#UXLibs, Brexit…happy face sad face

Without the benefit of hindsight, the morning of Friday 24th June 2016 is, three days later, already one of those hauntingly crisp memories that later gets reprocessed every time you find yourself in one of those conversations that start “where were you when you heard about…?” I heard the result of the EU referendum having woken up in my Manchester hotel room, on my own, in the dark, checking Facebook to read one of my friends’ angry posts, and suddenly I felt like someone had died. Trawling the Internet for information and then fixed to the TV news, I forgot I was meant to be leaving for the second day of the UX Libs conference and hurriedly threw everything into my suitcase and went out onto the unfamiliar streets of Manchester, wondering what on earth kind of country I was in.

If this sounds over dramatic it’s because I’d already turned the EU referendum into something very personal. Work’s not been easy for me since I returned after maternity leave. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I want to do, whether I want to stay in libraries, stay working in London, etc etc. When the referendum was announced I was quite clear about my vote. Working in HE, and having a keen interest in science, it’s probably not surprising I am looking at the benefits of being in the EU, the diversity it brings to my workplace, and the opportunities it brings for collaborative working on some of the biggest issues we’re facing as a society, and as human beings on this little blue planet. It’s something that governments, who change every 4-8 years can’t address on their own. I know the EU isn’t perfect, and I can’t claim to know everything about it, but fundamentally, I think it’s better to work together and bring expertise from a wide pool of people to work on these issues. Working together is our only chance to save ourselves, and if the EU isn’t working, then I think the answer is not to leave, but stay and try to fight for it to be better. As I thought more and more about this I applied the same logic to my working life – if things aren’t quite working out you need to make a choice between staying and leaving. Is there something worth fighting for? Yes. My heart, firmly in the remain camp, with the feelings around the vote wrapped up with my own personal life, took a massive blow.

Walking back to the conference on day two was strange; I suspected although didn’t know, that most people there would be feeling the same as me, and this turned out to be the case. Andy Priestner’s emotional opening address bore this out, and I sat there in the audience trying not to burst into tears again. Lawrie Phipps’ keynote, on leadership, echoing my own feelings about us all being leaders and everyday leadership (see Drew Dudley’s TED talk) would have been a completely different one yesterday. It was hard to rally our team together for our morning pitch – on collaboration (ha!) – but the group managed to deliver, and we got through the day. There were some laughs, but above all, shock and disappointment.

BUT, all the conference delegates, of whom I met many from all over Europe – France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland…to name a few, were in no doubt that collaboration is really worth it. If we want to make the lives of people we work for, and with, better, then we HAVE to work together. A choice to leave the EU has dealt that ideal a massive blow, but we can’t let that stop us.

So…a massive thank you to the UX Libs conference team, to all the speakers, and to all the delegates I met who were all, without exception, friendly and open. I have honestly never met SO many new people and felt so at home. Being there was the best place to be on such a horrid day. Spending the afternoon making a “cultural probe” for first year undergraduate students, with happy and sad face stickers, stars, foam, and sharpies, could have have felt frivolous and pointless on such a day, but UX techniques are about getting to the heart of our library users, engaging with them on an emotional level, understanding how those emotions affect their use of space and services and vice versa. It goes beyond the numbers. And somehow, we need to get behind the 48/52% referendum result, and work out what on earth we’re going to do now.

More on UXLibs here: http://uxlib.org/home/ 

Learning experiments

This week I found out what a MOOC was, thanks to an early morning trawl of Twitter and @LisaJeskins tweeting about this. It turns out I already knew what a MOOC was as a week before I’d signed up for this from Coursera. So much for acronyms.

The course I’ve signed up for is teaching inspiring leadership, which I thought would be useful for professional development. But, as well as this, my line manager has been pointing me in the direction of a series of training courses at work on management and leadership. So, I’m going to evaluate as I go, and report back here.

To be honest, knowing myself, there’s a likelihood I’ll wimp out of the MOOC just because there’s no pressure on me to do it. Also, the courses through work are more likely, one would hope, to be relevant to what I’m actually doing – designed as they are for a university setting, I would expect them to be based on theory but with direct practical applications. The six week course through Coursera sounds a bit like something designed by a motivational speaker, but also, baffling and at the same time absolutely fascinating. I’m particularly looking forward to week 5’s “Team change (the Beatles versus Rolling Stones) and Developing Social Identity (Trekkers and Apple Users)”.

Roll on May…

Circulation and frontline service – the forgotten library profession?

We have a mission: impossible. A library will try to provide the knowledge our users require, knowing it will never have the resources to do so. So we lend and ensure that the limited materials we have are shared amongst our users. Behind the scenes, our colleagues are working hard to find out what our users want, to get the resources, to get more for our money, to make everything better, easier, quicker. We hate saying no and we’re always trying to find a way to say yes. The library is in a period of transistion, always, and at the frontline we’re trying to bridge the gap between the old and the new, the known and the unknown.

Everything we offer we do so without distinctions of class, culture, age, gender, race, disability, status. At the heart of our service is a commitment to equal opportunities – to treat everyone as a individual and give them the help they need to get access to the material they need.

Yet we are there for thousands of staff and tens of thousands of students. At the frontline of our library service we see more members of our community in one day than many others see in a week. We are still providing a traditional library service, managing hundreds of thousands of items and ensuring that as many people as possible can access this material as quickly as possible. Our users still want print; it’s essential. And we don’t have a copy of a book for everyone that needs it. So we continue to work within a set of circulation policies and procedures with rules that we enforce to ensure consistency, equality and fairness. It’s not easy. We have to be hard to be fair. We don’t always have the answers people want, and we’re not always popular. But we’re constantly questioning what we’re doing and changing when we can.

And as the profession continues to change, at the frontline we’re trying to keep up. We’re asked questions and come up against problems all the time, and the answer’s not always obvious. There’s a mind boggling array of information out there and it’s our responsibility at the frontline to know in which direction to point our users, to know and to tell them what the options are, that someone can find a solution for them even if we can’t provide it ourselves.

Sometimes frontline staff are seen as automatons, easily replaced by self-service. But that is to forget the amount of work that goes into running and improving a circulation service – to solve problems, to make things run smoothly, to make them run better. And more importantly it is to forget the possibilities of human intuition, the small exchanges that can lead to someone picking up on a baffled look, to someone completing the end of a question the user didn’t know how to ask. We are there for them when they don’t know where to start. We are there for them on the night before they have to hand in an essay, giving them something that we hope will lead them to discovering and utilising the full potential of the library.

Some of us are library professionals, some of us para-professionals, some of us just work in a nice place, where we meet nice people. We are all human. We have good days and bad days. Sometimes we don’t know the answer. Sometimes we have to say no. But we are here, trying to do our best not just for the individuals, but for the whole community.

What is a librarian?

The more experience I gain from my admittedly short working career in academic libraries (so far), the more that hallowed title, “librarian”, seems not necessarily to elude me, but to defy definition.

Back in the dank halls of Reading University where I first wondered about going into librarianship (as you do), I looked at the university library and innocently categorised all the staff there as librarians. My only criteria for such being that you had to work in a library. Seemed obvious.

After a few months travelling, this still seemed to be an attractive career – embarrassingly, I guess, because I loved books! And more importantly – though I didn’t really analyse it at the time  – I liked being in an environment where people had the potential to learn in a kind of free and unstructured way.

My first job was as a graduate trainee, and I quickly learnt that I was a library assistant. Someone who clearly, assisted the library. The plan was to continue into an MA in Library and Information Studies, which I’m quite glad I delayed for several years. In that time I became an issue desk head and learnt. A lot. By this time discussion of whether you needed a qualification to get ahead in libraries was raging – but at the same time competition for jobs was hotting up – so I decided it would be good. And I am actually interested in libraries and information! PLUS – of course, a life-long learner.

So now I have qualified. Does that make me a librarian? Well I was doing exactly the same job as I had done before and whilst I qualified, though had a lot more understanding of the broader profession and more skills to take forward into new roles. But I don’t think anyone else would call me a librarian (except the students ironically!) And anyway, I was still called an issue desk head, which probably sounds complete gobbledegook to anyone who’s never been to a library. So I normally call myself a librarian to banks and insurance companies (but I still feel a bit guilty about it!). Which brings me to the point that no one outside libraries really cares what we call ourselves, do they?

But still, I think, those of us who aspire to work in the profession want to one day be called a librarian. At the moment I’m “acting-up” as a Subject Librarian (which sounds like I’m pretending – it’s all kosher I promise!) So now, finally, I am at least called a librarian. So what makes me a librarian now? Well, I’m buying books, and helping people with subject resource enquiries. Though I’m by no means a subject specialist (my undergraduate degree was in English and I seem to be the Engineering Librarian). Do I need to have a degree in Engineering to be an Engineering Librarian? Possibly – but what about Earth Sciences which I also cover? Should Librarians only be a true Librarian of subjects they have a good knowledge of?

In my Subject Librarian role I’m still managing to help people get books (which I did as an issue desk head), navigate electronic resources (which I did as an issue desk head), improve service (which I did as an issue desk head)…I suppose I’m saying that I don’t feel anymore of a librarian now than I did before. And if I am a librarian now, do I cease to be a librarian when I finish my acting up period and go back to being an issue desk head?

What I love about working in libraries now is that excitement that comes from knowing that all that knowledge is out there and is accessible. And whether I’m a Subject Librarian or an Issue Desk Head, or a Shelver, or a Cataloguer…all of us are helping people get to that knowledge. Isn’t that librarianship?