I spotted this advert for ‘eCloud experts’, and rather uncharitably thought ‘ha! I’d like to see them explain exactly what they do – without using the word ‘cloud’!’


But I quickly realised that this was a possibly unfair challenge. Could I explain what my organisation/services do, without using words from our name or straplines? And without resorting to even more esoteric jargon? Time to play Library ‘Taboo!

This isn’t really a fair ‘Taboo!’ challenge, as I can see what I’ve written, don’t have a time limit or a relative with a buzzer breathing eagerly over my shoulder, and haven’t had far too much Christmas dinner and rather too much wine. I did give myself the limit of ‘first draft only’, so these aren’t polished or perfect. But it’s a really nice exercise to create something that makes you think about how too explain what you do, in a way that’s not quite an elevator pitch. Maybe more of a hairdresser pitch: where you have a little more time to explain, and need to assume a base-level knowledge of your sector/specialism of zero.

Please note: these are not authorised or official descriptions of any of these services or projects!

Mimas: powering knowledge (Manchester Information and Associated Services)

[Explaining what Mimas does without without referring to one of the moons of Saturn would be far too easy, so I decided to resurrect the long-dead and possibly apocryphal acronym expansion]. So my taboo words are: power[ing], knowledge, Manchester, information, associated, service[s].

We host and manage data, and provide different ways for people to access that data. So we store, for instance, data from past UK censuses, and geospatial data, from satellite imagery. Then we build things on top of this data to allow people to access it for education and research. That might be just a simple interface to let them search the data online, an app they can use on their phones, or a whole online learning syllabus. We’re always thinking of new ways to use the data, and new things we can help people to do with it.

Copac: (CURL [Consortium of UK Research Libraries] OPAC [Online Public Access Catalogue])

[Another one that needs to be explained with[out] reference to a very old and no-longer-used expansion]. Taboo words: consortium, UK, research, librar[y, ies], online, public, access, catalogue.

We’re a specialised website that allows you to search across the lists of stuff held by lots of universities, specialist and national institutions. This is mainly books, but it will also tell you things like which electronic versions of journals they subscribe to, what DVDs are in their film collections, or even descriptions of big historic collections they hold, like photographs or drawings. It’s a really good place to start if you need to find out where a book or a piece of information is. You can’t usually read the actual book online, but it will tell you where you need to go to get access to a copy – for free!

The Archives Hub: at the centre of great research

Taboo words: archives, hub, centre, great, research

If you’re looking for old documents, records of the history of a place or an institution, perhaps a firm that one of your ancestors used to work for, we’re a good place to start looking. We’re a website that lets you search descriptions of collections of original documents – written documents like ledgers and company records, personal letters, and diaries, or multimedia material like collections of photographs, posters, or sound-recordings. You can’t usually search exactly what’s written in the collections (like the contents of a letter), but you can find out where the original material relating to people, places, and things is, and how you can get access to it. This is really useful if you’re doing a personal project, or a project at school or university.

LAMP (Library Analytics and Metrics Project)

Taboo words: librar[y, ies], analytics, project

Universities routinely collect lots of information about how people interact with the university. This data covers things like how they use the resources the university provides (such as how many books they borrow), demographic data (like how old they are and which country they’re from), attendance data (are they a full-time or a part-time student?), and attainment data (what grade they graduated with). All of this is collected just as part of day-to-day business, and isn’t usually linked together. We want to help universities use this information to answer questions about and improve their services. For instance, a university might find that very few of their part-time students are borrowing books, and would want to know if this was the same in other universities. If it’s not, does it mean that their part-time students are missing out? Is there something they can do to help them get access to the information they need? We’re not looking at data for individual students – it’s all lumped together so we can look for trends across categories.

The hardest words to avoid? ‘Librar[y, ies]’ and ‘research’. And ‘catalogue’ made Copac pretty tough! I’ve tried to stick to the sort of simple language I’d use if I was put on the spot to explain this in person to someone who has nothing to do with the education or research sectors, so I think I’ve managed to avoid most jargon (although they all comprehensively fail the Up-Goer Five test). The LAMP one was definitely the hardest to write – perhaps because I haven’t been working on it for as long as the others, and so haven’t managed to isolate the essentials, or because I felt the need to bring in motivation & privacy (‘we’re not spying on you!’) as well as what we actually do. For the others, it helped that Copac and the Archives Hub are both public-facing, and I frequently do explain both to people, although usually with liberal use of the words ‘libraries’, ‘archives’, and ‘catalogue’.

It seems that concrete examples make these explanations easiest, and help you stay away from abstract, specialist terms. I might not have chosen the best ones here, but I think it could be useful to put together my own set of mini use-cases for different audiences, to go with the more official ones we have for training and communications. Doing this exercise has made me think about what we actually do and provide, and how well I understand and can explain it! And it would be interesting to see how these have evolved from what I might have said when I started working for Mimas/Copac five years ago, and how my understanding of what we do and libraries and archives as a whole has changed. I’m not sure I’d have been comfortable with ‘lists of stuff’ for ‘library catalogue’ back then!