1400 13 to 18 year olds all clamouring for printing, stationery supplies and the rest...

The library serves a lot of purposes, not all of which can easily co-exist.
  • As a place, it's used as:
    • a study space;
    • a social space;
    • a ‘safe haven’ (schools are tough places);
    • an extra teaching and form room;
    • as an extra IT room.
  • It's expected to provide physical and electronic resources to support:
    • general study and coursework across all subject areas;
    • higher-level research for Year 13 Extended Projects;
    • literacy and reading for pleasure for a range of ages, reading levels, and tastes.
  • The librarian has to be able to:
    • teach study, research, and critical thinking skills and techniques;
    • troubleshoot IT problems;
    • keep control of up to 60 pupils in the library at one time;
    • recommend resources to meet any of the needs listed above;
    • help with school work and university applications;
    • find time for the standard library work of ordering, processing, shelving, tidying and weeding books.
All libraries serve lots of purposes, of course - I'm not trying to say that school libraries are special in that regard. But I did notice in particular that in a school setting there seems to be a feeling that the library's there for *everyone* to use however and whenever they want it. That leaves the library feeling like a vibrant and vital place at the heart of the school, but it's clearly also difficult for the librarian to manage successfully.  At what point does 'vibrant'  make it impossible to work or teach in there?

My trip back to school was inspiring. It's great to see so many people coming through a library throughout the day, and to see the various ways (such as using Delicious for subject-specific lists of links) in which the librarian makes a difference to the pupils who use the library, whether that's by getting them hooked on reading, helping with writing personal statements, or just by providing a welcoming place to spend some time.  I just wish that I'd made better use of my school librarian back in the day...

Friday, 8 October 2010

Library Roots and Route

I have been meaning to write my own contribution to the Library Routes Project ever since I heard about it (which was, admittedly, only a couple of months ago).  I'd been putting it off because I wanted to have a proper read of some other people's (not least Emma's and Niamh's) before I committed my story to the screen. I have, however, received a request to write about my route into special collections work, so I'm forging ahead now, feeling somewhat under-prepared.
Photograph of a library building and a large treewith extensive roots.
'Library' by smastrong on Flickr


Yes, I was the child who spent a lot of her school days organising the books in the story area, and I'm the annoying adult who is forever jumping up from the dinner table to check dictionaries and encyclopedias for the answers to obscure queries.  But it took me a while to realise that librarianship was for me.

After a school career in which many subjects interested me, I took a BA in music with no fixed idea of what I would do with it afterwards (my only stipulations being that music teaching *wouldn't* be for me), and by the Christmas of my third year I was starting to feel really quite alarmed about the vagueness of my future.


For my BA I chose to study a few papers about the transcription of medieval music, which included consideration of the material texts through which the corpus is transmitted to us.  In plain English that means we occasionally got to look at real medieval manuscripts, and spent a good deal of time peering at photocopies of facsimiles of them.  I was hooked - palaeography enchanted me, transcription absorbed me, codicology fascinated me...

But how to get more of it?  One answer would have been a career in academia, but that seemed like a lot of hard work and rather an insecure way to earn a crust.  I decided instead that a career *looking after* these wonderful old tomes was a better choice of activity.  And, I reasoned, I like organising information, and I like finding things out for people, so maybe librarianship was a good choice for me.*

First steps

Having hit upon libraries I tried to get as much work experience as I could fit in around sitting my finals.  I volunteered at my local home library in the Christmas and Easter vacations, and after the exams finished I spent a week helping with the Faculty's annual stock check.  I applied for some graduate trainee positions in Cambridge, and was interviewed for some, but not selected for any.  I suspect a lack of experience and awareness of current library issues may not have helped my applications.

My first proper library job was as a book fetcher at the University Library.  Book fetchers collect readers' requests for closed-access materials and scurry around the behind-the-scenes maze to find it and bring it to the reading rooms.  It's not a glamorous job, it's not very well regarded by the other library staff, and it can be real hard physical work on the busy days fetching bound newspapers from the 1930s.  But working in a large library you do get to see, out of your peripheral vision at least, lots of different types of library work, and to learn how they all fit together.  I was lucky enough to be stationed in the manuscripts department for some of my term, which gave invaluable experience of handling rare material and of customer service helping readers interpret myraid catalogues and listings.

I applied to, and got a place on the MA course in Library and Information Studies at UCL, because it had historical bibliography and manuscripts modules, and because there was the option to study part-time, which I intended to do while continuing to work in Cambridge.

'library on route 66' by fabi_k on Flickr

Onwards and Upwards

In August 2006, after a year at the UL, and just about to start the MA course, I was appointed to a library assistant post for a collection of theological colleges in Cambridge. This role gave me experience of many different areas of library work including circulation, cataloguing and classification, user training, project work. There was also the opportunity to work on listing a small collection of early 19th-century letters held by one of the colleges.  Although relatively few institutions have dedicated special collections staff, very many do seem to have some special collections hidden away somewhere or other.


I hadn't intended to change jobs again until after I'd completed my MA, but in late 2007 I saw a job advertised that really appealed to me.  I nearly didn't apply: I thought it wanted skills and experience that I didn't yet have.  A friend scoffed when I suggested letting it pass, and so I crafted my CV and application to make the most of the special collections and project experience that I already had, and made by bid to become Hoyle Project Associate.  Wonder of wonders, my application was successful, and I was appointed as the person responsible for bring the Hoyle Project into being.  (The moral of this tale is to always have a go, even if you think you won't get it.)

The Hoyle Project is a Heritage-Lottery-funded, three-year project to catalogue and make accessible the papers of the astrophysicist and science-fiction author Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), which were given to the College in 2002.  The post requires archival cataloguing skills (using a locally-developed database), and a whole gamut of outreach, public engagement, communication, curatorial, imaginative, and project-management skills.  As part of the role, I have organised a number of public events, hands-on activities for families and schools, online exhibitions, and special interest group visits, all more and less explicitly linked to Fred Hoyle.  I've also helped with the day-today running of a historic library and reading room.  One of the joys has been uncovering items from elsewhere in the special collections that can be drawn together to illustrate particular topics (generally the history of astronomy), and also, hopefully, inspiring colleagues to continue with the library's programme of outreach work, including the subject areas I've been working in, after the end of the project.

It's a great job to have (I only wish it weren't fixed-term), and still, 30 months in, I'm so pleased to have it.  The only downside is that far more could be done than I'll ever have time for.


The Project is due to end at the end of March 2011, so I will soon be looking for a new post.  I'd definitely like, if possible, to stay in a special collections and/or outreach role, although I fear that there's no space for being fussy in the current climate.  In an effort to evaluate my skills, and to develop them further, I'm currently working towards Chartership.  As well as obtaining a further professional qualification, I hope that this will help the job hunt by improving my ability to analyse and match my skills to the requirements of advertised post, and just to have more experience to make me suitable for roles.


Five years ago I had very little idea where a career might take me.  I hoped that it would involve special collections in some way, but I was, frankly, scared of what the modern world might be bringing with it.  I would never have thought that I'd been working in outreach (sometime with school children, no less!), nevermind that I'd be enjoying it and looking to continue in the same area.  Now I can't imagine working in a special collections role that doesn't involve some element of outreach work.  What, after all, is the point of having lovely things if no-one ever gets to know of or see them?

*I'm also fond of sensible shoes, tweed, have short hair, look grumpy, wear glasses and like cardigans, but I'm trying to shy away from stereotypes here.

ETA 11 May 2012: You might also be interested in this slideshow, A Special Collections Career Path, and this prezi (or pdf), Special Collections Librarianship: A Brief Map of the Field.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Dragged kicking and screaming into the future...

I'm just back from the New Professionals Information Day (#npid2010) organised by the CILIP Membership Support Unit for people thinking about a LIS career, starting out in the sector, at library school, or recently graduated with their MA. The first thing I noticed was that suddenly I'm old. I graduated MA *two* whole years ago now, and a lot happens in just a few years when you're near the start of a career.

'Architecture - Futuro UFO' by watz on Flickr
'Architecture - Futuro UFO' by watz on Flickr
It was mentioned more than once during the day that no-longer-new professionals wished they'd had a day like this when starting out. I agree with that sentiment, but I'm really not sure how the me of 5 years ago (when I was just starting my first library job) would have received npid2010. Actually, I'm not event sure what the 2008-(just got an MA)-vintage, or even the start-of 2010-(should I get round to Chartership)-vintage would have thought.

The day was relentlessly forward looking, and, fundamentally, I'm a special collections aort-of person, and as such, have a tendency to want to retrench back to about 1650 when everything was much simpler... (cue consort of viols in a wistful mode). Not-so-long-ago Katie would have balked at being told that everyone (in the library) needs quite a bit of tech knowledge (Ned), that libraries aren't about books - they're about the information/knowledge held in them, and therefore about power (Phil), that there are academics crying out for 'embedded librarians' to help with impact ratings and article submission (Nicolas). I'm not sure I quite entered the library world naively believing that 'librarians spend their time just looking after shelves of books', but I've been too eager in the past to retreat to the position that 'special collections will always have nice tangible books-as-artefacts in them, so maybe I don't need to worry about the future too much'. That is a position that's easily maintained when cocooned at work fetching beautiful old books for scholarly readers.

But I am already working the future, helping to redefine how libraries do what they do: using the beauty, historical significance and human interest of our special collections to attract all sorts of people into the library, to offer them 'learning opportunities', and to demonstrate that the worth of the library is greater than its (undoubtedly significant) value to serious academics. To be fair, there's not a lot of techno-wizardry involved in that, so it doesn't look immediately 'modern'*. When Phil Bradley declaimed that this is the most exciting of times to be an information professional, rare books librarianship may not have been at the forefront of his mind, but that doesn't mean I can continue to hide myself away.  In fact, I don't really want to: brave new world, here I come!

P.S. I also enjoyed the LISNPN meet up in the evening. Thanks to WoodsieGirl for organising it.

P.P.S. Thanks to Phil Bradley for quoting "Libraries are brothels for the mind" in his keynote. I'll be using that in future...

* But I suspect that a lot of online, social media tools are as yet under-used for the promotion of special collections and the like. As I've written before, I really must find out what more adventurous institutions are doing with blogs, flickr, interactive catalogues and the like, and work out how I can get involved.