Sunday, 3 March 2013

#libcampldn: finding practical solutions

I managed to snag a last-minute ticket for the Library Camp London unconference held at Senate House Library on Saturday 2 March. Despite my early-morning wobble--did I really want to spend a day talking to people about difficult stuff?--I had a really good time, and am glad I went.  Big thanks to Andrew Preater, David Clover and Gary Green for organising it.

With such a wide spread of sessions to choose from, it was necessary to have a method for choosing what to attend.  I decided not to try and be worthy or hard-thinking, but to go to what sounded like the most practically useful and/or the most fun sessions. So I steered clear of the Future of the Library, DRM, Open Access, Librarian Personalities, and even Radical Libraries (although I eagerly await write-ups of that one), and instead, apart from my fairly worthy hidden collections session, went with fun, low-stress and useful.

Hidden Collections

I pitched this session as a forum for discussing the problems described in the 2012 RLUK Hidden Collections report (and touched on in the OCLC Survey of Special Collections), and hopefully to share ideas and strategies for dealing with the problem.
The Problem
There are millions of uncatalogued, or insufficiently well-catalogued books, files, manuscripts, recordings, maps, pieces of sheet music, etc. etc. etc. in libraries of all kinds across the country.  Getting this stuff catalogued is hard because good cataloguing takes time and skilled staff.  In an environment where more and more new stock comes 'shelf-ready' (i.e. ready-catalogued by the company that supplies it, often not very well), the number of in-house cataloguers, especially in public libraries, is declining.  This means that there's no-one available in the institution who could possibly take on the cataloguing backlog.  Even in institutions no buying shelf-ready stock there are serious and worrying pressures on cataloguer numbers, and cataloguing projects don't seem to be sexy enough to attract much outside funding.

Apart from the obvious reasons (no record = no-one can use it because no-one knows it's there ), hidden collections are bad because they are far more likely than visible collections to be left languishing in poor environments leading to serious preservation problems, or to be inappropriately disposed of by penny-pinching managers (especially in public libraries, sadly).  Their mere existence is also psychologically wearing on those who know they should be dealt with but don't have the resources to complete such work.

Convincing the powers-that-be to fund cataloguing work can be difficult.  Reference libraries can struggle to prove their worth as they don't have circulation data to show usage levels.  Trial projects putting a small number of new records into the catalogue can demonstrate a sharp uptake in use of a particular set of material, but this isn't always what happens.

Some digitisation projects aimed to deal with a large quantity of unavailable archive data have returned data that's so poor as to be almost useless.  There's a fear about spending money on such projects in case they're not worth the effort.

It can be difficult to know where to start when addressing your hidden collections problem.  Obviously it's best to start with what users want the most, but how can they know they want something that's hidden?  It's a worry to some that previous projects haven't focussed on the right stuff: maybe we should concentrate on more modern collections rather than the traditional blue-chip items such as early-printed books?

Knowledge about collections and projects is very often only recorded in people's heads.  Once that person goes, all the information is lost.  This happens time and time again.

Using our usersA project at the Institute of Education has engaged the help of specialists to improve the metatdata on newly-created brief catalogue records for historic textbooks. The discussion acknowledged that user-tagging facilities in catalogues often don't elicit many responses (even on Amazon!), but we agreed that maybe actively asking for specialist help might be much more successful than passively including 'tag this' buttons without explaining why users would want to bother.  Rare books users often, for example, notice that ESTC numbers in catalogues are incorrect.  We should have 'Is this record wrong? Please let us know!' buttons on records, just like COPAC does.  You can also let users tag based on a fixed vocabulary, rather than free text.  I was inspired with the idea of letting users tag rare book records with a selection from the RBMS Controlled Vocabularies, such as binding types and illustration terms.  I'd love to hear if anyone thinks this is possible, feasible, sensible...?

What do they want?  We should be formalising a link between enquiry and reference work on one side and cataloguing and digitisation on the other: the enquiry people know what people are asking about.  In a small library it'll be the same people doing both, but in a large library a formal reporting mechanism would be very useful.  You can use your catalogue data to see what people want and can't find: look at which searches are turning up no (or very few) results, and then use this as a basis for choosing what to catalogue (or how to improve the cataloguing), what to digitise, or what to acquire.

Publicity.  We need to publicise the material that we have catalogued so that the work can be shown to be a success.  This means talking to researchers, to people who write research grants, to our other users (such as people looking for dissertation topics), blogging our collections, holding events around them, etc. etc.

Get the issue up the agenda.  We all appreciate the problem of and with hidden collections, but we mustn't assume that people higher up in our organisations either know that the problem is there, or why it is a serious problem.  The RLUK presents a opportunity to raise awareness, for example by including it on the agenda at a library committee meeting.  Summarise the findings, explain the local context, and maybe (just maybe) someone will take it up higher in the hierarchy. 

Know your collections.  There is nothing more important in librarianship than knowing your collections.  It's not necessarily easy to do, of course, but when you start somewhere new it's important to ask questions about the shelves/boxes/collections that seem overlooked. What is it? Where did it come from? What's the plan?  And then document this information so that it isn't lost all over again in the future.  It's important to your users that you also know what else roundabouts is relevant to them - we can cross-publicise collections in other libraries.

I was really pleased with how the session went.  A high proportion of the attendees spoke up, and shared perspectives from a range of different types of library and collection.  There were some keen 'amplifiers' (i.e. tweeter) and this facilitated some useful back-channel comments. As well as voicing concerns and problems, the conversation developed naturally into what we can actually do.. 

Library Displays
Pitched by a school librarian looking for inspiration, I found that this session really helped me clarify some of my own marketing plans, even though I don't do 'displays' in the traditional sense.  Ideas that Ill be thinking about using at work include:
  • investigating the non-fiction/science book prizes, and science prizes (e.g. Ignoble, Nobel, Darwin) to base publicity on the shortlists/winners.
  • making a note of national/international book days and events (e.g. World Book Day, World Poetry Day) and national/international history weeks and months (e.g. black history month, LGBT history month) to do things that tie in.  Although we're not primarily a book-ish institution, it might be effective to tie in library things with events that staff might have heard about on the radio/TV.
  • would blind date with a book work in a professional library context?
  • make an annual list of all this stuff, and--when something crops up that I'd forgotten about (it's usually small things, like Christmas...)--make sure to include them for next year.
  • make sure to record what was done this year in order not to repeat too closely next year, but also to build on success.
Speed Networking
I turned up late for this because I was distracted by The Itinerant Poetry Library (which is marvellous and must be seen to be believed) and therefore set a cat amongst the neatly-organised pigeons. A school librarian, Dominique, kindly let me circle round with her, and a met a selection of people familiar and new. I was very impressed by the way Liz Jolly facilitated an evaluation of how the session had gone, and how it might be improved at future library camps.  This was followed by a general discussion about networking methods.  Some familiar views about the value (or not) of Twitter and other online networks were raised, as well as a salient point from @Schopflin that an effective networker needs to use many different methods in order to meet lots of different people.  My opinion is that if you think you're meeting the people you want to meet and finding out the news you want to find using your current networks, then maybe you don't 'need' Twitter.  But if you feel you could or should be trying to do more then it's worth looking around to find your Twitter (or Linkedin, or whatever) niche.

Rhyme Time
Linsey Chrisman and Jody, both experienced children's librarians, led a participatory rhyme-time (or, rather, read-and-rhyme, which is for toddlers rather and babies, and they determined that a bunch of over-excited librarians are closer to the former than the latter) session.  Standing and sitting in a circle, we sang, signed and danced our way through several songs, and had enormous fun flinging toys into the air with a colourful parachute. It was really good fun to let our hair down, wave our arms about, and participate in something communal. There's definitely something in the idea that singing together with other people makes you happy.  Though how you can incorporate that into more of life successfully, I'm not sure - it only works if the people involved are willing...

We also discussed some of the whys and wherefores of public library rhyme-times, such as how to balance holding them in spaces that are suitable (encourage parent participation by not being too public and prevent too many toddlers absconding) but still emphasise that this is a library thing (have the books nearby).  Absolutely top tip: if you're organising something like this, think about where you'll get people to park their buggies!

And... rest
It was a hard-work day, but very rewarding.  Fortunately there was plentiful coffee, lunch and cake to keep us going.


  1. Thanks for blogging about the session Katie - I'd planned to go to that one, but didn't make it in the end so very useful to be able to read/listen to what happened!

    1. You're welcome! I've a post in the works about the BL PAC conference on Friday, too, on the back of the publication of their Knowing the Need report. That was also a very useful day - so watch this space for that!

  2. ooh great, I was attempting to follow your BLPAC tweets about it on Friday but kept having to leave the house (no smart phone) so it was slightly disjointed!

  3. Really interesting stuff Katie, especially glad to have caught up with your session.

    There's obviously a lot of crossover to archives here, where the situation is similar. I'd encourage people to reuse the messages of the National Cataloguing grants programme 5 year review (2011 but still relevant). Key messages include cataloguing 'uncovers hidden treasures' [of course], but also 'brings people and collections together', 'opens up new opportunities', 'drive scholarship and research' and 'enriches communities'. Much broader messages that resound with parent organisations [full text is downloadable from the scheme homepage - open for applications right now, if people have strategic projects for archive material identified:].

    I'm obviously keen to promote the new Archive Service Accreditation programme as well [], and there are such clear crossovers here with some of the messages. Among those that leapt out at me are a) document your plans for collections [whether care, description or development] - don't leave it all in one person's head;
    b) Analyse and make use of the data you have about your users and potential users - the point you make about bringing enquiries staff together with collections staff

    And, of course, c) if you're eligible - and many research libraries are - consider whether applying for/working towards accreditation for your archive service [i.e. a service holding and making accessible archive collections] would help get the issue on the agenda. Helping to make hidden problems in hidden collections less hidden!


    1. Melinda,

      The RLUK Hidden Collections report does include in its remit archival and manuscript collections held by libraries, although it acknowledges that some of the questions seemed to imply books only, and it therefore doesn't give a fair representation of the stats. Of course, it's no surprise (sadly) that archival material held by separate archives also clearly is also often 'hidden'. It would great to have collective work on this across the sectors.

      Thank you for the link to and info about the National cataloguing grants review. This programme was mentioned (as was archives accreditation) at the BL PAC event on Friday (and possibly in the RLUK report, or the recent OCLC one - I've read too much in a short space f time to remember what's what...). Non-catalogued material was identified as a serious issue there as well. Do watch out for my post on that day, which threw up such a lot of useful stuff.