A voyage of Discovery: life after #CityLIS

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It has been approximately nine months since I wrote my Student Experiences guest post for this blog. In that time, I have completed my dissertation, officially graduated, moved house and started a new job! And not just any job, but my first full-time, permanent library position.

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It’s all over – or is this just the beginning?

My new job is not too far away from the heartlands of #citylis, as it is based in the library of University College London. I work in the institutional repository team, who oversee the achievement of Green Open Access of UCL research outputs through their deposit in UCL Discovery, an extremely large resource with almost 28,000 full-text deposits made at the time of writing (and many more metadata-only records). As the availability of an Open Access version of a published journal article or conference proceedings paper—whether through the payment of an Article Processing Charge to achieve “Gold” OA, or through the deposit of the publication in a freely-accessible repository to achieve “Green” OA—is mandatory for their submission and evaluation under the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF 2020) used to determine the quantity of research grants given to British Higher Education Institutions, this is a field within academic library work which is rapidly growing in importance.

Open Access is a relatively recent development and is still the subject of many misunderstandings and misconceptions amongst academics and publishers (and even librarians who are more concerned with the “traditional” areas of the profession), but it is a topic that was covered extensively in City University’s Library Science course, through the Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society module. The knowledge that I gained through this course meant that I was already fully aware of the foundation stones of my current job—Open Access types, Creative Commons licences, versions of articles produced through the publication process, embargo periods, funding agency requirements and so forth. Although I already had some academic library experience when I applied for this job, this extra knowledge acquired through the course gave me what proved to be a decisive advantage.

More generally, although my student days already seem like a long time ago, I have extremely fond memories of my time at #citylis. I am still in contact with many of my coursemates; moreover, in the professional world, I am encountering fellow alumni on a regular basis. Looking to the future, the CILIP-accredited qualification and the varied library-related knowledge that I have acquired also give me great confidence when scanning higher-level library jobs. In concluding my previous blog post, I wrote that “all in all, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the course so far, and would recommend it without hesitation to anyone considering a career as a librarian or a similar information professional”: this opinion has not changed one iota!

This blog post was initially published as Focus on Alumni: Dominic Allington-Smith on his work with UCL Discovery on the #citylis news blog, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Serendipity and zine-making: dispatches from the Fun Palaces front line

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Over the weekend, I (and several other members of CityLIS) took part in two annual Fun Palaces events held in the Barbican Library and Clapham Library. The Fun Palaces initiative aims to, in the words of its organisers, facilitate “free, welcoming annual events combining arts and sciences, made for and with local people”. As such, it represents a wonderful opportunity for public libraries to promote themselves as community centres by hosting these events, within the ongoing repurposing of the institution itself as a dynamic social space for activities, collaboration and engagement, rather than merely a repository of physical items. This is particularly important in this country right now due to the current government’s continuing policy of austerity, which is threatening the effectiveness, and even the future, of many public libraries.

City University London was involved in organising two events this year, both of which were guided by professional public events creator Matt Finch. The first, which I helped out with during the morning at the Barbican, was a guide to serendipity in the library run by Stephann Makri, who specialises in Human-Computer Interaction; the second, held in Clapham and to which I defected after lunch, was a zine-making workshop led by the already oft-mentioned Ernesto Priego, whose research interests include the relevant areas comics and publishing.

Dr Makri’s research into serendipity is rooted in the age-old library (amongst others…) problem of how to effectively retrieve information. He and other academics have noted that library users often find information serendipitously—by chance, with a positive outcome—due to the simple fact that it exists in a physical form and must be laid out in a physical space. This means that a person looking for a specific book will see other books whilst navigating the library shelves, and will be able to form connections easily between them and their initial area of interest. By contrast, electronic information retrieval relies on ever more-precise algorithms to return only the most specific results; the overwhelmingly vast majority of electronic, online documents remaining invisible unless specifically searched for, hence reducing the possibility for serendipity.

The serendipity event involved Dr Makri giving a short presentation on the subject to the participants (as with all the Fun Palaces events, willing members of the public who were visiting the library), followed by a practical exercise in utilising various “serendipity strategies” to find new and interesting books on the library shelves. The subjects carried this out with aplomb, finding books that interested them in new areas of the library that they had not previously thought to explore, and also contributing their own techniques which they already used to encourage serendipity (even if they were previously unaware of it as a subject of serious academic research) to the project’s bank of data.

The second workshop, in Clapham, was completely different but no less related to issues affecting libraries. Under the leadership of Dr Priego, we encouraged children to make their own “zines” (short for fanzines)—a self-made publication collated from repurposed texts and images on a subject of the creator’s interest. To facilitate this, we provided a stack of recent newspapers to cut up and reassemble, in addition to access to the Internet, from which further items of interest could be printed. The finished zines were then photocopied using library facilities to encourage further dissemination.

The subjects of the zines made by the participating children included Chelsea F.C., information technology and luxury houses. The CityLIS people helping to run the event also made their own examples; mine was on the subject of cars and motorsport (above). The experience reminded me not only of my own childhood of undertaking similar projects, but more generally of a time before ubiquitous access to and use of the Web, when the creation and exchange of fan-made content had to be carried out without the benefit of computer programmes or social networks.

All in all, the Fun Palaces events made for an interesting and rewarding Saturday. After a year spent studying the theories, technologies and issues surrounding library science in a classroom environment, and working in an academic library, it was particularly beneficial for me to spend the day experiencing life in two public libraries, and how the subjects we have studied can have considerable practical significance in the real world.

Visiting the Mundaneum

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Last weekend, I afforded myself some relief from the arduous processes of dissertation-writing and job-hunting with a short trip into deepest Wallonia.  The pleasant Belgian town of Mons, a European Capital of Culture this year, is host to a number of museums, galleries and historic buildings, including the Mundaneum—the remains of Paul Otlet’s utopian project to create a world city underpinned by the free and direct access to, and dissemination of, information presented in a museum that showcases his life’s work. Although this visit was not strictly necessary to support my dissertation, as the resources that I require are all available either online or through the British Library, it was nevertheless fascinating to see original copies of many of Otlet’s explanatory posters and graphics, and of course numerous sections of the Répertoire bibliographique universel—Otlet’s enormous card-catalogue index of bibliographic references. I also had some productive discussions on a number of subjects with three like-minded individuals who were also visiting the museum.

The Mundaneum's central atrium; the universality of the project is indicated by the prominent globe.

The Mundaneum’s central atrium; the universality of the project is indicated by the prominent globe.

The Mundaneum’s exhibits are spread across three floors, illuminated just to the level of hushed reverence. The displays consist of sections of the catalogue and selections of Otlet’s drawings on various subjects (which are also available online through the Google Cultural Institute; Google operates one of its data centres nearby), not just limited to library and information science, but also including works on network theory, the nature of international associations, pacifism, and utopian visions of his never-realised World City.

A large section of the Répertoire bibliographique universel.

A large section of the Répertoire bibliographique universel.

Perhaps surprisingly, each individual drawer can be opened to reveal its original contents.

Perhaps surprisingly, each individual drawer can be opened to reveal its original contents.

Sections of the RBU are juxtaposed with examples of Otlet's graphical output.

Sections of the RBU are juxtaposed with examples of Otlet’s graphical output.

Of particular interest to my research into predictions of future information technology was a full-scale realisation of Otlet’s Mondothèque, an analogue anticipation of the digital desktop computer.

Otlet's original drawing is framed above the modern construction.

Otlet’s original drawing is framed above the modern construction.

Otlet’s work is also placed in its historical context by the display of previous attempts to organise human knowledge—some of which I referred to in this previous blog post on the history of encyclopaedias—in addition to a timeline that charts advances in statistics and abstract forms of data visualisation, as people have sort to record knowledge in ever-more accurate, intuitive ways.

The museum’s exhibits, furthermore, extend beyond Otlet’s lifetime, and include a plethora of examples of subsequent data visualisation enabled by the development of computer network technology in the form of the Internet—arguably the modern realisation of Otlet’s dreams. These later displays include visualisations on serious subjects such as global inequality and climate change, but also art inspired by data visualisation. I was particularly taken by this French-produced music video for the song “Remind Me” (2002) by the Norwegian group Röyksopp, which breaks down the events of a single person’s normal working day into its constituent quantitative data through a unrelenting procession of infographics:

Another information-inspired artwork demonstrates the exponential growth in digital information that has been caused by the development and increasing global ubiquity of the Internet. The (practically invisible) black grain in the centre of the white square of this exhibit represents the total amount of digital information produced by humanity from its beginnings to the year 2003. The white square itself extends that time period to 2014, and the larger black square is a prediction of the continued rapid expansion of digital information production that will continue up to 2020:

Can you see the central black grain?

Can you see the central black grain?

This exhibit reminded me greatly of scale models of the Solar System, and in my experience the vast emptiness of space is as similarly difficult to comprehend as the current information explosion, which philosopher of information Luciano Floridi has characterised as “The Fourth Revolution“, comparable to the advances in human understanding achieved by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud.

All in all, the Mundaneum was an extremely interesting place to visit, and I would thoroughly recommend a trip to Mons to anyone interested in the subject.

Paul Otlet lives on, almost literally, through his work and writings.

Paul Otlet lives on, almost literally, through his work and writings.

...as does his close friend and long-term collaborator, Henri La Fontaine.

…as does his close friend and long-term collaborator, Henri La Fontaine.

#citymash: a report on a library and technology unconference at City University London

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Yesterday I attended the inaugural #citymash, a “Mashed Library unconference event” on various issues associated with libraries and technology at City University London. The event took place over a full day, with five slots featuring a choice of lectures, demonstrations and discussion sessions. I enjoyed the day immensely, and I feel that I gained new knowledge from each session that I attended. Perhaps what was most impressive was that some of them were led by my Library or Information Science coursemates, in addition to research students, academics and professional librarians. What follows is a brief review of each of the sessions that I attended.


UX for the WIN! (Andrew Preater and Karine Larose) Andrew and Karine, who both work at Imperial College London, gave a presentation on an ongoing project to improve the user experience (UX) of their library’s Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC).  Imperial uses Primo, a widely-adopted discovery tool produced by Ex Libris, a company that specialises in library technology.  For this project, they conducted interviews of a sample of Imperial students, and used the principles of grounded theory to undertake open coding of the transcipts (supported by video recordings and screen captures of user interaction with the catalogue), in order to identify underlying and pertinent themes. The results of the research have indicated (unsurprisingly) that students prefer a library catalogue searching experience that is as quick and as “painless” (for example, that typographical errors are recognised and corrected, instead of returning no results) as possible, and that users prioritise information when selecting results from a multitude of options. The library team at Imperial are therefore redeveloping their OPAC over the summer to include an auto-complete function within the search bar, and to simplify its overall presentation. In the second half of the session, we were given the opportunity to put what we had been told into practice ourselves by listening to two of the student interviews and attempting our own open coding of their responses.  For me, what emerged was that although the two students selected were extremely different in many ways in terms of an overall search strategy, their underlying information needs remained the same, and accommodating a wide range of user preferences whilst retaining a simple, elegant front-end design must be a major challenge for any systems librarian.

Further resources:


Using Markdown and plain text (Daniel van Strien) For the second session of the event, my coursemate Daniel van Strien gave a presentation on text file formats—proprietary, plain and FOSS (free and open-source software). In day-to-day life, most people (including librarians) will probably use a proprietary file type such as a Microsoft Word document (doc) for word processing and text entry. The problem with these is that they are heavily encoded, and that the nature of the encoding tends to be altered with each new release of Microsoft Office, giving rise to the unwelcome situation whereby a old Word file that has not been opened for many years will become unopenable, as the encoding used to display it correctly rapidly becomes incompatible with later versions of the same programme. This problem can be avoided using plain text within an application such as Notepad, but then the text cannot be formatted at all, making it unsuitable for all but the most basic of uses. Forms of text encoding which are directly visible to the user, such as HTML and LaTeX, are more open to advanced typesetting and formatting, but are often too complicated for quick, general use. Daniel argued that we need documents that are sustainable, portable, translatable, human-readable, and gives the user version control, before presenting Markdown, developed by John Gruber with assistance from Aaron Swartz, as a potential solution. Markdown is a syntax for formatting plain text and also a software tool that automatically converts the formatted plain text into HTML, as the Dillinger Markdown online editor demonstrates. It is relatively simple to learn, yet allows for a range of formatting and typesetting options. When combined with a powerful conversion tool such as Pandoc, this allows the Markdown text file to be automatically converted into a huge variety of formats, including doc, pdf, epub, and LaTeX, potentially saving the time of people such as academic journal editors, who often receive submitted articles in one format and have to convert them manually into another. This session was particularly interesting to me as it highlighted a potential area of technical librarianship of which I was previously unaware. Further resources:


What about the Future? (James Atkinson) My third session of the day saw James Atkinson, another coursemate (and colleague at City University’s library), deliver a presentation on the futurology of the book and of libraries in general. As he covered such topics as Paul Otlet and the Memex, I even had a slight feeling of déjà-vu! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSyfZkVgasI Aside from a slightly different perspective on some familiar topics, James also went further back in time to discuss “The Victorian Walkman”, sharing a number of contemporary suggestions (many of them quite humorous) for what the recently-invented phonograph would be used for in the far-off days of the twentieth century. Going back further still, it is worth remembering that the book itself (codex) was also once a new technology that replaced the previous scroll format. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ For me, the highlight of the session was our division into groups to discuss our own thoughts on what could happen to libraries and information provision in the future. This produced a variety of stimulating responses, although many of them did tend towards the stranger areas of dystopian science-fiction! https://twitter.com/rddave/status/609722231812411392


Open-source implementation (Simon Barron) My choice for fourth session of the day was hosted by Simon Barron, an Analyst Programmer for the SOAS Library, which has recently made waves in the LIS world by becoming only the third university in the world (and the first in the United Kingdom) to implement an open-source Library Management System (LMS): Kuali OLE (Open Library Environment). He gave a detailed overview of how the system had been implemented, followed by the adrenaline-fuelled thrill of a live demo (as he joked on a number of occasions, “what could possibly go wrong?”). As the appearance system’s front-end OPAC implies, Kuali OLE has the same functionality as any proprietary LMS, but without the cost. Simon made the point, however, that choosing an open-source system was not due to cost savings, as the money saved was reinvested in hiring highly-skilled IT staff who could implement it well. I must admit that, with my arts and humanities background, most of the technical material in this session went over my head, but it was interesting to see the back-end of a LMS, going beyond the parts which I normally have access to as a library employee.


NSFW: Fanworks in the library (Ludi Price) My #citymash experience ended with a talk by City University PhD student, Ludi Price, on the information behaviour of fan communities, and how the lessons learned from researching these communities could influence library practices. She showed us fan-fiction websites such as Archive of Our Own to indicate that the dedicated fans of books, films, TV shows, games and so on who write their own creative works in the “universe” of the original are extremely organised, using highly granular levels of category to create a folksonomy—a collaborative creation and maintenance of tags to categorise content. Moreover, repositories of fan fiction habitually display statistics indicating how many times a particular work has been read, downloaded, voted on etc.—the equivalent of a library catalogue publicly displaying its circulation statistics for each item, and allowing users to rate and comment on every bibliographic record. Indeed, many public libraries now feature ratings, recommendations and reviews in their own catalogue records, and the “world’s largest book club”, LibraryThing is a social media platform based on the same principles.


As should be clear from these summaries, the sessions were diverse in nature, covering technical, historical, social and conceptual themes. The other sessions that took place during the event were as follows:

Anticipating the dissertation: an introduction to my research project

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Now that the taught part of my MSc in Library Science is complete (final grades permitting), there is nothing between me and the qualification save for the small matter of the dissertation—an extended piece of original research, ideally spanning between 15,000 and 20,000 words. Looking through the course’s repository of past projects (and that of the sister MSc in Information Science) has been an enjoyable and illuminating experience, with extreme diversity in evidence. Previous studies—and the ideas that I have discussed with my current coursemates—cover every conceivable aspect of the subject, from explorations of the theory of information itself, information provision in certain periods and locations in history, the social and political roles of libraries in modern society, through to practical studies into a particular aspect of the contemporary library service. (Literally as I have been writing this blog post, David Bawden, who oversees the dissertations, has helpfully provided a fuller list of examples, including my own!) I have decided upon my topic by the simple expedient of expanding upon the aspect of the course which I have enjoyed the most (in an effort to keep myself sane until the hand-in time of late September!): the predictions of future library and information service technologies made by pioneering figures in the profession’s past, an interest which was first sparked by reading Charles Ammi Cutter’s essay, The Buffalo Public Library in 1983 during the year before I embarked upon the course.

After initially thinking about an extremely wide-ranging project, including aspects such as science fiction and popular perceptions of libraries, I came across the article The Future of the Web is 100 Years Old by Alex Wright, author of a recent biography of Paul Otlet, the Belgian documentalist and bibliographer who is probably best-known for devising the Universal Decimal Classification system, which contrasted how the ideas of Otlet and Vannevar Bush, the American computer engineer and scientific administrator, famous for his seminal essay As We May Think, have influenced the development of the modern Internet. Searching the literature, I discovered a sizable (but not overwhelming!) body of research that has been conducted into the work of these two men—and also that of the writer and political activist, H.G. Wells—and how their predictions of future information technology, featuring many extremely perceptive and accurate observations, can collectively be defined as a sort of “proto-” or “analogue” Internet, and have experienced something of a revival of late as the Digital Internet itself has become ubiquitous over the last twenty years, and perhaps also because of the contemporaneous development of the steampunk genre in literature.

A current revival of interest in historic ICT predictions may be symptomatic of a wider fascination with the

A current revival of interest in historic ICT predictions may be symptomatic of a wider fascination with the “steampunk” genre, which habitually blends the contemporary with the antiquated.

The working title of my dissertation is therefore “Anticipating the Internet: how the predictions of Paul Otlet, H.G. Wells and Vannevar Bush have shaped the Digital Information Age”.


Paul Otlet

A happy Paul Otlet doing what he did best.

A happy Paul Otlet doing what he did best.

Paul Otlet (1868–1944) was a Belgian visionary who believed that controlled, standardised bibliography was the key to the advancement of human knowledge. His drawing below illustrates his theory of knowledge: facts and observances about the universe are parsed through human brains to create academic disciplines and fields of study which are then codified in books and other written information sources, ultimately forming a library of information.

Paul Otlet's conceptual model of how human knowledge is recorded.  The universal catalogue transcends the limitations of individual books and other physical

Paul Otlet’s conceptual model of how human knowledge is recorded. The universal catalogue transcends the limitations of individual books and other physical “carriers” of information.

However, the book itself as a repository or “carrier” of information is only as effective as the bibliographic tools that are used to locate the information therein: hence the additional stages of creating a bibliographic index and control, a universal encyclopedia (based on a card-catalogue index), and a classification system (UDC) to organise and map the knowledge produced in this way.

A section of the Mundaneum—Otlet's Universal Bibliography Repository based on the catalogue-card index format.

A section of the Mundaneum—Otlet’s Universal Bibliographic Repertory based on the catalogue-card index format. Otlet’s efforts produced over 12 million of these index cards and other documents during his lifetime

Otlet’s goal of building a fully-functional Mundaneum transcended the “mere” creation of a comprehensive world encyclopaedia, however, and extended towards creating a new “World City” with a complex of libraries and museums at its heart, all of which would be disseminated by networked technology created by the development and synthesis of then-current technology, and facilitated through the efforts of international organisations such as Otlet’s own International Institute of Bibliography (IIB)—now The International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID)—sadly stymied in turn by the successive outbreaks of two World Wars and the associated tension in between, which destroyed the Belle Époque ideals with which Otlet grew up. He also envisioned ICTs that foreshadow real devices that were currently developed, whilst his organising ideals have been preserved in current projects such as the Semantic Web. However, the comparatively anarchic and free-form nature of Wikipedia, perhaps the nearest thing to a spiritual successor of the Mundaneum, would likely have horrified Otlet, who favoured a top-down approach to information controlled by renowned experts.

Otlet envisaged the synthesis of different forms of (at the time) emergent technology, anticipating the conference call and the potential for the networked dissemination of information.

Otlet envisaged the synthesis of different forms of (at the time) emergent technology, anticipating the conference call and the potential for the networked dissemination of information.

He also sketched the Mondothèque—a

He also sketched the Mondothèque—a “scholar’s workstation” with multimedia capabilities.


H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, probably thinking about aliens, time travel, or...information retrieval?

H.G. Wells, probably thinking about aliens, time travel, or…information retrieval?

Herbert George (H.G.) Wells (1866—1946) was a contemporary of Otlet, and the two were certainly aware of each other’s work. Wells was a prolific writer of non-fiction works and political activist in addition to authoring his bestselling science-fiction novels. Something of an idealist like Otlet, he too became aware and frustrated with the limitations of existing technology, and envisaged a “World Brain” of knowledge to fulfil the same function as Otlet’s Mundaneum.

Cover of the first edition of World Brain, a collection of essays by Wells on the subject.

Cover of the first edition of World Brain, a collection of essays by Wells on the subject.

Wells was a passionate believer in the progression of scientific and academic knowledge as a means of improving society, viewing—in a continuation of his biological analogy—that existing political and economic structures were “diseased”, and that a new “network of nerves” of knowledge must be constructed to remodel society. In contrast to Otlet, his overtly political stance and apparent acceptance of a high degree of authoritarianism in order to achieve a functioning World Brain has resulted in his ideas attracting attention for what one might call the “wrong” reasons: government collection and control of information, surveillance, and, latterly, comparisons to the growth of technical monoliths such as Google. His advocacy of a single user authentication for the system has also influenced debates on the subject of individual privacy and security on the modern Internet, which notoriously lacks such a feature.

Wells's schema for education using the World Brain.

Wells’s schema for education using the World Brain.


Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush—hard at work, but also a talented self-publicist.

Vannevar Bush—hard at work, but also a talented self-publicist.

Vannevar Bush (1890—1974) was a generation younger than Otlet or Wells, and his predictions benefit from both their work (and that of other contemporary figures) and the fact that digital computers and the forerunner of the modern Internet were becoming practical realities during his time of writing (As We May Think was published in 1945). He was also a qualified engineer and experienced scientific administrator within the United States—serving as chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and playing a leading role in the National Science Foundation, giving him the strongest practical background for envisioning what future information technology might come to be like.

In his essay, Bush introduced his pet project, the Memex (short for Memory Extender): a personalised cabinet that could produce personalised “memory trails” of related information using an array of microfilm. It has often referred to as the conceptual forerunner of hypertext, which allows modern Internet users to do much the same thing.

A diagram of Bush's Memex.  Note the conceptual similarity to Otlet's earlier work.

A diagram of Bush’s Memex. Note the conceptual similarity to Otlet’s earlier work.

The main conceptual difference between the Memex and the similar ideas proposed by Otlet and Wells is that it was intended to be a highly personal form of technology, for use by the advanced research scholar or professional, as opposed to the latter pair’s grandiose schemes of improving universal knowledge through the creation of an all-encompassing information infrastructure. Perhaps surprisingly, the utopian ideals of Otlet and Wells require a rigid imposition of top-down control over what the “true” information actually is, whereas Bush, despite his government position during an era marked by the freezing over of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, disregards this entire question in favour of focussing upon the practicalities of creating a workable technology for the individual user.

The video below shows an animation of the Memex in action:


This research project

Briefly, my dissertation aims to:

  1. identify the predictions about future ICTs made by Otlet, Wells and Bush in turn and analyse them within their broader contexts to determine why they were made;
  2. compare and contrast these predictions with one another, determining to what extent each man’s ideas influenced the others and answering the question: “are they fundamentally the same with superficial differences, or are they in fact significantly different and have been grouped together arbitrarily?”; and
  3. ascertain what role their ideas, in both a conceptual and technical sense, influenced the development of the Internet and its associated technology and infrastructure in reality, and whether their importance in this respect in relation to one another has changed as the Internet itself has evolved, such as the recent transition from “Web 1.0” to “Web 2.0” and debates over issues including the Semantic Web and its ownership.

The dissertation will consist of an extended literature review conducted through desk research; in other words, I will be living in the British Library for most of this summer! I also hope to visit the Mundaneum itself, now a museum in Mons dedicated to preserving Otlet’s legacy.

All in all, I’m looking forward to starting this project, conducting a sizeable amount of original research and producing a valid piece of academic scholarship at the end of it. As I also need to find a full-time job and a new place to live by the end of summer, it should prove to be a hectic, although I hope enjoyable, few months.

Learning about LIS at City University London part II: two terms of blogging in review

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To complement my previous post on studying the MSc in Library Science at City University London, this entry consists of a listing of posts I made that were relevant to the taught part of the course. The majority of these were written for two of the eight modules—Digital Information Technologies & Architectures and Libraries & Publishing in an Information Society, tagged with “DITA” and “LAPIS” respectively—but some others were independent of either. I hope that this will give readers of this blog a flavour of some of the topics that I covered during this period.

Learning about LIS at City University London

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This post was originally published here as part of the “Student Perspectives” series of the City University London Library and Information Science blog.

The author in his natural habitat.

The author in his natural habitat.

I began the MSc in Library Science at City University London in September 2014 and, as a full-time student, am currently nearing the end of my studies, with only the small matter of the dissertation left to write. I started my library career in late 2012—after a couple of years of wondering what, exactly, to do with a first degree in History—working first as a volunteer and then as an Library Assistant at Durham University Library, and latterly as a Trainee Cataloguer at Coutts Information Services. After committing to the course at City, I was fortunate enough to secure a part-time Service Assistant job in the university library, which has proved to be very convenient and beneficial for my studies.

I can echo the comments of previous contributors to this series of blog posts by agreeing that the course has given me a great deal of new knowledge about the subject, whilst placing aspects with which I was already familiar in a strong overall conceptual framework. I have particularly enjoyed some of the more theoretical aspects of the course, which (superficially at least) have little connection to the practice of library work, such as information philosophy and theory. On the other hand, modules covering digital libraries, computer programming languages, Digital Humanities research techniques and Open Access publishing ensure that we have knowledge of the key contemporary issues facing the profession.

Another aspect of the course that I have enjoyed is the camaraderie between the students, including those studying the similar Information Science MSc (not to mention the teaching staff!). Previously sceptical about the value of social media, I was required to create a Twitter account and this personal blog, and I like to think that I have embraced them with the zeal of the convert. Both of these Internet platforms have proved to been invaluable tools for us to communicate with one another and to share articles, links and events that may be of interest, whilst the practice of reflecting on my thoughts and putting them into words on a weekly basis for some of the courses has, I believe, improved my writing skills considerably.

Finally, in addition to lectures by module leaders, the course also benefits from a wide variety of guest speakers. Some of these are specialists in a particular subject area; others have represented a particular institution’s experience with an aspect of the course that we have first discussed in general or theoretical terms, again helping to link the theory and practice of librarianship with one another, and in many cases to inspire topics for dissertations. All in all, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the course so far, and would recommend it without hesitation to anyone considering a career as a librarian or a similar information professional.

The final chapter

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For our tenth and final LAPIS lecture of term (the day also marked our final lecture of the taught part of the course – it’s gone by very fast!), we were visited by Alastair Horne, the Social Media and Communities Manager for Cambridge University Press ELT. His guest lecture was the most open and free-form of all, as we were encouraged to answer questions that he posed to us on many diverse subjects relating to current publishing models and reading practices.

Essentially, the purpose of the questions was to get us thinking about the essential differences between print and electronic books. In the last few years, e-readership has soared: in August 2012, Amazon.co.uk announced that its sales of e-books had surpassed those in print format; a recent Nielsen BookScan report indicated that sales of print adult fiction have fallen by £150 million from 2009 to 2014; and the U.S.-based Pew Research Center has recorded a steady and sustained rise in the ownership of e-readers and tablet computers. However, more recent developments have suggested something of a reversal, as sales of e-readers instead have begun to slow. This can partly be explained by the market starting to become saturated—those people who already own a device are unlikely to buy a new one for several years—but also by the intangible benefits offered by print books.

This was illustrated by a brainstorming exercise that we undertook during the lecture: we were asked to produce a list of advantages of e-books over print books, and another one vice versa. We were able to come up with a whole series of advantages for e-books—for example: portability, search functionality, linking to the Internet, multimedia content—whereas for print books the advantages were difficult to define, instead focussing on the overall experience of reading a physical book: the tactility, the feeling of tangible physical ownership and of using a “real” object. It is true to say that most e-books are simply electronic versions of the printed text, and that “enhanced” e-books—offering additional, multimedia content—have as yet failed to have much impact on reading habits; perhaps this will change as the underlying technology continues to improve, and the first generation of children who have grown up with e-books and ubiquitous portable computers—perhaps with radically different reading habits compared with those of us who are firmly grounded in the print paradigm—become adult consumers.

Another image problem faced by e-books is that they are often no cheaper than their print edition, which is damaging as the general impression seems to be that money should be saved on printing and distribution costs. In fact, this constitutes only a small fraction of the total publishing budget for a particular book. Moreover, producing e-books also results in additional expenditure, such as investment in new forms of information technology, whilst the e-books themselves also suffer by being made subject to VAT at the point of sale, unlike print books. This useful video explains in more detail how e-books are priced:

In all, I can say that LAPIS was an extremely interesting module which covered all aspects of libraries and publishing—from general philosophical questions on the nature of authorship through to the technicalities of how current publishing models, such as Open Access, work—and also featured an impressive selection of guest speakers who provided a diverse range of experiences and opinions on the subject.

My posts will probably become less frequent from now on, but I intend to keep the blog going with some musings on my dissertation topic over the summer (which will help to preserve my sanity, if nothing else!). I hope that you have enjoyed reading so far!

If you go down to the library today, you’re in for a big surprise

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The ninth and penultimate LAPIS lecture of term featured guest lectures by Matt Finch, a writer and content producer who has developed immersive play experiences for libraries, and James Baker, a curator of digital research at the British Library. These lectures both centred on the challenges facing libraries—in particular public libraries—today that result from the myriad changes in publishing that we have discussed in previous lectures. In short, the transition to a digitised, automated model of publishing content that can be accessed from (almost) anywhere via the Internet threatens to make the traditional physical library irrelevant, as potential users can simply find the information they seek online from within the comfort of their own homes.

Dr Finch approached this problem from the perspective of re-inventing the public library as a community hub, which encourages users of all ages to explore and learn on their own terms. Examples of this type of activity in which he has been involved include using “comic-book dice” to facilitate storytelling games for children, and staging live-action events such as a staged zombie invasion of the Tullamore Public Library in Australia. At first glance, these projects may appear somewhat frivolous, especially when run in collaboration with initiatives with names such as Fun Palaces, but they achieve measurable positive results in terms of both publicity for the public library service as a whole, and a sustained increase in user-based metrics, without any increase in expenditure. These activities also rely upon the library as a physical entity, thus providing justification for its continuing existence.

Nevertheless, the general public can be hard to convince: for instance, the comments on an article on the opening of a new central public library in Christchurch, New Zealand reveal a sharp divide between those who agree with the ideal of the library as a multi-purpose and multimedia community facility, and those who believe that anything beyond a repository of books and some reading rooms for silent study is a waste of public money. Yet more traditional areas of LIS research also support the first view: for instance, much work has been carried out into the effects of serendipity on information retrieval (or, in everyday terms, how browsing for information can produce interesting and unexpected results deriving from the layout of physical books, whether in a library or bookshop—how often have you gone looking for a particular book, only to emerge with another that happened to catch your eye?), how some libraries such as that attached to the Warburg Institute has tried to maximise this effect with an extremely idiosyncratic in-house classification scheme, and how it is difficult to create the same atmosphere using an online search engine or library OPAC. Furthermore, the role of libraries as valued community centres has been well-documented during social crises, such as in Ferguson last year following the police shooting of Michael Brown, and in the already-mentioned Christchurch following the devastating earthquakes in 2011. The recognised importance of the public library in society is officially enshrined in the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto.

Dr Baker’s lecture focussed on the changing nature of library collections and services in the digital age, and covered some of the same areas that we explored last term in the DITA module, such as text analysis and data mining. He also emphasised the British Library’s role in(and legal responsibility for, under recently-revised British legal deposit law) collecting webpages for the UK Web Archive, and the importance of curating and sharing datasets, such as this one relating to the British Library’s Flickr stream. Yet these responsibilities can also manifest themselves in fun and creative ways as the British Library Labs work on projects to maximise the accessibility of the institution’s digital collections: examples include the Mechanical Curator, an automated Twitter and Tumblr account that sequentially posts images from a digitised corpus of texts, PicaGuess, a crowdsourcing app designed to create metadata for similar images by identifying their defining characteristics, and even an art installation by David Normal at the Burning Man Festival in 2014. These developments all help to foster community engagement with the British Library (which, let us not forget, is also a public library—just a particularly large one) and justify its place in society.

Thus, although the changing face of publishing and technology has challenged the traditional role of the public library, measures undertaken to facilitate community engagement, whether through innovative events, the promotion of resources through social media, and the training of librarians in such skills as how to handle large datasets, are keeping them relevant. The tools and technology used to seek information, and aspects of the information itself, may have changed, but the average user will still be appreciative of a professional to help guide them through the information-seeking process—and if this process can take place in a pleasant, creative environment in the heart of the local community, then that is even better!

A library in a box

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Yesterday evening, I went to the Institut Français with some of my course friends to attend a panel discussion about the IdeasBox, a charitable project launched by the Libraries Without Borders / Bibliothèques Sans Frontières foundation in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency and the architect and designer, Philippe Starck. The project aims to equip vulnerable populations around the world with books, information technology tools and infrastructure tailored to the needs of each particular community, in order to improve their lives through education and access to information and culture, as this promotional video explains:

There were a few things that struck me in particular about the evening:

  1. The programme is not just intended for areas in developing countries that are affected by humanitarian catastrophes, but also for disadvantaged populations in “developed” countries: it has been used, or its us is currently being evaluated, for the benefit of Aboriginal communities in Australia, deprived urban communities in New York, and migrant settlements in Calais, in addition to the more “obvious” areas of conflict and unrest in Africa and the Middle East.  This point, and the positive effects of reading, literacy and libraries in general, were emphasised by Barbara Band, the former head of CILIP, who quoted the results of some recent alarming surveys carried out in Britain: 3 in 10 British children do not own a single book of their own (2011) and a third of the poorest British children do not have internet access at home (2013) Reflecting on this figures, my mind wandered to the example of the Finnish government-provided maternity box that is given to all mothers: could an “information literacy box” be given to each new schoolchild one day in a partnership between the government and a specialist charitable scheme such as the IdeasBox, which already co-operates with governments, publishers, other charities and so forth?
  2. I was also impressed by the cross-fertilisation of ideas that took place during the evening. For example, the author Ian McEwan proposed a tie-up with the Solar Aid initiative that he already supports, as books by themselves are of limited value if there is no light by which to read them. A member of the audience from Penguin Random House UK also offered her company’s support in the question-and-answer session that took place after the discussion. To me, this provided timely hard evidence of the rhetoric that allowing networked access can improve the lives of disadvantaged communities by demonstrating the value of utilising multiple perspectives and areas of expertise at a social event.
  3. Several panelists pointed out that the freedom of information, expression and thought is under pressure in a number of countries throughout the world for political and religious reasons, and that this project represents the ideal riposte to this trend. This links back to the debates that we have discussed in my LAPIS module on the cost of knowledge and the digital divide that this, and other costs associated with the development of technology and infrastructure, produces between developed and developing countries. On the one hand, it is somewhat depressing to think that these economic pressures are therefore added to by the anti-information tendencies caused by political authoritarianism and religious extremism, but also encouraging that a successful project such as this has been set up to counter it.

All in all, it was an extremely informative evening, and I will follow the progress of the IdeasBox programme with much interest.

[N.B. The featured image for this post is “Ideas Box – Bibliothèques sans Frontières” by ActuaLitté on Flickr. It is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.]