the importance of greedily grabbing at transdisciplinary opportunities...

thewikiman enters the scholarly arena! Anyone who has read this blog a couple of times, or seen me talk at a CILIP event, will know I’m interested in the way we market ourselves. There are many strands to this – marketing our actual library and the service it provides, marketing librarians per se (a releated but distinct thing), marketing ourselves within our profession, and marketing ourselves AS Information Professionals, to the related disciplines and the wider world. ALL Information + Library Management Masters courses ought to have a marketing module to address these issues; insofar as I am aware, none of them do (I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, though).

One of the most exciting ways we can market ourselves to our wider community (be that an academic, public, health or law community – actually everything I’ve read on law librarian’s blogs suggests what I’m about to say wouldn’t work with legal types at all...) is to integrate the library or an aspect of the library with new projects which cross disciplines. If you hear about some new proposal and you think, there is a skill-set an Information Professional can bring to this / there’s a resource the library can bring to this, you need to march right up to whoever is in charge and start making things happen! If you can deliver what you promise, then you get a reputation beyond your own little sphere, and awareness of your institution grows in the community. Just by getting involved with something interesting and having fun, you’re doing a sort of double-whammy marketing exercise which benefits everyone, including the project you’re working with.

And of course, for all that people bang on about ‘pushing yourself outside your comfort zone’ etc, there’s actually a lot of truth in that; there are few better ways to learn new skills, than to put yourself in a situation which builds on your existing knowledge, but demands that you learn new stuff that your comfortable /normal job doesn’t teach you... And you can learn from the different kinds of people you don't normally work with, too.

As you’ll probably have guessed, I’m moved to write about this subject because I’m currently in the process of experiencing it myself. As I mentioned in December's Format is Dead blog-post, I attended an Away Day relating to the History of Print Culture towards the end of last year, at the Leeds Humanities Research Institute. This came about because a friend in the History Department, Rafe Hallett, mentioned an upcoming project (on Print Culture) which was a collaboration between 30 or so academics from different disciplines, who were looking for someone who had knowledge of print legacy and the digital revolution - specifically issues of preservation and so forth. This fitted in partly with my job of  the time, but more so with the LIFE-SHARE role I've just started this week.

Now I am a weird mix of confident and shy (actually, it's not all that weird, no need to page Dr. Freud - basically my Mum is shy and my Dad is confident, so I have elements of both...) so for example I had no nerves at all when presenting in front of 100 delegates at the New Professionals Conference, but when Rafe mentioned this away day, and the fact that he himself wasn't actually going to be there for most of it, my immediate thought was - I'm not sure if I want to go on an away day with a bunch of academics who I don't know, to talk about a subject I don't yet know that much about, with the only link between me and them (Rafe) absent for most of the day! I thought it could be awkward, or embarrassing, and that I might have nothing of value to offer. THEN I thought (and one of the great things about keeping a blog like this and being a 'reflective practitioner' etc is that you feel inclined to practice what you preach rather than taking the easy option) this is exactly the kind of thing I should be doing, both for myself and for my library. So I went along, and, as is pretty much always the case with stuff I worry about, it was fine - I had a lot to contribute in the end, and I learned loads too. (For example, while we're worrying about whether format migration is a viable means of preservation in the library, in the computing department they're working on automatic format migration! Items in a repository would, of their own accord, seek the best new file-formats to convert to, and do so automatically at a time when both their current and new formats were running simultaneously - rather than, say, waiting till PDF is dead and then casting about for whatever has superseded it. How freaking cool is that?!)

Anyhow, there are now plans afoot for all sorts of exciting things to do with the comparative history of print culture (seminar series, interdisciplinary MAs, and a Centre purpose built for study and conferences in this area), and of course the library should be involved with this. We have a fabulous collection of rare texts, we can be a venue for seminars, we can provide research tools, and I can bring my own developing knowledge of the digital / preservation side of things. I’ve ended up creating a wiki (living up to my nom-de-2.0, eh?) for those involved to discuss ideas, discovering that the bit of me that could have been an academic is still alive and well and is thrilled to be discussing seriously academic stuff again... and I’ve ended up on the bid committee, helping to put together the funding bid to try and get all this stuff off the ground. It’s all terrifically exciting of itself, and even if we don’t win funding I’ll have learned a lot and had a great time. But more importantly, my involvement has ensured that the Library is involved as an intellectual partner in the whole endeavour – I’m very comfortable with the fact that for the vast majority of the time, libraries are just there to serve the community. But when there are chances to work with it in collaboration, these should be taken (as shown by Buffy Hamilton’s post on her recent collaborative experiences). This is in fact the first time a non-academic name (ie mine) has been listed among the bidding partners on a document like ours – the people who deal with the bid weren’t sure about it, but we’ve pushed ahead anyway because it sums up the transdisciplinary nature of the whole thing. And that, for me, is really exciting.

So in summary, I was taken out of my comfort zone, but it’s worked out brilliantly, and helped raise the influence of my library already, so these opportunities should be grabbed at. I’m not sure it had even occurred to most of the academics involved that a library person could be part of it, but they all seem really supportive and pleased now it’s happened – even if it’s not a zone the library normally operates in, if you can see a chance to integrate your institution with something exciting, go for it!

-  thewikiman