Monday, 10 October 2011

Library Camp 2011

On Saturday 8th October, I attended the first ever UK Library Camp. You can find out more on the website, but to briefly summarise, Library Camp is an un-conference which operates on concepts of Open Space and the Law of Two Feet; attendees are responsible for their own learning and contribution, setting the programme and taking themselves to wherever they can best participate. I decided to go because it was a free event taking place at the weekend, meaning minimal total costs and no time off work required, because I was intrigued by the un-conference concept, and because so many other members of the LIS community would be there. I was fairly nervous about it as the day drew closer; the delegate list was overwhelming and I was worried I wouldn’t feel able to talk to people, and, with no programme set beforehand, I didn’t know what to expect from the event itself, which made me a bit uncomfortable – I usually like to look at what’s on in advance, to start deciding what to attend and to think of questions I might want to ask. 

However, I found the event to be a really enjoyable and inspiring one. Hot drinks and loads of cake courtesy of some talented attendees made for a relaxed atmosphere which made it easy to talk to people. I think it also helped that all name badges were self-made (some very elaborately!), which meant that we could put whatever information we wanted and thus express our identity in the way that we felt most comfortable, which makes for much easier conversation openers than the usual corporate-looking name and job title badges that are often supplied at conferences. As a heavy Twitter user, I found it helpful that most people put their Twitter IDs fairly prominently on their badges – you then “recognise” people and it was lovely to finally meet some people whom I have spoken to on Twitter for ages but not yet encountered in real life. However, this must have been really intimidating for people who weren’t on Twitter. During the introductions, loads of attendees introduced themselves by first name and then by Twitter name, demonstrating what an integral part of our professional and personal identities it can be for those of us who use it; again, if I weren’t a Twitter user I think I might have found this alienating. I don’t think I spoke to any non-Tweeters but I hope that those who were there were made to feel welcome.

Despite my initial trepidation about how well deciding the programme on the day would work, it actually worked really well. People were very forthcoming in pitching ideas for sessions, which was done by standing at the front and describing your idea in less than 30 seconds; if other attendees were interested, you wrote it on a post-it. The organisers then did a fantastic job of putting together the post-its into a programme for the day, which ran like any other conference; multiple sessions running at the same time, in 45-minute slots throughout the day (but with no repetition of sessions).

The first session I attended was about cataloguing and classification. I do a bit of cat and class in my job and really enjoy it, and I’ve been interested in information retrieval since I studied it during my MA, so I thought it would be good to join in a discussion about it and hopefully learn something new. The attendees were a mixture of cataloguers, systems librarians, and people like me who do it as part of their role. I have to admit that a lot of what was discussed went over my head, as I don’t know a huge amount about cataloguing standards and interaction with systems, but there were a few points raised which made me think. There was a lot of discussion about adhering to standards and creating records which are useful for our users; does strict adherence to cataloguing rules always result in the best records? Being responsible for overseeing the cataloguing of our AV stock, I quite often find myself looking at how we have always done something versus how various guides say we should do something versus how it’s most sensible to do something, and recently I’ve come up with what I think is the most sensible way to catalogue TV series; it might not be the absolutely correct way but it’s the way that will be most helpful for our users, which I think is the important thing (I  realise it is not always easy or appropriate to tweak cataloguing rules for all material or in all libraries though). This discussion made me think that I should perhaps look at some of our other AV cataloguing, to assess the usefulness and clarity of our records and check that everyone is following the same rules.

Another issue which came up during this session was that of achieving serendipity online; how can we replicate browsing the physical shelves in the online environment? I’d be interested to follow any work on this. Finally, we ended the session with the question of whether we all enjoyed our cat and class roles (we all did, whatever they were). The Hi-Vis Cataloguers blog was mentioned, which I have looked at recently and will definitely continue to follow.

The second session I attended was on modernising public libraries and maintaining a service despite staffing cuts.  I went primarily for the latter aspect of the session, as this is something that is affecting many across the LIS world – and indeed the attendees confirmed that in public, academic and special libraries alike, people are having to redistribute workloads and take more on as staff leave and are not replaced. It was also interesting to listen to the discussion about public libraries; I was late to the session and missed some of it, but when I arrived, people were discussing the problem of demonstrating the social returns on services – it is not something that can be easily shown in numbers, or at least, not in the types of numbers that councils ask for or pay attention to. There was also discussion of whether libraries adequately sell themselves, the problems of shared services (particularly in putting public libraries into school libraries – this throws up all sorts of issues, from stock management to opening hours to security), and the potential negation of the library as a neutral space if it is sharing space with a council building, for example. 

Lunch provided another good opportunity for talking to people, and doing some learning too – thank you to the extremely knowledgeable Jo Alcock for the impromptu lesson on QR Codes and Foursquare that she gave a few of us! 

My first afternoon session was on the question of what libraries can learn from retail, hosted by Jo Alcock and Anne Martin. Both have recently written on this topic – Jo’s blog post is here. Some researchers have examined the “science” of shopping, observing people’s behaviour in shops and using that to inform design and practices in retail. Jo and Anne suggest that we can do the same in libraries. This was a really lively session – so many people in attendance that it was standing room only for the late-comers – and loads of good ideas were being thrown around. Some which particularly grabbed me were providing shopping baskets/trolleys for people to use in the library (people are more likely to stay and browse if they’ve got somewhere to put the books they’ve found), ensuring that there are enough chairs etc. (people won’t stay if they’re not comfortable), and utilising the staff who users encounter out on the floor – often these are the most visible staff in the library. This last one seems to be obvious, but I worked as a shelver on and off for several years and I experienced varying levels of instruction from my supervisors about how I should be interacting with users. I was always comfortable with using the OPAC as a student, and was happy to help other students out with this, for example, but some of my co-shelvers were less so, and as there was no expectation on us to answer queries, would always refer students to the desk. I think we should be trying to look at the library from a user’s perspective and work out who and what they’re seeing, and make sure staff are ready for that. One American library apparently has one day per year when library staff go and use the library as patrons, and I think that’s a good idea. I definitely came away from this session with the opinion that libraries can indeed learn a lot from retail, but I would want to be careful about which aspects we want to take; for example, it was suggested that libraries could have staff to approach users at the shelves and offer help, in the way that assistants in shops do, but personally I hate this when I’m shopping, and would be reluctant to introduce this in my library (roving help is of course a good idea but I wouldn’t want us to be actively approaching students).

The next session I attended was also especially relevant to my current role; liaising with internal stakeholders and embedded librarianship, with a cross-sector perspective. Laura Woods began by telling us about her experience of becoming embedded in a team at the law firm where she works; becoming a member of the team, physically sitting with them for a period of time each week etc., and from there we discussed the various issues around liaison with our stakeholders in both academic and special libraries.  The issue of names came up fairly quickly – what is our job title and how does that affect how stakeholders see us – but the suggestion was made that it doesn’t actually matter too much what we are called, as long as it makes sense to our users and stakeholders; as long as they know what we can do for them. I would definitely agree with this; as someone pointed out, it’s not “the library” who can help them, it’s a person within the library, and I have found that, as academic staff (our stakeholders) have gotten to know me by name, the more willing they have been to contact me to ask questions about anything to do with the library. We also discussed ways of reaching out to our stakeholders, with participants relaying their experiences of taking the library out to them, using online networks such as a section on the intranet, blogs, and online bulletins, and creating a library “brand”. It was interesting to discover the similarities between the problems faced by the different sectors – making sure the stakeholders know what we do and how we can help, and getting the library “brand” past Marketing, for example – and also to find out about liaison with stakeholders as a librarian in a firm or company; a sector I didn’t know that much about previously.

For the final session of the day, I chose social media. A couple of social media experts offered one-on-one help to anyone who wanted advice on using any aspect of social media, while the #uklibchat team led a discussion on their experiences of running the chat, asked for our feedback, and facilitated a more general discussion on professional use of social media. I’m a heavy social media user and didn’t particularly learn anything new from this session, but I was interested to hear other people’s reactions to #uklibchat (a fortnightly Twitter discussion based around a theme and questions within that theme, which can be anything to do with libraries), and it was a good opportunity to share my own thoughts. Some attendees mentioned other Twitter chats that they had come across, and I intended to ask whether anyone would be interested in a #chartership chat but I didn’t get the chance; I’ve had some interest expressed already so I think I will go ahead and organise that though (do let me know if you think this is a particularly good or bad idea!). 

Overall, I thought that the day was really successful and stimulating, and I think I benefitted from attending. The most useful sessions for me were the one about learning from retail and the one about liaising with stakeholders, as these provided me with ideas which I could put into practice in my current role. I did however also enjoy following up my personal interests of cat and class and social media, and having the chance to hear about people’s experience of maintaining and modernising public library services, a sector about which I do not often get the chance to learn so closely. Library Camp definitely helped to enhance my understanding of the LIS profession as a whole, as well as providing me with information which I could put to practical use at work. I also enjoyed, as ever, having the chance to talk to old friends, people who I only ever see at conferences and events, and new people. I suspect that I did miss some sessions which would have been useful, but it was very difficult to make sure I attended the best combination; with the programme being posted on a massive board in the cafĂ© area on the day itself, it was difficult to spend much time studying it due to everyone trying to do the same thing, and obviously you don’t have the chance to look over the whole programme in advance. I did consider taking a photo on my phone of the board, but it was too big and the writing too small for that to be possible.  If I were to attend a similar event in future, I think I would try to look ahead when looking at the board, rather than only looking at the next set of sessions, to try to make some kind of plan for myself. 

Library Camp was run really well by the organisers, and I was impressed at how effective the un-conference format was. It does however rely on the people attending being willing to pitch ideas, facilitate sessions effectively, and get involved in discussions, so anyone organising such an event would need to be sure that this would happen. I would love to attend it next year if it happens again. One thing I would say, however, is that it seemed to be advertised on Twitter and not really anywhere else. Tickets were snapped up quickly by those who were on Twitter during the day; I signed up at lunchtime and emailed a couple of colleagues about it. When I later went to email other colleagues, the tickets were sold out. I do feel that non-Tweeters and those who can’t use Twitter during the working day did perhaps miss out (although there was a waiting list, which was a good idea), so I hope that next year this might be something the organisers consider.

Next time I would like to get involved a bit more. I only spoke at any length during the liaising with stakeholders and social media sessions; in the others I felt unsure about contributing, or unable to get a word in. Some facilitators tried to ensure that people didn’t speak over each other by using a foam ball which you had to be holding to speak; while this was a good idea, much hilarity ensued due to the lack of throwing and catching skills in the room, which, along with trying to dodge the ball when it came flying towards your head/coffee, could be a bit distracting! I think I would try to ensure that I contribute more next time by pitching an idea and volunteering to facilitate a session, thus forcing myself into a position where I  had to speak! I would also think in advance about how I might run a session in order to give everyone the chance to join in, whether by using flying objects, or something else.

Another thing which I took away from the day was wondering where else the un-conference concept could be put into practice. We are currently looking into a library-wide staff development event, and I am wondering whether we could work Open Space into it somewhere. I have definitely been left with a lot to think about! A big thank you to organisers and attendees, who made the day so successful. If you want to know more, spend some time looking round the Library Camp wiki.


  1. I'm glad you mentioned the lack of advertising to people who aren't on twitter, it's bothered me as it must have excluded so many people who weren't online on that one day, let alone people who aren't on twitter or active on social networks. From the outside it's appeared an exclusive event even though I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to be.

    (This isn't a personal grudge, I saw the advertising when there was places available, I just wasn't free on the day!)

    Anyway, it's really interesting to hear all about it from lots of different people's points of view.

  2. Interesting post!

    I think that achieving serendipity online is an important issue. Researchers rarely go to university libraries any more, and so get most of their information online. They can set up various alerts, if they know how to do so. Sometimes this is not very easy. One way to allow for an element of serendipity is through electronic journal tables of contents. The service I do some voluntary workk for is called JournalTOCs

  3. Jo McCausland (@libraryjmac)10 October 2011 at 13:59

    I can answer the comment about advertising and take full responsibility for getting it wrong. I released the tickets on Eventbrite and tweeted that fact and was shocked to find 21 hours later that they were all gone before I had made it known elsewhere. As a relatively new Twitter user I was unaware of its power. Entirely my mistake. I intend to write some notes on lessons learnt for any future organisers who wish to have them and this will be included. Sincere apologies for my error of judgement. I'm sure whoever wishes to organise any future such events will not make the same mistake.

  4. Glad you enjoyed the cataloguing session, and that you took some useful ideas away from it. And thanks for mentioning the serendipity discussion - that's something that didn't quite make it into my notes, and is a very important part certainly of people's perceptions of the value of libraries.

  5. Great overview :) I wasn't able to attend so it's been useful to catch up on what was being discussed.

  6. Thanks for the comments all! And Jo, thank you for letting us know what happened with the advertising on Twitter. Twitter is indeed very powerful and anything that is tweeted can take on something of a life of its own, so it is difficult to get the balance right when it comes to advertising. Perhaps there are ways to get round this next time - could tickets be released in pre-announced stages, maybe, to ensure they don't all go at once? Certainly something to think about it.