Inspired by this post from Ian Clark, I’ve decided to share some of the assignments I did at library school (MA in Library & Information Studies at MMU, 2007-8)

I’d echo Ian’s reasons for sharing: not because I think these assignments are fabulous, but to help raise awareness of what a qualification in librarianship involves. But there’s also personal learning to be taken from them – how much have I learned in the last 5 years? Rather a lot, it seems (apparently, in 2008, I thought web 2.0 was the semantic web. umm…). How much have I forgotten in the last 5 years? Equally, rather a lot (please don’t ask me to construct a Dialog search strategy. Please).

And as well as looking at my personal development, it’s interesting to think about how (if?) library school curricula have changed across time, and how they vary across institutions. Looking at Ian’s list of assignments, I can see similarities (create a catalogue record, business plan), but also topics we didn’t cover (marketing, digital divide). CILIP accredited courses are expected to cover a range of topics from the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base, but it’s interesting to see where particular institutions put their focus, and how that focus might shift over time.

So, here are the library school assignments that a) I still have copies of and b) weren’t group assignments. Those that I don’t have copies off might have been assessed in different ways – we had several presentations to do, along with database design that was hand-drawn on paper, and a digital library that required specialist software.

These are not intended to be shining examples of how to be the best library school student ever (related: please don’t laugh at me too much), but will hopefully stand useful as an example of the range of what professional librarians were expected to do/know/learn, at a particular place and time.

Cataloguing & classification

Dialog search strategy

The Identity Cards Act 2006 has now passed into law. Identify and critically evaluate the potential impacts of this legislation

LMS selection and implementation

Report on web page creation

Team development: a case study

Technical issues related to Institutional Repository Software (partial script for joint presentation)

Thesaurus constuction

Digital library collection policy

Library 2.0: a report

Skills/roles needed in a digital library team


I’ve recently discovered Memrise, a site that’s designed to encourage learning (particularly of languages), by gamifying the process. They use ‘brain science’ (honestly, their words) to encourage learning and retention. One of the key factors in this are ‘mems’:

Mems is our natty word for the morsels of interesting and relevant information you see beneath every word on Memrise. Mems can be mnemonics, etymologies, amusing videos, photos, example sentences: anything which helps connect what you’re learning and bring it to life.

I think of mems as the sticky note attached to the new word or fact – and the weirder, the better. The more unusual or amusing the mem is, the more likely you are to recall it and its associated fact. I first came across this idea during maths in school, when we were told to come up with our own silly phrases to remember SOHCAHTOA. I’m still resentful that they said mine was ‘too silly’, and made me learn Silly Old Harry Caught A Haddock Trawling Off America. Ok, I still remember it – but I remember mine better, and without having to think ‘it was a fish that began with h. What fish begin with h? And anyway, what’s silly about catching a haddock?’

And I’ve definitely been finding the slightly more obtuse mems the most useful, such as ‘a woman and a shameful kangaroo‘ for cooked rice. Ok, I don’t see the kangaroo myself, but I remember that someone else did.

I often find myself putting my own twist on the mems that other people have provided. For instance, my personal mem for ‘vorrei’ is ‘Ketel One’, based on this mem, but adding the fact that the specific Ray I’m buying a drink for is Ray from Achewood*.

But the stickiest mem I’ve found is this:

It´s all very well being told details to remember (these are useful too), but I need something to jog my memory that relates to what they look like and links it to the name. So for this one, imagine the tune to California Dreaming, but with the first line going:
“Alder leaves are round…”

I defy you to ever sing California Dreaming the same way again…

Memrise also allows you to create your own courses, and it looks like some teachers are using it to reinforce learning for specific courses. I’ve found GCSE RE, Australian Year 10 Chemistry, and B6 Biology.

If you can get student take-up, this seems like a great idea. Thinking library/info lit specific, you could create a course to teach specific styles of referencing, or Dewey/LoC/classification system of your choice (though I’m not sure anyone actually wants to learn the Dewey classes). Personally, I’ve run aground on the mountain of ‘mems for MARC fields’ (my best attempt so far. Seriously. It’s hard.)

Thinking about what makes a good mem has made me think about learning, and my teaching/presenting style. I’ve realised that what I’m doing when I add images and text to my slides (such as here or here), what I’m actually doing is trying to add a mem to the slide. I usually think of the key point that I want people to take from the slides, then find an image to reinforce that point. I prefer interesting and slightly unusual images – if people remember the image, they’re more likely to remember the point.

I think this is what sits behind using battledecks to reinforce learning. In that post, Ned mentions that feedback from students suggested he use more ‘funny’ clues – again, it’s those odd and unusual ones that get people hooked.

So I’m definitely going to be thinking more carefully about the images I choose for my presentations from now on. I need to make sure that they’re not too personal (Ketel One) or only memorable because you don’t understand them (shameful kangaroo). I’m aiming for the ‘alder leaves are round’ gold-standard of mems – catchy, almost universally accessible, and pretty much unforgettable.

I’ll leave you with a mem that could double as library marketing

el libro (book): books in libraries are free, bro!!!

*If you don’t know Achewood, you should totally clear some time to go read it. But maybe not at work. Start here.

Dear librarianship,

We began our affair back in the heady days of 2006, when I was a young and naive graduate trainee. You opened my eyes to the delights of information provision. I’ll never forget the buzz I got from our simplest activities together. Even adding titles to reading lists took on a magical glow. I woke up every morning with bluebirds blithely singing in my head. ‘I love libraries!’ I would think. ‘And they love me!’

We took our relationship to the next level, and I committed to library school. I was certain that I wanted to spend my whole life with you, that you were the one and only profession for me. I was filled with curiosity to find out more about you, to know everything there was to know, and with each new discovery my love grew.

My first professional post came in 2008, and I bustled around making it nice and cosy and comfortable, a place where we could be happy together. I carried on learning new things about you, and although we settled into a routine, there was always something exciting happening, something to make me think every so often ‘I love this profession!’

But, over time, things have become a little stale. Things don’t thrill me as they used to. You’re still a big, important part of my life, but something’s changed.

Librarianship, I’m cheating on you with writing.

I didn’t mean it to happen. Writing was my first love, but I thought it was just a childish crush, something that could never happen in the real world. Then we met again recently on the internet, and we just clicked.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, and I worry about my techniques. Am I being clumsy? Too clichéd? And will writing ever love me the way you do? But I just can’t help myself. I’m writing every day, and I could sing for the joy of it all.

I’ve tried to keep you apart. Librarianship fills my day, and writing my evenings. But I know one day you’ll collide, and I thought it was kinder to tell you now.

It’s not you, it’s me. And I would never have dared think of it without the opportunities and challenges you’ve given me. You’ve given me the strength to dream that this might be possible.

I’m not planning to commit to writing full-time. Probably never. But I felt it was only fair to let you know that you’re not number one in my heart right now. It might be a fleeting madness. I may come crawling back, looking for committee-posts to fill my fiction-less evenings. I hope that you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.

I’ll always be interested in what you’re doing, and I honestly wish you well. I hope we can still be friends.

And we’ll always have twitter.

XOXOXO, Bethan

I’ve just attended the University of Manchester Foundation Lecture, give by Clive Anderson:’is it time to have TV cameras in courts?’ (I’ll admit that my attendance was prompted more by the speaker than the subject). As expected, it was an interesting and amusing lecture, with Clive giving examples of how slow the English legal system is to adapt to change. Barristers, apparently, wear black as they are still in mourning for the death of Queen Anne. In 1714.

Clive mentioned the state of televisation in other countries, some memorable cases that have been televised, and mourned the missed opportunities of English cases past – alas, if you weren’t there in person, you’ll never get to see Jeffrey Archer squirming in the dock.

The crux of Clive’s argument was this: that what happens in a court room is a public matter, happening in a public place, and the public should be able to witness it. They should be able to see and hear the testimony, observe body language and hesitations, make up their own minds about veracity. And not just the current public – recordings of cases will allow future generations to study and observe. They would be invaluable for historians, for lawyers and students of the law, for anyone who is interested in the individual cases or the workings of the law as a whole. He mentioned the footage of the Nuremberg trials – considered non-too-important at the time, but now hugely valuable.

Questions from the audience mainly revolved around the ‘TV’ aspect. Would televising courts glamourise criminals? Would it further upset already nervous witnesses? Who would gain the advertising revenue? Would we see X-factor style ‘guilty or not?’ phone-ins? And how do you decide which cases are to be televised? How do you protect the vulnerable? One person mentioned that televising cases in New Zealand requires complex procedures that have to be agreed to by all participants before the trial begins, which can severely delay proceedings.

The question which the librarian/archivist in me was jumping up and down to ask (the actual me raised her hand politely and didn’t persist when passed over): what about the distinction between recording and broadcast? (The title of the lecture was specifically ‘TV cameras’, which indicates an emphasis on broadcast, but could have just been a shorthand for ‘video cameras’.) It’s not just broadcast that’s currently prohibited in English courts, but recording. Why not cut through the questions of which and who and how and who agrees, and just record them all?

Make recording cases the default. Give them all to The National Archives. Have them catalogued, tagged, and preserved. Keep them safe for future need, enquiry, or research. Make the recordings subject to the same data protection legislation as any other personal archive material. Then decide which (if any) are to be broadcast. If all parties agree, they can sign a data protection waiver, and Court TV, here we come.

If they don’t agree? Well, limited access could be granted on an individual basis – for instance, lawyers preparing appeals could be granted access to footage of the original trial. But the material would be there to access. We have the technology and the capacity to keep a recording of all trial proceedings – not a stenographers’s interpretation, not an artists’s impression drawn outside the court in swirly pastels, but an actual real copy of ‘this is what happened’. Won’t future generations be amazed we didn’t?

I know the ‘keep it all and decide what’s important later’ approach has archivists tearing their hair out. But storage is cheap, and loss of record, of information, of memory is potentially catastrophic. So I’m advocating for recording, for storing; for the rise of a breed of law/media librarian/archivists. We’re one of the professions that should really have a say in any decisions on this: we’re the ones who would preserve, who would allow/deny access, who would keep the recordings safe from tampering to ensure the camera doesn’t lie.

What do you say? Should we record them all, and let TNA sort them out?

When I spoke in Chicago, I suggested a reflective exercise – before you do anything, make a list of what you think/expect/hope to get out of it. Afterwards, make another list of what you did get out of it. Did you get what you wanted? If your after list was your before list – if you’d have known that you’d get these things – would you still have done it? And what was your unexpected learning?

Unexpected learning can be one of professional involvement’s great gifts. Here are some of the things I didn’t expect to learn in Chicago.

Success is what you make it

During conference, I did a book signing (of the New Professional’s Toolkit). Three people came.

How did you read that sentence? What tone of voice did you hear me using? Resigned, depressed, self-deprecating? I mean, three people? That’s not very many, is it?

Let’s try again:

During conference, I did a book signing (of the New Professional’s Toolkit). THREE PEOPLE CAME!!!!! #zomg #awesome #iloveyouguys

That’s what I hear in my head when I say it. I mean, three people! Three people not only bought my book – TO READ – but cared enough to come and get it signed! One of them said she’d been looking forward to the book coming out since she’d heard me mention it in a talk at the 2011 SLA Conference.

After she’d gone, I may have had a little cry.

Would it have been ace to have queues of eager fans stretching right around the hall? Well, maybe (or not – the store only had 10 copies). But I really couldn’t have felt better about it than I do. The triumph was just doing a book signing. ‘Be an author’ has been one of my ambitions for as long as I can remember, and it finally, really came home to me there, sat behind that table, that I’d done it (with a lot of help from my friends). I was published, and I didn’t give a damn how many people came to get their book signed – I’d already achieved more than I’d ever thought possible just by being there. I could have happily sat there for hours.

So, umm, yeah. That.

I hate being on panels

There. I’ve said it. I hate being on panels. I hate not being able to prepare what I’m going to say (oh, you can in a general way, but you can’t script – it’s hard to script in a way that fits the more informal discursive nature of a panel, and a pre-prepared script can’t take into account the ebb and flow of the discussion – oh, and you can guarantee someone else will nick your best points). I hate feeling like the dead weight, surrounded by supremely talented and eloquent people. I hate having to try to be intelligent, profound, and quotable off-the-cuff. I hate microphones.

But I’ll keep doing them if asked (and reassure myself that I can’t be that bad, if people keep asking me). Why? Because they’re fabulous preparation for job interviews. If you can get through a panel without facially betraying how much you’re mentally berating yourself for being a blazing idiot who has no idea when to shut up, then you’re standing yourself in good stead for facing an interview panel. If you can face 50 people and manage to come up with something (vaguely) coherent when asked about problem-solving, you can definitely do it with 5.

Admittedly, I’m not sure where ‘not accidentally strangling fellow panel members with a microphone cord’ fits into the interview scenario, but I’m sure it’s a valuable life skill.

Back yourself up

You know how you’ll be talking to someone while trying to sneak a look at their name badge, only to find out the lanyard’s twisted, and you can just see the blank back? And then you lose all chance of pretending you remembered their name from 2 years ago, and either have to admit defeat and ask or keep the conversation as non-commital as possible?

Well, take some of that burden off your fellow networkees:

back of my SLA Chicago badge

Ok, full disclosure:  I didn’t actually think of this until the last day of the conference, but I’ll definitely be doing it at conferences from now on!

Immersion is key

Simon Barron‘s third blog post about SLA Chicago deals well with the feeling of total immersion you get from SLA conferences – exacerbated for the non-US contingent by literally being in a foreign country. I’ve felt like that at every previous conference, but not this time. As my hotel room was the same price whether one or two of us were sleeping in it, my husband came out with me, in preparation for a post-conference holiday.

And… it didn’t really work. I’d warned him that he wouldn’t see much of me while conference was on, and I’d mentally blocked out ‘conference’ and ‘holiday’ – but still, that one outside attachment kept me from being completely enfolded in the SLA bubble. I felt like a bit of an outsider – sure,  I’ll come along to the open house, but only till 9 because I want to dash off for dinner…

It meant I found it hard to be entirely ‘professional Bethan’ – ‘holidaying Beth’ kept trying to creep in, and remind me that there was a world outside SLA. This might seem to be a good thing (for balance and whatnot), but it actually just made it harder to feel involved and to really feel in the conference vibe. I was disconnected from the tribe.

I don’t think I’d realised how much I relied on conference to catch up with my SLA posse until this year. Not only did I have the clash of interests, I also missed some good friends and colleagues who couldn’t be there, and I think my conference experience was definitely the poorer for it. (Not that I didn’t have a fab time with the people who *were* there, but you know…) So that’s made me more determined to get along to some more SLA Europe events in person. I really believe that one of the rewards for involvement in a professional association is contact with the brilliant people you meet and work with, and that you owe it to yourself to make the most of that – so that obviously means I’ve earned more drinks with the SLA Europe folks, and deserve to put some effort into cashing (gin-ing?) that in.

So would I still have gone to Chicago if these (along with realising I need to think more about learning outcomes and learning how to edit down a presentation on the fly) had been my projected learning outcomes? For personal development, definitely! But my ‘want to learn new skills’ nerve is still twitching, and I wish I’d put a bit more effort into making sure I scratched that itch, too.

Chicago! SLA Conference! How to encapsulate them? Well, I’ve been struggling to write this blog post, and my report for the John Campbell Trust (who kindly part-funded my trip). I thought I just wasn’t in writing mojo mode at the moment – then sat down and rattled off a post for the Archives Hub on XML and Excel. So what was the difference?  I had something concrete to share about how to actually do something. So I threw away my half-written reflectivey-rambles, and decided to concentrate on Things I Have Learned.


The first? That my focus at the moment is very much on learning and teaching. I like them. I came away from conference feeling a bit dissatisfied with the sessions I’d attended, and thinking that I hadn’t really learned anything. On reflection, this was untrue – I learned a lot, but rather than new skills or techniques, I learned things to tweak or enhance my existing skills and techniques. Still very valuable, but didn’t have as much as an impact on me as learning something totally new. I wanted to be able to walk away saying ‘hey, now I know how to…!’.

So that’s a good guide for me to choosing my future conferences, events, and conference sessions. If I’m craving concrete learning, then I’m not going to be satisfied with a speculative discussion panel, no matter how awesome it is. It sounds like SLA2013 is going to be more focussed on learning, too, which I think bodes well. One thing which was mentioned by fellow SLA Europe attendees Geraldine Clement-Stoneham and Sara Batts was the need for better session abstracts, telling you more about what kind of level the session would be at – is it a general introduction, or full of jargon for advanced practitioners? I do agree – I’d like to see learning outcomes mentioned in the abstract or description for each session.

This desire for learning is shaping what I want to teach, too. I want to share practical tips on how to actually do things. This might be why the blog’s been a bit sparse recently – I haven’t felt like I have any to share! But I need to remember that actually I do know how to do quite a lot of stuff, so maybe expect a few more ‘how-to’ style blog posts in the future. (or not – it could just be inherent laziness!)

This applies to my presenting, too. I’m not sure I want to talk any more about ‘the future of the profession’ – at least, not in generic and abstract terms. I want people to feel motivated and inspired, sure, but I also want them to go away with action points. One of the best pieces of feedback I got from my presentation in Chicago was someone telling me that they could actually go away and do the things I’d suggested – they were practical and implementable.

So if I’m going to demand learning outcomes from other people, I’m going to need to start using them myself. Not just for presentations, but for articles, blog posts, and maybe even tweets. I probably won’t be explicit about them, but it will be good for me to think about what people will get out of the work I’m doing. This should help make me more focussed and generally Do Better Stuff. [EDIT It occurs to me, slightly belatedly, that this exactly fits with the marketing principle of ‘benefits, not features’.]

You can’t prepare for the unexpected

As mentioned in my last post, I recently presented – on purpose – without a script. One of my reflections was:

Knowing I can deliver a presentation without a script and slides is a pretty good feeling – and who knows when I might have to do it again?

Well, I had to do it again! Sort-of, anyway. I’d been asked to deliver a 30 minute presentation on ‘How to parlay your SLA experience into a new job, a promotion – even your LinkedIn profile’, about how to make the most of your SLA experience, and demonstrate what you’ve got out of it. So I dutifully prepared a set of slides and a 25 minute script – only to discover (while sitting in the audience) that there had been a misunderstanding about timings, and the first speaker was speaking for 45 minutes, not 30.

As everyone knows, finishing a session late is one of the most heinous of conference sins. No matter how interesting or engaging you might be, you need to finish that session on time – one session running over can throw off people’s timetables for the while day. Time, at a conference, is a very valuable commodity!

So I found myself having to condense a 25 minute presentation into about 17 minutes – doesn’t sound like much of a drop, but it meant I had to lose about a third. And I had to lose it while still delivering the learning, the message and – importantly – the experience. How did I do it? (apart from ‘by being fuelled with panic’?)

1) Speed up – but don’t gabble. Good delivery is important to a presentation, and when you start learning to present you’re usually told to sloooooow it right down. Speak too fast, and people won’t take in what you’re saying – and they won’t enjoy the presentation experience, either. Building a rapport with your audience takes a bit of time. It takes pauses where you make eye contact and gauge people’s reactions. If you’re short on time, this is one of the things you can strip down. Speed up your talking a bit (if you’re tripping over words, you’ve speeded up too much), and reduce some of the pauses. Make eye contact while speaking – don’t wait for pauses. Don’t leave as much impact room. This will reduce the overall experience and impact of your presentation, but means you can cut off a couple of minutes without losing any content.

2) Measure once, cut twice. Think about topic and audience. Is there a whole section you can cut? Or do you need to cut little bits from each section? Thinking about what’s on your slides can be a good guide – if you thought it important enough to put on a slide, then it’s probably important enough to keep in. But if it’s on a slide then the audience can read it – so you don’t have to! I never agree with reading out slides, but I do quite often direct people to information on the slides. This experience made me realise that that’s a waste of time, too. If you put something on a slide, people will read it.* They don’t need to be told to read it. They probably don’t need to be told how it relates to your presentation (unless you’ve put up something totally obscure, like a slide that just says ‘48%’ – and even then, your audience will be able to make the leap between the question you’ve posed that requires a percentage for an answer and the figure on your slide. If they don’t they can ask you afterwards – once the clock has stopped ticking.)

I cut most of my material from the start of my presentation, mainly because I was panicking that I wouldn’t get to the end! This meant that by the time I was about two-thirds of the way through my content, I’d made up most of the time I needed, so I could ease back a bit and enjoy delivering the final section. But all through, I cut down on verbosity (it’s just possible that you may have noticed this as a tiny failing of mine). No-one was there for my deathless prose, and hopefully I’ll take that learning forward to future presentations.

This advice really comes down to: decide what your audience is there for. Are they there for the experience of hearing you speak? If so, cut down on your content, and give them the show they came for. If they’re there for your content, cut down on the show, and deliver as much of the learning as you can.

And remember – this post is panic recollected in tranquillity. I’m retro-advising based on what I think I did; or this post would have been a series of ‘Oh crap, 12 minutes. Well, I think I can cut that next example. And that paragraph can probably be condensed into a sentence. Oh crap, 11 minutes…’

Blog posts that go on too long can be just as rude as running-over at a conference session, so I’m going to follow the cool kids, and split my reflections into sections. Expect one or maybe two more blog posts on learning from the Chicago experience.

*Yes, I know this potentially creates problems for people with accessibility issues. I’d suggest that any information that is absolutely vital to your presentation be included in what you say – and if some of it needs to go on your slides too, then that’s ok. You could even consider making 2 slide decks: a more minimal one for accompanying the presentation, and a more explicit one for posting online afterwards.

Earlier this week, I presented at the very enjoyable SLA Europe event New Professionals and Marketing Your Library Service: Marketing Yourself, Marketing Your Service. It was lovely to present at an SLA Europe event, especially one up North! And a great chance to see old friends, and meet some new ones.

Ned Potter spoke (ably and interestingly as always) about marketing your service, and especially how new professionals can get involved. His presentation is available online, and well worth taking a look at. Laura Woods has also done a great Storify of the tweets from the event.

For once, I can’t point you to a copy of my slides, or my script. I went out on a creaky, precarious limb, and off the cuff. Yes, I improvised. I was sans script, sans slides, sans everything. And it was terrifying.

I knew that the venue was going to be quite informal, and so I wanted to do something a bit less formal than my traditional ‘script & powerpoint’ show. My colleague Lisa Jeskins suggested a method she’d successfully used in a training session, where she put keywords on coloured card, distributed them to the audience, and let them drive what she was going to talk about next.

As I had 9 points under three main headings, I decided that this could work well for me, too. So, a bit of font abuse later, I had lovely cards for people to wave at me. I knew pretty much what I wanted to say for each section – but ‘pretty much’ is still a big leap of faith from my usual approach, which has every last pause, umm and err scripted.

Pictured: shameless font abuse

I made it even more of a challenge for myself by not dictating in which order I’d take the points, or even the topics. I was totally at the mercy of the audience. If they held up ‘congruent’, and I had to talk for about 3 minutes on ‘being congruent’, no matter how well (or otherwise) that followed on from the point before, or resonated with the point after.

It was tough – not only not knowing exactly what I was going to say, but not knowing what order I’d be saying it in! Not being able to structure an argument that flowed from one point to another. Not being able to make a general point early on and then plan on referring back to it. Switching without warning from motive to medium to message and back again. It was also tough to get the timing right – not just coming in under the total time, but trying to give each point reasonably equal weighting within that time.

But tough is good. I’m getting quite practised at presentations, but they’re all the same sort sort of presentations – write a script, put together some pretty slides, practice, and deliver. That’s not to say I’m perfect at those kind of presentations (far from it!), but it’s good to try a new method, have a new challenge. Knowing I can deliver a presentation without a script and slides is a pretty good feeling – and who knows when I might have to do it again?

And I think it’s good for me to let go of control occasionally. I don’t just get worried by not knowing in advance what I’m going to say, but also by not knowing now what I did say. Oh, I can remember some of it, but a lot of it has passed into the sort of adrenaline-fuelled haze that has you waking up at 2am in a panic of ‘did I really say…?!?’. But that’s ok. No-one else there will remember every word I said, so why do I need to? I like to carefully plan my presentations so that every word counts, but no-one actually takes in every word you say. Listening is hard work! And some things will get missed – that’s natural. So why worry that not all of my sentences were beautifully crafted, my examples perfectly apt, or my metaphors understatedly elegant? It’s not a speech. It’s not going down in the history books. As long as people took away the main points I wanted to make, and enjoyed themselves, then that’s just fine.

And we made sure they got our main points! In a fit of pure genius (or pure evil, depending on which side of the mic you were on…) we introduced battledeck-summarising!

Taking its inspiration from battledecks, Ned and I each produced 18 slides with words and pictures illustrating our main points, and asked for two brave volunteers to come and fight it out!  Katie P. (@boundtounravel) and Laura Williams (@theatregrad) courageously stepped forward, and did a fab job! Laura summarised many of my points better than I’d said them in the first place, and proved she’d be an excellent ‘Catchphrase‘ contestant…

Here’s what Laura was faced with:

I hope Laura and Katie had as much fun doing the battledecks as we did watching them! It really rounded off a good, fun evening – and I’m glad I got in the spirit of things, and bared my scriptless soul.

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
Douglas Adams

Of all the many way I wish I could emulate Douglas Adams (everything except being dead), the one that’s occupying me most at the moment is this famous quote on deadlines.

It’s not that missing a deadline makes me panic. Thinking that I might miss a deadline makes me panic. Thinking about how much work I have to do to get things done before deadlines makes me panic. Missing a deadline? That’s a whole way beyond panic.

Despite now having set deadlines for other people, and knowing how arbitrary they can be, how there’s usually slippage built in, how missing them or having to extend them is usually not a problem in any way whatsoever (and certainly not worth the stress I put myself through), I still treat deadlines as gingerly as a hand-grenade with the pin held in by chewing-gum and hope.

It’s all part of the worrying tendency I’ve been trying to cure myself of, of ‘bending over backwards to let others walk all over me’. I will go out of my way to inconvenience myself before I inconvenience others. I’ll automatically give myself the worse end of the deal, and assume that your unhappiness or inconvenience outweighs mine. (I know this is not a healthy personality trait, and might be some kind of odd reverse egotism. I’m working on it…)

One of the things this leads to is me holding myself to higher standards than I hold others – which, of course, is just another way of saying that I assume that other people are less accommodating, less understanding than I am. If someone misses a deadline for me, or asks to extend it, do I get angry with them? Do I curse and moan? Do I instantly swear never, ever to work with this awful, unprofessional person again? Of course not. So why do I assume that that’s what people will do if I miss a deadline?

I’ve been feeling a bit down recently, a bit over-burdened, and have been worrying (again) that I don’t have time to enjoy what I’m doing. When I sent off the very final version of my book, all proofread and indexed, friends asked me ‘what will you do now, with all this free time?’. My gloomy answer: catch up on all the other work I neglected while I was working on book. I’ve been feeling so pressured to concentrate on my other commitments that I haven’t taken any time to celebrate my success, to sit back and reflect on what I’ve achieved.

But where is the pressure coming from? I know that if I just asked for an extension, just told someone that I’ve taken on too much and need a break, just managed to get down off my bloomin high-horse long enough to actually ask for help, people would be fine, and helpful, and supportive. Because we all know the feeling. We all know that life takes over, or you just need a break, and can’t do everything you’ve said you will. It doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you a normal, fallible, healthy person.

So this pressure I’m feeling is all from me. I feel like I think I’ve been riding a tiger, but really it’s just a painted carousel tiger, lent fierceness only by sheer momentum and my own over-active, over-anxious imagination.

I need to find the humility to admit that I can’t do it all, and the courage to ask for help. Most importantly, I need to remember: the tiger is only in my head.

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, Speak up for Libraries, and information on the value of libraries from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals

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.

While chatting to the team who have been redesigning the Copac website and UI (coming soon!), I came across Krug’s theory of the Reservoir of Goodwill. This is the idea that each person comes to the website with a certain amount of ‘goodwill’ (or patience) towards your website. Finding the information they need, easily, will fill up that reservoir. Not finding it, or encountering barriers to use, will deplete the reservoir. When it’s empty, they leave – no matter whether they’ve done what they came for or not. And that reservoir can be emptied surprisingly quickly! A single bad design or interaction element can ensure that.

This popped into mind when I encountered the following message while trying to buy bootlaces:

‘Invoice Address – Please do not enter your address as all lower case letters.’

I’m sorry, you think you’re worth capitals to me? You’re not. Lost sale.

And I’m sure they thought it to be a perfectly reasonable request. I can imagine the meeting going something like this:

Person 1: ‘Our invoicing system needs addresses to be correctly capitalised to work! What can we do?’
Person 2: ‘Maybe we could add a script in to toggle case where there’s lower-case at the start of a word?’
Person 3: ‘That sounds like far too much time and effort! Just tell the user not to enter their details all in lower-case. That’s not good grammar, anyway’.

I’m guessing that it’s some kind of system requirement, btw. There’s no indication of whether this is the case, or if the site’s just run by someone who has a moral objection to seeing addresses in lower case. There’s also no any indication of what will happen if I do enter my address in lower case. Will my order get cancelled? Will the poor postman run round in circles trying to find ‘manchester’? Or will the person at the other end just get a bit narky, cos now they have to tidy up my data? What’s the acceptable alternative? Does it have to be Sentence Case? WILL ALL CAPS DO?

I’m pretty sure that at no point did they consider that this requirement would lose them sales. But it emptied my reservoir of goodwill in one big floosh.

This got me wondering what invisible barriers we put in the way of our users – things that to us might seem, if not reasonable and logical, at least justifiable. But to users they might be that one last thing that drains away their last few drops of goodwill – and they might never come back.

One sprang to mind immediately. My mum recently admitted, in a resigned and weary tone, that she now knows her library card number off by heart, through having to enter it every time she downloads a library ebook to her phone. Her 14-digit library card number, that is. 14 digits! Now, it’s been quite some time since Maths A level, and statistics were never my strong point, but I believe 14 digits allows for 10^14 combinations. That’s 289,254,654,976 possible library card numbers. I know we say to be optimistic about usage, but really!

I wondered if this was a fluke, so I ran a very quick and dirty poll on twitter (which I’ve just discovered doesn’t have a results page I can share with you), so here’s a nice screenshot:
Results of as of 14:30, 5/3/12
Now, I know this isn’t very scientific, but it gives a quick snapshot. 91% of respondents have to enter their library card number to use at least some online services. For 90% of them, that’s 8 digits or more. For 50%, it’s 11 digits or more. That’s as long or longer as a mobile phone number. And remember – even the fact of having to authenticate can be a barrier to entry.

Now, I admit that this might not be the domain of the library itself. Authentication to use resources is something we usually don’t have any control over, and the method of authentication might not be under the library’s control either. But educational institutions have made good progress with single sign-on and federated access – isn’t it time we were asking our councils to do the same? I know I have 3 different logins that I have to use in various sections of the council website: for library services; for council tax; and for gym bookings. I’d love a single sign-on to access all of these.

But even if we know it’s not the fault of the library, the user doesn’t. To them it’s just another barrier, another number to remember. And while some won’t mind entering it, and some will mind entering it but will do it anyway, others might be turned away. Their reservoir of goodwill might be empty. They might have just lost their library card, and can’t remember the number. Either way, that’s a disappointed user, and one less notch on your monthly stats.

This is where user testing is so important. We can’t possible ever identify all of the barriers that someone might find to use of our sites and resources. It might be that they’re things that sound ridiculous to you (‘Objecting to entering their address in sentence case? Is this person a lunatic?!?’), but the site isn’t for you. It’s for your users.

So, over to you. What invisible barriers have you encountered? What ones might we be putting in people’s way? And what can we do to remove them?

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