Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Reach out!

Yesterday I attended the Historic Libraries Forum annual conference, 'Going Public: how Outreach Can Benefit Your Library'.  The programme included papers and case studies from a wide range of institutions using their special collections to 'reach out' in a wide variety of ways.  At least half my working time (and more of my working thought, I'd say) is dedicated to outreach, so I agree totally with the overarching message of the day -- that special collections/historic library outreach is vital because we have to demonstrate that special collections are a vital, and valuable, part of the library.  We need to show that we're not elitist, and that our doors are open.  By engaging with new audiences, or with current audiences in new ways, we improve the lives of those audiences, raise the profile of and improve the the image of our institution (and our own part of that institution), and we can also learn new things about our collections. 
'Reach Out!' by ~diP on Flickr
'Reach Out!' by ~diP on Flickr

Sheila Hingley started the day off with an account of the almost intimidatingly broad 'Education, Exhibitions, and Outreach' being done at Durham University Library Special Collections.  They're in the middle of a refurbishment programme which will create a dedicated, secure, exhibition space as well as an education room, a history of the book gallery, a gallery on the history of the university, and a cafe space.  The 'Treasures of Durham University' will open in January 2011 and will be desinged so that items can be replaced on a rolling programme, without having to continually re-write the whole exhibition.  The Heritage Collections have a dedicated Education Officer, initially funded through Heritage Lottery Fund money; a post common in museums, but as yet rare in libraries.  The schools offer is made through a website, 4schools, but there is also engagement with community groups, Durham Book Festival, local and family history events, and so on and so on and so on...

Mark Purcell spoke about raising the profile of the c. 170 historic libraries owned by the National Trust.  (A good proportion of these are now catalogued and available on Copac, which was a pleasant surprise to me.)  The task of managing these libraries is terribly complicated; each library is different, and came to the Trust as part of the property in which its housed.  Until recently there was very little idea as to how many libraries there were, let alone what was in them, although this has changed in recent years with a serious cataloguing effort.  One comment particularly stuck with me: Mark explained that in some properties, cataloguers worked in public view (and therefore enduring endless comments about 'medieval laptops'); although this wasn't necessarily a very convenient working arrangement for the cataloguers, it really helped to raise the profile of the library with staff and volunteers at the property, as well as the visitors.

The third talk that really made an impact on me was the last of the day.  Patti Collins spoke about work to utilise and promote the 'Treasures' of Manchester Central Library.  I found her talk really inspiring; she said that the special collections had at one point been viewed as elitist by the local council, and the Library had decided to overturn this view by making the special collections accessible to the public.  Patti pointed out that the books in a public library service belong 'to the people', and that the people should be able not just to see them, but to touch them.  The 'Treasures' programme has focussed on books with high visual appeal, to help overcome barriers of literacy and language, and they've held events for all ages and backgrounds in which visitors are allowed, invited, to handle the books themselves.
'1598' by Ian Sane on Flickr

This presentation prompted the (inevitable) discussion of access vs preservation, about which books were suitable to be handled, about the risks involved in letting people touch them, and about the requirement to preserve books for future scholars.  Concerns about damage and security are, of course, warranted, but it's all a matter of context.  In a public library, with books that aren't the only remaining copy of a text, I think it's superb to allow hands-on access.  In some academic settings, this might not be possible for one reason or another.  I think, however, that libraries should be looking seriously at developing handling collections of books, in the manner of museum handling collections.  Whether these would be replicas showing different binding structures, or 'real' books deemed to be sufficiently non-rare to allow handling, or a combination of the two, this would allow us to escape the endless, circling worries about damage, and move on to more productive topics such as 'how will we actually reach out, and who will we reach?'.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Passion, Persuasion and Persistence

Last Tuesday I went to an 'intensive session' organised by the CILIP East of England branch on the subject of word-of-mouth marketing in libraries.  Annie has already written-up a summary of the day, so I'll restrict myself here to a few thoughts about some of the issues raised.

The one sentence that stuck with me the most came from Jenny Salisbury's introduction to her presentation 'Frontline advocacy: making it happen':
It's not all about how the customer fits into our services but rather about what the customer needs and how we meet those needs.
Like much good advice, this statement seems at first glance to be almost redundantly self-evident.  But when you start to think about your day-to-day working life, can you honestly say that this is an attitude that's always maintained (another theme from the afternoon session was the difficulty of evaluating customer service levels: people might say, and indeed think, that they're giving excellent service, but that's not always how an objective observer might see it)?  When new staff join a service, does their induction focus mainly on *what* you do, or does it look at *why* you do it like that and what it is that users/readers/customers/members use you for?  How often to do hear someone expressing mild annoyance at a customer request that's above and beyond the standard service you offer, rather than view it as an opportunity to modify the service to include this sort of request?
'death metal monkeys' by brum d on Flickr
'death metal monkeys' by brum d on Flickr

This isn't intended as a criticism of any person or service in particular, but as an illustration of what hard work it is to keep service levels high.  To prevent the development and spread of bad habits, everyone needs to understand the reasons for the required standards of service, and new staff need to be thoroughly trained.

We also need to keep re-evaluating what it is that our customers need.  In academic libraries (certainly in Cambridge Colleges) it's easy to slip into mindset that we know what we're there for, and therefore not to think about developing new services, or new ways of delivering traditional services.  It's also tempting to think that 'they (the readers) should know/be able to work out how to do that', whether 'that' is using the catalogue/the photocopier/the printers, or finding a book on the shelf, or searching Jstor, or whatever.  This is an obviously silly attitude, and, while it's not always easy (or flattering), the best way to improve everyone's experience is to try to work out *why* they find it difficult, and then try to make it easier.

The main thread of the day is that people are naturally inclined to tell others about bad service much more readily, and that we need to make sure that we're giving them fuel for good word-of-mouth publicity.  This is clearly a laudible aim.  There was a subtext that this would also help as an advocacy, not just marketing, tool.  It's not necessarily the case that good customer service will make our customers into advocates for our service, although focussing service on the most important statekholders can at least raise the profile of the library, and may help make an impression on Those Who Make The Decisions.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Is this a plant sale, or is this art?

Today I visited Kettle's Yard gallery in Cambridge for the penultimate day of an exhibition of the art of American composer John Cage, 'Every Day is a Good Day'. It's been ages since I was last in Kettle's Yard, and that's a scandal - I always have a great time when I'm there, whatever the exhibition, and this visit was no different.  More about Cage in a bit, but first, I have to share what is probably one of the oddest things that has ever been said to me in a gallery (or anywhere else, for that matter):
'Take a pot plant. Listen to the plant.* Don't do what you want to do, do what the plant wants.  Find out where in the exhibition it wants to go, and put it there.'
'query' by jenny downing on Flickr
'query' by jenny downing on Flickr

Laid out on a table were a range of pot plants - some herbs, some succulents, some grassy, some bushy - looking for all the world like a stall at a church fete.  But these weren't for sale; they were all waiting for someone to take them, to listen to them, and to home them somewhere in the gallery.  And, true enough, the minimalist spaces of the gallery were bedecked with plants - some right next to paintings, some in the middle of spaces, some tucked into corners, some nestling in each other's foliage, some with notes attached explaining that their true home was half way up that wall or on the ceiling.

The plant-placing was organised by McCormack+Gent, artists in residence at Kettle's Yard for a few days in October and November (I think they said they'd be back in a fortnight).  It's part of their current project 'Dumb Fixity'.  As well as homing vegetation, participants were asked to 'debrief' by rating themselves, their plant, and the exhibition on a number of sliding scales such as 'listening....hearing', 'handled...managed' and 'emotional...logical'. I can't claim to quite understand what the artists' description of the project means, not being very good at art-speak, but I must admit that I really rather enjoyed the experience of wandering round the gallery, plant in hand, considering its spiky greenness in conjunction with Cage's abstract, and generally somewhat brownish, works.

Did my plant speak to me?  No.  Or, if it did, I didn't hear it.  But I did manage to convince myself that there were places in which it would be happier, and places in which it would be less happy.  I didn't, for example, feel satisfied placing it near my definite favourite pieces in the exhibition - they were in a quiet side room, and I honestly thought that my plant would prefer to be somewhere busier where it could listen to and watch passers by. What this says about me, I'm not sure.

'Silencers - Prepared piano' by svennevenn on Flickr
Cage also wrote music for prepared piano.
'Silencers - Prepared piano' by svennevenn on Flickr

The main exhibition showed over 100 drawings, etchings, prints and paintings by Cage (1912-1992), known best as the composer of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and the sort of music in which a throw of the dice determines what you play.  He turned to the visual arts late in life, and the works displayed in this exhibition all date from his last 15 years.  They were apparently created using chance in a similar way to his compositions, although I didn't manage to find out anything about the mechanics of that, sadly.  The works were also hung in the gallery according to the operations of chance, and were rehung three times throughout the exhibition's run.  The pictures were all over the place - at floor level, near the ceiling, clustered together, and leaving large areas of empty wall - and they had no captions accompanying them, only numbers (these referred to a handlist detailing title, media, date, etc.).

As at the Sainsbury Collection, it was fun to look for links between nearby pieces.  Several of the works looked to me rather like sketched maps, which reminded to think about sending something to the Hand Drawn Map Association.  Number 87, 'Soul of One Foot for Collection of Ray Kass' (1989), looked like (and I assume probably was) a shoe print in black ink.  Number 51, 'Eninka' (1986), was made from 'Smoked and branded monotype printed on gampi paper chine collĂ©', a description that doesn't really do the brownish-rust coloured markings justice.

My runaway favourite was numbers 6 to 12, 'Seven Day Diary (Not Knowing)' (1978), all hung together in a row, inconveniently just a bit too high for me too get a good look. I've a soft spot for etchings, it's true, but these were lovely. The first one was black ink on paper, and the rest were increasingly embellished with various other media and other colours. You can see them in this picture - the run of seven in a row half-way up the near wall.  There wasn't a postcard of them, of course.  There never is...

So, in summary,  Kettle's Yard is great.  Go there.  Tomorrow if you can before the Cage exhibition closes (it's on tour, so you can also catch it later in Huddersfield, Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea).  Or a fortnight today if you want to play with plants.  Or just whenever you can.

*Fans of Doonesbury might, at this juncture, be thinking of Zonker Harris but I can assure you that it wasn't *that* kind of pot plant.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Five thousand un-findable objects (a librarian's whinge)

The BBC/British Museum series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' (AHOW) came to an end recently. A significant part of the project was the public submission to the series website of objects with personal historical significance. Some of the these objects were showcased in short 'audience stories' features on the radio in the final weeks of the series. One of these features described a family story very similar to my own family story - a story that I've rarely, if ever, before heard mentioned in the media. It was surprisingly affecting to hear this tale one morning in the middle of the Today Programme, and I was moved to go an investigate the AHOW website to find out more about the object at the centre of the story.

There are lots of excellent features on the website - it was very easy to locate the page for the object in question as it was one of the week's featured items, and alongside a picture and some text was the recording that I'd heard on the radio. Website users can also log in and leave comments on each object, and some seem to be doing so.
Picture of the Flash-powered spiralling objects timeline

So far, so good. I found the object, and found out a bit about it. Then I got adventurous and thought I might look for other objects with similar stories. The 'Explore' section of the website comes in two flavours: a flash-powered spiralling timeline version, and a list version. I'll be linking to the basic list version because I'm not sure if everyone will be able to view the flash, and the lists are easier to work with anyway.

There are several things I don't like about these 'Explore' pages, and I like to think that this reaction is born from annoyance that a good website isn't more useful, and not just some boring librarianly desire for catalogues to be complex. My complaints are as follows:
These restrictions make it difficult to retrieve an object that you know is there, and they also make it very difficult to search for objects of a specific type (to see if there are any more from country x, for example). If you're interested in a single country, town, or region, you have to wade through tens or hundreds of results to find what you're looking for. There seem to be over 5,000 objects on the site (100+ pages in this list, each with 50 results on them), and that's quite a lot of wading.  This makes me sad. There's a treasure trove in there, but I just can't work out how anyone could investigate it well.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I do it for the...

Today I went to a CILIP course on 'Moving into management' given by Beryl Morris of Hudson Rivers Training.  (Beryl's going to be at the CILIP East of England event on Tuesday 16th November - I thought she was a great course leader, so I'd encourage you to come along if you haven't already booked.)  I found it a really useful and productive day - quite different to the rather lacklustre and uninspiring management lectures I remember from library school.

A couple of things made a particular impression on me:

1) Right at the beginning of the day, Beryl commented that 'even if you don't have the official label of 'manager', you still have to manage relationships with people - colleagues, suppliers, customers, on so on'. I don't have to much management in my current role, but, yes, I do have to deal with people, and it's useful to have structured ways in which to think about how to do that better.

What motivates you...
2) One of the major themes of the course was motivation.  We did an exercise to investigate how different people's motivating factors are all different (take home message - get to know the people you're managing!).  Out of a list of 16 factors, only 'holidays/perks' wasn't chosen by anyone present as being in their top-four.

My top four were staff development and training, creative work, direction/clarity/structure, and recognition, and it was a honest surprise to find such a variation in a room of twenty people. So, dear reader what four would you choose? (Would you add something else entirely?)

Monday, 1 November 2010

A Thing tried out for real: library podcast

I am pleased and proud to announce that St John's College Library has just uploaded its first ever podcast, a recording of a talk given last week as part of the University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas.
'MEGAphone' by estimmel on Flickr
'MEGAphone' by estimmel on Flickr

You can listen to, and download it, from here, or use the embedded version (just to prove that I can) below.  There's an accompanying gallery of images available too.

Download or listen in other formats

All comments gratefully received.