Saturday, 30 July 2011

A day at umbrella (#ub11)

A couple of weeks ago I went down to Hatfield for CILIP's major conference, Umbrella. It was my first time at Umbrella, and it was the biggest conference I've been too so far in my career. I had two reasons for going: 1) to find out more about the library profession outside academia/special collections; 2) to present a poster about Library TeachMeets.


'Stormy Weather' by JD Hancock on Flickr
I must confess that I wasn't sure whether I'd enjoy it or not. I didn't have a lot of time available to prepare myself in advance: I wasn't sure which sessions I'd go to, I didn't know who the keynote speaker was, I wasn't really sure who else I knew was going. I wasn't really looking forward to spending time in a place with hundreds of other people, feeling bewildered...

But the thing is, I had a really brilliant time there. There are various reasons for that:
  1. Plentiful coffee supplies, starting with coffee at registration. I am just a nicer person when properly caffeinated.
  2. With just three sessions of papers/panels in the day it felt like there was more time to breathe than at some other conferences I've been to. It felt like there was space to keep talking to people from the previous session, and to meet someone in the break, and then to move onto the next thing without feeling unduly harried.  Mentally, too, three main themes in a day left time to think and reflect.
  3. The sessions I attended were all brilliant (see below).  The speakers were articulate and interesting, the topics were covered well, I learnt new things and started to think about things I already knew in new ways.
  4. Everyone I met there was really friendly.  This went for people I already knew either in person or online, and people I met for the very first time.  I really noticed that having a few online contacts already made me much more willing and able to strike up conversation with people I'd never met before, which was an unexpected but very welcome discovery!
  5. My poster was well received, I thought, and the 23 Things Professional Development poster (presented by Claire Sewell, designed by me) was very well received, and won the judges' first prize and attendee vote runner-up prize (for which thank you!).
So, how can I replicate this great conference experience elsewhere? That bit's hard to answer. Maybe the key is to just accept the event for whatever it is - not to try and wring out everything possible from it, and not to wish I was chatting with the 'right' people, but just to interact with who's there and see what I learn.


I went to two sessions in the Big Society stream, and one in the Technologies and Access stream.  Inspired by Joseph Norwood, I tried drawing a few pictures to sum up ideas and themes from the sessions.  My drawing skills are no match for his, but looking back at my notes after a couple of weeks, I find that they're rather handy as short-hand ways of recollecting what I was thinking.

Big Society, Big Opportunity: the response of government information professionals to the Coalition's agenda for the public sector - a panel discussion

Sketch of a train marked 'change'Sketch of a civil servant who doesn't want to let go of any informationSketch of a member of the public bewildered by the available information

This was a panel discussion between three government librarians, working in the Departments for Work and Pensions, Communities and Local Government, and Education. The three speakers all asserted that they don't really know what the Big Society actually is, but they also agreed, which is no surprise, that it means change.  For government departments it means both the devolution of powers and responsibilities--as quangos and other bodies are disbanded and more work is done locally/by communities--but also having to take on more responsibilities as intermediary layers of bureaucracy are removed (some quango business will be taken over higher up the hierarchy, and, for example, 'independent' community ventures such as Free Schools don't report locally but straight to the top).  So the first primary challenge they face is that roles and responsibilities across departments are changing, and information services need to prove their worth in straightened times. As in many other fields, they can do this by moving into non-traditional, but library-allied, roles, such as the linked tasks of records and knowledge management and managing Freedom of Information requests (and other related compliance issues).

The second area of particular interest that was discussed several times was the Transparency Agenda: the government desire to make information and data freely available to the public, via and similar means. It was pointed out that civil servants aren't traditionally keen on letting go of information, but also, and more significantly, that maybe just letting a lot of poorly ordered and managed data out into the public domain isn't really useful for anyone.  The problem is - are there the resources to sort it out?

Gilding the Lily: Images and objects need useful metadata!

Sketch of a photograph

This session presented three case-studies of non-printed-book cataloguing.  Two were image collections in single institutions (the George Washington Wilson collection at the University of Aberdeen and the photographic collections of Frank Ludlow and George Sheriff at the Natural History Museum), one a mixed bag of archives and museum objects from a variety of institutions (Suffolk Heritage Direct).  The overriding message from the three was that whatever you, as the first cataloguer, put into the system will definitely not be the last word on the form that the data will take in years to come, either because systems will change over time, or because your one-institution-dataset will ultimately be brought together with data from other places.  In the absence of a perfect world, it's probably therefore more important to get something into a system, than to worry and fret over every last word and comma and not get so much done.  As someone managing a cataloguing project - consider in your decisions what will make the data flexible in the future.

Librarians as Citizen Reporters

Sketch of a person with a megaphoneSketch of people talking to each other

I had no real idea what to expect from this session.  It turned out to be about local community websites and journalism endeavours, and that part(s) that libraries can play in these.  Some of the example sites mentioned were:
These sites enable people to help each other out locally - by sharing information, answering questions, raising issues.  They positive impacts on' real life' community--people coming out onto the streets to help clear snow, for example--and can improve community opinions of institutions such as the police or the council, when such institutions engage with them in a sensible and helpful way.

The implications for libraries of this are twofold:
  1. Libraries can support the necessary training and technology requirements for people to be involved in these endeavours.  Providing space, equipment and training is a way of showing that libraries are needed, useful, relevant, etc.  As a non-core activity, it's also something that could potentially use volunteers, without that volunteer involvement threatening current professional roles.  Perhaps.
  2. Librarians could get involved with these communities, in the manner that some councillors have done, to offer information to people who need it.  Either on a formal basis (an 'ask the librarian' thread) or informally - quietly lurking in the community and speaking up when they think can help. Either of these models strike me as being similar to the 'embedded librarian' which is growing in prominence in the academic/subject librarian world. This would, again, prove the usefulness of librarians, and hopefully raise the profile of the library and its services.
There's information about research done into these communities on the Networked Neighbourhoods site.

    Conclusions/Action Points/What Next?

    I have few definite conclusions to draw from the conference, except perhaps 'just get on and act on your ideas'. Times are hard, but sitting around whinging won't make them any better. Everyone can do something to improve attitudes or services. So get on with it.


    1. Brilliant pictures! Is there no end to your talents? Sounds like a very interesting day.

    2. Thanks for the link to the Networked Neighbourhoods site