Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Words in vogue: Feedback

"Feedback" is a term borrowed from electronics, which isn't my forte, but if I have understood it correctly it means that information from a past occurrence is "fed" into the circuit or system to change or influence the next event. It is such a ubiquitous word now that its origins have been forgotten. Once upon a time it was not a word you ever heard, and I can remember thinking when I first heard it that it must have something to do with regurgitation - which, given the frequency with which our "feedback" is now invited, may not after all be far from the truth. Almost every activity today seems to involve the filling in of surveys, the often very arbitrary allocation of stars to just about anything, and the opportunity to let off steam. As commercial organisations try to gather information on their customers, they seem to be expecting those customers to spend a lot of time commenting on their products.

No one would question that companies and other services shouldn't aim to improve their services, but I wonder if one important element is not sometimes lost in the current "feedback" fetish: that it is supposed to contain actual information, not simply somebody's prejudices, or personal opinions which may not be based on any facts whatsoever. There are many surveys around at the moment inviting comments on public services, for instance (particularly ones which are under threat). People are told that there is less money to spend and, if they persist in saying that they would like to keep their existing services, are invited to suggest other economies, but often not with any hard facts about the budgets involved. It's an invitation for anyone to suggest that things they don't use themselves should be cut instead. Another peril for the public sector is the retreating of the state: central funds are cut, but locally that might mean that at the same time people are paying more (whether in council tax or in university tuition fees) - and it's not reasonable to expect every member of the public or student filling in surveys and providing "feedback" to be politically aware enough to know this.

It's a fairly unscientific process in the commercial world too. Book "reviews" on the best known book sites (such as Amazon and Goodreads) are the personal opinion of individuals, no more, no less - yet their prejudices might unduly influence the "rating" of an author, and if that author hasn't attracted many reviews (= opinion pieces) a negative one will have a disproportionate effect. This is obvious to many of us, and it doesn't mean we can't enjoy some of the reviews and sometimes value the opportunity to give our own opinion about books we have or haven't enjoyed, but it all needs to be taken with a generous dose of salt. If somebody doesn't like the idea that there are people in the United Kingdom who speak the Gaelic language on a daily basis, that's their personal opinion, not a valid criticism of a book set in the Outer Hebrides which makes this fact a part of the story. It doesn't mean the "feedback" is telling you anything at all other than that the reader has a certain set of opinions which don't coincide with those of the author of the book. I think authors should try to ignore these things, but that is easier said than done, especially if you might be at a stage in your career when you can't be sure that it won't make a difference.

Try remembering a B&B or hotel which you have stayed at and thought was perfectly acceptable, and then go and look at what some people have said about it on Tripadvisor. There are legitimate criticisms, of course, but there are many unreasonable people out there who seem to think that all hotels should be redecorated every year, that spiders in an English hotel in the autumn are somehow to be avoided in well-run establishments, and that bed linen should be changed daily. Some of the comments made must be very hurtful for small businesses working hard and trying to keep going in an unfriendly economic climate.

Then there's the irritation factor. Every time you visit some websites, or so it seems, you are biffing away pop-up messages wanting you to give feedback. It will only take ten minutes! We value your opinion! Isn't there any way these things could at least not pop up until you have had a chance to look at the thing? Even worse, shops which bombard you with emails requesting reviews for everything you buy. Start going down that route and you find yourself stumbling over more and more hurdles. You must have a password, AND a pen name, which must not be the same as anyone else's (four attempts later you hit on something nobody else has used), and then your review is too short, or too long. Excuse me, I don't actually work for your shop, so how about not making it so difficult!

One obvious other problem with all this is that it almost invites negativity. I recently filled in an official survey about a library service in which one of the questions related to what were the deficiencies of the service and how could it be improved. I left the question blank, but the survey wouldn't allow this - so I found a positive way of answering, but surely the question is framed in such a way that expects fault to be found? One recent question in a survey at my own place of work was answered along the lines of "I think the library is fantastic - of course you can never have everything you want and in an ideal world there would be more [books, facilities], but it is great" - and this was recorded as a negative response. You have to be very careful what answers you give, and think of the motivation of the people who might analyse them!

I'm going to be a bit more circumspect in 2014 in how much time I spend on surveys generally, and I'm going to be very careful about how I answer any leading questions. I'm also going to be very sure not to let off steam in a way that might damage someone's career or the service they are trying to provide, unless there is a genuine reason for negativity which I can back up with real facts and information. Generally, I'd like to make a plea for less spite and less malice in reviewing, across the spectrum of commercial and public spheres - and for a more cautious approach in interpreting "feedback".

Thursday, 18 July 2013

There's an ap for that: what's in a (Welsh) name? or, why can't Wales be more like Iceland?

Some recent political silliness (read about it here if you haven't already) has sparked quite a bit of discussion on Twitter and elsewhere about Welsh names. Being a cataloguer of Welsh books - and, even more relevant perhaps, a librarian looking after a lot of shelves of books by Welsh authors - this is a subject dear to my heart. How often have I wished for fewer authors called Jones or Williams, who between them make our collection hard to shelve and use!

The modern trend away from Anglicised versions of Welsh surnames offers hope that one day names in Wales will not be dominated by the letters J, P and W (a long story, but this has more or less been the outcome of the end of the patronymic system). If you want to make your Anglicised Welsh name more Welsh, you have a number of options. You can simply use a Welsh form of the spelling (so Griffiths becomes Gruffydd, Jones becomes Iwan, and so on). Some use a Welsh version of their name in everyday life, but keep the Anglicised form for officialdom. Some people have dropped the surname and replaced it with a middle name which then becomes the family name for future generations. Some have adopted a place name, such as the name of a farm. Bardic names, the names by which poets distinguished themselves, were often place names.

Here convention as to how to cite names begins to break down a bit, and from a cataloguer's point of view has created an inconsistent muddle where sometimes people are referred to by their official, English, name with the bardic name in brackets, whereas others have suddenly metamorphosed into bardic name only. At the library at Cardiff University traditionally we used to follow the pattern of the Dictionary of Welsh Biography (surname, first name, bardic name in brackets). There no longer seems to be any consensus about whose name still follows this order and whose doesn't. There are many examples in Library of Congress authorities (the versions of names which are nearly always used in library catalogues) of both ways of doing it, including many where the bardic name is the main point of entry (such as Cynan, formerly Evans-Jones, Albert in our catalogue).

Names using "ap", the traditional marker of the patronymic, are another problematic area. The medieval examples (Dafydd ap Gwilym, Gruffydd ap Rhys) are straightforward. These are genuine patronymics (Gruffydd ap Rhys was the son of Rhys, and so on). The main name is the first name. If there had been a phone book in the fourteenth century Dafydd ap Gwilym would have appeared under "D". This is what still happens in Iceland to this day, where the first name is what counts, and a family of husband, wife, son and daughter will all have different names. Modern Welsh "ap" seems to be more ambivalent. There are examples of people who have gone all the way and resurrected the patronymic system (Myrddin ap Dafydd is the son of Dafydd Parri), but others, while embracing what looks at first sight to be a name which would not be out of place in twelfth century Wales, stop short of taking the final step and throwing off the concept of the surname altogether. If married with children, the whole family has the same "ap" name. This is not a genuine patronymic system (it's probably easier to live with from a bureaucratic point of view though!)

The modern "ap" names seem to cause all sorts of difficulties. Should the person's first name still be the main one? Should it be the last element? or, should they all be called "Mr. Ap ----" and filed and shelved under A? Are Welsh "Ap" names, in other words, like Scottish and Irish Mc/Mac (another source of much distress to librarians?) Back to LOC authorities for guidance (incidentally, although we can't expect the Library of Congress perhaps to be fully aware of all the nuances of Welsh naming, it's worth pointing out that our own National Library of Wales is the source of many of the Welsh authority records). Again, there is not much consistency, although a preference seems to be emerging for the first element of the name to go first (Myrddin ap Dafydd, Hedd ap Emlyn) - but what is one to make of "Ap Glyn, Ifor, see Ifor ap Glyn" appearing just above "Ap Gwilym, Ifor, 1951-"? A trawl down the "ap" list only confirms that there is no standard (and makes you wonder where the term "authority" applies in all this).

Of course, as a librarian, I am biased. I want to get away from hunting through shelves of books by authors whose names all begin with the same letter! I don't want to have to check and double-check which possible version of the name has been used before! Surely in a small country and with only a limited number of people affected it ought to be possible at least to achieve consistency. I must say that, apart from the thought of how UK bureaucracy might struggle with it, I'm all for the Icelandic system.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The weird world of secondhand bookselling online: or, why we can't buy everything on your reading list

As my colleagues and my Twitter followers will know, I am constantly (it must seem - sorry!) complaining about the difficulty of obtaining copies of old, out-of-print material which is still required, sometimes in unobtainable quantity, for the university library where I work. It's a big problem for a humanities subject, where ageing textbooks may still in fact be the most recent, or the most influential, in their field, something not always appreciated by the publishing world. Academic interest lasts longer than commercial interest, and sometimes it grows over time. Lecturers will of course often recommend books they found useful themselves (this is probably true in many subject areas), without realising just how scarce they may have become. It's a problem which has been exacerbated in libraries where there has been a lot of weeding done by people who are not perhaps the best judges of what is or may be wanted in particular subject areas (that's a whole separate subject for consideration!).

I've recently been trawling through reading lists (again) and sighing with exasperation at the sheer difficulty of getting hold of some of the items on them. The really frustrating thing is that I know that somewhere, in a secondhand bookshop which is not online, or even a charity shop, the very items I am trying to find to satisfy students' demands are probably languishing unbought at a low price. If only they could be put together with the customers who actually want them!

You would think that the online listing of secondhand books would provide a perfect solution. A recent search for a 1989 edition of a good, but perfectly ordinary, English language book (of which we already have two copies in stock in the library) produced the startling fact that the only copy currently being offered for sale online comes at a price of between £800 and £900. There are several copies of a 51-page Welsh booklet available -  original price £3 - but the cheapest costs £90. These are not collector's items printed on handmade paper and bound in cloth of gold - they are ordinary books! In one rare instance a lecturer planning a new module did a bit of research and realised that the book he wanted to put on his reading list was just going to be too expensive for either the library or the students to afford. It doesn't always happen, though, and it's an immensely frustrating situation for everyone concerned.

I am no economist, but I am deeply suspicious of those gods of modern times, the mysterious "market forces" which are supposed to make everything find its right level according to demand. The market certainly isn't working as far as out-of-print books are concerned (and no, dear students, we cannot simply make copies of everything we want, still less can we "just scan it and put it all on the Internet" - there are laws about that sort of thing. Publishers who consider books not to be worth reprinting are still eager to protect their own interests by not giving stuff away.)

For a more in-depth look at what I am talking about, enjoy this blog post from Michael Eisen. I haven't found any prices quite as extreme as the eye-watering sums he has come across, but I have seen some which are quite bad enough. I cannot see the point of making things unaffordable like this. Dogs and mangers!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Reading aloud: update!

As I mentioned, I'm trying to get back into reading to my child every evening after a break forced on me by a chest infection and cough. The book I chose (with his consent) was the first part of T. H. White's four-volume version of the story of Arthur, "The once and future king" - many years after having it read to me. "The sword in the stone" works as a book for children, although the whole four-part book is really a book for adults. This first part is a prelude to Malory's version of the Arthurian legend which which we are more familiar, and covers Arthur (The Wart)'s childhood and education.

Although written in 1938, it still works! Child jumped and was really shocked at Kay trying to pass himself off as having pulled the sword out of the stone, and enjoyed the parts of the story where Merlyn turns the Wart into different things. I doubt whether some of the allusions meant anything to him, but if/when he does come across Shakespeare some of the expressions at least will not be new! I was using Humphrey Carpenter's edition, not the version I read as a child, and the episode of the ants has been cut out, so when I next visit my mother I'm going to have to dig out the copy I first read and fill in the ant story (and work out why it was dropped - it's one of the bits I remember best from my own childhood!) This was so successful that we might be going to move on to what happened to Arthur next, but not using T.H. White's version as the rest of his tetralogy is a bit dark for children.

So far, so good!


Monday, 28 January 2013

Uniformly black

A few weeks ago I saw this link on Twitter. It's to an American site, so from my vantage point on the other side of the Atlantic perhaps I needn't worry too much, but one point leapt out at me - women should always wear make-up to interviews (for library jobs). Really?

I don't really do make-up very much. I do have some reasons for this, but I wonder whether it is something one should be expected to justify (so, having set them out, I have deleted them). Anyway, do women really look so awful in their natural unadorned state that they could be considered unemployable? (and, presumably, it is only women who are being expected to do this).

I haven't got anything against other people using make-up, of course: I just don't think it has anything to do with how they do their job, especially if their workplace is a library and not a night club. I think it's a personal choice and should be left to the individual. I don't think I'm particularly unobservant, but I would have to make an effort to recall which of my colleagues does or does not use it at work.

Another issue which raises its head occasionally is the wearing of uniforms. In libraries, there is no strong history of a particular uniform, so when it does arise it tends to meet quite a bit of opposition. It's something which gets mentioned when privatisation is in the air. Some councils have themselves tried to introduce it in line with uniforms worn by other council staff. (How glad I am that Cardiff did not ever suggest doing this when I worked for them. Their leisure services uniform was bright green and bright red, and being short I would have looked truly ridiculous in that - like one of Santa's elves). Reasons given are usually to do with making staff recognisable as such, promoting the council's "brand", possibly making staff look smart - although a dress code achieves that, and uniforms provided are sometimes made of cheap material which doesn't look great. Interestingly, some of the library assistants at my branch library were in favour of a uniform, to protect their own clothes. Libraries tend not to have many staff and the public usually seem to be work out who they are, however, and name badges are another option to help with identification.

Once you start thinking about the practicalities, it's difficult to see it working well. Some authorities have toyed with an all-year-round uniform (so how does that work in a heatwave or a cold spell? My school tried this, and came unstuck in the first year of the experiment, due to a hot summer). Library work is less physical than it used to be, but there's still quite a lot of carrying things and moving stuff involved, so sometimes you need loose and not too special clothing; at other times you might need something smarter when speaking to groups. Overalls do sometimes get used (and that's not a bad solution - an overall which protects your clothing could also be in the employer's colours, without too much extra expense).

Given that there is no real history of librarians in uniform, what colour is best? If you have access to it, this article suggests that red is a good choice in academic libraries (although perhaps not for us here in Cardiff, where the Principality Building Society with its Emanuel-designed red uniform is based); more usually it seems that many places which go along this route go for black, either an actual uniform or an expectation that staff will wear (and pay for) black clothes.

Black has seeped into many organisations lately. I wear a lot of it myself, but I'm beginning to feel it needs always to have something else with it, to avoid making myself looking as if I am in any one of a number of possible uniforms. Whereas once it was the preserve of priests, lawyers and undertakers, it is now everywhere: restaurant and bar staff, hairdressers, bouncers and security guards, you name it, the staff are in black. Welsh male voice choirs all regularly appear in black shirts these days, looking like massed gangsters or fascists. A lot of elderly people really do not like this much. "Everybody going around looking like mutes at a funeral" was how one lady put it to me. To the older generation, black was exclusively for funerals and mourning, unless you were the glamorous sort and had an Audrey Hepburn LBD for cocktail parties. Either way, not for everyday use (and, not all that suitable for public library staff - unless in mourning for what is being done to their profession in the name of "localism" and the "Big Society").

In spite of all the arguments which could be put forward in favour, I'm still against the idea of library uniforms. I suspect the wish to introduce it has more to do with wanting to see servants looking like servants, and with suppressing individuality, than anything else. If anyone tries to impose a "make-up and black clothes" rule on me, I shall reinvent myself as a Goth.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Reading aloud, one year on

Last year, I happily described how I read aloud to my child every night, in spite of the adverse comments of some other parents (and one relative-who-shall-be-nameless). The main advantages, as I see them, I mentioned here last year: time together, a chance to introduce some books which children might not think of trying for themselves, an opportunity to challenge your child a bit in terms of language, and so on. It's also a chance to move on from some favourites which (for the parent, at least) can begin to lose their appeal after much repetition. Nothing against re-reading favourites, of course, but that's something children can do by themselves when the book is already familiar.

It is with some trepidation that I return to this subject, as soon after blogging about it last year life intervened in that unpleasant way it sometimes does. A persistent chest infection and cough first reduced my reading aloud to a pitiful croak followed by bursts of coughing, and then led to abandoning the whole enterprise, much to my distress. It has taken me a long time to get back to something approaching normality, and by that time I was meeting quite a bit of resistance to the idea of starting again. It is harder to go back to the habit after such a long break: but after some negotiation with my son we are, I hope, back on track with a new book, chosen by me but with, so far, his approval. It's a book I had read to me as a child, so we are back in the dangerous territory of living in the past, and furthermore it is one of the many books which cause my husband to look gloomy and say that he "tried" to read it once. I won't reveal what it is until it is either abandoned or successfully completed, and then we'll see whether everyone else thinks it is suitable for an eleven-year-old or not! It's in English, and it's a bit dated (OK, I admit it), but I've never been one of those who thought that children should only be exposed to literature with a contemporary or familiar setting: meeting the unfamiliar in books is one way in which your horizons are expanded, after all. (In my public library days there were often heated discussions among my colleagues about this very subject, regarding the selection of children's literature for the libraries. I'm in favour of having a wide range, and that would include some unfashionable titles as well as the latest. The good ones survive the test of time, and the bad ones mainly don't, unless they just happen to be still lying round your house!)

Watch this space for how I get on with reintroducing reading aloud after a ten-month break, and what, if anything, we get out of the mystery book!