A decade in Libraries: it's more fragmented now, but that's okay


10 years ago last month, I started my first job in the Information profession.

This is the New Horizons space probe, which launched in the same month as my own journey through librarianship (**HONKINGLY TRITE JOURNEY METAPHOR KLAXON**) trying to get to Pluto. It got there last year - my daughter was 2 that day and I deeply regretted not taking annual leave for her birthday. Other things that happened in my first month in this profession included Charlie Kennedy resigning from the Lib Dems and a whale swimming in the Thames. #AbsoluteScenes

This is the New Horizons space probe, which launched in the same month as my own journey through librarianship (**HONKINGLY TRITE JOURNEY METAPHOR KLAXON**) trying to get to Pluto. It got there last year - my daughter was 2 that day and I deeply regretted not taking annual leave for her birthday. Other things that happened in my first month in this profession included Charlie Kennedy resigning from the Lib Dems and a whale swimming in the Thames. #AbsoluteScenes

It was a Customer Services role at the University of Leeds: back then I was fine with the term 'customer' in a library context, actively pleased about it in fact, and right away my Dad began the process of helping me understand how wrong I was... I had no intention to stay in library work - it was a temporary measure, and I wasn't even first choice for the job: I'd been interviewed months earlier and was first reserve for if anything came up! But it turned out to be about a million times more interesting than I expected, so I stuck around. (There's more on my library roots here. Remember the Library Routes Project? That was great. The wiki has gone but you can still find people's blog posts about how they got into this profession.)

A lot has happened to the industry and the profession in the last 10 years (there are many fewer libraries open, for a start), and there are people who'd be much better at documenting it than me. One thing I think we can all agree on is that the profession has become much more fragmented. There are many groups and sub-groups and splinter groups, and we don't speak with one voice very often. This is undoubtedly sad, but it's also completely inevitable.

People tend to regress towards the mean, by which I mean most of us see what's normal and that at least influences our thinking. The great thing about social media and the connected world is that there are so MANY means, so many normals - everyone can find their tribe. (This, of course, has its downsides in the wider context - idiots and hateful people can find other idiots to legitimise their hate. But that's not what this post is about.) So if you have a set of views, and you find others who share them, then you can DEVELOP those views rather have your rough edges smoothed off and your rebellion derailed... So I don't think we can really bemoan our fragmented profession - in a way it should always have been like this, but people couldn't find each other so easily before. Views and voices were more homogenised than they are now. It's true it would be easier to get things done if we all felt the same and agreed on everything - but given that isn't going to happen, we can all make progress on a local level, making our services the best they can be, and contributing to our communities in meaningful ways.

Over the last 10 years I've fallen in and out of love with various library organisations, I've said and done some things I'm proud of and some I cringe when I remember, and I've had amazing experiences I could never have predicted. The constant through all this has been the people - librarians are, for the most part, a magnificent community to be a part of. We are supportive. We share things. We talk openly about failures so others can learn from them, and we don't closely guard our successes so others can benefit from them too. We build meaningful networks online and in person and help each other get things done.

Of course there are exceptions to this happy picture, but that's the case in any large group of people. The trick is to work out who needs to blend into the background noise, and who might be on to something useful that can change the way you think...

If you read this blog, or are / have been part of my Twitter network, or if I've chatted to you at conferences or via email, thank you for helping shape my views and experiences over the last 10 years.

Image by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Applied Physics Laboratory - "PEPSSI Instrument Tastes Pluto's Atmosphere" from the Applied Physics Laboratory New Horizons website., Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41340864


Where to start when planning talk or teaching session

This seems obvious, right? And yet so often it doesn't happen.

Venn diagram showing 'what you know' in one circle and 'what matters to your audience' in the other. Where they overlap is where your talk should be.

Venn diagram showing 'what you know' in one circle and 'what matters to your audience' in the other. Where they overlap is where your talk should be.

There are two main ways in which, when we give talks or run teaching sessions and workshops, we don't adhere to this principle. Clearly no one ever strays entirely into the blue circle (giving a talk about a subject which matters to your audience, but which you no absolutely nothing about, is pretty much impossible) but we can easily spend too much time in the orange circle where it doesn't overlap, or just not make the most of the overlapping section of the diagram.

NB: I very deliberately use the phrase 'what matters to your audience' above - rather than 'what interests them', because I'm not advocating taking a superficial approach and only telling your community about cool stuff they already care about. We can tell them things they don't know they need to know! Sometimes they wouldn't choose to hear it in advance, but they thank us afterwards. So it's very much what matters to them, whether they realise it before the session or not.

There's no excuse for telling an audience things which don't matter at all - unless it's a small part of your presentation, to serve a particular purpose.

Telling people everything we know

I don't wish to generalise but a lot of times Librarians give out too much information, particularly early on in a relationship between the institution and the user. Induction or Welcome talks often contain vast swathes of detail, or a talk at a conference will include ALL the info about a particular project - and often this can actually get in the way of the message. After a while the audience gets overwhelmed and starts to filter, or just switch off. We can only retain so much new information at one time.

So when crafting a talk or presentation, the starting point should not be 'What do I know about this subject?' but specifically what do the audience want to know about this subject, that I can tell them?

Missing out on the over-lap

There's a second, more subtle, factor here. The over-lap of what matters to your audience and what you know about can also include things which aren't part of your core message. In other words, you can establish your credibility with your audience by telling them things which matter to them, and THEN telling about the library's relevance to them - they're more inclined to take you seriously if you aren't just advocating for your own service or value. I use this a lot in infolit teaching - I'll tell the students about internet privacy, different search engines, how to use social media in an academic context etc, as well as telling them about what the library does and how to use databases effectively. Because it's in the overlap of the diagram above - I know about this stuff, and it matters to my audience. What's really interesting is when I started doing this *rather than just talking about the library) the feedback, both the scores and the qualitative feedback, went up hugely; they really liked the sessions. But when they're asked to rate the most useful part of the session, the vast majority mention the bits about the library!

As long as it doesn't conflict with our ethics and values, libraries can provide both services and expertise based on what our users need - it doesn't have to be a 'library' function in the traditional sense.

So: create presentations and teaching from the audience's point of view first, working back to what you know about what matters to them, rather than the other way around. It's only a small shift but it makes a huge difference.

New Zealand, professional nourishment, parenthood and opportunities


On Guy Fawkes Night I set off for New Zealand, where I pursued the most exciting opportunity of my professional life. It was AMAZING. But I also won't be doing it, or anything like it, again - for a very long time. Because it's a pretty selfish act, to go away for 8 days and leave your spouse and children to it, just because you get to do a cool thing. This post is partly unpacking that and partly writing about the fantastic experience of going to the LIANZA Conference.

Shed 6, where the conference took place, is on the left of this picture, near the crane. Amazing venue!

Shed 6, where the conference took place, is on the left of this picture, near the crane. Amazing venue!

(Email subscribers! There's a lot of pictures in this one. If they're not displaying view the original post online.)

Taking opportunities

I am by nature both overly cautious, and overly lazy. As it happens falling into librarianship has sorted both those things out for the most part. It's not that I'm 'cured' of them, just that they're both constantly superseded by circumstances. I care about my job and the profession enough to stop me being lazy or cautious most of the time.

But it's always there, in me. Often I secretly hope things I'm committed to will fall through. When I went to the LIASA Conference in Cape Town the travel didn't get sorted for ages, and I started to get genuinely hopeful the whole thing would be called off. But it got sorted, and I had an absolutely incredible experience. It's always the way. 

So when the chance came up to go to LIANZA in Wellington (thanks to my bad fonts...) I was conflicted - I really, really wanted to go, because a) it was such an honour - to do a Keynote at an international conference, and I feel incredibly fortunate to get that sort of opportunity in the first place b) it was in Wellington, which sounded like an amazing place, and c) because I didn't want to give in to the lazy and cautious part of me and not pursue an extraordinary opportunity. In the negative column was a) I'd have to be away from my family for at least a week, which would be hard for me and also for them - solo parenting = zero fun a lot of the time, and b) I'd have to spend time at the weekends preceding the conference writing the keynote, and prepping the workshop I was also going to do while I was over there, and c) the journey door to door is about 35 hours each way, which is not much fun.

The positive column won over the negative column. Fundamentally I didn't want to turn down the greatest professional opportunity I'd ever been given. I asked my wife if I could do this, and she said yes - but really, it's not that meaningful to have done that, because she's not the kind of person who's going to say 'no, you must stay with us'. But she was dreading it. It loomed large in the calendar for us as a family - something to get to the other side of unscathed. I was excited, but it felt like a selfish excitement.

#SHOUT15 itself

I felt quite odd during the conference because I found it incredibly difficult with what was happening at home (more on which below) to be away, but it was perhaps the most professionally nourishing thing I'd ever done. I LOVED it.

The conference was fantastic. It was very much a shared experience for librarianship in New Zealand. I felt this about LIASA for South Africa too - and missed not having that in the UK. We don't have a single conference that unites everyone, that everyone in the profession catches up at. It's a shame, because it's a great feeling to be among a community who share so much understanding.

The powhiri begins...

The powhiri begins...

We started with a powhiri - a Māori ritual ceremony of encounter. It's hard to describe - it involved all of us lining up inside the venue, and then entering as part of a sung call and response between our leader and those inside the building, which established we were friend rather than foe. Here we are all lined up, ready to go.

It was exciting! Everything about the opening to the event was vibrant - I genuinely feel for any New Zealanders coming to UK conferences because we can't promise anything quite as involving over here! 

The first keynote was from Sarah Houghton, who has achieved quite a high level of librarianship-celebrity with her Librarian in Black blog. She was talking about library ethics and privacy, and it was something I needed to hear. I believe in a notion of librarian ethics, but often on twitter it's assumed there's a universal set of values we all subscribe to. It's not really something that's ever come up, in my career, outside of the twitter and blogs discussions. I'm not sure staff are being told what our general values are, only those of the institutions they work in. (I may be wrong, but that's my experience of it.)

So to have Sarah lay out exactly what it means to be a librarian in terms of ethics and values, and to give several examples of not just what not to do but what we CAN do, was very valuable to me in shifting this whole conversation to a firmer footing in my head. Sarah's slides are here.

A picture Justin took to say hello to Jan Holmquist and Andromeda Yelton, our Buyalib partners

A picture Justin took to say hello to Jan Holmquist and Andromeda Yelton, our Buyalib partners

Justin and Ines Almeida

Justin and Ines Almeida

Then Justin Hoenke did his thing. I'll put a link to his keynote here when he uploads it, but you can watch the talk right away if you wish. I was unbelievably excited about meeting Justin, because we'd worked together before, but remotely, and it pleased both of us that we'd finally meet in so far-flung a location for someone from the US and someone from the UK... Amazingly it lived up to the hype, too - we spent a lot of time together and I absolutely loved it. I'm crap at being myself with people I've just met, but with Justin and with Ines from LIANZA I was able to do that right away, which is a rare and exciting thing for me that is so liberating it feels like flying.

Justin's talk was ace, and watching him deliver a talk in a very laid-back style made me, as someone who also tries to present as conversationally as possible, really excited about talking to this group of people. They were receptive and engaged and enthusiastic - perfect. I've never wanted to work in public libraries so much as when watching Justin talk: the difference he's made to his community both in his previous job and his current one is just amazing! It was inspiring.

Kim Tairi's slides were BEAUTIFUL and are online here - she uses her own drawings and I really like the style. Like all good slides they don't tell you the whole story, so you can watch her talk here. It was pretty amazing to hear Kim's talk because she seems like one of us, but she runs a library! She's in charge of a whole academic library! Justin and Kim are both (I think) somewhere around my age, and although I don't envy them being bosses I'm hugely admiring of their ability to do it. 

As I said in my talk, doing a keynote at an international conference felt like a big responsibility. I was as far away from my house as it's possible to get without coming back the other way, and although I didn't ask for a fee it still cost LIANZA a small fortune in plain tickets and hotels to get me there. I felt like my talk was positioned at the ideal time - Sarah and Justin had to open the thing, which is pressure; David Lankes had to close the thing, which is pressure; Kim had to speak first thing the night after the Gala Dinner, which is very tough indeed! My talk was 3 days in, and in the afternoon, and I felt really ready for it and happy with the slot. Usually I practice the first 10 minutes of a talk so I know how I'm going to start, and then allow things to flow from there - for this one I practiced the whole thing in full THREE times! I've watched it back and there's a few things I'd change, but it's basically a presentation that's as close to how I'd wanted it to go as it was possible to get. The people in the room were LOVELY: so supportive and responsive and engaged. It felt great. Thanks to everyone who tweeted such kind things, too.

If you're interested in the library marketing manifesto I presented, the slides and recording are elsewhere on the blog.

A picture of me presenting which I don't hate!

A picture of me presenting which I don't hate!

The audience being warmed up before my talk...

The audience being warmed up before my talk...

In the UK I normally cap workshops at 20 - this one had about 130! I think it sort of worked, although I should have trimmed it down a bit further

In the UK I normally cap workshops at 20 - this one had about 130! I think it sort of worked, although I should have trimmed it down a bit further

David Lankes started his talk by saying 'I'm glad I get to go last as I can correct Ned and Justin's keynotes...' which I liked. There were indeed things in David's (masterfully delivered) address which I disagree with, but I think people appreciated getting multiple perspectives. I certainly enjoyed the through-line of conversation between all the various talks - I quoted several of the other keynotes in mine and found them all to be valuable in shaping my thoughts. David has done a lot of big talks like this one, but it's still a new thing for me - he was very supportive, which I appreciated. We went to the amazing World War I exhibition at Te Papa and afterwards agreed that, in the grand scheme of things, the stuff we disagree about doesn't really matter...

Wellington is a fantastic place. I had no days there where the conference wasn't on, and there was always something in the programme I wanted to be at, so I only had the odd snatched moment to explore. I went up and down Cuba Street which was great, I ended up going to Te Papa, the national museum, twice because it was so amazing. On the first occasion I got there when it opened and headed straight for the top and worked my way down; everyone else did the opposite and it felt like I had the place to myself for about three quarters of an hour, which was magical.

The view from Te Pap's viewing platform. It is unbelievably windy up there!

The view from Te Pap's viewing platform. It is unbelievably windy up there!

Inside the amazing Te Papa

Inside the amazing Te Papa

On the Tuesday after the Gala Dinner we retired to a Korean Karaoke Bar (I never do this sort of thing....) but I was running a workshop the next morning so I left at 1am, long before the rest. I have absolutely no sense of direction, so it was with some excitement that I set out into the Wellington night to find my way back to the hotel. Normally I use Google Maps for EVERYTHING but with no foreign data plan I just wondered around until I found the coast, and then followed it back home. It was great, having the quayside to myself with ocean crashing away in the dark beside me.

Justin sings a song by Journey...

Justin sings a song by Journey...

Fireworks night on the waterfront

Fireworks night on the waterfront

I met so many great people at SHOUT15 - I don't want to list everyone in case I miss someone out but you know who you are! It was brilliant meeting people I've known for years via Twitter, and I made a lot of new friends too. This is what made it such a fantastic event for me.

LIANZA made everything very easy, too. From the moment Ines and I started emailing about going over there they've been kind and helpful. It's a great organisation. One day I'll be back!

Fatherhood and Career Stuff

I've been away from my family for a period of a few nights four times since my 5-year-old was born, all career related: the SLA Conference in America, LIASA in South Africa, doing some training in Australia, and now LIANZA. For the latter 3 of these, I was away for about 8 nights - essentially the shortest possible time without it being impossible to get anything meaningful done whilst there. The journey in each case was at least a day each way, so the time spent in each country was basically 5 days. Parenthood is more important to me than my career, so how can I justify this? In each case, it felt like a one-off opportunity, too good to miss. I wouldn't trade going to any of them - they've each felt hugely significant in my development, and my understanding of culture. But as of now, there won't be any more until at least the kids are a lot older, or they can come too. 

While I was away this time, they had a spectacularly unlucky time. Both of them ended up in hospital (the youngest in the middle of the night, the oldest rushed there from school in an ambulance), and my wife ended up missing work attending to and following up all of that drama. Other smaller things went wrong too and all in all it was just massively stressful - and I wasn't there. Because of what happened with our youngest last year (and her last treatment was only a couple of months ago so it's been a real war of attrition) there's a sort of residual stress-level to do with their health, which means relatively small problems feel like yet another thing to deal with. Everything feels bigger than it is. It was awful to be literally as far away from home as it's possible for someone in England to be - the guilt of voluntarily not being there came second to the horrible feeling of just not being able to help. I had anxiety dreams and trouble sleeping. I coped by not thinking about it as much as possible during the day, which felt like a betrayal in itself.

(I'm aware how #firstworldproblems this all sounds - but I didn't want to present a varnished version of this experience that made it all sound like perfection. It's important that we talk about this stuff and the feelings that surround it. Everyone has different circumstances around work/life balance, and I'm glad this post has sparked conversations around that in general rather than specifically doing talks abroad. The specifics are different for all of us but there are common issues. Lots of people have told me men don't talk about this stuff enough, too!)

So basically, no matter how cool the thing abroad, I can't do it anymore. For a while. Everyone else has to suffer while I swan off to another country and have fun. It's just not justifiable. The fact is I don't need to do it, I don't have to travel abroad for my job. I want to do it - if it were consequence free for my family that would be fine, but it isn't, so it's not.

Shout15 was an awesome, fantastic, magical way to duck out of long-haul foreign travel.

I can't believe you've read this far...

Thanks for getting to this bit, if you did. My overall feeling from LIANZA is that people are pretty great. We all need to look after each other.

A library marketing manifesto


I just delivered a keynote at the LIANZA Conference, #SHOUT15, in New Zealand. It outlines a Library Marketing Manifesto - an attempt to boil everything down into five things we must do to be heard and listened to above the clamour of modern life. I know some people are uncomfortable with the word marketing, but essentially this is all about communication between us and our communities.


1. We will be community orientated
2. We will do what people need, but market what they want
3. We will cater for library novices and for library experts
4. We will keep things simple
5. We will coordinate our marketing into campaigns

Here are the slides:

The talk was recorded. Although the video inevitably mortifies me a bit, I'm delighted to have a record of the whole thing because I was so excited to be there, and the audience were so fantastically receptive.

Watch the talk here.

And finally, here are some excellent tweets which help explain the slides a little more. (I'll write about the experience of actually being in New Zealand and the rest of the conference later on.) The embedded version doesn't cover the full thing - you can view that online here if you wish.

Using Prezi in the Academic Library


The zooming presentation tool Prezi is a very divisive alternative to PowerPoint. Prezi's 40 million users have created MANY bad presentations since it launched in 2009, and for that reason it has a bad rep in some circles - poorly made Prezis make the audience feel motion-sick, and even really well made Prezis are sometimes more about the tool and the presenter than they are about the content and the audience. Conversely some people LOVE it: "I just use Prezi for everything" is a phrase you hear sometimes, which personally I view as a mistake.

My own feelings on Prezi are somewhere in the middle - I don't use it for about 75% of the presentations I create, but I don't hate it either. It can be a really effective tool in the academic environment, and at my institution we've had students and staff love what we've done with it. The key is, use Prezi with a good reason. Otherwise, don't.

So here are some good uses for Prezi in the academic library:

1. Interactive Maps of the Library

My favourite use for Prezi is take something static, and make it dynamic. You can stretch any image as large as you want (as long as it's not a low-res image) and make it the background to your entire presentation, then add points of interaction with that image.

This is the main example from York - our interactive map of the library:

This serves two purposes. Firstly it sits online (and embedded in various places on our website and Libguides) for the students to interact with in their own time. The students appreciate this because the information about the library, of which there is a LOT, is arranged geographically. This level of context makes it easier to get to grips with. The non-linear qualities of Prezi mean that if, for example, the student wants to know what's on the second floor of the Fairhurst building, they just click on the second floor of the Fairhurst building. (Try it in the map above!) It goes straight there - rather than having to skip a bunch of slides or scroll through a bunch of text or sit through a video. Talking of video, I've embedded about 10 videos in this Prezi at appropriate points - anyone who's ever tried to embed videos in PowerPoint know what a thankless task that is... In Prezi you just copy and paste in the YouTube URL and it does the rest.

The second purpose is to use it in Induction talks. We create department-specific versions of it - these tend to be far less detailed than the full version above, covering less ground, but adding in more subject detail: the specific whereabouts of a department's books and journals, for example, or details of the Special Collections we have which are most relevant to them. Here's a History of Art example that I used this year with my Postgraduates.

As Prezi users will know, the order in which your presentation visits the various elements on the canvas is known as the 'Path'. It's easy to take things out of your path WITHOUT taking them out of your presentation - meaning you can deliver a talk for whatever time-slot you have, but when you give people the link the presentation afterwards they can see the full version with much more detail left in.

So for me, the ability to take a floor-plan PDF and make it interactive, the ability to contextualise our YouTube videos, and the ability to make copies of the map which we customise for each department and presentation length, are all good reasons to justify using Prezi.

If you want to take your own floor-plans and turn them into interactive maps, it's really not that complicated - I've written a guide to that here. Student feedback is great so it's worth doing - also, we often get academics giving us very good feedback and starting conversations about it, so it's a chance to boost our credibility in departments more generally.

2. Presentations with a focus on visual content

Another History of Art example here - the presentation I use for a session on Finding Images with my HoA 1st years. Because it's all about imagery, a very visual presentation makes sense. It also helps to make some of the tedious step-by-step instructions I have to cover slightly more engaging. I don't know why but I quite like the 70s wallpaper aesthetic of this Prezi template, too.

3. Presentations on several disparate subjects

The final reason I use Prezi is when covering lots of different topics or tools under one umbrella. When doing a presentation or teaching session on one topic or idea, the linear nature of PowerPoint suits this well. But when covering lots of things, it can be helpful to show the audience all of them at first, then visit each of them one by one. For a session for academics on online tools and technologies, there's not much linking the content except everything is online - for that the Prezi helps make sense of the broader context.

For most teaching and most presentations I find PowerPoint is fine - it's also much maligned of course, but when used well it can be very effective. For me it's never a case of tossing a coin as to which one to choose - unless there's a compelling reason to use Prezi, why risk the audience feeling sea-sick?

That said, when there IS a compelling reason to choose it, it make a huge difference to the level of engagement. People literally sit up in their seats and take notice. And if you always keep the audience in mind, and use Prezi to deliver your message effectively rather than show off, it will work.

In terms of accessibility, Prezi does provide a transcript of each presentation but I'm not sure that would be much of a recreation of actually watching the presentation, so we don't provide any information only in Prezi. In the Finding Images presentation above, for example, there's nothing in it which isn't also in the hand-out I give the students.

Here's a specific post on how NOT to make your audience feel sick, if you want more detail on that. If you've had successes or failures in using Prezi in academic libraries that you'd be willing to share, leave me a comment below.