Austerity

It’s been a while since I have put pen to paper (or, rather, fingertips to keyboard). I was going to write about the redevelopment of Oxford’s public library, which has been relocated to a smaller, temporary location in the castle quarter while the original library undergoes major building work, as part of the multi-million pound Westgate shopping centre redevelopment. The newly expanded and upgraded Westgate, including the public library, will reopen later this year, to, I suspect, great fanfare and publicity. I am eager to find out what the library will look like, and what services it will provide, but as yet, there is little information available. In the age of austerity, it is a rare thing to have a public library redeveloped on a scale such as this.

So that’s what I was going to write about, but then the general election was approaching, and I gave that my full attention instead of this blog. Now, the election still doesn’t feel resolved, as there was no winning majority. The prime minister is stubbornly hanging on, trying to strike a deal with the dubious DUP, even though I felt sure she would have to resign the day after the election results. I voted against the Conservatives, in protest against Brexit, and against the austerity measures that have ripped the heart out of communities across the UK, including vicious attacks on public library budgets. Although, to be fair, I have never voted Conservative in my life, so I was wasn’t going to vote for them anyway.

Then the Grenfell fire happened in London this week, with rising anger pointing the finger of blame at government cuts, which seem to have resulted in cheaper, more flammable building materials being used. Anger is rising out of the ashes, anger at the increasing divide between the rich and the poor. Everyone has the right to a safe home, and everyone needs community services, no matter what their income or social status. Judging by the protests that are happening in London right now, austerity might finally become the dirty, unsayable word it needs to be.

I don’t know where this article is going. It certainly isn’t the one I had intended to write. I’m not even sure if I should have pressed the publish button, but these are my thoughts, and I needed to get them out.

Lego + Lightning + Librarians = Success

So, what happens when you put Lego, lightning talks and librarians in a museum? The result is an inspiring and successful staff development day!

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Last month, we held a staff development day for employees that work in our university’s libraries. It was the first time that we had held an event like this off-campus; we used The Story Museum, in Oxford, as our venue. The museum offered versatile and quirky spaces, and provided inspiration and a sense of adventure which would otherwise have been lacking had we held the event on campus, in some anonymous conference room.

I joined forces with  select team of colleagues to help plan the day. We didn’t have much time; we only had three months to plan the whole thing, which was quite a challenge when you consider that at our first meeting we had no date, no venue, and no idea of how the day would look, or what it would consist of.

At that first meeting, I suggested The Story Museum as a potential venue; it is somewhere that I am very familiar with, since I work there sometimes, running educational workshops with groups of school children. Choosing that as the venue naturally led us to loosely basing the day around the theme of stories; we liked the idea of staff sharing their success stories, talking about recent projects they’ve been working on, or discussing current challenges they face.

We used three different rooms at The Story Museum, to allow us to run three different activities or workshops simultaneously. Unlike previous staff development events, this gave us the ability to offer our colleagues choices about which activities or workshops they wanted to attend.

Attendees were invited, in advance, to choose from a menu of workshops and activities throughout the day; we tried to offer a variety of things, to hopefully, meet most people’s tastes and interests. Our program of events featured a series of lightning talks, where  colleagues gave short presentations about projects they have been working on. We offered three different sets of lightning talks, with four presenters in each hour long slot. Also on offer was a singing workshop, a voice coaching session, tours of the museum itself, a design workshop (how to design a book cover), an introduction to Raspberry Pi, and a two-hour long Lego Serious Play workshop, which we ran twice (in the morning and afternoon) facilitated by Andy Priestner. There was a keynote speaker first thing in the morning (one of our newest senior members of staff kindly offered to do this), which was the only compulsory part of the day.

Library staff were able to come along for just the morning, afternoon, or the whole day, to fit in with their different shift patterns.  We operate four libraries across four campus sites, so not everyone was able to attend; some people had to stay behind to staff the libraries during the day (myself included).

We conducted a quick online survey after the event, to get feedback from our colleagues. The responses were overwhelmingly positive:

  • 95% of participants rated the event as either excellent or very good
  • 98% want to attend a similar event in the future
  • 100% thought that we should hold other Staff Development Days off-campus

“Nice to do something different”

“Interesting to hear what colleagues were up to”

“Good to catch up with colleagues from other sites”

“Informative and thought-provoking”

“A change of scene”

“Fun!”

“The location was great”

“The lightning presentations were interesting and varied”

“I learned techniques to help me find and project my voice”

“What a lovely, sociable, talented bunch of colleagues!”

All this indicates that we’ll be planning a similar event in the future, although this is probably going to be hard to beat. Now, to start thinking of a suitable venue…

What happens when half the library disappears…

There’s been a lot going on at work recently; this week half of the library disappeared. Yes, you heard me correctly; half of the library disappeared. This was not a sudden, out-of-the-blue event; indeed, we had been expecting this to happen for quite some time, and have been preparing for it, but it is still something of a shock to look around and see a lot of empty shelves.

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Some background: I work as a library assistant in an academic library at a university which has multiple campus sites. The campus that I work at is due to close completely within the next five years, and the first phase of this involves the relocation of some departments this summer. As part of this process, half of our library’s collection is being moved to a different campus library.

This week, professional book movers came in and packed up crates and crates of books, to transport them to their new home.

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As I said, half of our library has now gone. Some members of our academic librarian team will also be leaving us within the next few weeks, moving over to the other campus. The changes don’t end there, though. Half of the books have gone, and as a result, we need less space, so the library will also be physically shrinking in size; the building will be reconfigured during the summer vacation. I have now finished work for the summer (I only work during semester) so when I return in September, the library will be a very different place.

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Hopefully, the redundant shelves will have been taken away, and the library will have been sufficiently redesigned to meet the requirements of the remaining students and staff that will be using this library for the next few years. It feels like the end of an era.

How Public Libraries Help Build Communities

Re-blogged from bluesyemre

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Increasingly in the United States, you also can’t judge a library’s value to its community by simply its books. Let us explain. In a previous blog post, we’ve noted the importance of “third places” in strengthening communities – meaning those places that are neither one’s […]

via How #PublicLibraries help build healthy communities — bluesyemre

UX-rated

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Don’t worry, this article is not X-rated; it’s UX-rated, which means it is most definitely safe for work…

I think we all know what X-rated means, without the need for a picture to explain it. However, what about this UX thing? Simply put, UX stands for User Experience, which is a method of learning about how users experience library services and spaces, through gathering qualitative and quantitative data. This might sound terribly academic and technical, but it really doesn’t have to be.

I was first introduced to various UX methods when I attended a training course at work last year, presented by Andy Priestner (I have previously mentioned him here). He demonstrated the different UX methods, explained how they can be applied to libraries, and how they are closely related to anthropology.

As I have said in a previous post, the academic library that I currently work in is undergoing a period of great change; half the campus is moving this summer to a different part of the university, and our library is shrinking and being reconfigured as a result. The library team thought that this would be a great opportunity to use some UX methods, to try to find out what the library users (i.e. the university students) would like our reconfigured library to look like.

The UX method we decided to try was the graffiti wall; no, this does not involve cans of spray paint (although that could be fun, just as long as the books didn’t get painted), but it does feature asking students to write on walls. We covered a notice board in plain white paper, left some marker pens next to it,  stuck a question on the board: What do you like or dislike about the library? and sat back and waited for students to cover the paper with their insightful comments and ideas. We waited quite a long time (two weeks) and didn’t get many comments at all. What were we doing wrong?

Firstly, the question wasn’t very good; we were trying to ask for two different responses to the same question, which was confusing. Secondly, the graffiti wall was a new concept in our library, so maybe students were just not used to the idea of it. Thirdly, we had set up the graffiti wall in a relatively quiet area of the library, close to where students study, so maybe not many students were seeing it, or perhaps they felt too self-conscious to be seen writing comments on the wall.

Despite the poor response, we did not give up. We came up with a better question; Where do you like to study?, and in addition to the graffiti wall, we also set up a graffiti table in a different part of the library. A graffiti table is incredibly easy to create; you just need some blank paper, a pen or two, and some tape. I taped two sheets of A3 paper onto a table, stuck the question on it, and left two pens next to it. We set up the table in a social learning zone, which is in a separate room, away from the main part of the library. This time we received lots of comments from students; again, the interaction with the wall was minimal, but the graffiti table was a great success.

Within the last month we tried the graffiti table idea again, this time specifically seeking student comments that could help with the redesign of our library. We set up four graffiti tables, in four areas of the library: silent study, the library entrance, the social learning zone, and in a general study area. We posed two questions in relation to the forthcoming changes: What aspects of the library would you like to keep? and, separately, What would you like to be improved? This approach successfully yielded lots of comments, which I subsequently collated into a table, to better interpret the results. These results were then shared with the relevant department at the university, to hopefully inform any decisions that will be made about what our reconfigured library might look like.

A graffiti wall (or in our case, graffiti table) is just one of many UX methods you could try, with minimal effort and minimal cost, to gain insight into how users experience your library. In other words, get yourself UX-rated!

As always, comments are welcome below.

The Story Museum

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As you may recall, I have been helping to plan a Staff Development Day for my fellow library employees at our academic institution. During our initial meetings, we came up with the idea of basing the day around celebrating stories of our successes, and leading from that, I suggested an appropriate venue for us to use: The Story Museum which is located in Oxford. Our event is still more than a month away, but I am very excited that we are able to use this venue. I have taken my children there many times, and I also happen to work there occasionally as a Learning Session Leader; in other words, I lead visiting school groups around the museum and facilitate educational activities with them. The other afternoon I was there, pretending to be a giant frog, hopping and ribbeting around while telling a group of children and their grownups an Australian dreamtime story; it is quite the  contrast to my day job of working in an academic library.

If you are ever in Oxford, please do visit The Story Museum. It is a unique place, with wonderful, immersive exhibits, live storytelling throughout the day, and books everywhere that you are welcome to pick up and read (although you can’t take them home). It is not so different from a library, in a way, only it is the most magical library you could ever visit. There is even a wardrobe door you can walk through to enter into Narnia… I can’t wait for my academic library colleagues to experience it.

“Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories we wouldn’t be human beings at all.” – Philip Pullman, author and Story Museum patron

The Incredible Shrinking Library

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As we all know, public libraries across the UK continue to be threatened by closures, budget cuts, and reductions in paid professional staff. Much less common are closures of academic libraries within the higher education sector, but such things do happen. In fact, it is currently happening to the library I work in.

I’m employed as a library assistant in a British university that has multiple campus sites, with a different library serving each campus. On my very first day at work, it was announced that the university would eventually be closing this campus, moving the departments to other campuses, and then selling off the land. This was some two and a half years ago, but within a few months from now these changes will begin to be implemented. Half of the campus departments are moving to another site this summer, and going with them will be half of the library’s collection. What remains will be a dying campus, with empty buildings, a reduction in staff and students, and the knowledge that in three or four years from now, the campus itself will no longer exist.

So far we have weeded and subsequently discarded 10,000 items from the library’s collection, and 75% of our academic librarians will be moving to a different campus at the end of this semester; this means three out of the four librarians will be gone, which is a huge change for those people affected, and will make a big difference to our small team. Library assistants, like myself, are as yet unaffected. We have been assured that when the time comes for our library to finally close completely, there will be jobs for us to be slotted into at the libraries on other campuses. Whether or not people want to relocate to other campuses, however, is another matter.

On the positive side, our library is going to be redesigned this summer, taking into consideration the fact that half of the book stock will be gone. As the campus around us shrinks, so will the library, yet it will simultaneously become the hub of campus life for those students and staff remaining; incorporated into our library space will be the IT department, student services and career services, and we are staying in our current location, right next to the food hall. Although we have had no input into how the library will be redesigned, I am genuinely excited to see what it looks like by the time the next semester begins in September. More to follow in due course…

Have you ever experienced periods of great change at your library? Moved into new building? Undergone staff restructure? Feel free to comment below!

UX: Breaking Up

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Towards the end of last year, I attended a UX workshop at my place of work, presented by Andy Priestner. Among many of his excellent ideas for engaging with library users was the concept of writing a Love Letter or a Break-Up Letter, to a service or company that you either enjoy or dislike. I recently had cause to write one for real, so here it is. Writing it was very cathartic!

Dear Great Western Railway,

I’m sorry that it has come to this, but our relationship is truly over. I have been turning up and waiting at our usual meeting place three times a week, but most of the time you’re late, if you even arrive at all. I’ve tried talking to you about your lack of time-keeping skills, in an effort to find out the reason for your behaviour, but my questions go unanswered. You brush me off with comments like “we are continually improving our service” or with empty apologies such as “we’re sorry for the inconvenience the delayed service may have caused you”. You have even sent me gifts; those £50 worth of rail vouchers were gratefully received, but they sit at home in a drawer; I just don’t have the enthusiasm to use them. For two years now I have relied on you to get me into Oxford city three times a week, a train journey time of just over ten minutes, and yet, it never is just ten minutes, is it? The problem is, my journey doesn’t end when I get off the train; I then have to catch a bus and travel to the other side of Oxford, and if you don’t run on time, then I miss the bus and have to wait for the next one… and all this lost time adds up. Each journey became a gamble of whether or not I would get to work on time. Well, enough is enough, I quit. I’m leaving you. I’m going to drive to work twice a week from now on, braving the Oxford traffic, because I know I stand a much better chance of getting to work on time. I will still have to see you once a week, for just a single journey into the city on a Tuesday morning. It will be painful to see you, but there’s no alternative. I will get the bus home after work though, so at least we won’t have to see each other twice in one day. I tried to make it work, I really did, but two years is long enough. Goodbye.

If you ever have the chance to attend one of Andy Priestner’s UX workshops I highly recommend it; he does a wonderful job of showing how you can use ethnographic techniques within the library environment, and it was one of the most engaging workshops I have ever attended.

The Red Shoes

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They say you can tell a lot about a person by looking at the shoes they wear to work. Shiny black loafers, for example, may indicate a person is meticulous and tidy; a soft, brown slip-on suggests someone who is comfortable in their role; and flip-flops, well, they tell us that your colleague is very confused and has come to work by mistake instead of going to the beach. I work in an academic library as a library assistant, and as many of you may have noticed, the shoes I wear to work are red sneakers, which apparently, indicates “confidence and personality”. I think it is safe to assume that, yes, I do have a personality (I’m not sure I would have survived without one), but the question remains: do I wear red shoes because I feel confident, or do I feel confident because I wear red shoes? Either way, confidence and personality are positive attributes to bring to any library.

My sons have recently discovered The Wizard of Oz and I think they are somewhat disappointed that my red shoes do not magically take me to Kansas or Munchkin Land. They have not yet been exposed to The Red Shoes fairy tale, in which a young woman buys a pair of magic red shoes from a mysterious shoemaker; when she puts them on, they force her to dance forever, until, finally exhausted, she pulls them off, only to die. Fortunately this has not happened to me. Coincidentally, my eldest son’s favourite pair of shoes are his red Converse All Stars. Now, he certainly has confidence and personality, but that’s a whole other story.  

#WhyBooksMatter

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The Big Issue launched a new campaign this week called #WhyBooksMatter, to highlight the important role that libraries play in our communities. At the launch of the campaign, The Big Issue explained their reasons behind it:

Our future success is dependent on providing the next generation with the tools they need. And literacy is key. Without reading skills, doors will close and futures will be darker.

Fundamentally, #WhyBooksMatter is about keeping communities together and libraries open. If you would like to get involved, contact The Big Issue to let them know what your local library means to you, by email: editorial@bigissue.com, on Twitter: @BigIssue or Facebook.com/BigIssueUK or alternatively, click the link for more information.

Below I explain what libraries mean to me (taken from an earlier post on this blog)

Going to the local public library with my mother and checking out books with my very own library card is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood. It felt so grown up and powerful, to be able to take whatever books I wanted, to then go home and spend time reading, sometimes slowly savouring every new word, other times devouring a book at breakneck speed, just to find out what happened next. Choose Your Own Adventure Doctor Who books were a favourite, along with Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and The Hobbit. 

At secondary school, the school library very quickly became my sanctuary, a safe haven away from bullying threats in the playground or lunchtime football games that I didn’t want to play. It was a comforting, quiet place to explore new books and old favourites. I recall one lunchtime reading all of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvelous Medicine, and went to my afternoon classes feeling giddy with the thrill that I had devoured a whole book in only an hour. That story was now inside of me, like some big juicy secret, and no-one could take it away. I felt sure that my classmates would be jealous if only they knew the wonderful story that was now stored inside my head. I went to the school library every lunchtime, and got to know all the shelves, the different categories, and the other kids that also hung out there. One of my classmates spent all his lunch hour reading reference books, storing away facts and figures to boost his already overflowing fountain of knowledge. He was the smartest kid I ever knew, and I was constantly trying to get better grades than him (I never succeeded, I had to be content with second place).

Visits to my local public library continued during my teens, although I now went there alone rather than with my mother. I used the library to try out new genres, to explore unfamiliar authors, and to seek out books that would somehow help me discover who I really was, or lead me down some path that I just couldn’t find by myself. Like most teens, I was self-obsessed, and needed to find books that spoke only to me. I wanted to be deep and meaningful, but despite my best efforts, I remained wallowing in my own shallow pools of self-importance.

My world was too small, I needed to venture further afield. I read books at the library about these mysterious things called “a gap year” and after reading all the ones I could get my hands on, decided that, yes, a gap year was most definitely for me. I read about volunteering in foreign countries, and using library books as evidence, I talked my parents into letting me go, aged 18, to live on a kibbutz in Israel for three months that summer, as soon as I’d finished school.

After college, I lived in Japan for three years, and although there were libraries there, I couldn’t use them, because I was unable to read any of the books. There is nothing quite as frustrating as being in a foreign library, surrounded by books that you can’t read. Instead, I’d make monthly trips to Kyoto, to go to the few book shops that stocked English books. It was a poor substitute for going to the library.

Upon returning to England, I once again spent many hours in my local public library, but now it was to use the computers, so that I could keep in touch with my new friends around the world. The library became my internet cafe, and the books suddenly didn’t seem so important any more.

Another gap year beckoned, this time in Vancouver, Canada. As soon I was able to, I joined my local library there, and took out books to read on the beach, on the bus to work, to read anywhere, really. That Canadian library card gave me power that I hadn’t felt since I’d been a child.

A six-year adventure in the United States followed soon after, and once again, getting a library card was top priority. I remember going to the local public library, with my official documents to prove that I was eligible to get a card. The lady behind the desk probably had no idea how much that library card meant to me; here I was, in a new town, in a foreign country that I had decided to call home, unable to work yet due to my visa situation (I was there because my wife is American) with lots of time on my hands. That card gave me access to free music, free magazines, free books, free knowledge, and a place to go to hang out when I had nothing else to do in those months before my work permit was issued.

Within a few years, I ended up working part-time in that library, initially as a shelver, and then as a library assistant, working alongside that very same lady that had issued me with my library card. I became a father, and took my sons to the library every week, to attend the wonderful story time. I formed friendships with other parents. We even had breakfast in a diner every Wednesday morning; a group of us exhausted parents and this large brood of noisy babies and toddlers, before all going to the story time together. That public library became the centre of my world; not only as my part-time workplace, but as somewhere I could rely on, where as a stay-at-home dad, I knew my kids and I would always be welcome, whether we’d be there to enjoy the air conditioning on a hot day, or just to get out of the house for an hour. There would always be friendly faces who didn’t mind that my two-year old was playing noisily in the children’s section, or that my newborn was crying. And yes, there were books, and magazines, and CDs and DVDs, all ready for the taking, all improving my quality of life in immeasurable ways. And it was all free.

Later, my family relocated to England, and one of the hardest parts of leaving the United States was saying good-bye to our wonderful public library. It’s been two years since we left, and we still miss it. Of course, there are public libraries here, too, but they’re different; not only smaller, not only further away from our home, not only less well-stocked, but with fewer staff and less funding. However, I’m still thankful that the public libraries are here. We need them and use them and value them. We visit every couple of weeks, letting my sons take whatever books they like, just like I did when I was a young boy.