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!