Thursday, 30 December 2010

First impressions review - Amazon Kindle

Semi-relevant preliminary spiel:

I love my iPod. Since I got my first iPod (Wikipedia informs me that it was a ‘classic’ fourth generation black & white), I’ve never thought about getting a different portable music device. I love my iPod because I don’t think about it: I automatically slip it in my bag or my pocket when I’m going somewhere; I use it quickly and reflexively; it just does the job it’s meant to do.

Since e-readers first became available, I’ve wanted an iPod for ebooks (disclaimer: this is not the iPad for reasons too numerous to enumerate). It would be a single device that does its job smoothly and blends into the background of your life. The Kindle –
received this Christmas – is a damn sight closer to that imaginary device than the Sony Reader (all subsequent comments are directed towards the PRS-505).

First impressions:

In terms of design, the Kindle is nicer to hold than the Reader. The Kindle’s plastic isn’t as cold as the Reader’s metal, the corners are nicely rounded, and it’s slightly lighter. The button placement is better as well with the ‘turn pages’ buttons larger and more naturally placed. The Kindle also has more memory (3GB) than the Reader (256MB without an SD card: newer models have more).

The randomly generated screensavers automatically make it look like 
you keep a picture of John Steinbeck next to your bed

The Kindle is also better for reading: the contrast is by default better and has the advantage of being adjustable; various aspects of the text itself can be changed (which makes sense for digital text) including size, font, line spacing, and words per line. All this makes the Kindle much better for people who have difficulty with text ie. people with reading difficulties or poor vision.


Reading, particularly non-fiction, is more complex than simply looking at words on a page and the Kindle allows for increased levels of interactivity with the text. Rather than passively reading, it allows the user to highlight, make notes, share highlights on Twitter, check a word in one of the two dictionaries included, or look up a Web address from the text.

Another advantage – a decisive one for non-smartphone owners like me – is the free Web access. I got – or rather, Santa got me – the 3G model because it allows much wider wireless coverage for access to the Web through the experimental browser. It’s slow, clunky, black & white but it’s free and massively increases my ability to access the Web.


The Kindle store is good: wireless access to books is a plus and the prices are mostly reasonable. New Kindle owners will discover a wealth of free titles – public domain works and such – but these tend to be poor quality, poorly formatted files: despite the added effort, it’s better to use a reliable source like Project Gutenberg or the Google ebookstore’s public domain PDFs. It seemed appropriate that my first Kindle book should be The Case for Books by Robert Darnton which downloaded easily and is functioning perfectly well.

If you don’t do so already, use Calibre to manage your ebooks. Putting personal documents and non-Amazon ebooks on the Kindle without software is a fiddly process. Calibre is easier, allows for more consistent metadata, and automatically converts non-compatible formats (ePub) to compatible formats (MOBI, PDF, RTF, etc.). This won’t work with DRMed files and so means that public library ebooks are unavailable for the Kindle which is unfortunate: it doesn’t mean I won’t use my public library (free ebooks!) but it means I’ll have to read them off another device/PC.

I didn’t get a cover for my Kindle. I asked Santa for one but I was either naughty or Santa reads Slashdot and got linked to the same articles as I did. Turns out that covers either break your Kindle or cost half the price of the device itself. I’ve ordered this which ought to allow Kindle transportation at a fraction of the cost.


Ideally this device should become as indispensible as my iPod. I asked my Twitter followers if I should write a Kindle review now or after the honeymoon period and a lot of people suggested that I do both. Expect a longer-term Kindle review in 2011.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Five lessons from 2010

Several people (Laura Woods, Andy Woodworth, Bobbi Newman) have written about the lessons they learned in 2010. This seems like a cathartic, end-of-year reflection exercise and it’s good to give some closure to a truly great year. So here are my five lessons from 2010.

Lesson 1: United we stand, divided we fall

Prior to this year, I’ve never really worked as part of a team (which was annoying because every goddamn job specification has TEAMWORK in big bold letters). My first job was in a bank entering data more or less on my own. My first degree was in philosophy – the epitome of ruminating quietly on your own. This year I’ve worked with other people: group projects for my Masters, as part of my various job roles, and now as part of a team spread across the country. I was so flattered to be asked to join the Voices for the Library team and I’m so happy to be working with this Justice League-like team of super-librarians (even though it makes me feel like Robin). Though I’m still finding my feet, it’s taught me a lot about working with other people and together we can accomplish much more than one individual ever could.

Lesson 2: Everybody lies

This refers to two institutions: the government and the media. I’m sure this lesson will elicit a hearty ‘Duh!’ from many but for me it’s been a revelation to learn just how much the truth is distorted and hidden from the public. WikiLeaks is revealing and has revealed an insane amount of information that governments have kept from the public. The leader of the Liberal Democrats lied to students and his party's supporters. Tabloid Watch and Minority Thought are now two of my favourite blogs on Google Reader showing how much the media lies and distorts stories for their own ends. 

Personally, I uncovered a mass media lie when I discovered Twitter. Before this year, I blindly accepted the media’s portrayal of Twitter: a site where narcissists broadcast banal pronouncements about what food they’re eating. When I finally joined, I discovered this to be a lie and it quickly became my defining communication medium for 2010. Without Twitter, I would not know half as much about what’s going on in the library community, I would not have attended any professional events, I would not have written my Guardian piece, and I would not have half as many professional contacts and, dare I say, friends.

Lesson 3: The fundamental interconnectedness of all things

This year I wrote my Masters dissertation. At 18000 words, it’s the longest thing I’ve ever written and – though still awaiting its result – I’m proud of it. It seems astounding that a dissertation ostensibly about library and information management – a very niche subject – allowed me to bring together everything I’ve ever been really interested in. I was able to bring together my undergraduate dissertation, my love of Alberto Manguel, Borges, and Wittgenstein, my interest in digital libraries, my belief in consilience, my interest in The Semantic Web, my strange devotion to Google, my obsession with labyrinths and mazes, my unwavering belief in logic; everything. It felt like a culmination: as if without realising, I’d been preparing to write it for years. This has reinforced my belief in consilience and the fundamental holism of existence. 

Lesson 4: Feel the fear and do it anyway

I owe this one to Katie Fraser.

From Indexed:
This year I’ve been scared a lot. And yet that’s made it one of the best years ever. I worked as IT Support, scared that I wouldn’t be able to fix any computer problems: turns out I’m (comparatively) good with computers. I got a professional job working with the military which forced me to move away from home: turns out the military are good people and I love living on my own. I sent off short stories and articles despite being terrified of rejection: turns out the lasting glow of success far outweighs the momentary sting of rejection. If you’re never scared, you’re never going to learn to cope with the things that scare you and you’re never going to improve yourself.

Lesson 5: Ask not what _____ can do for you but what you can do for _____

This comic represents how institutions actually are: in need of support from people who use them. If you take from an institution without giving anything back, then you’re not valuing that institution. When people complain about CILIP, they often say that it doesn’t provide anything for them. Like most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. The same applies to public libraries: if you don’t use libraries – if you don’t give – then you can’t get anything from them. 

Public libraries are facing a crisis and the next few months will be critical. All librarians have a part to play in ensuring the survival of our institutions: institutions that help people, that empower communities, that provide an intellectual bulwark against the advance of acceptable mediocrity. Over the next few months, we need people to campaign for public libraries and we need to support and connect campaigns across the country to present a united front rather than a community torn apart by division or blame. This is a time to show councils and Government that we value our libraries and won’t go gentle into that good night.

New Year's resolutions

So what next? Apart from my job, a few projects I'm working on for next year, and continued work for Voices for the Library, 2011 is wide open. Chartership is the next major career progression but there's no rush and technically I don't even have my Masters yet. I'll wait and see what 2011 brings.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The male librarian gift guide

Once again Christmas unexpectedly descends on the country. For families across the country and indeed the world, the obvious question is raised: what do you buy for the librarian in your life? That friendly / grumpy (delete as applicable) person who finds you stuff and uses words like 'literacy', 'interoperability' and 'OPAC'. The delightful Ms. Jaffne has written a gift guide for female librarians and, digusted at this rampant exclusionism, I have penned this gift guide for the lesser-spotted male librarian.

All male librarians (or indeed shambrarians) look like this. They are brooding, fragile, poetic creatures bringing order out of chaos, ingesting too much science-fiction stuff, and looking vaguely foppish while doing it. So what does one buy for this frail, geeky individual? An iPad or a Kindle is too risky (they could start frothing at the mouth and ranting about the sanctity of the physical book). Better to choose something from this tacky awesome list.

Male librarians wear clothes reluctantly: as long as the clothes are made of fabric which doesn't fall apart, they aren't too picky. Go to any library conference and gaze in awe at the mismatched suits, radiant ties, occasional jeans, and shoes held together with tape. In general, anything that makes him feel more like Sherlock Holmes will be fine no matter how outdated it may be. To keep their shirts from falling apart, male librarians wear cufflinks (stylish book-related cufflinks) and ties. If your male librarian has a strong opinion about the books versus computers debate (and believe me, if he does, you will know about it), let him proclaim that allegiance proudly with either a book tie or a computer tie. Don't forget, he works in an emasculating profession and needs constant reassurance of his manliness so make him feel more authoritarian with this hardcore jacket.
(May not be representative of male librarians)
If your male librarian uses the term 'militant librarian' a lot, talks about 'echo chambers' and fancies himself as some kind of informationy Robin Hood, this bag will make him feel like Che Guevara and Julian Assange all rolled into one. Of course he'll need some badges to go on that bag: they can stick it to Google or enforce the grumpy reluctant librarian stereotype. Many young librarians spend much time on Twitter causing their language skills to slowly atrophy and so will feel right at home with this text speak badge or any of these Twitter T-shirts (Twi-shirts?).

Everyone knows that librarians love books (why else would they become librarians, right?) so what about a guide to the murky world of libraries? There's a good chance your male librarian likes comic books (if you're unsure about this, ask him whether he prefers Marvel or DC. If his answer is anything other than 'I don't know' or if he uses the term 'graphic novel', comic books are a good choice). Unshelved is a good source of comedy that only a minority of the population understand or there is always James Turner's seminal treatise on the subject of male librarians, Rex Libris.

Finally, you could always play it safe and buy a tiny effigy of the ultimate male librarian - the template from which we are all wrought - Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

From Penny Arcade
Merry Christmas to all library staff; male, female and everything in between. Have a good holiday season and steel yourself for the deluge of books to be returned in the first week of January.

Monday, 6 December 2010

New media and the right to debate

Recently I was involved in an online altercation with Tony Horne, a radio broadcaster from North-East England, which served to highlight a shift in my generation’s understanding of media interaction. It started here, continued with Ian Clark’s reply here, and went on to this blog post here. In his final piece on the subject, Mr Horne wrote “Another [Twitter user] called Simon demanded I reply to his tweet. Why would I do that? I had my say, you had your right of reply.”

For the record, I did not ‘demand’ a reply. I asked Mr Horne via Twitter whether he wanted to reply or not. My exact words were: “Do you plan to respond? Were you trying to generate hits or start an actual debate?” which I’ll admit reads as more hostile than I intended it. He declined my debate invitation and seemed to misunderstand me so I sent “My aim is to engage in debate: an exchange of views to reach a conclusion. This can't be done without back and forth response.” There was no further reply.

For a time, I was mystified by Mr Horne’s refusal to engage with his readers or enter into a debate. I couldn’t grasp why someone would write something and then not reply to contrary arguments. As far as I could see, he had no reason not to reply: he clearly had the courage of his convictions, he was online at the time when pro-library comments were dropping thick and fast, he definitely believed what he had written. Why not reply directly?

Then I realised it comes down to the words “I had my say...” These words indicate a different understanding of media interaction to the one I hold. Essentially, Mr Horne did not view our interaction as an active debate: for him, media interaction consists in a creator giving his opinions and the reader passively taking them in. My generation and generations younger than me have always had the right to debate and this is because of the difference between new media and old media.

On the Web, the creation of content involves subsequent discussion. You write, record, or visualise what you believe and then you either defend it or allow it to be picked to pieces. Everything one puts on the Web can be actively debated: in comments – blogs, YouTube, newspaper websites – or on Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Reading and reacting to content is as active a process as creating the content. When our right to reply is blocked, we create new avenues for reply. It’s become common practice for librarians to debate with detractors in the comments of news articles concerning public libraries and encouraging and engaging in informed debate is one of the primary roles of Voices for the Library. In new media, creators stand behind what they say, respond to arguments they hadn’t considered, and, hopefully, change their minds a little to accommodate the diverse opinions of other people.

In old media, the creation of content is the entirety of the interaction. Creators wrote articles, published them, and left the consumption to the reader. Once they ‘had their say’ that was the end of it. Maybe a dissenting letter would be published in the paper or read on the air but the initial creator wasn’t expected to respond. There was no debate because the means required to have a debate were not available. This seems to be the case with Mr Horne: in the recent past, he broadcast or wrote his opinions and people passively consumed them. He didn’t reply to our arguments in the comments because his understanding of media interaction is different from that of a generation raised on new media.

This new understanding of interaction is even influencing the ‘real world’. In the past few months, there has been a rise in protests against the Coalition Government’s decisions: students in particular have been taking to the streets to protest what they see as injustices – injustices to themselves in the case of tuition fee rises and EMA cuts and injustices to the country in the case of corporate tax avoidance. Young people feel that they have the right to debate and with no outlet, no system in place to accommodate active debate with the Government, they protest in the streets.

The generation now coming-of-age has a new understanding of media interaction: the understanding that people debate about what they believe and respond when someone argues against them. Simply ‘having your say’ and letting it lie is not sufficient anymore. In this new paradigm, you either respond to your detractors or lose the argument.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Power to the people - New Professionals Information Day 2010

Yesterday I attended the New Professionals Information Day in Newcastle City Library, a day wonderfully organised by the CILIP Membership Support Unit and the Career Development Group. The most important thing I learnt, about the profession and about myself, was the central role that people play in librarianship.
The fabulous Newcastle City Library
The nucleus of the day was the keynote session with speeches from Maxine Miller and Phil Bradley and an underlying theme to both presentations was the power of the people. Maxine spoke about diversity in libraries, the trials and tribulations of a library career, and the power of individual people to stand up and say “This is me.” It was intimate, touching, and personal and, because they were very different presentations, it complemented Phil’s in an interesting way. Phil spoke about empowering library users: a subject touched upon in this piece. Librarians do not make and maintain warehouses full of dusty books: we provide information services to people and engaging with those people is the most important part of our jobs. Our role is to make available the knowledge necessary to empower people – teachers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, researchers, the public. People and knowledge – more specifically the power that grows from the combination of those two – are the cornerstones of librarianship.

In the workshops and the seminars, the point was raised repeatedly that librarianship is a people profession. Sure, you get to work with books, write stuff if you want to, use the latest technology, but fundamentally libraries are about the people inside and outside them. Sibylla Parkhill’s session on stakeholder expectations drove home the point that libraries have a variety of interested parties: from senior management to library members; from library staff to outside agents. Librarians have to able to interact and communicate with all these people of different levels.

And it’s not just the people we deal with in our work environments: there are also our professional contacts and the people we meet on the journey. For me, these are people that make this such a valuable profession. Events like yesterday are vital for removing the blinkers: working in my tiny library makes me forget that there are other people like me out there; people with the same concerns, the same ideas, and thankfully in many cases the same sense of humour. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working in the profession longer or maybe – heaven forefend! – I’m actually becoming an adult but I felt a lot more comfortable interacting with other new professionals than at the New Professionals Conference in July (fun though it was). In fact, I got so involved with other people and networking that I actually gave up my precious first class train seat to sit and talk libraries with a group of other new professionals on the train home (first class was only £1 extra so it’s no great loss).
A room of blurry new professionals
Overall, the day represented a development in my understanding of the profession and myself. It’s a lot clearer to me now what modern librarianship is about and particularly what we as new professionals can make it. The books, the technology, the creativity, and even the information are all subservient to the people who suffuse this noble profession. A year ago, I would have told you that I wanted to be a librarian to get away from people: to live a quiet life surrounded by books and computers and logical organisation. I was wrong. That’s not what librarianship is and – though it’s a surprise to me – that’s not who I am either. I want to work with people and I want to help people access information. NPID2010 helped me to acknowledge that.

Postscript: On a personal note, the strangest thing about the whole day was people knowing who I was before I introduced myself: from Twitter, from my Guardian piece or because I have a more extensive online presence now. I found it to be a very unusual but not unpleasant sensation.

What other people thought:

Monday, 22 November 2010

Why can't librarians defend libraries?

Recently Johanna Anderson (@Jo_Bo_Anderson) of Voices for the Library has been campaigning to save Gloucestershire public libraries from massive cuts. Despite her amazing work some have argued that because she is a librarian her campaigning is fuelled by self-interest. The reasoning goes that because she benefits from the continued existence of libraries, her campaigning is less ‘pure’ or less valid. This argument is often raised against librarians defending libraries and is fallacious and irritating for several reasons.

Ad hominem

Most importantly from a logical perspective (and what other perspective really matters?), the argument is a standard ad hominem fallacy. It attacks the arguer instead of the argument: it therefore misses the point of critical reasoning and is invalid. As Wikipedia (bad information literacy here: do as I say not as I do!) states “a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument false”. If we taught children critical thinking and logic in schools then the standard of debate in this country would be much higher but that’s another issue for another time.


The implicit rule expressed by the ‘no-librarians-campaigning’ argument seems to be that if a person benefits from an institution then a person cannot campaign for that institution. But a major reason – perhaps THE major reason – that people campaign to defend institutions is the benefits that they bestow. I benefit from the BBC and will therefore defend it. I benefit from the NHS and will therefore defend it. I benefit from the public library service and will therefore defend it. We defend institutions because we benefit from them and to say that one cannot argue from a position of benefit is ridiculous.


Isn’t a defence of libraries more effective coming from an expert in libraries than from someone who knows little about libraries? A librarian, a library assistant, a shambrarian, or anyone who works in libraries knows about libraries and is therefore in a privileged position to assess their benefits. More so than a member of the public, a librarian sees who uses libraries, how libraries are used, and knows why they should be protected. Campaigning as a librarian should be an advantage not a disadvantage. 

Edit: 'someone who knows little about libraries' previously linked to Tim Coates' Good Library Blog. It's been pointed out quite rightly that this is an ad hominem jibe. Whether someone is or is not a librarian, they have equal cause to campaign for libraries. Maybe if I'd learnt more critical thinking in school...


It has even been suggested that Johanna hide the fact that she is a librarian. Misrepresenting yourself or your beliefs to win an argument is not winning the argument at all. Lying to win does not make you a winner.

And so...

People are free to argue against public libraries in various ways. They can present statistics and graphs: campaigners will counter and defend. They can present ideological differences: campaigners will point out flaws in the logic and differences of opinion. But arguing against the people who defend libraries because they are passionate enough to have devoted their lives to libraries is an argument that can never win.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Supplement to: Borrowing ebooks beyond a library's walls

Yesterday The Guardian’s Comment is Free published an article by me about ebooks, libraries, and the digital economy. Everything I wanted to say about the Publishers Association decision is in the article so this post is sort of like the deleted scenes: the ideas I rejected while writing the article; some are terrible, some are (hopefully) mildly interesting.
  • When The Guardian agreed to read a draft, I panic-read Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy in three days because I was afraid my meagre understanding of digital copyright would be an embarrassment. As it happens, the article contains very little about copyright, intellectual property, or the law. This doesn’t mean that reading the book was a waste of time (but it’s not as good as Free Culture).
  • Neil Gaiman’s recent All Hallows Read was going to be used as an example of communities sharing books. It didn’t really fit as it wasn’t related to ebooks or libraries but it’s still a cool idea and worth a read.
  • This Atlantic article about National Digital Libraries by David Rothman of TeleRead would have been perfect to link to but I read it an hour after I emailed the completed draft. 
  • At one point, I seriously considered quoting The Kinks’ ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’. A friend once told me that the song reminded her of being a librarian. The specific quote would have been “Preserving the old ways from being abused. Protecting the new ways for me and for you” and would have served as a poetic reminder of what libraries do. It would also have been a bad idea. 
  • The final paragraph – the paragraph that no-one in the comments has mentioned – is my favourite. It’s the paragraph where I shoehorn in my dissertation ideas about large-scale digital libraries and graphic visualisation of subject links using data and metadata.
I’d like to use this space to thank my library tweeps for reading the article, retweeting it, commenting on it, and being so kind about it. It means a lot to have people read what you’ve written, enjoy it, and get passionate enough to agree/disagree with it. Thank you.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Review - Infinite Jest

Reviewing David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is impossible. As Dave Egger’s says in the foreword, the novel cannot be analysed; cannot be broken down into component parts. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It shouldn’t work – overlong storylines that seem to go nowhere, no overarching plot, characters heading towards confrontations that never happen, insane technical minutiae about drugs and medications, long stretches where nothing much happens, and a language/vocabulary all its own. But the novel does work and it’s clear that the writer was a genius: as Eggers says, “At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”
Infinite Jest is a reflection of life. This is alluded to in the Eschaton section with the meta-debate about maps and territories. As such, everyone who reads Infinite Jest will have a different interpretation. It can be about drugs, addiction, the American Dream, entertainment, the pursuit of happiness, solipsism, language, or tennis. Some claim that the book is structured like a Sierpinski Gasket

For me, Infinite Jest is about freedom. This is centred around Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty (or at least an idea very similar to it). Running through the book like a spine there is a discussion between a Canadian agent and an American agent that takes place on the side of a cliff over an entire night. At one point, Marathe – the Canadian – says:

“Again passing over the important. This appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose – this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death… someone sometime let you forget how to choose, and what. Someone let your peoples forget it was the only thing of importance, choosing… Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

Allowing someone to do whatever they want to do is ‘negative’ freedom according to Berlin and Marathe. ‘Positive’ freedom consists in discipline: in the education and maturity to independently choose what is important. America, in its pursuit of the former kind of freedom, has created a nation of children: people who would, of their own volition, watch a film so entertaining it would kill them. ; people who would solve the problem of waste by catapulting garbage into New England rather than reform their lives. 

The ‘positive’ kind of freedom is more existential: it is the discipline to make the right choice for you and the ability to free yourself from cages of which you weren’t (or aren’t) aware. These invisible cages may be social but are more often psychological. They are arbitrary limits on our behaviour or our actions that we impose without even realising we’re doing it. The crux of this point comes in Lyle’s conversation with LaMont Chu about LaMont’s “increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.”

“The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for… After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are… LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.’ ‘Animal?’ ‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’ 

In particular, the book focuses on the invisible cage of irony. Wallace knew that his readers were postmodern, literary-types: the kind of post-university twenty-something young elites who reject the world’s values by adopting a veneer of irony; by layering every action with self-reference, self-deprecation, and a meta-appreciation of the ‘narrative’ of life. The teenagers of the Enfield Tennis Academy represent this attitude of intelligence and youth: they come up with ironic nicknames for one another, they have long discussions about life and philosophy, they play complex physical and psychological games. The antithesis of this attitude walks among them: the disabled and ‘immature’ Mario.

“It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.”

By the end of Infinite Jest readers are at least aware, if not free, of the cage of irony around them. The novel promotes sincerity and real engagement with the world – with addiction, with drugs, with loneliness, with solipsism – rather than the ironic detachment characteristic of most educated twenty-somethings. The difficulty is remembering that the cage is there after the book has ended.
Anything I can write about this novel is surplus to the volumes that have already been written: the Infinite Summer website offers a window to this immense scholarship. I only wrote this so that I could re-inhabit the book again because, over 2 months after finishing it, I still think about it. And a book with that kind of power deserves a few words.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Achievement gap

There are several pervasive ideas floating around my consciousness which I have been unable to shake off despite their irrationality. One – shared by colleagues and respected polymaths – is the fear of being ‘found out’: exposed as an untalented fraud, my unintelligence revealed to the world, expulsion from the institutions and professions I aspire to. Another is an annoyingly illogical belief in destiny, fate, ka, predetermination, or whatever you want to call it. Then there is the idea of ultimate and final achievement. 

The idea is that there is a single achievement which will suddenly make life easier. J.R.R. Tolkien used the word ‘eucatastrophe’ to refer to the idea of a single moment in which everything is turned around: bad turns to good, defeat turns to victory, difficulty turns to ease. I’m haunted by the notion that the next achievement will be the one that makes me ‘set for life’: that one final achievement will allow me to stop working so hard because from that point on everything will be fine. This one achievement will lead to employers hiring me, colleagues respecting me, and success handed to me. 

Over the years there have been several such achievements that I thought would ‘set me up for life’. If I got good GCSE grades; if I got accepted to Cambridge University; if I got a First in my undergraduate degree; if I got short stories published; if I got a Masters degree; if I got the atypical post-library-qualification position of Assistant Librarian: if I could just achieve them, everything would be fine from then on. 

I achieved all of them (except Cambridge) and yet life struggles on. Clothes still need washing, books still need reading, blog posts still need writing. There will never be that final achievement that makes everything easier because each achievement opens the door to new achievements. There will never be a point where I can put my feet up and play video games guilt-free secure in the knowledge that I have achieved everything I can achieve. There is no final victory in life.

This is of course whiny self-indulgence and despite my seeming ingratitude I’m proud of everything I’ve done. Writing this post has been an act of catharsis. But it will not free me. I am unable to follow the sage advice of Alan Watts and dance to the music of life.

I’ll carry on marching to the implacable sound of distant drumming: the sound that in reality is the impatient tapping of my own fingers. I’ll keep working towards the nonexistent achievement that will finally give me peace.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Walking in a digital wonderland

Last week, I watched as the presenter of a Health and Safety briefing fumbled around trying to get his presentation up. We all know what it’s like to navigate a computer system while being watched: the pressure of opening the right folder, the agony of scrolling through a list of documents looking for the one that you ‘know was there when you looked earlier'.

It struck me that navigating virtual environments has become so commonplace as to be an irritation. Humans regularly navigate an ethereal world of electrical signals and incorporeal documents. With minimal physical interaction, we fly through these private worlds like gods – flitting between digital folders, changing what is presented as we see fit, and searching through billions of bytes of dynamically-updated data. This effortless engagement with a non-physical environment would have been inconceivable to people as recently as twenty years ago.

On one level, this demonstrates the human capacity to engage with analogy. It’s important to remember that lots of the words I’ve used so far are physical metaphors which we apply to virtual environments: ‘navigating’, ‘opening’, ‘flitting’. We describe virtual worlds through analogy with physical worlds to make them comprehensible. We evolved in a three-dimensional physical space and so have a natural understanding for physical terms and physical analogies. It is astounding how readily and how universally this great analogy is accepted: humans, young and old, play along with the metaphor and employ it everyday without a thought; our entire vocabulary for digital worlds is based upon it; rightly or wrongly, we even create legislation using it.

One of the reasons that humans have adapted to virtual environments so easily is its parallels with abstract environments. Since the advent of thought, abstract worlds have been represented through analogy with the physical environment. Plato’s Heaven is a prime example of using physical paradigms to represent an ethereal realm of ideas. Gilbert Ryle even created the term ‘category mistake’ to cover the misapplication of physical ideology to a theoretical construct: the classic example being Descartes’ use of the pineal gland as the point of interaction between the soul and the body (how could the incorporeal soul interact with the physical world at all?). Thoughts, ideas, the content of books, and – for anyone who has seen Inception – dreams are all represented through analogy with the physical. In a similar way to abstract environments, we apply physical paradigms to virtual environments to make them comprehensible.

It’s almost certainly fallacious to say that this represents an evolutionary advance. But the widespread, near-universal engagement with a non-physical interface represents something about the human species. Adaptability, flexibility, imagination, capacity for misdirection, propensity for category mistakes, or general desire to engage with something beyond the physical. It represents something and every so often it is important to remember how strange and interesting our everyday world is.

“...this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible ...the universe is wild and full of marvels.” – G. K. Chesterton.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Surviving the first professional post

At this time of year many young librarians will start new jobs. As Masters dissertations get handed in and new terms begin, many will be beginning in their first professionals posts. It’s been discussed on many other blogs that librarianship degrees are sometimes not enough to prepare someone for the realities of library work. I was fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough!) to find a post while finishing my dissertation so I’ve gained some idea of how to survive that first professional post.
Ask questions:

No-one can be expected to understand everything straight away and despite the public perception (“Isn’t it just stamping books?”), librarianship is complicated. In a new job, there will be lots of information and skills to learn, lots of individual library idiosyncrasies to come to terms with, and lots of names to pretend you can remember. Ask other members of staff about anything and everything: natural curiosity is probably the best way to learn about an organisation.

Explore the computer system:

Nowadays, the limits of our computers are the limits of our work. Get to know what you can and can’t do with the computers. If some mundane task is annoying, figure out a shortcut to make it quicker. Poke around the computers: every organisation has a different computer system and the computer system tells you a lot about the organisation. Familiarise yourself with the virtual space, re-organise or set up your own folders if need be, and learn what software is installed.

Make suggestions:

Organisations often hire young librarians because of their enthusiasm and creativity. If you see something that doesn’t make sense or a process that could be made easier with new methods/technology, make a suggestion to senior staff. A lot of libraries need an extra push to work at promoting their brand, expanding their online service, or digitising their materials. The worst that can happen is the higher-ups say no. The best that can happen is the library service being improved, gaining evidence of your innovation and creativity, and getting to pursue a personal project of interest to you.

Rely on your support network:

A first professional post is scary. With great ‘Librarian’ name-badges comes great responsibility. But whatever you’re going through, there will always be someone who has already gone through it. Talk to your friends, keep in contact with your library colleagues and fellow library students, and use Twitter. Take advantage of the many networks available to you – CILIP or LISNPN – at the LISNPN Manchester meet-up last Thursday, the *apologies* older librarians made it clear that they would have loved communities like we have now when they were new professionals. Take advantage of it: last week’s meet-up was a brilliant opportunity to bounce problems off experienced people and to have a good time.

Throw yourself in:

Do all of the above and commit to the position as soon as possible. Though this may not always be possible (with part-time work or while finishing a Masters degree), it’s better to focus on one post at a time and not to be torn in two. Due to commitments at home and an incomplete dissertation, until recently I had been making an hour and a half commute to my first post. It made the days much longer than they needed to be and had an adverse effect on my work. Moving to a closer location has got rid of the stress of driving, made me a lot less preoccupied at work, and allowed me to focus on my job. So whether it’s moving or completing outstanding tasks, do it all quickly and focus on the post.

A first professional post is a great opportunity: the first chance to use the skills gained at library school in the real world; the first chance to experience project or team management; the first step in a career. Have fun, work hard, make new friends, and prove that you can do the basic tasks for when you move on to that second professional post.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Taking the blinkers off

Writing a dissertation is like trying to land a plane hurtling towards the earth. You desperately wrestle with the controls, try to rein it in to do what you want it do, and eventually you just want to get it on the ground even if it’s not in one piece when it gets there. Right now, I feel like I’m emerging from the semi-smouldering remains of an imperfect but landed dissertation.
My Masters dissertation is more or less complete and I suddenly see how much I’ve neglected over the past few months. I devoted myself to the project because, through incredible good fortune and the support of my supervisor, I was allowed to pursue a topic I’m heavily invested in. My dissertation is about consilience: the subject of my undergraduate dissertation and, in my opinion, the most important idea no-one has ever heard of. Basically I outline a digital library system that would aim to aid academic collaboration and help to achieve consilience. FYI, the research suggests – spoiler alert! – that the system is technically possible within 10-20 years: if anyone’s interested, I can send you a copy when it’s 100%-ed.
Some people are able to take on multiple tasks: Ian who works, dissertates, is a father, and does amazing amounts of library advocacy; Lauren who finished her dissertation while saving Doncaster’s public libraries. I have enormous respect for anyone who can do that much. I tend to be more single-minded, doggedly pursuing a task to the finish and wearing blinkers while doing it.
Last night, I read this piece about young librarians claiming the profession and directing it towards the future. And I realise that all these months writing my dissertation, I’ve been working on my own: trying to improve the library and information sector in a small way.
But there are threats towards libraries that we can’t face on our own: threats that are going to face today’s new professionals. We need to work together to shape the library and information profession’s future and keep what we love intact. Only together can we fight the onslaught on public sector cuts and Cameron’s hordes of volunteers. Only together can we work to keep information free and keep access to digital resources open. Only together can we shape libraries into what we want them to be. To do that, the community of new professionals need to get involved, to participate in the conversation, and to meet up.
So now that the blinkers of my dissertation have been removed, I intend to work on my professional development. I want to teach myself to work with people rather than on my own. And I can’t think of a better bunch of people to work with than the library community. 

Edit: Well, this is excellent. Two enterprising new professionals have organised LISNPN meet-ups in Manchester and London on the 23rd of September.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Help out a struggling library student?

As the final part of my Masters dissertation, I am conducting a survey into the current use of digital libraries and opinions on the future of digital libraries and digitisation in general. After much hard work, the questionnaire is finally complete.

If you would like to help me out please click the link below and complete the survey. It should only take about 10-15 minutes. All results will be kept anonymous and used only for my dissertation.

Thank you very much for your help.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Library Day in the Life Blog Roll

There are some amazing and interesting Library Day in the Life Round 5 blogs and tweets out there. Here is a selection of my favourites (so far).
Two posts from librarians working for Guardian Media. Particularly interesting days what with the efforts of Guardian staff sifting through Wikileaks data. One. Two.
Day of Ian Clark (he of Comment is Free fame) at Canterbury Christ University including a nice summary of what Day in the Life actually is
The University of Sheffield has a great library. Day of a Liaison Librarian there.
Librarians in hard-hats in The University of Westminster. High-visibility jackets should be considered as a way to escape the echo-chamber!
Day of a Reference Librarian for a public library system with an utterly precise paragraph on the nature of summer in public libraries.
Finally, it amused me (in a postmodern sort of way) that a blog called metalibrarian gets somewhat meta by including the discovery of the Day in the Life project during the day in the life.
There are dozens of great Day in the Life stories out there in blogs and under the Twitter hashtag #libday5

Monday, 26 July 2010

Library Day in the Life Round 5

This is a post for the Library Day in the Life project Round 5 where librarians across the world record their daily activities. I am currently working as the Assistant Librarian for an Army library and this was my July 26th...
0800 - There's something about maneuvering past security personnel with guns that sets your mood for the day. In the early morning sun, the base was quiet, serene, and - surrounded by English hillsides - somwhat idyllic. If it weren't for the guns and the (presumably decommissioned) tanks on display, sometimes the base could seem like a holiday resort.
I started the day by greeting the Library Assistant on the issue desk and settling in at my desk in the imaginatively-named Librarian Room. I logged on to the PC and for the first hour took advantage of Internet access. The MoD restricts access to the Internet - for most of the day only the Army website, news websites, and Wikipedia are available but for a few brief windows each day, access is opened out. I hurriedly checked my e-mail, Twitter, and Google Reader feeds before getting down to some research.
The library’s main function is to provide information for Junior Soldiers: military information and history, up-to-date news on Armed Forces current affairs and the War in Afghanistan, and educational information that will help the soldiers in their traditional studies. On the way to work, I heard about the leak of classified Afghanistan war logs by Wikileaks so I spent some time during my first coffee reviewing the story for anything particularly relevant or interesting to our soldiers. After the Internet disappeared, I started to prepare materials and books for a summer-themed display to be put up by the end of the day.
1015 -My turn on the issue desk rota came up. This is the 'traditional librarian' part of my day: smiling, scanning, stamping. When there were no Junior Soldiers to help out or issue books to, I edited the entries to the poetry competition, checking for spelling, grammar, rhythm, etc. The theme was 'Challenge' and we received an interesting blend of entries: half concerned the 'challenges' of Army life (ironing, being away from home, etc.); the other half were more serious pieces about Afghanistan and Iraq. By the end of the day, the judging panel had reached a verdict and decided the winner was 'The One which Used the Word 'Tis'. The company director used the term, "Kipling-esque" (albeit not in an overly positive way).
1230 - My colleague relieved me in time for lunch. I headed over to the base's coffee shop and soon discovered that reading Infinite Jest - a mammoth undertaking in itself - is made even more mammoth-ine by trying to read it while eating a sandwich and drinking a cappuccino. 
1330 - After lunch, I used another brief Internet-availability window to do some planning for a wiki project I'm working on. A major task for library staff is the maintenance of 'regimental boxes' - boxes containing information and news on the various regiments of the British Army. A few weeks ago I suggested to my manager  that the information would be easier to manage in digital form and have since been working on putting it all into a wiki. During an impromptu chat with a colleague about the de-fleaing of cats and the quality of last night's Sherlock, I realised I was late for a presentation I'd agreed to attend.
1430 - Back at the library, I dismantled last month's display about the Victoria Cross and put up the new summer display. The - loose - theme was easy summer reading so I aimed to display quick, easy reads like Stephen King and Dan Brown as well as some travel guides and foreign-language phrase books. I don't think it turned out as well as my Victoria Cross display but I was happy with the fake sand (burlap sacks) and palm fronds (plastic) that I'd found in a corner of the Archives Room and put to work on making a beach-y atmosphere. 
1530 - My second shift on the issue desk. It was quiet so I spent some time cleaning the library and organising my shelves (the library staff each take responsibility for a few sections: I have Military Equipment, Military Warfare up to the Crimean War, Military Biography, Biography, Quick Reference, Graphic Novels, and Dewey Non-fiction 001-199).
1630 - I spent my last ten minutes clearing my desk, putting odds and ends for tomorrow in my in-tray, and carrying unused display materials to the Archives Room. At 1640 I said goodnight, got in my car, realised I'd forgotten my Thermos then kept driving anyway.
1800 - Back home I ran through my dissertation questionnaire while my dinner cooked, implementing some changes that fellow librarian friends had recommended. It's to be sent out later this week.
1900 - Wrote a blog post about a day in my life. The rest of the evening will be spent in the traditional Monday night way: a whisky (late shift tomorrow = lie-in) and shouting at the TV watching University Challenge.