Friday, 22 April 2011

Serious Concerns

You may have heard that the British Library has just bought the papers of poet Wendy Cope, and that this collection is notable for being the Library's biggest digital accession in a literary archive to date as it includes thousands of Cope's emails.

This story made the culture slot in Thursday's Today programme on Radio 4, aired right in the middle of my breakfast-eating time. John Humphreys interviewed John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Eng Lit at University College London, and Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian and chair of the Digital Preservation Coalition. You can listen to the whole piece until next Thursday (28 April) here.

I've chosen to blog about it because of the infuriating way the story was presented.

Humphreys was trying quite hard to make the general tone of the piece 'Emails? In an archive?! What is the world coming to?!!', and it's to Ovenden's huge credit that he managed to present a nuanced, forward-looking and optimistic case despite this attitude.

It was really interesting to see the way in which opinions about what is reasonable behaviour differ when considering a digital, not physical, archive.  It's not news that in debates of this kind the physical object attracts an almost fetishistic level of interest.  In this piece that was the case - Humphreys and Sutherland discussed a letter of Keats that sold for thousands, and the way that the manuscripts of George Orwell are poured over to see the exact minutiae of his writing processes.  They decried the inability to extract similar information from digital material, but then when Ovenden suggests that this level of 'forensic' investigation is possible in the digital world too, the tide suddenly turned and this was viewed as intrusive and creepy.  Humphreys even suggested it is reminiscent of the Stasi.  (For more thoughts about what level of investigation into personal papers is and isn't expected and/or acceptable today and historically, read this interesting post on the Darwin and Gender blog.)

The topic of the interview then drifted on towards the difficulties brought by the high volume of digital material available. I've transcribed the closing section, which I think gives a decent impression of the uphill battle faced by Ovenden.

Ovenden: There are very useful techniques like text mining and data mining which enable you to use algorithmic analysis [incredulous laughter from Humphreys] on huge bodies of information.  These are the tools of the scholar of the future.  But also there are very traditional techniques that archivists have used called appraisal: we've been weeding collections of unwanted information for centuries to keep archives in manageable form and I think that we need archivists and librarians more than we ever have had because of this issue of digital abundance as it's been called.

Humphreys: We'll have to end it there because John Sutherland wants to rush off and learn his algorithms.

Digital preservation and access is a hugely difficult issue for archivists and special collections librarians, so I was really pleased to hear any even slightly productive discussion of it in the media. When people learn I'm a librarian who's worked with archival collections they very often start a pessimistic spiel about how 'we'll have nothing left' in the future because we do so much electronically today, which inevitably also reveals this unhelpful attachment to physical objects as relics of people and ideas. If this pessimistic attitude prevails then we we certainly won't have anything left, because no-one will have dared to deal with it. Fortunately, some people are daring to try and sort it out, so hurrah for the BL promoting that side of this acquisition.

The casual listener to Today will probably only have picked up the anti-digital main thrust of the piece, and not Ovenden's more considered, not to mention expert, view. Still, at least some people will have been listening more closely and will have heard the detail of what he said.

It's a shame that this interesting, and not actually entirely intellectually baffling, issue couldn't be addressed with some seriousness on what purports to be a serious news programme on a serious speech radio station.  The Today programme's editorial (or maybe just Humphrey's personal) stance on topics like this is enough to make me scream. 

Serious Concerns is the title of a collection of Cope's poems first published by Faber and Faber in 1992. You should read it.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

LILAC 2011: Day 1, Monday 18 March

Yesterday I went to the first day of the 5th Librarians' Information Literacy Annual Conference, LILAC, organised by the CILIP Information Literacy Group, a sub-group of the Community Services Group. I took copious notes throughout the day, and here's a sort-of digest of what I thought of it all.
'Spiral-Bound Notebook' by incurable hippie on Flickr
Low-tech note taking

I must confess that information literacy (IL) isn't one of my main areas of interest or expertise: the impetus to go to LILAC came from Niamh and I having our proposal for a paper about Librarian TeachMeets accepted.  That isn't to say that I don't think that IL is important, or that I didn't find the conference useful, but it's fair to say that I hadn't done all the background reading that some other delegates might have done...

Workshop sessions
The day started with three rounds of pre-conference workshops.  I went to Andy Jackson's '22nd-century librarians and the death of information skills', which wasn't really about either the 22nd century or the death of information skills, but invited us to explore the way our teaching practice will have to develop in order to encompass 'graduate attributes' as well as the 'graduate skills' that our 'learners' (his term) are expected to develop.  The attributes are professional qualities such as 'intellectual curiosity', 'ethical behaviour' or 'global environmental responsibility', which are hard to teach and hard to measure, but ultimately (apparently) make people employable. This session was a good start to the day because we were asked to think about some of the learning and technology challenges that we, and our learners/readers/users currently face, although I found it a little frustrating that the title wasn't really addressed in the content.

Next I attended Emma Finney and Deborah Harrop's Effective approaches to thinking like a researcher. The aim of this session was to demonstrate some of the tools they've used in the series of sessions they run for bioscience students. The four aspects of research that they cover are exploration, analysis, evaluation and interpretation.  I was impressed with the practical nature of the tasks used, I like to learn by having an example to work from or framework to start from, and this is the method they use. For exploring a new topic they provided  a series of headings (basic ideas, key concepts and theories, numbers and facts... I didn't write them all down) under which to gather preliminary thoughts about a subject area.  This is good for two reasons: it helps to show that you do know something about a new topic, even though you might not have realised it, and it give a basis for research - what are the key terms, what areas do and don't you know about.  The evaluation task had us examining a piece of scientific writing and finding the errors in it - this was a way of modelling good writing for the students.  Again, I think it could be an effective way of encouraging them to also evaluate the quality of their own writing.

The third workshop was given by Jo Ashley. 'Learning literacies through collaborative enquiry; collaborative enquiry through learning literacies' looked at the reasoning behind a collaborative IL project undertaken by music first-years at the University of Liverpool. The students, as part of a first-year compulsory study skills course, were divided into groups to work on wikis intended to provide next year's first years with information about the course, the department and study skills. I thought this was a lovely idea that could have been taken further than they did - instead of dividing the students into groups, I'd have been really interested to see how a single wiki edited by all might develop, and it was a shame to hear that most of the finished wikis haven't actually been made available to the new cohort.

Keynote: 'The digital transition, information behaviour and information literacy' by Dave Nicholas, of UCL
There's no denying that Dave Nicholas is a lively and engaging speaker.  Certainly many tweeting delegates seemed impressed with the way he delivered his talk.  That aside, though, I'm afraid that I remain unconvinced.  Not because I don't agree with his powerfully stated assertion that there's a lot of information out there, that people are probably, on the whole, 'skittering' through it bouncing from thing to thing to thing (rather than digging down into the detail of a single item or idea), and that we could find out a lot about that by looking at 'deep log' records of what's going on. But his points for action at the end of the speech were essentially as follows:
  1. Realise that we're in the future and everything is different
  2. Understand what's going on and what people are doing
  3. Then do something about the fact that people 'lack a mental map, have no sense of collection, and a poor idea of what is good/relevant'
  4. Think about whether having all this information is good, and how we're going to deal with it.
I realise that keynotes are supposed to be broad-brush, inspiring, not nitty-gritty, but this was a bit too vague for me. 

Our paper: 'LibTeachMeet: Librarians learning from each other'
I've already blogged about that over on the camlibtm website... I'm pretty pleased with the way the presentation went.  It certainly fulfilled our main objectives of letting people know about TeachMeets, and encouraging them to try it ourselves.  I think we could have included more detail - what people talked about, how we publicised it and recruited speakers, more about our web presence, etc. Much of this was covered in the questions, but if the audience had been less keen to ask, then they would have missed out.

Other parallel sessions
Lucy Keating's paper Taking up the RIN challenge: supporting researchers’ use of web 2.0 was the highlight of the day for me. Lucy presented her paper really well, and had lovely slides, and her project could easily be adapted for other locations and purposes. Lucy is responsible for arts and humanities subject liaison at Newcastle University.  In response to her local impressions of researcher use (or rather, non-use) of social media for research purposes, and also in response to the Research Information Network report 'If you build it, will they come?' she decided to develop a resource to encourage greater use of social media.

The resource she developed is currently focussed on this netvibes page, although Lucy is clear that the content is key, not the carrier.  Her aim was to develop something simple, non-patronising, objective and not evangelical, with free access and highlighting free resources, with real subject examples, that would be easy for her to maintain.  Total costs so far have been £37, and she's put it together herself in and around her regular work.

The key to this is that it's a 'why to' guide not a 'how to guide'. It's brilliant.

The last session I went to was Advancing information literacy: ensuring accountability via assessment by Leslin Charles, the coordinator of a team of teaching librarians at Berkeley College.  In brief (Leslin gave an excellently detailed talk) she and her team have developed procedures to document all of their teaching and its outcomes, so that they are continually improving what they do, and are able to demonstrate their value to faculty members.  They are in the fortunate position that information skills are recognised as a core part of assessment by their accrediting body, but even for those who can only dream of that level of recognition this presented a good way to manage your work, and a means to demonstrate value and gain increased recognition.

Meeting people
I also had the chance throughout the day, and the evening networking session, to meet people, mainly those I already new from Twitter and LISNPN things. It was particularly lovely to meet Lynne, ldnlibtm mastermind, in person for the first time.  It feels a bit like cheating to mainly network with people I already 'know', if only online, but I suppose it counts as cementing existing networks.

I am very grateful to the CILIP University, College and Research Group for awarding me some funding from the Alison Northover Bursary to cover the cost of travelling to, and attending the conference.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Off to a conference...

This year's LILAC, the Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference, is happening next Monday to Wednesday at the British Library and LSE in London. I'm excited to say that I'm going to be there - the first time I've been to a major conference.
'Lilac in the sun' by**Aina** on Flickr
'Lilac in the sun' by**Aina** on Flickr

Niamh Tumelty and I will be giving a paper about Library TeachMeets, as part of the conference's 'New to Teaching' strand. If you can't make it to the conference, or want to refresh your memory after the fact, then our slides are available via Slideshare.

I have been lucky enough to win some money from the Alison Northover Bursary run by CILIP's University, College & Research Group, to cover the costs of attending.  Sadly, as the bursary was only announced this week, I'm only able to get to the Monday, when Niamh and I are speaking.  The UC&R have, however, generously suggested that the remaining money might be used for other CPD, and I'm now thinking of suggesting that it go towards a day at Umbrella in July.  So an enormous thank you to them, and to those who helped me with my application for the bursary.

I'll be writing up my experiences of LILAC next week - in the meantime, I need to get prepared.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Read all about it!

Untitled photograph of two people reading newspapers on a park bench by Hamed Saber on Flickr
Untitled photograph by Hamed Saber on Flickr
There's a feature article in this month's CILIP Update magazine all about the outreach work of the Hoyle Project at St John's College Cambridge.  It was written to let people know about some of the things the Project achieved, and also includes some hints and tips for organising your own events.  I don't think anything in it is rocket science, but I hope that it inspires more libraries and special collections to try some work with the public and see what happens!

The article is on pp. 40-42 of the April issue of Update.  Logged-in CILIP members can access that online, and it'll also be delivered in hard copy.