Thursday, 6 December 2012

Great expectations, or, students and their reading lists

In these days of emphasis on the student experience and taking into account feedback from various surveys (the NSS is particularly important, but there are also other internal surveys), one area of dissatisfaction with academic libraries is regularly highlighted. "There are not enough books in the library", "I can never get hold of the books I need", or even "There are no books in the library". (Obviously the last comment is not exactly true, but it's what the student felt!)

The situation is mutually frustrating for students and for library staff. Managing expectation is something we haven't yet learned to do, and perhaps we should be thinking about how to do this (rather than raising unrealistic hopes).

I really like this page from Sussex University Library on its purchasing policy. It is intended for its academic staff, and gently asks lecturers to remind their students that there will not, despite their expectations, be a copy of every item on the reading list for every student. There certainly isn't the budget for it (despite the hike in tuition fees), and anyway the whole point of a library is that it is a shared resource. Sussex also suggests to lecturers that they tell students at an early stage to plan ahead. This is, of course, easier said than done, and it depends on the nature of the course and how it is being taught, but it is always going to be the case that leaving things until the last minute might mean that you cannot get hold of a book or resource in time.

The other reason I like Sussex's page is how reassuring it is for me! It is not only the students in my little neck of the woods who come to university expecting more of a 1:1 ratio of student to book (which they may very well have had at school, of course); and the ratio set out by Sussex is quite a bit less generous than I and my predecessors have tried to be in our own subject area. Where I have bought twelve copies of a book, I have had protests that "there are forty-seven students doing this module". Cue, mutual incomprehension! (That's a ratio of 1:4!) I have hunted round the web and asked on Twitter for other institutions' policies (admittedly not a very scientific way of finding out), and while there is some variation the most generous ratio I have found is 1 book per 10 students (more often it is 1:20).

Where I come more unstuck than some of my colleagues who look after more scientific subjects is that a huge amount of important Welsh material is out of print. "But you can copy it!" comes the cry. Yes, you can copy if it IF you have permission to do so - by no means a foregone conclusion - but there are still limits on the number of copies you may make (definitely not forty-seven!) If the publisher realises that there may be a demand for an item, they might say that they are considering reprinting it - in which case they will not give permission (but the reprint may be years coming). Some academic texts are becoming available electronically (on a rather haphazard basis), and some older material (by which I mean out of copyright) is also available electronically, but in between lies the whole vast expanse of literature of the twentieth century, much of it out of print and unobtainable and mainly subject to copyright restrictions. While it is frustrating for me to see titles which are so hard to come by appearing on reading lists (and knowing that I am the one who is deemed to have fallen short by not finding enough of them available second-hand), you cannot simply expect academic choice to be restricted to material which is readily available. If you are teaching late twentieth century Welsh literature, you will want your course to include the study of the most important texts, regardless of whether someone has considered them commercially viable.

There are some glimmers of hope: various informal suggestions have been made as to how to address the situation, and there has been the subsidised "Library of Wales" series which reprints English-language titles which are hard to find. Just recently, Wiliam Owen Roberts' "Y pla", a post-modernist novel first published in 1987 and much beloved of academics, has been reprinted in Welsh for the first time. It has in the intervening twenty-five years appeared in several other languages and sold particularly well in German, but in its own country it has been unobtainable (it was already out of print when I studied it at university fifteen years ago). Our perceived lack of copies has been the subject of many complaints over the years (it appears on reading lists roughly once every two or three years) - and yet, we do have fifteen, which really ought to have been enough!

The particular problems posed by the Welsh publishing scene in the context of an academic library are difficult, but there are other subjects too in which material is hard to obtain (particularly in the humanities).

We can't expect our students to understand the intricacies of copyright, the economics of publishing in a minority language, or dwindling library budgets, and our current emphasis on individual satisfaction doesn't really do much to encourage anyone to see the wood rather than the trees, as it were. I would love to know what to do about those high expectations, though! It feels as if we have led people to expect too much, and there is inevitable disappointment.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The back room and the back office

We are hearing a lot these days about the "back office". Everywhere you look, "efficiencies" are being achieved by slimming down the functions of the back office - that is, that part of an organisation which does not deal directly (face-to-face) with customers and clients, or taxpayers. (I was amused, when looking at a few websites as background for this post, to find that I couldn't view some of them in my local library as they don't make it through the local government firewall. The blocking is a bit arbitrary though: the most well-known - or notorious, depending on your point of view - UK-based outsourcing firms are not blocked).

"An alternative to hiring locally" is how one company advertises itself. Pause to consider that for a moment, and wonder just how any politician could ever recommend such a thing to his/her constituents. Pay, possibly with public money, to send work somewhere else, into someone else's economy (India, in the case of that company)? Bring this down to local level, and you are actually talking about the employment prospects of people you may know (and who have a vote) - and you are talking about impoverishing your own neighbourhood, as people without jobs cannot support local businesses, and some of them will need help in the form of benefits paid by taxing those who remain in employment. In Wales, this point appears to be at least partly understood and acted upon in the awarding of government contracts: it remains to be seen whether this idea will flourish.

I have worked in both the iniquitous "back office" and in the more immediately public parts of libraries. (I'm trying to avoid using the term "front line" here - it seems antagonistic and not an expression we should be using in terms of our relationship with the public - but I'm afraid that it's a very common term in this context!) I know that I depend on things happening successfully behind the scenes to make the "public" part of my job work well, and it is sad to see that the back office is seen as an inefficient encumbrance merely because it is hidden from view. (Is that the problem? Perhaps people don't really believe in the value of things they can't see happening?)

Capita is one of several well-known firms who offer not only to achieve efficiency in this area, but also, note, to "improve the end user experience" by doing so. The implication is that the users will be better off without your own in-house way of doing things (and your expensive staff with their long-standing employment rights). This is not very pleasant for a cataloguer to read, but if you're not one you might very well think that's fine. In which case, why stop there? Information Literacy in academic libraries might be a good candidate for outsourcing, when you consider it. Qualified teachers working for an agency (which could be one of the same well-known outsourcing firms) could do the work with more consistency across subjects than subject librarians, and less duplication of effort. (I'm not particularly advocating it myself, just playing devil's advocate and idly wondering whether the reaction to outsourcing might be rather different if it affected people in a more visible role).

The High Visibility Cataloguing blog is one step towards improving the general awareness of what cataloguers do in that mysterious and much-maligned "back office", encouraging cataloguers to emerge and engage, where possible, with the wider library community and beyond.

All larger workplaces have an element of hidden or "invisible" support. There used generally to be far more of these roles: those who have been around for a while will remember that at one time typing was confined to those who had qualifications in it. The back office has been shrinking for a long time. And the back room? A different thing entirely! Possibly not shrinking, but definitely has fewer cataloguers!

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Rule of Three

"The Rule of Three" - I love the name, it sounds like a Sherlock Holmes story! Nothing so exciting, of course: it is the name commonly given to a cataloguing rule from the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, and it's been there since the 1970s. (Wikipedia seems to think differently. "Inherently funnier, more satisfying"? hmmm). As AACR2 is on its way out, so too is this cast-iron rule, and it can't be allowed to pass without comment.

Here it is :

If responsibility is shared among more than three persons or corporate bodies and principal responsibility is not attributed to any one, two, or three, enter under title. Make an added entry under the heading for the first person or corporate body named.
[from AACR2, 1988, but the rule predates this edition].

RDA, the new code which is due to replace AACR2,  takes quite a different view, abolishing the idea of a "main entry", allowing all the authors to appear in their own right in the catalogue, and leaving far more policies up to "cataloguer's judgment".

What was the reason for the Rule of Three? It always seemed a bit mean to cut the authors off arbitrarily. A book with one, two, or three authors would include an entry in the catalogue for all three authors: more than that, and they were abruptly relegated to an added entry for the first author, and not even a whisper of a mention for the others. The trouble with it, at least for academic libraries, was trying to stick to the rule in the face of upset authors (often members of the academic staff known to the librarians) who didn't take kindly to being airbrushed from the catalogue.

Cataloguing rules seem to be a mystery to non-cataloguing librarians, who probably think that the cataloguers in their institutions make all these things up as they go along. We have had librarians of long standing (caught between intransigent cataloguers and miffed authors) insisting to us that they have never heard of this rule. Making things up might have been possible when each catalogue was a separate being in its own institution, but these days everything is visible on the web and many records are shared. This saves a lot of time and money and avoids the waste of duplication. It also means you need the rules even more - all that saving of time and avoiding of duplication goes down the drain if you are then constantly altering policies to suit local needs or tinkering with individual records on a random basis (i.e. when someone complains).

Like many rules, it dated from the days of the card catalogue, and it was probably partly designed to reduce the typing and filing of catalogue cards. Three was as good a cut-off point as any. Technology moved on long ago, and the idea of the "main entry" is no longer so important in the catalogue (it's still useful for allocating suffixes to classmarks for shelving purposes). While there is some additional work involved in including all the authors of a multi-author work, it is not the laborious drawer-filling process it would have been in terms of extra cards. There was a bit more to it than that, though: AACR2's definition of a personal author is "the person chiefly responsible for the creation of the intellectual or artistic content of a work" (21.1A1), and once you get beyond three authors you might well wonder whether you can say this of all of them. The "main entry" concept is also still as relevant as ever in bibliographic citation, which can these days be derived directly from the catalogue.

I think I can safely say that of all cataloguing rules the Rule of Three has probably been the cause of most complaints over the years, at least in the academic libraries I have worked in. Heddwch i'w llwch, as we say in Wales.

Monday, 1 October 2012

You can't have it in Welsh because ...

1. It would cost thousands of pounds

2. It would confuse people

3. It would make people have accidents

4. Of course we all want it to be in Welsh but at times like these we have to tighten our belts, it's a luxury we can't afford, we could be spending the money on children in hospital, people will have to go without their operations if you have it in Welsh ... [&c. &c. ad infinitum - increasingly frantic variations on 1.]

5.  It isn't compatible with the software

6.  But everyone speaks English anyway

7.  It's too much work to have it in Welsh, so if it has to be in Welsh as well you can't have it at all

8.  It can't be translated because it is a brand name

9.  The Welsh version is a work in progress

10. "You can never have it in Welsh because you have an insatiable appetite; if you have it in Welsh you will never be satisfied, you will want more and more!" - or words to that effect; paraphrasing the late Lord Tonypandy

Have I missed any?

Friday, 14 September 2012

As easy as ABC

At one time, alphabetical order was something we were all used to using. When I was at primary school, we even lined up in the yard in alphabetical order of surname (an early lesson for me in alphabetical discrimination!) At secondary school we sat in that order in class: the friends I still have from school days mainly had surnames beginning with "P".  If you wanted somebody's phone number, you went to the phone book, which in those simple nationalised days contained most people's numbers in one sequence, and you used your knowledge of the alphabet to find the right page. You were used to the idea that a page headed Allen-Atkins would include names such as Andrews and Ash. (All right, some people didn't get it even then, but it worked pretty well).

Times have changed. The phone book which popped through our door last week is a shadow of its former self. (It's still in alphabetical order, but it's not so useful now that so many people are not in it!)

Students give the impression that they are not used to alphabetical order, but as a parent I know that children do still get taught the alphabet. Younger children's classrooms still have colourful letters with pictures of things beginning with the appropriate letter round the walls in alphabetical order, just as we had. (You can even practise getting the order right here !) Perhaps it is more that students have already forgotten something they used to know, because it is no longer needed to the same extent in daily life.

The library catalogue is now in its death throes, with the new discovery platforms jettisoning the idea of linear lists arranged by alphabetical order. Internet searching has given us so many more ways of finding what we are looking for. We can't get rid of the concept that easily, though. Our books are classified using LC, which is based on the alphabet. P is a section, PR is another section, PS is another one again, and that is the order in which those sections are shelved. That second letter seems to cause a lot of confusion. Use the index to any book, and you are back with the same "phone book" principle. In an e-book you may be able to search for the term you want and find information without it, but the physical object still requires you to be able to use one.

Print periodicals, the actual hard copy physical objects (of which we still do have many, especially in humanities subjects) have to be arranged on the shelf, and traditionally that is in alphabetical order. Very often I have found people looking bewildered and saying things like "it's complete chaos", "it's not in any order" and even "why aren't they in alphabetical order?" They are, of course, in alphabetical order, but this sequence includes a further element, a large number of Welsh language titles, which throws people. "W" and "Y" are vowels, but they look strange to the uninitiated (which might include casual shelvers).

Then there is that nasty habit they have of changing their titles. Keep them together on the shelf in one sequence, say the academics - it's the same thing, it may have changed its title but everyone in the academic community knows it is the same thing. Well, fine on the shelves in your own study, perhaps, but if you try this in a large library it will soon come undone - every student and shelver would also have to be able to recognise it, and the only way round that is to complicate your acquisition process and add a whole lot of extra manual labelling (and it probably wouldn't work even then). (There's one glorious exception to this - Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies became Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies when its editorial team moved from Cambridge to Aberystwyth, apparently with a view to keeping it together on the shelf. Strictly speaking, the new title should come before the older one, but it really is close enough to work!)

Finally, there's that old problem of recognising that signage tends to refer to either end of the sequence but not to everything in between. In the card catalogue days, this meant knowing that a drawer which was labelled A-C would include B even if it didn't say so. Our end-of-shelf signs do much the same at the moment. I am toying with the idea of having a full shelf list at the ends of the shelves instead, for more clarity (in alphabetical order, of course!)

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Judging (Welsh) books by their covers

If the death of the physical book ever does happen, I suppose the question of book covers may become redundant. For now, however, they are still really important, and don't let anyone persuade you otherwise!

In academic libraries they mean little: the one where I work actually throws the paper covers away (this is a bit upsetting when they are particularly attractive!) A recent technological innovation borrowed from the world of bookselling, the facility to display images of the covers next to the catalogue records, has caused some confusion - the image is meant to help the user locate the book easily, but that doesn't work if the pretty cover has been chucked out. On the whole, though, users in academic libraries are more interested in the contents than the superficial appearance of books.

This is not so in bookshops, where a good cover judiciously displayed can make a difference to sales. In my public library past we were well aware that the same thing applies to the lending of books. Face-on displays of books made a big difference to borrowing figures. You could more or less manipulate what got borrowed by your choice of items for display, and that choice was I fear very often determined by the quality of the covers. However well-written and interesting a book is, it will not be borrowed by casual library users if it has a plain or boring cover. Sad, but true.

Living in a part of Wales where Welsh-speakers are not well represented among library staff, I tended to keep an eye out for the Welsh books arriving in my branch when I worked in the public library; I don't work there now, but I do use a different branch as a regular borrower, and one thing that caused problems then still seems to now. I would often find myself trying to persuade my colleagues that a particular book, despite its bright jolly cover, was actually a novel for adults; and now as the parent of a Welsh-speaking child in primary school I equally often find racy adult fiction categorised as children's stories, again probably because of the covers. I can only really comment on the Welsh ones, but of course the library has a collection of books in other languages which the staff also don't speak, so the same may be true of those too.

I wonder whether the artwork on Welsh book covers is different enough to be confusing? There are quite a few adult novels concerned with childhood (but from an adult perspective), and these are the ones which are most likely to have illustrations reminiscent of children's books on their covers. Thus, books retrieved from the children's section include Lleucu Roberts' Iesu Tirion and Angharad Tomos' Si hei lwli (both of which have the titles of children's songs - a hymn and a lullaby respectively - as their titles).  These books are not meant for young children!

How do we judge what the content of a book may be, especially when we have no plans to read it ourselves? and, moreover, do not speak the language? The artwork on the cover is not always the best way - but perhaps we are so used to judging by image that we have forgotten this.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Living within our means: or, Queen Mary goes shopping

Ever since the banking crash we have been subjected to a lot of propaganda aimed at persuading us to lower our expectations. We have been living beyond our means, we must not have things we can't afford, the deficit (I think this is what we used to call the National Debt - it's not new, by the way!) is all our fault. We must close libraries and children's playgrounds, must work for nothing, must work forever (for nothing, presumably), and must listen to our betters.

Anyone would think that in the past people always lived within their means. To be fair, most of us did. In the 1960s, HP (hire purchase), an early form of credit, was looked down on by many who continued to go without the consumer goods which were being heavily advertised. It's a vicious circle: businesses can't expand if nobody can afford their goods, so if everybody lives within their means it is difficult to expand business.

An acquaintance whose father was a GP before and during the transition to the NHS mentioned that he, like many doctors at the time, feared that the NHS would have a detrimental effect on his income, but that he soon realised that this was not the case: whereas in the past he had treated poor people for nothing, he now got paid for it; slightly less poor people who had very little used to try to pay even if it meant great sacrifices, or if they had no money would pay in kind (the doctor was never short of eggs); but rich people, I quote, "didn't pay their bills anyway". The doctor's bill was treated like the bills of other tradesmen and, largely, ignored.

This reminded me of some of the stories I'd heard from elderly relatives and acquaintances. Queen Victoria, for instance, would (according to my great grandmother) descend on a hotel on the French Riviera and occupy it for the summer with her retinue. Great for business? Not exactly - she never paid the bill. Everything free, essentially, for the whole summer - which would just about bankrupt the unfortunate hotelier.

Rumours abound - too many to mention - of the visits of Queen Mary to antique shops, stately homes, country houses, all culminating with the owners parting company with their possessions. I would love to know whether any of this can be verified: I have heard stories about it from so many unconnected people that it is hard to imagine that it is all untrue. I have even been told that shops in Union Street, Ryde (Isle of Wight) had an unofficial Queen Mary insurance scheme, with boys keeping a lookout and running up the street to warn shopkeepers if the Queen was on her way, so that by the time she landed the shutters would be up and the shops shut.

Only little people pay taxes - or, indeed, pay for anything. Something to bear in mind, when you are being lectured by people telling you to live wthin your means.

Monday, 13 August 2012

So you want my opinion?

I don't suppose I'm the only one whose heart sinks at the end of every course, activity, indeed just about anything these days, when the ubiquitous "feedback" forms appear, or when requests to spend anything from "5-10 minutes" to "should take no more than 30-40 minutes" of (precious!) time filling in surveys pop into my inbox, or, infuriatingly, dance across my screen when I land on a website (no! I haven't got time! and I haven't even had a chance to look at your website yet, because you interrupted me before I could!) On occasion I have had the equivalent of half a day's work's worth of feedback and surveys to do - every one may only take a little time but the sum of the whole is too much.

Once you start noticing, you will realise just how many "news" stories are actually based on surveys - either produced by consultants or, just possibly (surely not) by lazy journalists asking a couple of people in the office. These surveys can't be representative (you won't be asked to take part in a telephone survey if you are registered with the TPS, for instance). They are a written version of the vox pop - a cheap way of filling a newspaper or website.

How reliable are the responses? Put another way, how are the questions phrased? Surveys which have an end in view often contain leading questions (they are easy to spot if you are looking for them, but still, lots of people are not looking for them). Thus, a survey on behalf of a local authority which asks its residents "List in order of importance: child protection, social services for the elderly, public libraries" has an agenda behind it. Don't be surprised if such a survey is used as evidence that residents won't mind if their library closes.

We most certainly do need to listen to our users or customers, and the very ubiquity of the feedback forms should ensure that we get a broader view than if we only had complaints to consider. But, a plea from the other side of the fence - feedback fatigue! Regurgitation, even! Ill-considered responses rushed in hurry to get the form-filling done are not really very much use to anyone (and I've been as guilty as anyone of galloping through them).  I wonder (from the point of view of the person who might be reading the feedback/survey) whether it ought to be impossible to get away with a sweeping generalisation or nebulous reply - should we always ask for concrete examples to back up what is being said? (I'd find this useful from the library point of view - though maybe not when I'm the one filling in the surveys!)

Those of you who like me work in higher education institutions will be aware that it's the time of year when the results of the National Student Survey are about to burst upon us. Food, or feedback, for thought!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Back to the future (or, a cataloguing history lesson)

It is interesting to note that as technology develops and more functions become possible, with each big new step forward we seem to lose something that worked well in the past.

When library automation was in full swing in the 1980s and early 1990s, the main point of it appeared at first to be for circulation purposes. It was usual to continue the card catalogue alongside the automated circulation system, and records for books and other items which were first uploaded were very basic, as they were not intended to take the place of the catalogue. Once it was fully realised that everything could be integrated, the detail of print catalogue records was sometimes lost in the process.

Automation has the advantage of speed, and of freeing staff from tedious manual chores. The demise of the card catalogue meant, oh joy, no more laborious filing (a job which usually fell to the junior staff), and no more negotiation with secretaries about typing priorities (younger readers may not appreciate that you were never supposed to admit to being able to type yourself, especially if you were male).

Between the card catalogue and the automated catalogue came that hybrid, the catalogue on microfiche. The cataloguer would still be working on paper, filling in a form manually: the data entry was done onto tapes by clerical assistants, sent away, and eventually returned in fiche form once a month (the time lag between cataloguing a book and the fiche arriving could be as much as nine months. Yes, nine months.). It then had to be checked for errors and if there were any the whole process had to be done again. The card catalogue was quicker, despite the typing and filing, and there was often an interim stage of keeping records of the items which had not yet appeared on the fiche. It was possible, therefore, to have as many as three or four different places to look for catalogue records.

The next big technological advance, the web-based OPAC, meant that items catalogued could be visible immediately, and corrected instantly. How spoiled we have been with it! Has it turned us into sloppy typists? An error can be corrected while someone tells you about it over the phone. Refresh the page, and, hey presto! the mistake has vanished!

Technology continues to advance, and soon we will be following all the other libraries who have moved on, away from the catalogue to a resource discovery platform which treats the data more in the way a database does, allowing more flexibility of ways of searching. It's a long way from the card catalogue or the microfiche. There's always a drawback, though, and for me the fact that instant amendment and the ability to see what you have just done immediately will no longer be possible is a big one, as we will now have to wait overnight before our records are visible. (This is also not ideal for the part-timer!) Never mind, we have been here before in terms of gains and losses, and this loss won't be apparent to the users. It does feel like a step back to me, though!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Random thoughts on subject headings in library catalogues (warning: full of cataloguing jargon)

At Cardiff University, we allocate Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH) to our catalogue records. This was not always the case: before we acquired our current web-based LMS in 1999 we did not do this, but with our LMS came lots of records from other libraries which did, and we also took part in a collaborative cataloguing project at around the same time which asked for them. Since then we have gone with the flow and tried to use them, with varying degrees of consistency.

I had used LCSH before, but that was many moons ago, when basic records of books were added to a computerised system for circulation purposes only and the catalogue was a separate beast entirely. The structure of LCSH is designed as far as I can see mainly for either a card catalogue or a printed reference book. The headings do not really make much sense when not seen in hierarchical form, and it's unlikely that many users actually search them in the way originally intended (browsing them in some sort of linear progression).

In the period between the card catalogue and the web-based OPAC, we did have a basic keyword search function, and over time the practice was to add simple (but completely uncontrolled) keywords to the records. As the system would not search words which occurred within the title of a book, very often these words were the keywords (now redundant, though many are still there). I no longer add them except in the rare cases where I really feel that only a British English word (or even a Welsh word) will be useful to our own users and the word in question does not appear in the title of the book. Sometimes I wonder why we go to so much trouble to find the right LCSH which, when found, turns out to be a term none of us would ever use. On the other hand, there are dangers in the freedom of the uncontrolled keyword too. Our older collections contain works couched in language which would not be used today, and in the past these books were sometimes catalogued by people who were not aware of various nuances and shibboleths and general opportunities for causing offence through choice of words. (I think I have now found and removed all the "610.20 Church of Rome" headings which I came across, likewise "Papists", and various other keywords suggested by the titles of the works of forthright early Protestant clergy).

As we move to the next stage, the new generation "resource discovery platforms" which are replacing the more structured catalogue, I wonder whether LCSH still fulfils its purpose, or whether we should once again be looking at something less rigid. Ideas, please!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Un-American activities : or, politics and the Library of Congress

Every now and then, the cultural biases inherent in LCSH (Library of Congress subject headings) pull me up short when trying to assign headings. The radical cataloguer Sanford Berman (yes, a radical cataloguer!) has made this field his own (and has even had some influence in changing some of them). However, there are many infelicities still lurking among the headings waiting to trap the unwary. Cataloguers are supposed to catalogue, not to pass judgment, but sometimes it is difficult to use the terms supplied without being judgmental.

The term which gave me pause for thought recently was "left-wing extremists". Unless I have missed something (which is quite possible, as I stumble my way through the dual barriers of American English and lack of natural language) this is the only generic term for people of left-wing political beliefs. You can have socialists and communists, and you can have "Right and left (Political science)", but none of these seemed quite right for a book about the left in Welsh politics - specifically, how the Labour Party copes with or reacts to or is affected by the left-wing element in Plaid Cymru. These are mainstream political parties, most of whose members would not describe themselves as extremists.

I muddled through without using the heading, pausing only to wonder whether in the eyes of Congress and its Library any person of left-leaning tendencies is automatically an "extremist".

Saturday, 12 May 2012

"Your browser is out of date"

Browser issues are making life difficult! I can't update my browser at home until we can find a way of resetting a lost administrator password, and as browsers in use at work are not mine to choose I can't do much about it there either. As Blogger is no longer working properly with my browser (yes, dear Blogger, we do know you want everyone to use Google Chrome) this blog will be rather neglected for a while except for snatched opportunities at the public library. Good job we still have one!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Geography and the Library of Congress

I've worked in several libraries which use the Library of Congress classification scheme, and on the whole I get on well with it. It's a scheme usually found in university or other large libraries. At the moment I am having a crash revision course in LC classification as we are planning to reclassify a section of our library which has hitherto had its own idiosyncratic in-house scheme. The in-house scheme is simpler, but as is the way with such things it does not cope very well with changes of direction in subjects (larger schemes such as LC or Dewey have more flexibility built into them).

I've used LC in every large library I have worked at, and used it as a library user too, so I have been quite surprised to find that libraries using it seem to be in the minority. This is frustrating my attempts to cheat by lifting other people's numbers - and I am also finding that all the libraries who do use it seem to break down at some point and start introducing their own variations. Even the Library of Congress itself can be inconsistent in how it applies its own classification scheme.

At the moment my main source of LC-inspired distress relates to its shaky grasp of British geography (and law). Of course it is an American scheme, and as such is Americentric. The order in which countries come tends to follow a pattern which puts the Americas first whenever a section is divided geographically, followed by Europe. This is absolutely fine, although I find it a bit strange that the main history sections don't follow the same pattern (Europe comes first there, with America trailing far behind).

Slightly more vexing but still understandable is the fact that some sections go into great detail for the Americas, particularly the US, but then throw in one number for "other regions and countries" which seems to mean "the whole of the rest of the world". Of course the scheme was meant for the Library of Congress's own collections, but at this point it becomes a lot less useful for everyone else. We are trying to get away from having shelves and shelves all at the same number, which is what following the scheme to the letter would produce where dealing with a collection which is mainly about other regions and countries. Here begins the slide down the path of local variations, which can seem like a good solution at the time but bring their own problems in the future. (Dimly I am now remembering being told in a previous job to use all the lovely detailed US numbers for Britain. OK, but then what happens when you get books which really are about the US? Does it become one of the "other regions and countries"?)

More of a problem than the emphasis (which is expected) is the sheer uncertainty with which the Library of Congress, both in its classification scheme and in its subject headings, contemplates British geography. On the one hand, until fairly recently it didn't really seem to understand the distinct nature of the home nations at all, but at the same time it also did not (and still does not) acknowledge the United Kingdom as an entity. This is perplexing to British users, who usually encounter either those who care about the Union and wish the United Kingdom to remain united, OR those who are quite clear about its separate parts having separate identity (and it's possible to do both - but not usual to do neither). The Act of Union predates the Library of Congress (and predates American independence, come to that) so why does the UK have no place in its scheme? On the other hand, despite the Act of Union, Scotland has always had its own separate legal system, so what is this "Great Britain" which pops up everywhere in inappropriate places?

On a more local level, Monmouthshire is still in England according to the classification scheme (along with all its towns), although the subject headings have caught up and put it in Wales. The Isle of Man seems to be treated as an English island (don't tell them!). I am generally in favour of standards for the sake of consistency over the years (we have too many examples in our use of the scheme of strange local practices the reasons for which have long been forgotten), but I am going to have to make some exceptions for some of these.

I realise I may be a bit of a pedant. On the other hand, if devising a system of organising knowledge, at least try to avoid inaccuracy!

Here's my rough guide to Britain and British mysteries, especially for our friends at the Library of Congress (and others who may be perplexed):

The British Isles: geographical term referring to all the islands. No politics involved.
The Channel Islands: British crown dependencies. Not England. Not UK. Not really part of the British Isles but near enough ...
England: the biggest bit of the main British island. East of Wales and south of Scotland, no overlap!
England and Wales: a legal jurisdiction. (which Great Britain is not. Despite the subject headings.).
Great Britain: the biggest island in the archipelago. (Also known on the Isle of Wight as the North Island).
Ireland: second largest island in the archipelago. Split into two territories due to partition in 1920. The Republic is an independent state.
Isle of Man: island in the Irish Sea. Another crown dependency with its own parliament. Not part of the UK! Definitely not part of England and never has been!
Isle of Wight: island off the south coast of England. This one really is part of England!
Monmouthshire: is in Wales. Always has been, although its position was ambiguous particularly in the 19th century.
Northern Ireland: the official name of the part of Ireland which remains part of the United Kingdom. It is not in Great Britain though: there is a sea to get across!
Scotland: the northern part of the main British island, with islands of its own. A Kingdom (same monarch as England since 1603); united politically with England by Act of Union 1707. Has always had its own legal system & education system (and now has own parliament). Is a legal jurisdiction (which Great Britain is not, see above!)
Tynwald: the parliament of the Isle of Man, supposedly the oldest in the world. The House of Commons is an upstart in comparison!
The United Kingdom (= of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) A legal jurisdiction! Includes England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. The government elected to sit in Westminster is the United Kingdom government. Not the government of Great Britain (which is a large island but is not a legal jurisdiction, yes?)
Wales: Is not part of England. Henry VIII's Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542 absorbed it into the English legal system (hence "England and Wales"). Is part of the main island, also has some islands of its own. Now has some devolved powers and an elected Assembly.

All quite simple really! (I'll leave Cornwall for another day ...)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The books of the dead, and the subject librarian

One regular job that raises its head in the life of the subject librarian is the question of "legacy" collections. Surprisingly often I am sent huge lists of the books of the recently deceased, sometimes with an offer to go to houses to look through somebody's lifetime's collection. With a subject like Welsh, these houses full of books are not necessarily local, and sometimes instead I have to do the work remotely, attempting to judge from a list what might be useful and trying to work out how to get it from a distance (even from another country).

This can be an enormously time-consuming job. If it is merely a question of checking a list against what is in stock in our library and what is not, I can get someone else to do the checking - but it isn't usually as simple as that. We may already have a couple of copies of a book which is long out of print, but if it is in high demand a couple is not enough: a mechanical search rejecting duplicates won't pick up on such a gem. You need a fairly good knowledge of the subject to spot what may be potentially useful. The tendency for arbitrary stock selection criteria relating to the age of an item won't help with a humanities subject.

There are also practical difficulties. I do have a car (a lot of my subject librarian colleagues do not drive), but  I don't have parking rights at work, so actually unloading and carting boxes of books in an appropriate place isn't without problems. These collections are not always offered for nothing, so there is the question of finding money for them, and families often have no idea what to ask for. As we already have a broad and comprehensive collection in my subject area, I am more likely to want to fill gaps rather than take a whole library off someone's hands, but if the family is looking to sell the books, they would usually, understandably, rather take an offer for the whole lot than have people cherry-picking.

If you don't actually see the books, you can be in for some unwelcome surprises. People will tell you that they are in good condition, but that's a relative term. Yellowing Reader's Digest compends and the cheap paperbacks of yesteryear may have had sentimental value for someone, but they are not going to enhance a university's bookstock (this is a fairly regular issue in public libraries too - no doubt those libraries which have been decoupled from professional supervision and stock selection will be a dumping ground for much of this sort of thing).  In Wales, we have the added occasional hazard of chapels closing down, many of them having had vestries with their own libraries, once valuable community resources but often more recently sadly neglected. Items which might once have been welcome may have deteriorated beyond the point at which it may be reasonable to try to repair them. Condition is very much in the eye of the beholder. If you can't see what you're getting, be prepared for other unpleasantnesses: one colleague once arranged (expensive) transport for boxes of books from someone's house, and found herself having to dispose of, mainly, old clothes and other jumble which came with them.

Sometimes there are moments of sheer delight, as on the occasion when a bereaved son discovered among his father's possessions approximately fifty 19th century books which had been removed from our library years ago. They were all part of the original personal collection of Enoch Salisbury, and were all to do with the history of Glamorgan. This was embarrassing for the son, but we were pleased to have them back!

So many important Welsh books are out of print and unobtainable that the only place they can be (unless they have all been pulped) is in the houses of the elderly, so I am always hopeful of finding gold when a collection becomes available. On the whole, though, the amount of effort I put in to checking long lists against stock and making practical arrangements is disproportionate to any benefit ultimately gained by the library.

The whole question of book collections in private houses is fraught with sensitive issues. Bereaved people don't want to hear that you don't want their loved one's prized possessions. Sometimes they are under pressure of time to clear a house. Perhaps the dead relative had always expressed a wish that his/her books should go to their own old university library. It's a minefield! It's also one I'm personally very aware of, as I come from a family with a serious book habit myself. My father was a son of the manse, as was his own father, and he himself was an academic, so that's three generations of book accumulation, and I used to buy a lot of books too (I've slowed down now, due to lack of money and space). My husband grew up in a large rectory, so he also was exposed to the book habit from early on, and he is less disciplined than I am in trying not to persist. The clergy have a lot to answer for in the book sphere! The Methodist manse at one time came equipped with furniture and household goods, rather like army married quarters, so pictures and books were the only personal items on view in the home, and in my grandparents' case they went all over the country from Shetland to Portland. We have not kept everything which belonged to the now deceased book collectors in the family, but we still have an awful lot and the sentimental value they have for us won't be the same for those who come after us. I am not naive enough to think that any library will be interested in much of it (with the exception of certain subjects); no doubt we are also guilty of creating a problem for future generations.

With the advent of the e-reader, perhaps the book problem will be one day be worse than I have been thinking. I'm not sure I can cope with the thought of all these books being of no value to anyone, nor can I imagine living in a bookless house. We are still a good way off the "everything is on the Internet" scenario so much beloved of politicians and journalists, but the secondhand book market may certainly suffer. If it does, there will be a tidal wave of books emerging from the houses of the dead one day, and some hard decisions to make, both personally and for librarians.

Thursday, 8 March 2012


Generally speaking, there's no better way to wind up a librarian than all the "sssssshhhh" jokes and comments about librarians. It's a stale cliché beloved of sit-com writers and journalists.

At my school we had a librarian who did think that silence in the library was important, so much so that she used to shriek and shout this belief as loudly as possible at five-minute intervals. She was an extreme example: but far from being "shushers", lots of people who work in libraries are themselves the target of complaints about noise. At the busy public reference library in London where I spent six years staff were regularly "shushed" by the public, never the other way round.  And the phone! We were trained to ignore the phone if it rang while we were dealing with enquiries (we often had queues at our enquiry desk). John Major's Citizen's Charter suddenly turned this upside down - local government workers were commanded to answer the phone within so many rings, or seconds (interestingly, the party which believes in rolling back the state is actually quite keen on dictating daily detail to public sector workers - I digress). I am sure that Mr. Major's big idea was aimed at people working in offices, or that there was an underlying assumption that you would not be trying to answer the phone AND talk to people in person at the same time, but it didn't work very well for us. It did not come naturally to me to break off in the middle of an enquiry from someone physically present in order to let someone on the phone effectively jump the queue, and I hate it when anyone does this to me if I am at any kind of enquiry point or till.

On the other hand, how irritating the sound of an unanswered phone can be! S4C's drama Teulu, set partly in a doctors' surgery, perfectly captures the tense atmosphere created by a constantly ringing phone in the background. This noise (and we had two phones) used to enrage those who wanted silence in the library. I'm not sure what the answer to this one is, other than to recommend that those seeking silence should not choose to sit close to the enquiry desk - and to wish that staffing levels were more generous, so that you would not have frazzled people trying to do too many things at once and unable to keep up with the level of demand.

Another problem in the public library is that some really don't want to share the facilities. The internet seems to be full of people complaining about the very presence of children in libraries, for instance. It's a difficult balance to get right. Back in that reference library (a child-free zone, mainly), we did a (highly unscientific) user survey one year, and exactly equal numbers of the old and young complained about the other group's presence. Children and young people tend to get the blame for noise, but in fact older people can be quite noisy themselves ("old people coming in here to gossip with their friends when we are trying to study" was how one student put it). A public library is meant to be for everyone (and yes, children are people too, and the days of being seen and not heard belong to a bygone age); sharing usually involves compromise. My personal bugbear is mobile phone conversations in the library. You can turn your phone off occasionally, the world doesn't come to an end! Put it on silent and use texting instead if you really can't cope with being cut off from your lifeline for a bit! People using computers in the public library are particularly prone to this for some reason. "Hello! I'm in the library!" We know, we are also in the library!

In the university library we are a bit more spoiled. We try to manage noise by having different zones for different activities. There's the busy area around the desk, where noise is acceptable and expected, with the ringing phone and the enquiries. We also have an area in the basement, the e-lounge, where students can relax or use computers and where things not encouraged elsewhere in the library are allowed. We have other areas which are designated as silent study areas. The rarified atmosphere of a proper reading room (which is probably what a lot of people would still really like in their public libraries) is closest to being achieved in our Special Collections room, although we are cheating a bit in that it does not have an actual enquiry desk or phone, the source of most library noise, in its public area.

I have never ever shushed anybody in a library (a rude and abrupt way of communicating with people!). I have occasionally asked them politely to keep the noise down, and to desist from things like climbing on chairs and making general announcements to fellow readers, and I don't tend to raise my own voice unless something particularly unacceptable is going on: BUT I cannot do my job if I have to whisper at everyone or use semaphore. I can't whisper on the phone because the person at the other end won't be able to understand me, and I would very much prefer people with questions to ask them audibly and not whisper them at me at point-blank range. Talking to people, both in person and on the phone, is a big, important part of a librarian's job.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The case of the missing butler: Richard Ferdinand Glanville, 1820-1886

I dabble in genealogy in my spare time: mostly, so far, my own family. Last year, however, I spent several months on the trail of someone else's family, and I uncovered a (to me) shocking, but it seems not unusual, story.

My elderly cousin had found a crumpled old copy of his father's birth certificate, and realised that he knew nothing about his father's antecedents: his father's father had died very young, and the mother changed the child's name to that of her second husband. As an adult he reverted to his birth name, but other than the name nothing was known. As it wasn't my own family I didn't go down the path of buying certificates and verifying things, but went along to my local public library and made use of the databases such as and Findmypast which can be searched there free using the CyMAL-funded subscription. I found a lot of information which my cousin's family can build on if they wish, in particular the story of their direct ancestor, Richard Glanville. Finding the website of Jay Glanville who has made a one-name study of the Glanvilles was a help, too (he is prepared to give Richard the benefit of the doubt a little more than I am, but essentially we have come to the same conclusions about his life).

Richard’s history is a complicated one, but thanks to modern technology it is a now little easier to trace someone’s progress than it must have been at the time! Even so it took quite a while to work out.

Richard was one of the younger children of John Glanville, carpenter, of Ewelme, Oxon., and his wife Mary. The middle name Ferdinand is unusual (and a help in identifying him, although he seems to have dropped it in mid-life). It occurs again later in the family.

Richard Ferdinand Glanville was born on 31st Jan. 1820 and baptised at Ewelme on 16th. April. I have not found him on the 1841 census, but he was in London by the mid 1840s. In 1844 and 1845 he seems to have been very busy indeed: on 16th October 1844 a child, also Richard Glanville, "illegitimate", was born in the workhouse at St. George's, Southwark. The mother was Margaret Nott and the father Richard Glanville, porter, of Wellclose Square. The baby was baptised on 8th November. Given the subsequent history, I am inclined to think that the father is Richard from Ewelme. Wellclose Square is in the East End, near Cable Street. This could be someone else: no other records place Richard Ferdinand there (but we do know that he made his way a bit further north to Hackney). I include it as a possibility.

A few months later, on 12th February 1845, a child, Wilfred, was born to Elizabeth Pier; on 11th May, the banns of marriage between Richard Ferdinand Glanville, servant, “of this parish”, and Elizabeth Pier of the parish of Hackney St. John are recorded at St. Mary’s, Lambeth, Surrey. On 27th July, the following baptism took place at Hackney St. John: Baptismal names: Wilfred Glanville; Parents: Richard Ferdinand and Elizabeth; Surname: Peir. Richard's address is given as Margaret Street, occupation servant; the child was "reported born 12th Feb. 1845". (This baptism is of course indexed as Peir). One week later, the marriage took place on 4th August 1845 at St. Mary’s Lambeth, Surrey, between Richard Ferdinand Glanville, servant, Mount Street, “of this parish”, and Elizabeth Pier, of Hackney St. John. Richard's father is named as John Glanville, carpenter. I am not convinced that Richard actually lived in the parish at all. I am not sure whether Margaret Street is the one in Hackney or the one in the West End, and the only Mount Street I am aware of is the one in Mayfair.

Richard certainly did work in the West End as well as his appearances further south and east. In fact, three weeks after the wedding, on 26th August 1845 at St. Marylebone workhouse, another child called Richard Glanville was born. His mother was Lydia Fagg, father Richard Glanville, butler (no address given). This child was baptised on 15th September. I am sure that this is the same Richard the butler fathering another child:  his occupation is subsequently given as “butler” on a number of occasions and he is the only one found so far in the one-name study of the Glanvilles.

Possibly, therefore, Richard was the father of three children by three different women born over a ten-month period, two of them in the workhouse, and even if the first was not his, he had at least two women expecting his children at the same time.

Richard and Elizabeth went on to have two more children, the last in 1850, but by the time of the 1851 census Richard was not at home. Elizabeth is found alone, "married", in Arthur Street, Hackney, with her three small children; Richard appears in his place of employment instead:

6 Ulster Terrace, Marylebone (The household of Catherine Parkman):
Richard Glanville, m, unm, 31, house servant. Place of birth: Ewelme, Oxon.

When I found this I originally thought that perhaps he had simply told his employer that he was unmarried because it might be politic to keep the existence of a wife and three children in the East End to oneself (in order to get a living-in job). However, on the 1851 census there is also:
Richard Glanville, m., widower, 31, carpenter. Place of birth: Oxford (at 4, Tarling Street, Tower Hamlets).

This could be a different person, but I'm inclined to think not. The Marylebone census was filled in by the householder, his employer: she may have listed all the servants whether or not they were under her roof on census night. He would not be the only person to have been listed twice (I've found others). The Tower Hamlets address is not far from Hackney, his father and brother were carpenters, and no other Richard from Oxfordshire aged 31 has turned up so far. He may even, as a carpenter's son, have started out working as one. "Widower" is obviously not accurate, but then neither is "unmarried". It seems that Richard had already left home.

His next appearance in the records is in 1854:
16th August 1854, St. Paul’s, Lisson Grove
Baptism of Richard Edward Glanville; Parents, Richard Ferdinand Glanville, servant, of 40, Milton Street, and Susan Louis, “born July 27th 1854”.

This one is indexed as Glanville, and the entry is a bit ambiguous. When I first found it (the first extra-marital infant I came across), I thought that Richard had made a bigamous marriage, but I cannot trace a marriage with Susan or find her afterwards. There is a death in the indexes for Richard Edward Glanville, Marylebone, in 1855, which is probably this child.

While searching for him and Susan, there was one more set of surprises:
1871 census
29, Boad Street, Manchester
Richard Glanville           head     mar.     51        hotel waiter       b. Ewelme, Oxfordshire
Jane Glanville                wife      mar.     48        tayloress employing 4 hands     b. Essex, Epping
George Glanville           son       unm.     14        pupil teacher     b. Liverpool
Kate Glanville               dau       unm.     12        school girl         b. Manchester
James Glanville  son       unm      6          school boy        b. Manchester
I am quite sure that this is him – the age and place of birth are spot on, and “hotel waiter” is not really such a big step from being a butler or house servant. I had however found a later entry first, which is a bit more ambiguous:

1881: census, at the same address in Manchester:
Richard Glanville           head     mar.     56        tailor employing 5 women b. Oxford
Jane Glanville                wife      mar.     50        tailoress    b. Epping
George Glanville           son       unm.     24        clerk          b. Liverpool
Kate Glanville               dau       unm      21        tailoress     b. Manchester
James Glanville son       unm.     16        clerk                     b. Manchester.
The ages of the adults are inconsistent, and the occupation of tailor is odd, but I think that it is her occupation, not his. (I did spend some time pursuing another Richard Glanville who was a tailor and who lived in London in 1851, but he is fully accounted for - he came from Devon and returned there). For me the information on the 1871 census clinches it despite the anomalies. Extraordinarily, one of the children has the same name as one of the children from the family with his wife!

I have not found any marriage between Richard and Jane, although they clearly lived as man and wife. I have found baptisms for two of the children (one has the occupation "butler" for the father); I've also identified who Jane was originally (I think). So it seems that after sowing many wild oats in London Richard finally settled down in Manchester and stayed with one woman for around thirty years! Although there are still many mysteries we do know where Richard ended up: he is buried in the Church of England section of the Southern Cemetery, Manchester. He died in December 1886 and was buried on 3rd January 1887. 

Poor Elizabeth, left behind taking in washing in the East End, seems to have had a miserable time. She appears on the censuses alone with her children, did not (presumably could not easily) remarry but describes herself as a widow after 20 years. She probably never knew where Richard had gone or whether he was still alive. Sadly she went blind in the 1870s, and had to go into the Hackney Union Workhouse, where she remained for the rest of her long life, dying there in 1911 aged nearly 90. What a life! Abandoned by a philanderer, struggling in poverty and then going blind and spending nearly 40 years in the workhouse! The only mitigating fact in her life was that she did not spend as much time in childbirth as a wife who had not been left would have done, and she succeeded in bringing up all her children and not losing any to the diseases which were rife in the overcrowded conditions in that part of London.

Desertion, bigamy and cohabitation were surprisingly common among the working classes in the 19th century. Richard could have been prosecuted and imprisoned for deserting Elizabeth and the children (the authorities' main concern was that an abandoned family might become a charge on the parish). He could also have been prosecuted had he committed bigamy, although it seems that he did not actually go through a marriage ceremony with Jane. Divorce was not an option for most people. By the time Elizabeth was old, one son was dead, one had emigrated, and one is so far unaccounted for but, like his father, absent from home. She had, in the end, outlived both her missing husband and his second "wife".

I have been unable to trace what happened to the two babies born in the workhouse.

Victorian values? No thanks!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Every man has his price: or, Fred. Olsen, the 2012 Olympics and a PR disaster

I've never been on a cruise: in fact, I haven't been abroad at all for nearly ten years. This year was going to be different: after much discussion and planning, I was going to be part of a family group celebrating two significant birthdays earlier in the year, and joining the Braemar, one of the four small cruise ships of long-established family firm Fred. Olsen, on a week's cruise round the Norwegian fjords at the end of August. The trip was booked over a year in advance. I can't say that the idea of cruises altogether appeals to me (the idea of a big brash boat certainly doesn't), but the smaller ships and the reputation of this company together with the attraction of seeing the fjords from the sea were enough to overcome my reservations, and I was looking forward to it.

Imagine my surprise last week on receiving a letter saying that the ship would now be unavailable in July/August due to "recently finalised commitments in respect of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games". No details, but a phone call elicited the information that the ship had been chartered by LOGOC. (I could have scooped the world on this, incidentally, as my letter arrived before any announcement was made, and the whole summer programme was still available to book on the company's website!) The letter explained that the party booking was being automatically transferred to a later date, giving only a week to decide whether or not to accept the new date, and as compensation for the inconvenience a credit of £100 a head to spend on board.

Obviously if an unforeseen event takes place, such as damage to a ship or an epidemic on board, changes in plan are understandable. Some of us no doubt remember a cruise ship being commandeered for service in the South Atlantic during the Falklands conflict in 1982, but that was an unexpected emergency. We have known about the Olympic Games coming to London in 2012 for nearly seven years. Just how incompetent is the committee not to have made its arrangements earlier than this? A total of seven cruises are apparently affected, some cancelled and some rescheduled, meaning that thousands have to be refunded and much good will lost. One has to ask how much money was offered or how much pressure was brought to bear on Fred. Olsen to make such a step worthwhile, taking into account the loss of loyal customers and potentially of future customers (I'm a bit younger than their target market), not to speak of the dent this hitherto well-thought-of firm will take to its reputation, for the sake of a one-off event.

I can't decide who has annoyed me more - Fred. Olsen for putting profit before customers and for letting so many people down, or LOGOC for being so cavalier and arrogant, and for leaving their arrangements so late in the day when they have had plenty of time to plan. It's like being hit in the face with a smelly wet fish - yet another reminder, if we needed any, that if someone with more power, money and influence than you comes along you will just be biffed out of the way as a minor inconvenience.

Obviously we will not now be sailing round the Norwegian fjords at the end of August. We have a prior commitment which clashes with the new date offered, and unlike Fred. Olsen I was brought up to honour prior commitments. Added to that there are such considerations as work, and last but not least the fact that the new dates offered do not fall within the school holidays (and nor does anything else which we could transfer our booking to). It's an early lesson for my disappointed son that the profit motive always comes first.

I am a bit surprised at how little attention this has received in the press, not because I expect people to be interested in my scuppered holiday plans, of course, but because of the behaviour of the committee. Although Fred. Olsen seem to be saying as little as possible about this matter (no announcement on their website, for instance - possibly they are rather ashamed of what they have done?) it appears that the Braemar is going to be docked in London and used as a floating hotel for Olympic workers, while only recently LOGOC released many previously block booked hotel rooms which it had reserved for this purpose. Who is paying the cruise company's costs and compensation? I hate to think that it might just possibly be me, if this is coming from the public purse!

We are usually more likely to be found having a couple of days in a B&B in Portland, Dorset - but we can't go there either this year, due to the wretched Olympics!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Part-time AND professional?

I've been thinking quite a lot about the issues raised by part-time work recently. I work part-time (three days a week spread over four), in a professional post. I didn't start out intending to work part-time at all, but it has happened several times: as I've already said here, once to accommodate voluntary work as a lay assistant in a parish church in London, once because I wanted to move back to Wales and had no luck at all finding a full-time job in order to do so, and now because of family commitments.

I am fully qualified with fairly wide experience and an unbroken if unconventional work record, and I consider myself professional in what I do. I try to keep up to date (which is getting increasingly difficult with the rapid pace of change!) and I try to complete what I can in the time which I have. It is never enough, and because of the family I cannot do what many of my colleagues do and stay on late to finish things. I'm limited in what I can take home with me too, although I have been known to do book ordering at midnight. What I cannot do is actually be in the building at midnight!

After a merciful lull in January (people wind down around Christmas and things don't always get going again straight away) we recently hit a patch of meeting frenzy at work. I had a meeting every day for nearly three weeks. Each meeting takes up proportionally more of your time if you are part-time. If your working day is a half day, and a meeting lasts for two hours, you probably have one hour left in which to get everything else done, whereas your full-time colleagues still have the whole afternoon. You cannot fill in only 50% or 60% of the many forms, surveys, and reports back to working groups which come your way. This eats into the time available for everything else: yet with the long opening hours which many libraries have there are raised expectations that service will match those hours. With academic libraries now open until midnight, or even all night, other solutions are found for staffing. Even in the public library in which I worked, there was no question of anyone (even the full-time staff) working all the hours the library was open (nearly 50 hours a week).

The image of the part-timer is generally negative: "never there", not committed, only doing it for pin money, I've heard it all (lots of times). I cannot imagine how any public library service could cope without part-time staff to cover those awkward evening and weekend slots as well as daytime hours (something anyone thinking it can be done on a voluntary basis will need to consider carefully). Lots of professional library posts are in fact part-time: there may be some historical reason for individual examples, but very often these days it is simply a matter of finance. Part-time/full-time posts can distort the job market for anyone who is looking for work. If you are unemployed and looking for a full-time post, the most interesting opportunities always seem to be part-time (which is certainly no good if a move is involved, as they will probably not pay enough to make a move worthwhile): whereas if you cannot work full-time you can be sure that the perfect full-time post will be advertised just when you are not available to do it. Swings and roundabouts - all I can say is that I am grateful that in libraries at least interesting part-time posts exist!

I'm only too well aware that it must be frustrating seeing your part-time colleagues rushing off in the middle of the day to reach the school gate or the nursery. The criticism that you should not be at work at all with such distractions and limitations on your work time lurks beneath the surface (most of the time). It's not a new argument. I'm not going to go into all the issues it raises here, except to point out that, long as it may seem, the period when you are raising young children is actually quite a small proportion of your whole working life (especially now that retirement age seems to be receding up to and beyond the allotted span), and stepping out of the profession s/he (but it's usually she) is educated and trained for may be an irrevocable step, as my own mother discovered to her cost.

Here is a comment from a blog in which a member of the public is, in passing, complaining about his local library service in East Anglia:

"An instance: I was pretty shocked to find that nearly all the staff were part-time, for instance. You can easily see how that is convenient for the staff — and if no-one says no, if no-one is really looking at whether the service is doing what it should, then why not? But you can’t do that, because it means that no-one is actually taking responsibility (as I found out). It’s a splendid way to spend exactly the same money as for a staff of professionals, but get much less good service."

Note how he takes for granted that part-time does not equal professional. I wonder how widespread that opinion is? I'm not endorsing the views of Roger Pearse - most of what he says seems to spring from a personal gripe - but that doesn't mean he is alone in them, and it is a depressing thought for someone like me. I know I could do my job better if I had more time for it, and I expect to have more time as my child grows up. We do, after all, rather depend on there being a next generation coming along in a university!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Library day in the life: round 8, day 4 (Thursday 2nd February 2012)

Day 4 was only a half day. I would usually have spent it in Special Collections (SCOLAR) working on the Cardiff rare books collection, which we are cataloguing to (we hope) high rare books standards, including the full range of notes on provenance, binding, former owners, &c. It's a prestigious acquisition for us, and has attracted a lot of attention already: we are working on the private press collection at the moment.

Be that as it may, I was also scheduled to take part in a two-hour test session on the new resource discovery platform, or next generation catalogue, with other colleagues, so that was how most of the morning was spent instead: exploring the potential of the new system and in particular trying to test whether certain functions work. Basically the new "catalogues" are not catalogues in the sense of lists of works, but databases. There are lots of interesting new possible ways of manipulating the information in them: there also seem to be some fairly major omissions. The session provided lots of food for thought. The scheme is not yet live and is still being developed, so I hope it is not too late to check on the reason for the omissions, and see whether this can be rectified.

Back downstairs to SCOLAR, but with only an hour left it was not really worth starting on the private press books, so I used the time to upgrade some records for some nineteenth century sermons which have thrown up some odd things on the catalogue, and to check some details for a blog post which I have prepared for the SCOLAR blog. With five of us contributing to this, we need to coordinate what we are doing, but my next contribution is (nearly) ready for whenever there is a convenient slot for it.

As I am part-time and don't work (in the library) on Fridays, that's the end of #libday8 for me. I still haven't got into the wiki: let's see if I can sign up before it finishes!

Library day in the life: round 8, day 3 (Wednesday 1st February)

Based in a different building today, where cataloguing is tucked away out of sight (and out of mind?) As I can't get to work much before 9.30 due to shepherding child to school, and as we had a two-hour general briefing session scheduled in yet another building at 10, my appearance at my desk was very brief. The ULS briefings are much less threatening then they sound: the format is a two hour session of presentations, and it's a good chance for everyone to get together and hear about ongoing projects and be generally updated and informed (and there are Welsh cakes, too!) They take place five or six times a year. This morning's sessions covered aspects of work with international students and staff, an IT project for managing statistics for e-resources (vital information for planning and budgeting), an update on the state of play with our store, and a lovely presentation from our archivist colleague on special collections exhibitions, including the current postgraduate exhibition. I particularly enjoyed her demonstration of how she uses the library catalogue to identify suitable items - using the author index, sorting by date for older material, looking for illustration information. I have not lived in vain after all! Somebody sees the point!

The briefings are held in various locations around the university, but luckily this time there was not too far to go, so a brisk short walk back to cataloguing for the rest of the afternoon, as a scheduled meeting with the academic school about our online repository had been postponed.

Until recently we were pretty much on top of current cataloguing, but a backlog is beginning to build up (seven shelves at the moment) - cataloguing staff who have left have not been replaced, and those remaining have many other calls on their time.We are a central department serving a number of site libraries using several classification schemes and other local procedures. Everybody is in favour of standardising, speeding things up, and simplifying, until it comes to their own part (with honourable exceptions!) The various procedures are less complicated than they used to be, but there is still a way to go before it is straightforward across the sites. I pushed some urgent items through the system, but otherwise I am trying to concentrate on the many boxes and piles of items which have been sent to me directly. I can see myself disappearing entirely behind all this stuff if I don't. The bookless library, and the paperless office, are a long way off!

I also spent some time on a few book orders and book-related queries, including chasing several "ghosts": instances where a book has been mentioned in an article or interview and flagged up by an academic as being of interest, but no trace can be found of the book ever having been published. This seems to happen quite often, and can be time-consuming: it is not always easy to prove that something doesn't exist! I eventually abandoned one such altogether: it is in no library anywhere in the world and there is no mention of it on the alleged publisher's website or in any of the usual bookselling sources.

I had a tidier desk by the end of the day, which has to be a step in the right direction!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Library day in the life: round 8, day 2 (Tuesday 31st January 2012)

Subject librarian day today, with odd little bits of cataloguing in passing. The main item on the "to do" list was to see whether it was going to be possible to copy the Welsh play needed by students, requested yesterday. Publishers have refused in the past, but, oh joy! Gwasg Gomer couldn't have been more helpful, and I soon had permission both verbally and in writing (by email). Even so, the early birds among the students nearly thwarted us, as two out of our three copies had already been borrowed by the time everything was in place. The remaining book was put aside for copying and with any luck all will be well. Even with permission you still cannot make unlimited numbers of copies: I am sure the students would like one each, but there is a maximum permitted number which is well short of the number of students taking the module.

Apart from that, the day was spent catching up with queries including book orders, hunting for missing books, deciding whether to replace them or not, and working on the first phase of the reclassification project which is coming up (which also throws up cataloguing questions and more evidence of missing stock). The library is quite quiet at the moment, so not many enquiries from students, and a bit of time to talk to a retired member of staff (who has been lured out of retirement recently to take part in a general introductory course on Welsh culture for the first year students).

Late in the afternoon, a member of staff with an interest in the history of Cardiff reported that many copies of "Cardiff Yesterday" are missing from the shelves. I was instantly transported back to my public library days, as "Cardiff Yesterday" was kept under lock and key in the public library due to its tendency to disappear. It is a series of 36 books which came out in the 1980s and 1990s, containing old photographs of Cardiff, and in Cardiff it is right up there with Archbold's "Criminal pleading and evidence" as the book most likely to be stolen from a library, that is, of which a library may be permanently deprived with intent (I know my legal definitions!). I checked the shelves and could not find one of the 22 volumes which are not on loan. Too late now, but I played with the idea of making it compulsory for staff members to borrow them and keep them safe in their own homes. We could at least recall them from there if needed!

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Library day in the life : round 8 (Monday 30 January 2012)

The "Library Day in the Life" project, coordinated by Bobbi Newman, runs twice a year: librarians, library staff and library students share their day, or week, through various media (blogs, Twitter, photos and videos).

I am rather late to the party here, as although I knew that round 8 was happening on Monday 30th January, I didn't join as that day was scheduled as a teachers' training day at my son's school, which meant I couldn't be at work. Then I realised that the project is running for the whole week, so I did sign up, but, as yet, I have not added my details to the project wiki, as there always seems to be someone else editing it, and only one person can do it at a time. Details, details ...

I'm one of those awkward part-timers who is never there or always in the wrong place on any given day. I work the equivalent of three days a week, spread over four days, and I have two roles, one third as Subject Librarian for the School of Welsh at Cardiff University and two thirds cataloguer. In practice, the boundaries are quite blurred. Both functions used to take place in the Arts &Social Studies Library, but in 2004 cataloguing was moved to an office block a couple of miles away to make room for the new Special Collections & Archives (SCOLAR). To complicate matters further, I catalogue material in SCOLAR, which often means being back in our old, transformed, home, as the nature of the material is such that it isn't advisable to move it around too much. So, two roles, in three locations.

Monday 30th January:
I took this day off as annual leave because of the school INSET day, but I did take some paperwork home with me and went through quite a heap of queries, emerging at the end with a pile of paper for recycling and a totally tidy set of different coloured plastic wallets with remaining work items nicely sorted. Not exactly a typical day's work, but worthwhile! I also made the mistake of looking at my work email late in the afternoon while not in work, which can often lead to stressful moments (being in possession of the facts but without the tools to deal with things). In this case, there was an email from a tutor who is teaching a module beginning this week, who had just realised that we have only three copies of a Welsh play published in 1982, which she would like 32 students to have read by next week. Would it be possible to make copies or obtain copies of the play somehow?

This is not an uncommon scenario with humanities subjects in general, and Welsh in particular. Publications tend to have a very limited print run, and by the time they are wanted in a university they are often out of print. Commercial interest decreases, whereas academic interest grows, over time. We do aim to buy every adult novel, book of poetry, and published play where possible, so we have a very wide range of Welsh literature, but we do not buy multiple copies unless or until they are requested (by which time, in publishing terms, it is often too late) - otherwise we would need a very much bigger library! Plays in particular are very ephemeral publications: not many make it into the canon.

Because of copyright restrictions, we are not allowed to copy whole plays without permission, so I sent a "holding" email to the tutor promising to deal with this in the morning, and explained the copyright rules. I reflected on the gulf between the students' expectations and the reality of needing to work both within these rules and in the context of a market which doesn't put out of print 30-year-old Welsh plays very high on its list of priorities.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Novelists, editors and getting those facts right

Whenever I stumble on something that isn't quite accurate in a book, I feel cheated. I expect I'm too much of a pedant. Strangely, it seems worse in a work of fiction, which is a paradox. The fictional world is, after all, not real: but we have to believe that it is, and an inaccuracy can jolt the reader out of the make-believe.

There are so many ways in which the writer can be tripped up. Perhaps the finished work was not written in its final order, and the danger here is that common problem in filming, the continuity mistake. A character comes into the room, but he is already in the room according to the previous page. Somebody knows something which they could not possibly know because they were not there at the time and there has been no opportunity to tell them. Occasionally, characters even mysteriously change name mid-novel. I suspect that cutting and pasting plays a part in this kind of error. Pity the poor author, who has probably been looking at the text so much that s/he can no longer spot these things - but surely that's where the publisher's editor comes in?

There's another category of mistake too, the factually inaccurate. I've come across lots of examples of these. No names! Here are a few: a novel set in England in November, which begins with the characters sitting outside enjoying the sunset at 8 p.m.; a novel (by a famous author) in which a whole twist of the plot turns on someone forgetting to put the clock forward or back, but she has got it the wrong way round for the season (to be fair, that particular author did start life in the southern hemisphere - still, the action takes place in England!); a novel by another well-established author in which a son who lives in Devon proposes to run his parents into Portsmouth for shopping and tea - a round trip of about six hours and nearly three hundred miles by my estimate. Why do people get Plymouth and Portsmouth mixed up? Nobody who had any connection with either place would! It isn't necessary for writers to know every area they write about, of course, but for the reader who does know the place there's a risk of spoiling the effect if they get it wrong. 

There's another category of inconsistency which we seem able to live with more easily, such as the fact that Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford seems to have been on the point of retirement ever since his first appearance nearly 50 years ago (that only jars a bit if you read the books straight through in one go). I gave up on another otherwise enjoyable series when a very dead character reappeared two books on though - I found it confusing, and a series presents a whole extra level of need for consistency if you are going to carry your fans along with you (or is it just me?)

One error I've seen very recently didn't spoil the willing suspension of disbelief in the same way, and it's one I'm sure would pass a lot of people by. A character had used Google to look for information, and noted a certain number of results. A second character did the same search, and got exactly the same results. Most unlikely, I longed to say to the author! Google search results are tailored to the searcher!

I do hope that being a librarian isn't putting me on the path to being unable to enjoy books ...