Sunday, 15 January 2012

Libraries@Cambridge Conference 2011 - the library users' perspective

I went to the afternoon session of the Libraries@Cambridge conference yesterday (and the lunch of course!) which was a thought-provoking set of short presentations by library users - academics, an undergraduate and a PhD student. Like Claire Sewell, I thought this was a brilliant idea, and wonder why this isn't done more often? Inviting library users to a library conference seems to make perfect sense.

I'd brought along my new tablet to take notes on and keep an eye on Twitter. This was the first time I'd tried taking 'proper' notes on it, and it worked very well. I was using Evernote which I fell in love with at Library Camp for how easy it made writing up my blog posts afterwards, so here's hoping this one will more or less write itself too!*

(Apologies if I've got anyone's name/job wrong, I didn't quite catch all of the introductions.)

First to speak was Anne Alexander, co-ordinator of the Digital Humanities Network. The network is funded by the University and brings together scholars from several disciplines, with a huge variety of research interests. 

The Digital Humanities Network promotes engagement between research projects and new digital tools. These tools are reconfiguring the relationship between experts and laypersons, and between users and editors. It was good to hear Anne recognising that libraries and librarians are playing a crucial role in debates about open access, the preservation of digital content, and the transformation of repositories and archives. However I was a bit disappointed not to hear a mention of user training and digital literacy, which I think a lot of libraries in Cambridge are doing rather well. 

Anne argued that the future of DH has to develop through dialogue, and that libraries will have to be at centre of this debate. The need for more dialogue between libraries and academics was a major theme of the afternoon, and Anne pointed out that before this can happen, academics and librarians may need to rethink their current impressions of each other. Anne ended by begging us not to think of her as just a library user, but as a partner and a collaborator.

Next was Mark MacGillivray, a PhD student from University of Edinburgh interested in open scholarship (he is involved in the JISC Open Bibliography project). 

Mark went to university in 1997 and saw the world wide web for the first time at the library. During his time at university he has used the library a great deal for the space to work, and for the internet, but has only borrowed a book about 4 times. He found that the best way to access information was online. Now that he is doing PhD he feels the same way but now has the internet at home so it is even easier. 

Mark argued that open access is the easiest way to do everything. If something is open access more people will know it exists. There are good reasons and bad reasons for this not happening, but a lot of effort is being put into into defining what constitutes "open" access, while all Mark wants is access.

The third speaker was Sylvia Christie, a 3rd year student at Homerton College, and I found her presentation the most useful and interesting of the afternoon. 

Thinking ahead to the future, Sylvia predicted that hardware issues will cause problems. Hardware costs money and still some students do not have laptops as they can't afford them. Kindles etc. are designed for reading for pleasure. There is no scholarly reading device. She moved onto the topic of 'Digital Natives', pointing out that most students are at the digital equivalent of "knowing how to make a cup of tea but they can't fix the kettle!" Digital literacy ironically needs face-to-face training to be fully effective. 

Sylvia emphasised the importance of having different spaces for differerent kinds of work (I believe one of the morning sessions was on the use of space in libraries). She pointed out that during her time at the conference she'd come across a lot of our somewhat strange terminology, which she was concerned may be increasing the divide between librarians and library users. Even using the word "user" is anonymising, and increasingly the person in question may be at the other end of a computer screen, increasing the sense of distance. Libraries should be about inclusion and promoting curiosity, there should not be a divide.

Then we heard from another academic, Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a lecturer in the English faculty and dirctor of the Centre for Material Texts. This is an interdisciplinary field, and includes everything from manuscripts to digital media. 

Jason started off by saying he thinks libraries in Cambridge do a terrific job (woot!). They are coming to serve as information hubs and are adjusting well to this role. Jason himself has found he is using libraries far more as a digital user. There are two side-effects of this, which I certainly can relate to: "digital greed" (just wanting more, faster, better!) and "digital anxiety" (do I know about everything I have access to?). It is a challenge for libraries to try and advertise everything they have on offer in response to digital anxiety.

Other problems exist too. There is no agreement on standards for digital stuff. Interfaces are rather clunky and painful, and Jason is often driven into the library to look at a physical text because of frustration with the online digitised version. 

However one advantage of the digitisation process seems to be that libraries are (re)discovering items in their collections, and "blowing the dust off" the items and their catalogue records. Jason requested that more copy-specific information be added to the records at this stage, owners, donors, bindings, early readers etc. Many College libraries' special collections are relatively unknown, but digitisation could allow them to be publicised more. Jason suggested that it would be good to have intellectual projects based around library collections, and integrate them with teaching. Academics, librarians and students could be working together to create materials for courses, taking down the "walls" between the different communities.

Finally we heard from Dr Rob Wallach, a Material Scientist from King's College. 

To prepare for his presentation, Rob had asked some of his students about libraries and the future. 1st and 2nd years were bewildered by the amount of choice and confused about how to access materials. They lack information literacy skills and struggle to sift through information brought back from a Google search.  This is perhaps because students are being taught very rigidly in secondary schools, to pass exams. Universities want independent learners and free thinkers, but how can we help students to make this transformation?  We need to teach students how to organise their searching and learn what is to be trusted. We need to change the way we teach, the way we expect students to use information, move assessments away from rote learning and repetition. Rob would put librarians on teaching and research committees, and encourage more discussion and partnerships, and a change of roles for everyone.

This was followed by a question from an audience member. Throughout the afternoon everyone has been in agreement that we need more discussion and librarians and academics need to work closely together, so what are the barriers to doing this? Rob repeated his earlier suggestion to get rid of library committtees, and combine into teaching and research committees. Mark added in that fear is major factor, everyone is unsure of what is the best thing to do, but we have to continue the discussions we are having.

I'm very glad that I got the chance to attend the conference for the afternoon. The session gave a lot of food for thought, and it was great to catch up with friends over lunch and over coffee afterwards. Many thanks to the Libraries@Cambridge team for doing a great job of organising the conference.

*I'm trying out putting bits in bold that I found most pertinent so that I can easily find them later. Looks a bit odd, may or may not do this again in future!


  1. Great summary of the afternoon session Annie. I hope that the tradition of inviting our users in continues long into the future. When I went to the Umbrella conference in the summmer someone at one of the sessions asked how to learn about social media when you don't have ready access to it. The answer was to 'borrow some teenagers to teach you' and I think this should happen more!

    I thought Sylvia Christie's presentation was really well thought out and she made a really interesting point with her tea and kettle story. Together with the other presenters she gave us a lot to think about and ways to improve communication in the future. I came away from the afternoon feeling a lot more positive than I thought I would after hearing from some users!

    For the record, I like the idea of putting some of the sentences in your blog post in bold. It helps to bring out the themes and makes it easier to get an overview of the post!

  2. Thanks Claire, I really enjoyed reading your post on the cataloguer's perspective of the conference.

    Perhaps the next step as far as bringing library users in goes would be to bring in people who don't use the library and ask what we can do for them?

  3. Excellent point. Maybe you should suggest that as a theme for next year? ;o)