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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’!’

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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!

Next Tuesday (13 March) sees the Speak up for Libraries lobby in London. If you can go and join in, I’d urge you to do so – this is a chance for library supporters to make a big impression! If (like me) you can’t go, you can still show your support by signing up to support the issue, and writing to your MP to ask them to support the Speak up for Libraries early day motion.

I’ve written to my MP to ask for his support:

Dear Tony Lloyd,

I am writing to ask you to sign Early Day motion 2817, Speak Up For Libraries.

Free public libraries which are open to all are a vital part of the country’s community structure, and deliver huge benefits for education, life-long learning, digital literacy, and community engagement.

They are one of the few free, non-threatening spaces left. You don’t have to subscribe to a particular belief or belong to a particular sector of society to be allowed to use a library.

They’re places where you can go and know you’ll be welcomed, whoever you are, and whatever your reason for being there.

And there are many reasons to go to your public library! As well as large selections of fiction, public libraries provide access to educational material. People can go to their public library to learn how to use a computer, to learn to knit or grow their own veg, to learn another language, or find out more about a disease facing them or a loved one.

Libraries also offer computer access – increasingly vital for accessing goods and services, including local and national government services. Millions of people in the UK don’t have a computer, and couldn’t afford to buy and maintain one. Without computer access at their local library they will end up even more distanced from society.

Libraries and librarians also offer activities and ways to engage with the community. Services for children (such as Rhymetime) are hugely popular, and often over subscribed. Educationalists agree about the importance of engaging children with books and learning at an early age.

Many libraries also offer access to health information, which users may be unable or disinclined to seek elsewhere. Librarians will not judge or gossip. Part of being a professional librarian is adherence to a strict code of ethics*, with the needs of the user and society always at its heart, and they are a trusted profession. Replacing professional or trained library staff with volunteers may erode that trust, and lead to people not getting access to the information they need.

For that is what public libraries are about: connecting people with the information they need. UNESCO define the public library as:

‘the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups’

And access to information is often regarded as a basic human right. Libraries provide non-judgemental, unbiased, democratic access to that information, and librarians will help people find and evaluate the information they really need.

Disinformation, lies, private agendas, and prejudice have no place in the library. Allowing private groups (such as religious or political groups) to run public libraries opens the door to bias in information provision.

We’re asking the government not to allow councils to make hasty and short-sighted decisions about the future of libraries. Free and open-to-all public libraries are vital for an educated, engaged, and healthy populace. Please don’t let them vanish.

For more information on this issue, including stories from many members of the public about what a difference libraries have made to their lives, see independent campaign group Voices for the Library http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/, Speak up for Libraries http://www.speakupforlibraries.org/, and information on the value of libraries from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals http://www.cilip.org.uk/get-involved/advocacy/pages/overviewofadvocacy.aspx.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email, and please do sign early day motion 2817.

Yours sincerely,

Bethan Ruddock

*I should clarify: only members of professional organisations (such as CILIP or ARA) are actually subject to their association’s code of ethics. That doesn’t mean that non-members aren’t ethical! But they’re not committed to following a certain code in the same way.

I never thought I’d be blogging about a Cracked article. I suppose it comes to all of us, one day…

During my usual evening random stroll through the internet, I came across this: 6 reasons we’re in another book burning period in history. It’s written by someone who has spent the past year ‘walk[ing] walk through library warehouses and destroy tens of thousands of often old and irreplaceable books.’

Now, I’m an adult. I’ve worked in a library. I know that withdrawn books don’t get to go live on a farm. I know a lot of them don’t even go to booksales, or services such as Better World Books. I know of the existence of the horrid thing known as the Library Skip. I know that judicious weeding must happen – that libraries (especially legal deposit) are being overwhelmed by the numbers of new books coming in, and are building huge stores and moving books into salt mines. I know that libraries have to keep stock moving, and ensure that what they keep meets their users’ needs.

But I always imagined this being done with discernment and professionalism. The image that Davis represents in the Cracked article is one of books being indiscriminately pulled off shelves and pulped en masse, with no regard for rarity or value:

Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash. I’ve been there, more than once. I could have kept it and maybe gotten a few hundred dollars for it on eBay, if my supervisor wasn’t watching with specific orders to prevent me from doing that.

Davis does go on to say that this is not usually the choice of the librarians – that they are told to get rid of a certain number of books by a certain date, and indiscriminate destruction is often the only viable way to do so.

Exaggerated? Hyperbolised? I hoped so. So I turned to twitter. The response? It happens – though, understandably, people don’t want to say when and where. A ray of hope comes from one responder, who said that while it had happened in the past, things were ‘better now’. This would fit with my impressions – I know there are collaborative collection management projects, designed to ensure that weeding is considered on a larger-scale than just that of the institution. But I worry that there may still be places where ‘chuck it all in a skip’ may be seen as the most cost-effective approach to stock management.

What do I worry about even more than that? Well, I worry about the impact of this article. Cracked has a huge readership, and it’s already spawned a response article over on NPR. These are people who probably wouldn’t usually read about libraries – a huge echo chamber escape! woohoo, eh?

Well, no. Not woohoo. Not even woo. This is bad. At a time when libraries are under huge threats from funders who deem them irrelevant, library professionals and supporters are battling hard to prove the value of libraries and librarians; to prove that we darn well do more than just stamp books.

And now? There are at least half a million people (yes, the article has 575,482 views at time of writing) who do know something more about what librarians do: they randomly destroy the very books and knowledge they’re meant to be protecting.

Am I making too much of it? Making it worse by reacting like this? Maybe. But this article gave me a tiny moment of doubt about the profession I love. Batman help us all if our opponents pick up on it.

So a seemingly innocent conversation on twitter (it’s amazing how many of my blog posts could start that way!) became me being captain of the sparkly pants readahoopathon. The idea is that lovely lady librarians will raise awareness of libraries while hooping in sparkly pants and reading.

Now, I’d really love this to happen – not least because I managed to excuse myself from any hooping/sparkly pant wearing! But because it’s a different way to raise awareness of libraries. It’s something that might well draw in people outside the usual crowd – and people outside the area we’ve been aiming a lot of #echolib escaping efforts at. Yes, I’m talking about people who don’t read the Guardian or listen to Radio 4.

Let me clarify that I am in absolutely no way dissing Ian or Lauren‘s fantastic Guardian articles. I love them. I’m delighted that they were written, thrilled that they were published, and exhilarated and frustrated by the debates they provoked. But articles in a middle-class liberal newspaper will not significantly expand the library support demographic. They are unlikely to get our message into new ears. We need to look at alternative channels. We need to put library promotion into normalspace – and bring the world into the library.

Fine rhetoric (ok, medium-ish rhetoric), but what does that actually mean? Well, I think we often forget one of the main things we try to hammer into our users: Librarians Are People. Normal people. People with lives and interests and a sense of humour. And we’re not using this to our advantage.

This is where the (probably hypothetical) sparkly pants readahoopathon comes in. Having a bunch of people hooping outside the local public library would likely draw a bit of interest, no? Interest from people who might not usually go into the library? And then if they stop to talk to the hoopers, get taken inside, shown some learn-to-hoop resources by nice, friendly, interested librarians… well, who knows where it might lead?

Librarians have hobbies. Librarians often have hobbies that involve joining groups. Librarians hoop, run, bellydance, knit, sing, quill, garden, photograph, paint, bike, bake, row and a million and eight other things. How about this: do it in the library. I don’t mean on your own at 11 am on a Monday – you’ll just gets odd looks. Try to organise a meeting. Talk to local library staff – can they let you have some space outside the library for a get-together or a demonstration? Can you get a display of related books? or some related websites up on the computer?

It’s the old routine of finding out what people are interested in, and showing them how the library can give them more information about it – but we can’t wait for them to come into the library. We need to grab users – potential users! – by the interest, and get them through the doors, onto the website, into the mindset of ‘wow, my library does have something for me!’. Pander to your favourite spy fantasies by becoming an undercover librarian: make every group you join serve a double purpose.

I’m sorry if this sounds a bit didactic, a little overwhelming. Yes, of course you are allowed to have a life outside libraries. But we really need to take responsibility for advocacy, make it a part of our lives and everyday activities. Katy Wrathall puts it well:

We can’t sit and wait for somebody to do this for us, and we can’t assume that they won’t come for the college, academic, legal, or business librarians next. We have to stand up and be counted, we have to tell people what they are throwing away which they will never get back, we have to act outside the stereotype. And we have to do it now.

Stand up and be counted, librarians – and don’t stop hooping.

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