Friday, 14 October 2011

Library Camp 2011 - Having your cake and eating it

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On Saturday 8 October I was lucky enough to attend Library Camp in Birmingham, the first "unconference" I had ever attended. An "unconference", takes advantage of the phenomenon that often it’s in the informal sessions and chance conversations at traditional conferences that the best dialogue happens and the right people come together, in the right place at the right time. As such, people just turned up to Library Camp, the brave pitched their ideas at the beginning and a number of sessions were arranged during the day.

Before going into details, I have to say that Library Camp is the best conference I have ever attended. Looking back this was for two reasons. Firstly, the informal atmosphere encouraged everyone to socialise and this made everyone more likely to express their views in the various sessions and workshops. Secondly, as the itinerary was decided on the day taking ideas from the floor, "campers" (delegates is far too formal a word to describe attendees) were able to both hold and attend sessions on topics of most interest to them.

The social aspect of Library Camp was truly fantastic. For many, it was the first opportunity they had to meet some of the familiar (or not so familiar!) faces they had met through Twitter. "Twitter Bingo" was played by most campers as they attempted to match avatars with their real life counterparts. Most of the campers wore badges with their Twitter usernames to be extra helpful. The convivial atmosphere had been set in motion the night before as Librarians and Shambarians from across the country were invited to tour the currently under construction Birmingham Library, enjoy a few pints at the Old Joint Stock Exchange and finish the night with a Curry at Milan's. Campers from Wales would also have been buoyed by our epic victory against Ireland in the Rugby. A constant companion to the friendly atmosphere was cake and hot drinks on demand. Librarians and Shambrians may differ on the relative merits of Gin and Beer but on cake, they stand united and the Library Campers didn't disappoint. The bounty of cake and sweet produce on display was approaching levels of decadency and I wasn't the only camper who woke up the next day with a sugar hangover!

The actual sessions arranged at the beginning of the event were as diverse as the campers - academic and subject librarians, public librarians, special collection managers, museum librarians, archivists and shambrarians all pitched their ideas with complete equality. There was a rather disappointing turn out from heads of service and management level but those that did attend made a fantastic contribution to the various discussions and debates. 

I personally attended sessions on "The Library as Social Space", "Using Library Data", "Open Source in Libraries" and "Gaming in Libraries".

The Library as Social Space

This session explored the interesting dichotomy between the concept of the social network and libraries as a social space. As aspects of socialising increasing become virtual, how do libraries respond to changing trends particularly as visitor numbers are decreasing.

This session perhaps highlighted the greatest differences between academic and public institutions. Though both can be considered to be concerned with improving access to knowledge and learning, public libraries have to be increasingly concerned with "footfall" in order to "justify" their existence. An obsession with numbers and statistics can potentially lead to the ludicrous scenario where libraries are forced tailor their services in an attempt to match their "expected" statistics. I believe that public librarians have a much more difficult task in this respect as their "customers" are far more diverse than their academic counterparts who at least have one thing (i.e. association with the University) in common. 

What we need to stop doing and
 what we need to start doing
The less diverse profile of academic library users also makes it easier to design the space in the library according to their needs. It was agreed that diverse study "environments" were essential in University life - long gone are the days of homogeneous desks and ubiquitous silence in favour of individual cubicles, quiet study areas, study pods for small groups, free-for-all study halls and library cafes. Public libraries may be able to provide similar environments in their main libraries (in addition to child friendly areas) but it is rare that a local library can offer such luxuries. The onus therefore falls on the local librarian to be accommodating and welcoming to all sections of the community that they serve and represent.

At the close of the session, we finally concurred that the social network and the library as a social space need not be mutually exclusive - most library services have a Facebook page and many are beginning to use Twitter. Engaging with users in the virtual world is likely increase the likelihood they will engage with us in the physical world.   

Using Library Data

Owen Stephens (@ostephens) used this workshop to highlight how poor libraries are at using data which belongs to them and which they often have to collate and publish anyway. 

More Cake
Owen began his pitch by outlining how he had built an application which told him how much money his family had saved by getting books out of his local library rather than buying them from Amazon. If it were universally available, using data like this would be an incredibly powerful tool for libraries and librarians. Amazon performs witchcraft with its purchasing data as it suggests things you might also like or e-mails you regarding special offers of interest. Imagine how efficient purchasing departments could become if were able to make use of circulation statistics or how intuitive reading lists could be if loan data was collated?

The final part of the session was dedicated to exploring some of the obstacles to such data utopia. The opening up of connectors and APIs is hot potato at the moment as are issues surrounding data protection. Owen expressed his exasperation with the fact that though many LMS companies suggest they operate "Open Interfaces", they're only open if you subscribe to or buy their products. This makes development of a pan-LMS solution almost impossible and his job as an independent consultant far more difficult. The emergence of standard for sharing circulation data is therefore desirable - perhaps this is an area where the Open Source LMS community could make a telling contribution.

I would love to be involved further in this discussion - whether or not I'll have the time is another matter altogether!

Open Source in Libraries

I went to this session to support Mark Hughes (@Mark_H_Swansea) and Meg Jones (@barbaragorden) who used the opportunity to field questions on the benefits and pitfalls of Open Source technology.

Whenever I have been part of this type of discussion, I always like to point out that using Open Source is never about saving money - it's about re-assigning resources - financial and personal. I've yet to come across an Open Source Library project which was primarily established to save money - their raison d'etre lies more often that not with the dissatisfaction they encounter with the proprietary products and services that they were originally forced to use. In this sense, they act as a real stimulus and competitor to the design processes of their proprietary counterparts.

Open All Hours
With Open Source, you invest locally (or perhaps with a supportive third party), develop your own team of professionals and set your own expectations. With a proprietary vendor, you invest in a company and expect them to deliver a service which matches your expectations. To my mind, investing locally is more desirable as you develop a physical infrastructure and staffing resource which you can continue to take advantage of in more diverse scenarios. Unfortunately, not all institutions have the financial resources to make this a reality. Sometimes you also have to admit that nothing in the Open Source world comes close to some proprietary products and services.

Gaming in Libraries

The final session of the day I attended was on the contested topic of "Gaming in Libraries". I have to admit, though I thoroughly enjoy gaming, I was a little sceptical of turning libraries into gaming hubs. With that said, thanks to Dave Patterson (@daveyp) and the enthusiasm of Richard Veevers (@richardveevers) and John Kirriemuir (@WordShore) I am now a convert.

First to be dispelled was the myth that gaming is "childish" - John has done a lot of research on the topic and the average age of a gamer in the USA is 34! We then discussed issues surrounding gaming violence and certification where one astute individual observed that by the time libraries had debating similar issues, the rest of society had moved on and accepted them.  

Richard's enthusiasm  for gaming was palpable and he was quick to demonstrate that libraries not only have an impressive suite of massively under used PCs (with regards to processing power), they also have ideal networking infrastructure. I suspect that public librarians may have one eye on their "footfall" figures when they consider gaming in their libraries too.

The final part of the session was reserved for exploring the value of gaming. As a popular recreation activity, many were prepared to accept gaming for its intrinsic value. For those who required greater justification for their inclusion into libraries, many were able to highlight the potential gaming held for education and service development. For example, Huddersfield University are about to launch Lemon Tree which turns a user's use of the library catalogue into a game which is hoped will encourage them to engage with their resources more fully. There was also talk of how games have been used to solve complex mathematical problems, help children with dyspraxia and dyslexia, rehabilitate patients recovering from serious accidents and augment creativity and the traditional curriculum.

Final Thoughts

Last Meal (No Cake)
Library Camp had enough intrinsic value for it to be considered a great success without looking into its potential fruits. The importance of the social aspect and the opportunity for like minded people to share their ideas, hope and fears cannot be overstated, particular in the current environment. With that said, there is a danger that Library Camp might not produce a legacy when it is essential that it does. It would be bordering on the criminal for so many talented people to gather and not begin to practice what they preached. I sincerely hope therefore that the enthusiasm is maintained and concrete progress is made in the form of new services, software and practices.

I came away from library camp full of ideas, new acquaintances and cake. I am already looking forward to next year but hope it's not so long before I meet some of the fantastic people I had the pleasure to encounter there.

PS - To my disappointment, there was no actual camping at library camp. Hopefully this can be rectified for next year!

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