Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Library Camp 2012 - Part 1

On Friday 12th October, I made the journey from Swansea to Birmingham for my third Library Camp at The Signing Tree Conference Centre in Birmingham [0] on Saturday 13 October. For the uninitiated, a Library Camp is an "unconference" style meeting which is free and attendee led with participants pitching ideas for sessions before the event begins.

The theory is that "the sum of the knowledge, experience and expertise of the people in the room is likely to be greater than that of those on the stage at traditional conferences." [1]

The event is accompanied by copious amounts of participant baked goodies and often sandwiched between several opportunities for socialising en-mass. Most attendees get to know about a Library Camp through Twitter so "Twitter Bingo" is a very popular past time between sessions. The game can be particularly difficult if avatars do not match physical realities - at my first event I spent two hours talking to a silver teapot in vain.

Session 1: What is a Library for?

Session Proposals (via @evarol)
In all three Library Camps have attended there has been a session related to the identity of libraries in modern Britain. I dutifully attend because there is often interesting debate and in this instance, there was  smidgen of controversy as the session was facilitated by Ben Taylor of  Red Quadrant, a consultancy company which has been used to "transform" (outsource) [7] public libraries. Once the somewhat hostile crowd's desire to offer up Ben as a sacrificial offering had abated, some interesting comments were made on libraries as an essential element of a democratic society, the role they play in breaking down barriers and prejudices and how we can convince the general public of their value. One commentator was even looking to open a private Tool Library with attached Pizzeria!

Sessions like these often encourage a degree of catharsis among participants who use the opportunity to vent their frustrations (with the added bonus of an "evil corporate punchbag" in attendance). Considering the situation most public librarians find themselves in, this is an understandable and perhaps quite necessary process. For me however, the session was very much one of deja vu. I have been in libraries for ten years and I have heard the same message preached at every library event I have attended. I have therefore resolved not to attend any in the future because I think I have squeezed every last pip of value I am going to get out of them. They will however continue to be essential forums for first time library camper.

Before I say farewell to I would like to make two observations. Firstly, we often talk about convincing the public that libraries have "value". Personally, I do not think this is possible. One can only decide if something has value to oneself from personal experience. Value is an  inherently subjective thing. Libraries would be better off if they decided what they do best,used modern marketing techniques to bring their services to the public attention and allowed individuals to decide if libraries had any value. As libraries have so much to offer, we should have nothing to be afraid of. Secondly, though I recognise that the future of libraries in the current climate is a political matter and think that our library advocates and campaigners are doing a wonderful job, I am uncomfortable with the potential politicisation of libraries. I believe that such a process could alienate many library borrowers and turn them into a party political pawn. Libraries don't belong to any particular aspect of the political spectrum, they transcend it. If certain sections of society or local councillors believe libraries have become irrelevant for modern Britain, it is because people who represented libraries became complaisant with their position within the establishment. (I'll try and put more of what I mean by that statement in a later blog post - hopefully before I get lynched)

Session 2 : Open Source Software

Like the first session, I often attend Open Source Software forums because most of the software I am responsible for is Open Source in nature. The session was chaired by @preater and @liz_jolly and in addition to defining Open Source Software and exploring the differences between OSS and proprietary models of procurement we discussed the cultural changes or cultural shift needed to develop and sustain the use of OSS in libraries, a typically risk-averse environment.

Proposed Sessions
It seems that having "Open Source Advocates" in positions of authority will be key to the process of culture change as the main catalyst for change within existing institutions is the presence of such an individual at a managerial level. I suggested that librarians who had qualified more recently might be more likely to be advocates for OSS, not because of age, but because OSS is trend which library courses might wish to reflect in their syllabus.

Of further interest was the proposal that some kind of framework was required to allow OSS and proprietary systems and support mechanisms to be compared so as to inform the tendering processes which accompany most contract changes. UK Core Specifications already exist for comparing OSS Library Management Systems with proprietary systems - the next logical step would be to produce an open specification which also compared support mechanisms.

Something which I hadn't previously considered was how the use of OSS might effect the culture of a workplace. If responsibility for OSS development remains "in house", a much greater emphasis is placed on local developers - time and money is invested in them rather than a proprietary company. The benefits and pitfalls of this approach are relative but it does have the potential to create a more community based focused to a service. We also  considered how such an approach might effect front-line staff who both consume and support these services.

More interesting points on this discussion have been made by Tattle Tape and Tea, particularly that "barriers to change... often came from the IT department". [2] IT professionals who use OSS enthusiastically at home seem less inclined to implement it in a work environment, largely because of the perceived lack of accountability if a service fails to operate. This doesn't necessarily mean that IT departments will need to take more risks to employ OSS. Perhaps it is more a case of having greater faith in their own abilities, particularly when it comes to designing and implementing recovery procedures and services.

It was interesting to hear about some libraries in Europe which were using Open Source Operating Systems on their public access PCs. Many libraries in the UK have an iMac public network but I have yet to hear of a Unix one despite the fact that many local government and university services (particularly internet sites) will be run by *nix servers.

@preater's recollection of proceedings can be seen on his blog which I heartily recommend as it includes useful definitions from the Free Software Foundation and a more in depth description of the current cultural perception regarding OSS. [3]

Public Engagement in Research and Special Collections

I attended this session because of my recent experience of collaborating with the National Library of Ireland & the National Library of Finland in designing an archives / collection module for VuFind [4] so that our archives could get some of their data to display in a publicly searchable catalogue.

Powering the World Exhibit [5]
I offered a brief synopsis on the project and described how our end product hoped to fuse traditional archival user interfaces with the power of modern search engines and faceting and heard how various archives and libraries are trying to publicise their special collections. Of particular interest was @scapner's Powering the World: Looking at Welsh Industry through Archives project which aims to catalogue and improve access to the outstanding uncatalogued business collections held in Welsh archive repositories. [5] An essential part of the project is a travelling exhibition which is being used to highlight its aims and showcase some of its materials. Archives and Special Collections may find it useful to set up similar touring exhibitions or simply exchange advertising with local libraries as a way of engaging a wider audience with their material.

The discussion then progressed to the differences between academic and public collections during which The Hive, a partnership between The University of Worcester and Worcester County Council, was mentioned. [6] In a nutshell, The Hive is a joint academic and public library which also houses archives and special collections. If it is successful in overcoming the inherent differences in academic and public provision (particularly with regards to licensing of resources like journals, ebooks etc and the potential need for distinct academic / public areas), I think may similar partnerships are likely to follow.

It is interesting to note that the catalogue search page for The Hive has three distinct options from three different systems - one for books, one for archives and one for archaeology reports - each with their own different interfaces. The integrated approach our VuFind module takes will hopefully eradicate our need for this whilst maintaining the option for a different "skin" for an archive only search if desired.

That's the end of part one of my Library Camp 2012 review. Part two will feature cake, analytics, widgets and web services.

[6] http://www.thehiveworcester.org 
[7] See the comment from Ben below - I think my mistake highlights the problem of relying on hearsay and not checking the facts oneself! 


  1. Hello! I’m the ‘sacrifical offering’ or ‘evil corporate punchbag’ :-) (fortunately I didn’t really feel that way during the session). I just want to correct an error where you say we’ve outsourced public libraries.

    Unlike some, I personally don’t believe that the private sector has no place at all in public services. And in each piece of work we look objectively (and with some healthy scepticism) at the options and help our clients come to the best decision for them. But as it happens, in the three and a bit years of RedQuadrant helping library services (and in the five years I was personally involved in such subjects before that), we’ve never actually recommended outsourcing a library service.

    By the way I really wholeheartedly endorse your next point: “Libraries would be better off if they decided what they do best, used modern marketing techniques to bring their services to the public attention and allowed individuals to decide if libraries had any value. As libraries have so much to offer, we should have nothing to be afraid of.” That’s very much what I believe.

    I also agree that “Libraries don't belong to any particular aspect of the political spectrum, they transcend it”. And while library campaigners, by and large, are doing an excellent job (e.g. see Voices for the Library for mostly very well-articulated and cogent, erm, ‘voices for the library’), I think the big risk is allowing the terms of debate to remain the same so the debate continues apparently between those who don’t want any change at all, and those who want change but perhaps don’t have a clear vision about what they want change to achieve. It often feels to me that we’re still stuck debating ‘what should libraries do’ and ‘why should we fund libraries vs other services’ when we should be debating ‘why libraries should be helped to do more of what they do’. That’s what I was trying to get the debate to focus on!

  2. Thanks for your footnote [7], very librarianly. I quite accept "transformation" remaining in quote marks - a heavily degraded term ;-)

  3. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for the comment and for highlighting my error. I've highlighted it in the original post.

    With regards to being "still stuck debating ‘what should libraries do’ and ‘why should we fund libraries vs other services’", I think it's a major Achilles Heel for libraries as institution and profession. I hope to put together another blog post on it at some point.