How I work

There's a meme going around at the moment, with people answering some set questions from Lifehacker about their working practice. Ruan Peat has blogged about this and was kind enough to put my name in the 'who would you like to see answer these questions?' bit (a rather clever idea which I'm going to file away for future advice on creating viral marketing campaigns) so just for Ruan - and anyone else who might be interested! - here are my answers. picture of some highlighter pens

Location: York Current gig: Academic Liaison Librarian / Trainer Current mobile device: iPhone Current computer: I don't even know. It's a PC, definitely. One word that best describes how you work: Inquisitively

What apps/software/tools can't you live without? Twitter is the only thing I couldn't live without - there are others like Evernote which I find very useful but whose utility I could probably get from elsewhere if pressed. That said I find myself all at sea when I can't use Outlook for email - it genuinely stresses me out.

What's your workspace like? It's always either very messy, or starting to get messy having just been tidied up. People assume I don't mind mess but actually I'd much rather it was organised. Everything about me is inherently disorganised, and it takes so much effort to triumph over that and be organised in my actual work, that my workspace is always likely to suffer... The one part of the idea of senior management that really appeals to me is having a lovely big office. I'd keep that tidy. Probably.

What's your best time-saving trick? I do almost nothing to the best of my ability. That sounds glib / annoying / unwise to state publicly, but it's true. Good enough is good enough! The search for perfection has cost many an information professional their contentment. I do a LOT of different things so while I try to do all of them well, I couldn't do as much if everything I did was as perfect as I could make it.

What's your favorite to-do list manager? Evernote - it's brilliant. Syncing between devices is the sort of vital functionality that makes me very grateful I wasn't born 10 years earlier; I really need this sort of tech.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without? iPad - I use it all the time, not least because I can't read my own handwriting. I use it to take notes, look things up, as a teaching aide in workshops. It's probably the most useful thing I've ever bought.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? Not accepting perceived wisdom. And by that I don't mean I'm some sort of maverick who never plays by the rules - I'm not that at all, often I test the perceived wisdom and it works just fine so I'll follow it. But sometimes things which have always been done just aren't as good as starting from scratch, so I think I'm good at teasing out meaningful innovation.

What are you currently reading? I've found it very difficult to read actual books since writing one of my own. I've become very unambitious - my ideal scenario would be to forget what happens in 10 or so of my favourite books and then re-read them...

What do you listen to while you work? I like this questions because what I listen to is vital to how I work. Where possible I won't listen to anything, because I want to be open and approachable to my colleagues in an open plan office - but if I'm either A) under real time-pressure or B) really struggling to work something out or C) have several annoying, scrappy, TRICKY things I have to get done, I'll plug my headphones into my phone and start listening. I have several Spotify playlists set-up for just these occasions, depending on my mood - the most often used one is a relaxing jazz-tinged one (lots of Madelaine Peyroux and Gretchen Parlato), followed by a proper jazz one (Avishai Cohen, Brad Mehldau), a Dance one (Photek, JoJo Mayer's Nerve, DJ Semtex) and a classical one (a whole load of Graham Fitkin, amongst other things). With these on I get an ENORMOUS amount done in a short space of time, it's amazing and I love it. A constant sound of music effectively means what I hear is balanced - as opposed to the quiet and loud unpredictability of office happenings, which jolt me out of my concentration - which means I stop hearing anything at all and focus completely on what I'm doing. It's odd because the music needs to be right for this to work, but I don't actually listen to the music as such, I'm only aware of it peridocally. It's a bit like driffting in and out of sleep with music on in the background. (Except, instead of being asleep, you've just OWNED your To-do list...)

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Very much an introvert, but most of the students and academics I interact with probably don't realise that.

What's your sleep routine like? Rubbish. I need lots, get little; I'm not that good at it unless sleeping conditions are perfect. In an ideal world I'd stay up till 1 in the morning and then wake naturally at about half-ten. I do not live in an ideal world.

Fill in the blank: I'd love to see ______ answer these same questions. Hmmm, Andy Priestner perhaps? I can't imagine he'd be a fan of doing so, though...

What's the best advice you've ever received? You see this question a lot, but the whole 'let me give you some advice' scenario seems to happen a lot more in movies than in real life, and I'm not sure I've been given that much. My Dad taught me, more by example and just chatting about it than him specifically trying to impart wisdom, not to worry too much about things I can't control. My guiding principle is that happiness is more important than success, which luckily everyone close to me also subscribes to.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? What I really enjoying, for some reason, is refining things. I like taking existing things (whether originally created by me or other people) and constantly making them better and better each time. It's great.

why the new BL e-books announcement is important

It seems to me an obvious but oddly under-invested-in truththat the nicer something is to engage with, the greater the number of people who will engage with it. e-Books have suffered perennially from under-engagement - in the academic library, we've scratched our heads as e-journal usage stats go off the chart, but people continue to reserve physical books and wait for them to come back from loan, rather than consult the e-book online. e-Books haven't traditionally been that nice to engage with. They often lack some of the utility of e-journals and simply don't work as well, plus they suffer from the way we take in information these days. e-Journals are perfect for power-browsing for certain targeted pieces of information, but books still seem like a greater undertaking that doesn't suit on-screen reading. Plus, e-books suffer from comparisons withthe real paper thing: people 'love the smell / feel / look' of books, and can be left cold by the somewhat impersonal e-book, with it's dark size 12 Arial font on a plain white screen.

We're only 5 weeks into 2010 and already some barriers to e-book usability, engageability, seem to be dropping like dominoes - the very barriers which prevent a full-scale embracing of the format. Preceded by the Kindle and Nook, which invested in the format and unshackled the reader from the computer screen, the iPad has launched with its iBook store. There have been an enormous number of articles comparing the relative merits of the platforms and I don't want to rehash them here: suffice to say, the Kindle is better for long bouts of reading (having electronic ink as opposed to a back-lit screen) but really the iPad is sexier in every other way. It costs much the same as a Kindle, you can enjoy the touch-screen page turning experience, and, in any case, you can download the Kindle app for it... e-Books have become more pleasant to engage with at a stroke. They look nicer (full colour, for a start), they are now tactile to a certain extent, and the iBook store looks really tidy. Little things, like the attractive looking virtual 'shelf' with colour renditions of your purchased books on, make a big difference. If Apple has proved anything, it is that they can take existing concepts and make them so much more engaging that they suddenly seem vital to own - remember, there were loads of MP3 players around before the iPodcame along and changed the method of engagement, creating a Hoover-with-vacuum-cleaners-like synonymity (is that a word?) with the medium.

Lots of people have argued that the iPad doesn't do all that it should do, that it is a let-down, the lack of multi-tasking limits it and so on. But this is the first iteration. It'll get better. Most people who've used one say they struggle to convey just how nice the things are to hold and to interact with, so once we've had a go we'll all want one. And by the time the all-improved second or third generation versions come out, they'll be irresistible - or if they are resistible, it's because an iPad inspired rival does the same job even better. So what if it doesn't have a camera? It will do eventually, and in the meantime it'll change the way we engage with content. Either way, it's all good news for e-books.

People are often polarised about new technology - either it's 'THE FUTURE IS HERE RIGHT NOW' or it's 'this will never catch on'. In reality, it is often a mixture of both. The iPad won't completely revolutionise the world, but it's the latest significant step in an ongoing process of change. I think it's probably a very significant step, because Apple traditionally find ways to make people engage withthe same old content in new and exciting ways that somehow render the old ones a little too dull to bother with.

So, how does this all relate to the BL's e-books announcement? The British Library have announced they are shortly to offer free e-books, of out-0f-copyright works, staring in the Spring. You can read more about it here. The way in which they are digitising is significant, for a number of reasons. The difference between the BL's new e-book scheme and many existing digitisation projects is that the BL is physically digitising its own original 18th and 19thcentury texts. So rather than a version of Pride & Prejudice that looks not entirely unlike this blog post does, it'll be scanned from the original copy, with all that implies - original typeface, original illustrations, perhaps even yellower paper... As mentioned above, I think a lot of people have a problem with e-books because they are nothing like the physical experience of reading a proper book. It's not a problem to anyone born this century - they'll happily read anything in on a screen because it is convenient, just in the same way that we accept the fact that MP3 is a rubbish file-format and doesn't sound as good as vinyl, because that too is convenient - but for the rest of us the legacy of the printed word is very powerful. So the BL's digitisation of the whole object, rather than just the contents of the object - their decision to reproduce the original book, rather than just gives us the words - is yet another step towards engaging the e-book sceptics. 2 months ago, your e-book choice consisted largely of reading Austen (or whatever) on a slightly dated looking big white device with keys on it, and no colour on the screen, and just the words of the original migrated to the new format. As of the Spring, you'll be able to read facsimiles of the original first edition in full colour on a device which costs much the same as the ugly white thing, looks and feels fantastic, and allows you to listen to music, surf the net, edit Word docs and watch TV when you're finished! That's a big change in a small amount of time - e-books have gone from rather grey and utilitarian to attractive and tactile. And I think that'll make a big change to the way people engage with them. Which is great!

This ties in with some of the issues we're thinking about with the LIFE-SHARE Project I'm working on. With digital preservation, it may not be enough to just preserve the content of something - when migrating format, we need to preserve everything about the object so it really can be a surrogate copy; the contents pages and appendices and printing notes and the type-set and the blank pages before and after the main body of the text, all that stuff. In years to come, I think people will thank the BL for faithfully reproducing the old books, and giving readers who like the new technology a more authentic reading experience...

- thewikiman