Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The implications of FRBR for e-resource management

FRBR is a framework for organising materials in librarianship and, as the first formal codification of ontological principles in bibliography, it’s a useful tool to apply to a range of bibliographic issues. FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) was published in 1998 as an attempt to define the relationships between books (and other materials). Basically it presents a description of how the bibliographic universe is arranged (1) and can therefore be used to work out how to organise materials within a library. FRBR says that: 
a work “is realised through [an] expression [which] is embodied in [a] manifestation, [which] is exemplified by [an] item.” 
IFLA, 2009, Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records

Confusing. One of the best visualisations of FRBR is this one by Thomas ‘orangeaurochs’ Meehan. 

The arrangement of print books is a major preoccupation for librarians: it involves shelving arrangements, classification schemes, day-to-day shelving and straightening, and even architectural design. As E-resources Co-ordinator at Durham University Library, I’m more preoccupied by how to arrange electronic resources and lately I’ve been considering what implications FRBR has for e-resource management. E-resources are ethereal – if they can be said to ‘reside’ at all (2), they do so in a loose network of data connections, servers, and user terminals – but they still need to be arranged and organised and it’s the responsibility of e-resource librarians to consider how best to do this to meet their users’ needs. 

A quick note on defining ‘e-resources’: I’m sort of using the word interchangeably with ‘e-resource records’ since that’s what I actually arrange. We don’t host any ebooks or ejournals on our servers so all I organise are catalogue records and links to external material. By ‘e-resource records’, I mean records for ejournals, ebooks, and databases. 

There are several ways to arrange electronic resources. The catalogue record (or bib record) is the main digital presence of an e-resource: it provides all the data on that resource in the form of a MARC record to AACR2 standard (3). The first way of managing electronic resource links is to add the URL directly into the bib record using the 856 field which, on Durham’s OPAC, then appears like this: 


The advantages of this arrangement are: simplicity; keeping all your data in one place; everything can be done within the LMS’ cataloguing module. 

Another method is to use a separate ERM (Electronic Resource Management) module and to store ERM data separately from the bib records. At Durham, we keep a large coverage database which contains a limited amount of information about every e-resource: which provider they belong to, the title of the item, a unique identifier (ISSN, ISBN, control no.), and – most importantly – a URL. The LMS then creates checkin records which are automatically attached to the appropriate bib records (4). These two records – the bib and the checkin – together form a complete e-resource record and display to the user like this: 

Though more complicated, this method has distinct advantages over the 856 method. Most importantly, the coverage database is the data used by our OpenURL link resolver software which makes resources more discoverable for users. This method also allows us to specify multiple sources for a single e-resource (5): if, for example, the ejournal Analysis is available at more than one website, we simply attach multiple checkin records to a single bib record like so: 


It would be possible to have multiple 856 fields but they wouldn’t display as nicely and, as mentioned, wouldn’t feed into the OpenURL software. 

Other methods for e-resource management are available. If you’re feeling crazy, you can use 856s and coverage together but the result is messy and redundant (6): 

Paul Otlet, the co-creator of the Mundaneum, was a visionary figure in bibliographic thought: he was one of the first thinkers to conceive knowledge as a ‘web’ – a networked knowledge system as opposed to the hierarchical knowledge systems predominant in epistemology and LIS. The foundation of Otlet’s philosophy is that the arrangement of documents mirrors the arrangement of the world. By arranging documents in a certain way, we create a mirror of the abstract world of the ideas expressed in those documents. 

“Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory.” 
Paul Otlet, 1935, Monde, essai d'universalisme: 
connaissance du monde, sentiment du monde, action organisée et plan du monde

In considering electronic resource management, my preoccupation is how best to reflect the world as it actually exists. As well as being an intellectual puzzle, I think asking how to arrange resources in a logical and commonsensical way is the best means of helping users find materials and understand the arrangement of a library catalogue. Catalogue arrangement should reflect the world with which the users are familiar. This requires us to consider the ontology of e-resources and it’s where FRBR comes in handy. 

The first question is ‘what kind of entity is an e-resource?’. Based on the coverage method that Durham uses, an e-resource record is two separate blocks of data knitted together – the bib record and the coverage. FRBR defines an item as a singular entity and so arguably it would be more accurate to keep all the data for an e-resource in one place à la the 856 method. And consider when an e-resource has multiple sources and therefore multiple coverage entries: for example, an ebook that is available on both MyiLibrary and Cambridge Books Online. As copies of the same publication, they seem to be the same manifestation but since they have different digital presences they seem to be different items (7). Therefore they should probably be kept separate but linked in the catalogue: does the method of separate coverage reflect this or should they have completely separate bib records? Looming over all this is the question of what counts as an ‘item’ for an e-resource? 

A larger question is the differentiation between print and digital versions of the same work. One of the issues I’ve been considering is whether, in the long-term, print and electronic records should be merged. The technology allows us to do this and, to some extent, encourages it: rather than keep separate bib records for electronic items, we simply attach the coverage checkins to the existing print bib records. This wouldn’t disrupt the OpenURL software and from a certain perspective it would make resources more easily discoverable to the user: if they’re looking for the journal Analysis, it’s easier to have one record which contains information on the print copies and the electronic versions than two records which must be opened separately. 

Using FRBR, do print and electronic versions of the same work count as separate expressions, manifestations, or items? This partly depends on the state of the electronic version: is it a scan of the print version or a separate copy of the text contained therein? My reading of FRBR suggests that print and electronic versions of the same work are different manifestations which means that the bib records should be kept separate to accurately reflect this. This ontology is fairly woolly and so different interpretations are available. 

This discussion leads to much larger questions about the arrangement of library catalogues. Should we try to the mirror the ontological arrangement of the bibliographic universe? Should we do this according to FRBR’s pre-defined ontology or not? The most important questions are: what arrangement is most useful for the library user and what arrangement best reflects the status of reality? And can there be conflicts between the two? 



(1) More precisely, it presents IFLA’s description of how the bibliographic universe is arranged and may not necessarily reflect the views of others. I have philosophical issues with FRBR but this is not the time to discuss them. 

(2) They can't: that’s a category mistake. But in this kind of ontological discussion, the language gets a little fuzzy and I can’t be bothered to perform the linguistic circumlocutions that would make this post 100% philosophically accurate (2a) so I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me for any slip-ups I make later on. 

(2a) It would also make the writing dreadfully academic and dull. The philosophers in the audience know what I’m talking about. 

(3) If you're reading this in 2014, replace 'AACR2' with 'RDA'.Or if you're reading this further in the future, replace 'MARC' with 'RDF' or whatever structure has replaced it.

(4) Ideally. Nowadays I’m pretty good at getting them to attach correctly but occasionally e-resource checkins get attached to print bib records or don’t attach to anything which means I have to go through them and attach them manually. Which gets quite laborious. 

(5) There’s an ontological leap in that sentence but bear with me and I’ll get to it. 

(6) By the end of this week, these multiple-URL records won’t display like that in our OPAC anymore. Call me overly cautious but I didn’t want to delete the URL data for 200,000+ ebooks so I’ve been changing the 856 fields into non-displayed custom 956 fields. It’s a bit inelegant but it makes no difference to the user and saves the data in the bib record for a rainy day. The multiple global updates required for this process have been taking a long time and are, as of publication, ongoing. 

(7) I’m assuming that print versions and digital versions are the same expression. My interpretation is that ‘expression as a text in English’ covers both print and digital text.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 4

18 July 2012, 1345 CST 

The Social Media lounge in the foyer of the conference centre is being dismantled around us as we stand at one of the lounge’s remaining tables eating cold Giordano’s stuffed pizza. Sarah – the first ECCA to leave our little fellowship – and Neil Infield – one of the SLA Europe British contingent – are about to leave for O’Hare and the mood is cheerful but tinged with a melancholy that is accentuated by the physical evidence all around us of the conference disappearing. It’s like the last day of school before the summer holidays when all the work was taken off the walls, the desks were tidied, and the classroom in which you’d spent a year was stripped of everything that made it feel alive. Around the foyer, workmen are rolling up signage, dismantling the registration stands, and carrying materials out of the exhibition hall. Since there’s still more two sessions, it feels like the conference has left before the attendees. 

This morning, despite being on four hours sleep after what-would-have-been-an-unforgettable-if-I-hadn’t-drank-so-much evening at the IT Division & Dow Jones Dance Party Open House (1), I can feel my brain whirring back into gear. The sessions on this final morning – one on social media, one on institutional repositories, and one on public library advocacy (2) – stand out in my memory as the most useful sessions of the conference and the notes from these sessions will be the ones that I most refer back to over the coming weeks. In the closing session this afternoon, I’ll feel fully woken up from the conference trance and begin processing my experience again. 

Giles, Ruth, Marie, and Anneli go to hang out by the lake since we’re told that the SLA Annual Business and Membership Meeting can be somewhat less than useful for first-timers. But I can feel the conference slipping away – I can feel it ending as we all knew it would – and I want to wring as much as I can from the Experience while I’m here. As I walk through the foyer towards the meeting, across layed-out rolls of plastic in which bits of the Marketplace and Information Booth will be wrapped, I can see the Experience collapsing around me. 


Only one room is occupied by SLA this afternoon and it feels like we’re all huddling together one last time before it all collapses and we go our separate ways. As predicted, as a new SLA member, the Business Meeting goes somewhat over my head and I spend the time looking around the hall at all the faces of the people I’ve met this week: all of the people to whom I can now attach memories, shared experiences, feelings. There are people in this room who I know now and who I don’t know if I’ll ever see again. But, as we make our separate ways in the world, we’ll always be connected by this shared experience, by this insane, exhausting, wonderful week. 

The same goes double for the other ECCAs to whom I’m soon to say ‘goodbye and see you in Britain’. During this week, we’ve shared a singular Experience and that strikes me as very rare. When am I going to be in a group of such similarly positioned people in such a unique situation again? That’s a bond that’ll last for the rest of our careers and it feels like a real ‘life-thing’. It’s the kind of thing that fits neatly into a narrative – ‘Once upon a time, this happened with these people…’ – and so it’s naturally satisfying and significant. 

18 July 2012, 1900 CST 

Having been to the Closing Reception, I leave the Chicago Hilton early knowing that I’m missing out on the baseball-themed Military Libraries Division Open House (3) and a free buffet which John DiGilio informs me will have hot dogs. But I’m tired, the members of the British contingent have gone their separate ways, and, for me, it feels like the party’s over. 

During the last reception and during the IT Dance Party last night, I’ve noticed changes in the way I talk to people. I’ve started referring to my home country as ‘England’ even though, when I’m at home, I don’t feel any cultural affinity to England as such: I tend to refer to myself as ‘British’ and from ‘the United Kingdom’. But saying “I’m from England” to an American seems to suit the situation more: it seems like what an English character in an American film would say. I’ve also noticed that – whether due to role-playing or cognitive exhaustion or networking overexcitement – I’ve started to stutter over words at the start of sentences which makes me sound like a befuddled Hugh Grant-ian Englishman. I realised that to some extent I’m playing a role: the role of an Englishman in over his head in the United States (4). Falling back on these lazy cultural stereotypes is simply an easy thing to do. It quickly defines my character in the narrative of this situation and it’s interesting how easily I’ve adapted to this. I never once used the word ‘Blighty’ before this week. 

19 July 2012, 0900 CST 

A bit of the Chicago Public Library.
It’s my final day in Chicago and I’m doing the tourist-y stuff that I’ve been promising people I’d do all week. I don’t have enough time to do all the things that friends and colleagues have suggested so I settle for: wandering the geometric streets of the Loop, finding tourist-y gifts for family and co-workers, and visiting the Daley Plaza Farmers Market, the Rookery, the NBC store, Macy’s, Graham Crackers Comics, the Art Institute of Chicago (5), Al’s Beef, Books-A-Million, and the Chicago Public Library (6). 

It’s hard to be sure because it feels like forever ago but I think I came to America determined to retain my British cynicism. Part of me wanted to cast a derisive eye on the USA and return home smug with the knowledge that the UK is a more mature, more developed country. I’m no flag-waving patriot: my hidden patriotism consists of this smug sense of false superiority. But at some point in the madness of the conference and the glorious, unrelenting niceness of all the American people around me, my cynicism withered away. And I’m wandering the streets of downtown Chicago with a grin on my face because… 

I want to explore! I want to go to the top of all these buildings and see how far I can see. I want to go to the rest of America – the parts that I’ve only seen on TV. I want to meet the millions of people out there and find out what we have in common. I want to get in a car and drive until I see something interesting. I want to not know what's going to happen. I want to go to places and not be sure of my direction. I want to climb a hill; I want to see all the art; I want to eat different foods. I was sure that by this point in the week all I’d want to do is go back to my flat and curl up on my sofa with a cup of coffee and my slippers but, it turns out… screw that. What I really want to do is explore. 

20 July 2012, 0200 BST 

I’m 30000 feet in the air enjoying a thoroughly British gin and tonic on the overnight American Airlines flight from O’Hare to Manchester. Gin isn’t usually my drink but… it feels like time for a change. 

I want to say that SLA Chicago was a life-changing experience. And I will. But in what sense was it ‘life-changing’? I came home to my flat which was exactly as I’d left it; I went to work at Durham University Library and settled back into my job; all the various facets of my life are, on the surface, exactly as they were before. And yet suddenly everything has changed. Because I’m looking at everything differently and I can’t really explain without going into detail about the fabric of my life. As I said in Part One, this Experience was connected via a thousand tiny threads to the network of my life such that I’m unable to disconnect it from causal links to work, to my personal life, and to home. Things and events that didn’t really have anything to do with Chicago seem to be infused with the Experience’s significance: an email from my Dad that I read in my hotel room; a Facebook message that I picked up on the Chicago Public Library’s free WiFi. These things have led into other things that all happened after Chicago and yet they seem drenched in the significance of the Experience. Everything is connected and so the story doesn’t have an end. Experiences don’t happen in isolation and they can’t be disconnected but they do enhance and change what comes after. 

The Experience was life-changing in the sense that I feel changed. The person sipping a gin and tonic on this flight to the UK isn’t the same person who nervously wringed his hands on a flight to the US six days ago. After travelling 4000 miles from home on my own, meeting dozens of new people, standing up to talk about the UK’s public libraries in a room full of strangers, and not only being OK with that but being excited by all of that, it feels like there’s no reason to be afraid of any other experience again.


At 0700, as we come in for a landing, I look down on the higgledy-piggledy town and street layout of Great Britain and the random green-yellow patchwork of Lancashire and Greater Manchester’s countryside. It’s cloudy and damp outside and little blobs of drizzle stick to the plastic of the airplane window. I am looking forward to hearing some member of airport staff say, in a British accent, “Welcome home” (7) but I can’t help but feel, like the Mancunian weather outside, a little grey. 

13 August 2012, 0715 BST 

At the end of The Return of the King, after all his adventures, Frodo Baggins returns to his nice quiet home in the Shire. I always thought that Frodo should be so happy to get home, to write the Red Book of his experiences, and to finally relax after all his hardship. But, Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo before him, finds the Shire changed on his return: or at least, changed for him. He’s seen too much; done too much; suffered and fallen and won. How can you go back to the way things were? How can you ever settle down again? 

Tomorrow it's a month to the day since I set off on my journey to America and back again. It’s been an exciting month – personally and professionally – and I feel that it’s because I’m still possessed by that spirit of adventure that struck me in Chicago. I was in London over the weekend and by Sunday afternoon, I just wanted to go home. But where? I realised I'm not sure where ‘home’ is anymore. Although my flat feels familiar, it doesn’t feel qualitatively different from all the other places I’ve stayed in the past month. 

I’ll never have a first trip to America again; I’ll never have a first SLA Conference again; I will never have this Experience again. But I know that there are bigger and scarier adventures ahead. And now I know that as long as I have myself, a bag on my back, a place to sleep, and at least one person to talk to, I’ll be OK. 



(1) It was a fantastic evening – easily the best of the week. Despite almost no forward planning, I thought my makeshift 1920s gangster costume looked a. rather good and b. rather authentic. I got to the dance floor with a pretty American girl two songs before the lights went up and the party ended which actually came as something of a disappointment. 

Photo by the SLA Photographer.
 
(2) The USA seems to be just behind the UK in terms of public library cuts and/or closures such that they now seem to be in the position that the UK occupied in late 2010. So in this session, people were suggesting and planning stuff that we in the UK have already done. For example, someone suggested that we compile a list of all the valuable things that public librarians do and, since I couldn’t get a word in, I didn’t manage to say “Erm… Lauren Smith has already done this, you guys.” I settled for tweeting it. At one point, I did stand up to talk about the UK’s plight and the work of Voices for the Library: attendees at that session should totally check out the website for more useful information. 

(3) Quick note on military librarians. As a former military librarian, I know how little communication there is between them in the UK. And so, I was surprised by the number of American military librarians who I met at the SLA Conference. Something similar to the SLA Military Libraries Division could be of great professional benefit to the military librarians working in isolation across the UK. 

(4) See also: the tweed jacket. 

(5) Where I particularly enjoyed the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. I’m no expert on art but it struck me that his pop art was truly postmodern in the sense that it was a homage to and a parody of the bombastic, over-dramatic comic book style of the time (and, more importantly, the bombastic, over-dramatic mentality of the time in which bombastic, over-dramatic comic book style things were accepted as normal. See, for example, the comically overly sentimental women and the grotesquely masculine men in his art.). Like David Foster Wallace’s writing, on the surface Lichtenstein’s art ironically parodies the genre that he worked in while underneath being perfectly respectful and representative of his genuine love for the genre. His work also contains a pleasing amount of self-reference which suggests how conscious he was of the development of his style. 

(6) Where I run into several librarians from the now-ended SLA Conference. Where else do librarians go during their time off work? 

(7) Which, quite excitingly, actually happens. On the whole, I found UK airport staff to be a lot friendlier than US airport staff. (7a) 

(7a) FYI, the US Department of Homeland Security now has a complete set of my fingerprints and a full body scan of me. Should anyone want such things.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 3

…SLA conferences represent much, much more than just 3½ days of workshops, meetings, and networking activities. These are things you attend at a conference, and you do not simply attend an SLA conference – you immerse yourself in it, allowing the ideas, the conversations, the personalities, and the sense of community to wash over you, to the point that you become almost oblivious to the passage of time and the events of the outside world. The end of the conference comes almost as a shock, and it can take days and even weeks to fully re-engage with your job, family and friends.
Janice LaChance, SLA CEO, ‘Magic that never wears off’ in Information Outlook, 16 (4), p. 3. 


16 July 2012, 2330 CST 

We’re in the heart of the conference. It’s the end of Day Two and we’re deeply immersed in the life of conference attendees. We’ve been completely enveloped by librarianship for days and I can’t speak for the others but it’s leading me into a state of ‘conference-madness’. As Ruth puts it, it’s “A surreal and wonderful experience.” 

The following quote comes verbatim from my notebook and was written lying on my hotel bed immediately after I got in from the International Reception and a couple more Open House events at the Chicago Hilton. Reading it back, it seems like real Heart of Darkness-type stuff: 

This conference is freaking killing me. My meal schedule is fucked. As Giles observed, I can't remember the last time I ate a meal with a fork. I stole a Moleskine notepad from the PAM Open House. I regret nothing. We live the conference now like nomads: grabbing what food and goodies we can when we can. We are not humans: we are conference attendees. (1) 

The conference is so full-on and so intense and I am having the best time of my life. Every day runs from 0800 to past midnight and every second of that time is spent doing something. During our normal lives, we ‘do’ library stuff for 7-8 hours a day – and even then it’s not wall-to-wall new experiences: I have breaks, I read the news, I talk to my friends at work, I create repetitive spreadsheets – and then we can go home and briefly stop thinking about it. Here, it’s all around us for 16 hours a day and the only break we get is for sleep. This morning, I had ten minutes between showering/shaving and leaving for the Sci-Tech Breakfast at 0650 to just sit and listen to music in my hotel room (2). It felt like an unparalleled luxury. 

The actual conference sessions run from 0800 – 1730 everyday followed by various networking events and Open House events that run officially until 2200 and unofficially until everyone leaves. During the day there are always about a dozen sessions running parallel at any one time and the ‘game’ is that you have an hour-and-a-half to find the one that you find most interesting. You do this by ducking out of less interesting sessions (3), flicking through your – if you’re organised, pre-highlighted – pocket guide to the conference, and finding a more useful session before too much time has elapsed that you’ve missed the bulk of it.

On Tuesday, there was even this spontaneous flash-mob unconference.

Between sessions, there are half-hour buffers in which you can wander the Info-Expo, head to the lakefront to melt in the heatwave (4), or just hang out in the expansive foyer. Groups of people tend to be clustered around power sockets. Even just hanging out, there’s always someone to talk to and, since I was presented with my award, Sci-Tech people have been coming up to me to chat about library campaigning and e-resources and my accent and whatnot. At the networking events in the evenings, there are hundreds of people to chat with (5), hundreds of business cards to be exchanged, and everyone is so smart and funny. Someone at the First-Timers Meet (I think it was SLA Treasurer, Dan Trefethen (6)) said, “You have more in common with any stranger here than you will ever have with any other group of strangers.” This whole conference is like a little nomadic village of info pros that has somehow, seemingly magically, coalesced at this place at this time and that will exist only for a short time before dispersing as quickly as it formed. It’s the same feeling that I got at the first Library Camp back home last year but on a much grander scale. 

17 July 2012, 0935 CST 

In one of the buffer times, I’m taking a break to process my experience. I’m finding it difficult to adequately parse the experience into a form that I can analyse and understand because there’s simply no time to sit down and quietly think about what’s happening. It’s an odd combination of being overwhelmed, overstimulated, overexcited, way too busy, and having not had enough sleep and it’s meant that my brain has gone into a sort of emergency mode by Ctrl-Alt-Del shutting down the cognitive and philosophical processes that usually run non-stop. 

Since at the time I didn’t have the mental faculties to process the experience, here’s a quote from Ned Potter (7), a 2011 ECCA who has had a year to consider his experience and put it into words:

I found that being taken from where you live and deposited in a new place, and then having an absolutely intense period of several days in which the moment you wake till the moment you go to sleep is shaped by being an ECCA, and is dominated by SLA-related work or play, was almost akin to an out-of-body experience! 

Because you are destabilised by being taken somewhere else and your new reality is entirely shaped for you, and you have this shared and deepened experience with the other ECCAs, and the time is so packed that it's the very opposite of mundane or boring so that makes it hyper-real somehow - and it all amounts to something which is much more singular than any other experience you normally have in everyday life. You go places in everyday life - you experience new places. You go to intense events or things, like conferences or even stag dos or whatever. And you meet new people. But rarely if ever do all these come together in such an Alice-in-Wonderland total experience package, if you know what I mean? Plus the sheer scale of the thing, as you say. 

 It's its own bubble. And when you're in it you're at once both incredibly aware of the amazingness of it and yet completely unqualified to really understand the bubbleness because you've not yet had the experience come to an end and give you distance from it. 

The packed Mary Ellen Bates session.
In the session I’ve just left – the highly recommended Mary Ellen Bates session ‘From Info Pro to Info Hero: 5 Easy Ways to Turn Information into Insight’ which, by the way, was packed out: in an 0800 session, there was standing room only. Marie and I sat on the floor in one of the aisles along with at least two dozen other people – Mary Ellen Bates said that being an info pro is about extracting what is important. We take raw data and we find, we analyse, we extract what matters to our users.

What matters to me about this experience – what I’m extracting despite being exhausted and cognitively impaired – is that it’s making me stronger (in the Neitzschean ‘whatever doesn’t kill you…’ sense). Every day that I’ve been here, I’ve felt exponentially more confident and more competent. Everything – most notably networking and talking to complete strangers – feels easier than it did a few days ago. In the midst of this conference-madness, I can feel myself levelling up.

17 July 2012, 1430 CST 

I’m in one of the most enjoyable sessions of the week – '60 Apps in 60 Minutes Redux: The Next 60 Apps You Need To Know' led by Scott Brown and Joe Murphy (8). I ducked out of 'How and Why Things Fail – Forensic Engineers and Information Specialists' (9) to get here so I only get about 30 apps. My notes for this session are a frantic list of app names and sentence fragments telling my future self how the apps might be useful. It’s a fantastic session presented with an amazing amount of energy and I feel like I’ll never have the time to investigate each app as thoroughly as it deserves.

More than any other event, conferences make me feel like a cybernetically enhanced human. Because during conferences, I basically never put my Android device away and it becomes a vital extension of myself, fulfilling the functions of virtual memory, communication device, and information discovery tool. In this session, I’m using Evernote to make notes, I’m uploading a couple of photos to Facebook, I’m downloading a couple of the apps mentioned, I’m keeping up Twitter conversations with Anneli (10), Ruth, and Sara on the relative merits of the two sessions I’ve been in, and I’m checking the Twitter stream for the hashtag #SLAChicago (11). It’s during conferences that I feel most like a ‘digital human’: 50% of me is online and 50% is in my physical meat-body. By spreading my self out in this way, it feels like I’m more of myself than I usually am. As Ned put it, the experience is “hyper-real somehow”.

17 July 2012, 1715 CST 

Note the red and white checkered tablecloths. Very Italian-American.
Chicago deep-dish pizza is a microcosm of America: at first it seems absurd but it turns out to be huge and wonderful and you can’t take it all in in one sitting. The ECCAs are visiting Giordano’s on East Lake Street, Chicago and enjoying a “Famous Stuffed Pizza”. Chicago pizza is basically a crust exterior stuffed with a layer of mozzarella an inch thick with tomato (and other toppings though we didn’t have any) on top. One slice each, particularly after insanely-sized appetisers, is enough.

Part of our conversation during the meal is about our impressions of the SLA. (12) Speaking for myself, my impression of the SLA is one of overwhelming positivity. Every member seems to really value their membership and, most importantly, seems to be genuinely proud of the organisation. Conversely, the organisation seems to genuinely value its members as evidenced by the seemingly unending stream of awards that were presented at the conference’s opening address ceremony. A great deal about the organisation – the vocabulary, the structure, the general outlook – seems a lot more corporate than I’m used to or indeed comfortable with (13). But it seems to work for them and, coupled with the American lack of irony, it’s refreshing to see an organisation that takes itself seriously and views itself as thoroughly and unashamedly professional.

During the closing address, Brent Mai introduces a video of the 18th Annual Conference of SLA Arabian Gulf Chapter and, on the surface, it looks so different to any library event I’ve ever seen because, let’s face it, it is. I realise that my experience of librarianship and of The Profession has been ridiculously limited: that in my tiny little corner of North-East England, I’d never even considered the presence and challenges of libraries in Arabian countries let alone libraries in every country around the world. I realise that I have had no idea about the scale of this profession or this world. The SLA is such a huge and diverse organisation and the greatest gift of this conference has been that it’s introduced me to a thousand things – ideas, concepts, people, places – that I would otherwise have never been exposed to. My notebook is filled with ideas that I don’t have the time to blog about or the brain-power to remember.

Being part of the SLA – even for such a brief time as this week and in such a tangential capacity as a tiny new professional from a small European country – makes me feel like I belong to something larger than myself. That feeling of support and genuine community is what I want from a professional organisation. Every evening at Open House events, I’ve watched people who live thousands of miles away from one another greet each other as old friends and immediately fall into a rapport of genuine connection. I’ve had people tell me that they’re glad I’m here, that they’re proud of me, and that they’re happy I’m a member of the Special Libraries Association. What I’ve seen this week is less of a librarianship event and more of a community coming together – a nomadic village of info pros which coalesces every year through the sheer will of its members.

All of which could seem terribly onanistic – and I’ve been to library events that do feel that way – if the focus weren’t squarely on other people. The SLA feels like an outward-looking organisation with a focus on library campaigning, advocacy, marketing of ourselves, and most importantly, a focus on our users and our colleagues. In the closing address, Stephen Abram made the point that we need to ‘infect’ our colleagues who aren’t here: we’re no better than them, we’re just luckier.

And I guess that’s what these blog posts are about: trying to share my experience as thoroughly and as honestly as I can. It’s kind of crass for the writer to nakedly tell the reader his/her intention but all I want to do in these posts is to share what I felt that week. Because everything about the events of the 14th to the 20th July 2012 made me feel more alive. It was a week in which I laughed, learned, felt afraid, felt exhausted, went a little mad, made friends, and danced.

And isn’t all of that what life is about?

Reminding me of that is what the Special Libraries Association, SLA Europe, and the ECCA gave to me. That was my award. (14)

Photo by Marie Cannon.



(1) OK, so, the story behind the Moleskine notebook is this:

16 July 2012, 2130 CST 

We were at the Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics Division Open House doing some networking and taking advantage of the open bar (1a). Giles noticed some high-quality Moleskine notebooks piled on a table and I took one. We later discovered that they weren’t free for public consumption. So I didn’t so much ‘steal’ it as not realise that one had to perform some unspecified task to obtain one. In my defence, if we’d known that, I would have performed the unspecified task (1b). And appreciate the underlying madness in my note: we were clearly whacked out on free conference goodies and large American portions of food-that-you-eat-with-your-hands.

(1a) Every night, there was at least one open bar somewhere. They were fantastic but I kept running in to the same surly bartender who demanded absolute clarity in a drinks order. It’s not enough to say “Can I have a [insert brand of whisky here]?”: you had to specify that you wanted it neat and not-in-a-wine-glass. She’s one of the few not-100%-pleasant Americans that I met. 

(1b) Probably. 

(2) For some reason, my personal ‘anthem’ for this trip is ‘Falling for the First Time’ by the Barenaked Ladies. I’m not sure why. You know when a song just feels right? That.

(3) Brazenly and without embarrassment. It felt awkward the first time I did it – I thought the session ‘E-Discovery Preparation through Information Management and Data Mapping’ was about resource discovery software which would have been relevant to my job but it turned out to be a specialised legal librarianly thing – but now I’m skipping out of sessions like a pro. Like the business card thing, it turns out to be part of the culture and is not only accepted but encouraged. It’s part of the conference ‘game’. There was only one session in which Sarah and Ruth were made to feel uncomfortable for leaving and everyone in the SLA Europe contingent was really genuinely appalled by this.

(4) From the 14th to the 20th July 2012, Chicago and much of the Midwest suffers from crazy temperatures around 100°F every day. I go for a walk around Museum Campus on the Monday which, although very pleasant and life-affirming, turns out to be a mistake since it’s really unbearably hot and it causes me to sweat a very visible and thoroughly unattractive amount such that I am forced to wear my – really truly impractically hot – tweed jacket to cover up my shirt and the obvious evidence that I’ve sweated a very visible and thoroughly unattractive amount. Needless to say, I shower a lot more frequently than usual during my time in Chicago.

(5) One of the first people I met, on the first night in Chicago, at Kitty O’Shea’s Irish pub, was Stephen Abram. THE Stephen Abram. I think I acted like Troy from Community when he met LeVar Burton. I distinctly remember turning to Sara Batts and saying, in a squeaky, excited voice, “That’s Stephen Abram! I just shook hands with Stephen Abram!” Sara, as always, was cool and nonchalant.

(6) It was either him or Tom Rink the Cop-Librarian, who, as you can tell by his name, has an awesome story. He was a cop in the Tulsa Police Department who decided to set up a library in the police station and just went ahead and did it. He became a cop-librarian. A librarian with a gun.

(7) Ned, as well as sort of being a Bizarro version of myself (or vice versa), is a really nice guy and gave me oodles of advice for my original ECCA application. Thanks, Ned!

(8) Which, bizarrely, has been allocated the traditional hour-and-a-half slot.

(9) Though, as it turns out, not especially relevant to my interests, this session did contain the great line: “Wikipedia is like CliffsNotes for reality.”

(10) Minor but pertinent semantic point here: whenever I’ve referred to ‘the ECCAs’ going somewhere or ‘we’ doing something, this includes Anneli Sarkanen who won the SLA Europe Conference Award 2012 rather than an ECCA as such. Apart from the pizza adventure below: we invited Anneli because she’s cool but she was doing conference-y stuff.

(11) This hashtag turns out to be really well-utilised and I need to give props to whoever was in charge of @SLAChicago (11a) because he/she/they was/were well on top of the hashtag during the conference and gave a great running commentary on the whole event without being too heavy-handed or overwhelming. Towards the end, he/she/they tweeted me to thank me for tweeting and to say “We feel the hashgang created is a very tangible benefit to professionals following the conference.” And the word ‘hashgang’ is perfect here because the Twitter presence during the conference made it feel like 20% of the networking I did was with people who were also at the conference and who I never met in physical form.

(11a) Even though it must have been a person (or group of persons), it really felt like @SLAChicago was the digital embodiment of the conference as an abstract entity. And since we were so immersed in the conference experience, @SLAChicago came to seem like some omnipresent God Of The Conference. Which kind of makes my really-positive feelings towards this Twitter account seem like either religious mania or Stockholm syndrome. 

(12) I’ve been a CILIP member since September 2009 and the subtext (12a) of this closing bit is that CILIP does not have the below-mentioned attributes. I have (for the most part) always supported CILIP and I mean no offence when I say that it now feels like I've seen what the organisation could be. The fact is that I do wish CILIP were more like the SLA.

(12a) Or, now that I’m making it explicit, the text. 

(13) See, for example, Guy Kawasaki’s keynote speech which I found to be entertaining but essentially meaningless corporate twaddle.

(14) It’s obvious that by this point, either through exposure to America or through exhaustion/conference-madness, my British cynicism and irony detector were turned off. And – full disclosure – SLA Europe paid for my SLA membership, my flights to and from the US, my hotel room, my conference fees, and my – embarrassingly minimal, as it turns out – expenses. So how could I be anything but grateful to them? Nonetheless, I like to think that if I’d had a crummy experience, I would say so. Since I got back, my standard response to everyone who has asked “How was Chicago?” has been to say, with a slight wistful sigh, “Oh, it was so great.” As simple and dull and undescriptive as that statement may be, I really truly genuinely mean it. It was so great.

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 2

15 July 2012, 1800 CST 


I’m sitting in the Arie Crown Theater in the McCormick Place Conference Center – an auditorium that could seat 4267 people. Librarians and information professionals seem to occupy every seat around me. Twinkling in the semi-darkness are hundreds of smartphones and dozens of tablets as these highly-connected individuals tweet, Facebook, and make notes while, on-stage, Brent Mai, the current SLA President, presents awards to high-flying and very impressive SLA members. As the award winners walk to the podium, 20-second snippets of dated pop songs play: the kind of cheesy, up-tempo, major-key songs, with steady percussion and killer guitar riffs, that exude and represent ‘celebration’. I forget the actual songs but at a guess I’d say there had to be at least some of the following: ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor; ‘Celebration’ by Kool & the Gang; ‘Takin’ Care of Business’ by Bachman-Turner Overdrive; ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees; ‘A Little Less Conversation’ by Elvis Presley (& JXL). The award-winners dance along to them a little – those little dancing-while-walking moves that suggest a free spirit and a certain light-heartedness. Their brief speeches – in their still vaguely-novel-to-me American accents – are enthusiastic and passionate tempered with genuine modesty and a palpable respect for their colleagues and the SLA as an organisation. 

The pertinent point here is how sincere the whole thing feels. I’m sort of looking around in amazement because my British cynicism and my irony-detector are working in overload. This feels like such a tacky, purposefully exuberant, unironic way to go about doing this. It’s big, it looks expensive, and it seems strangely commercially slick in the way that big events on TV – award ceremonies, sport-related opening ceremonies, inaugurations, etc. – seem and in a way that, in my experience, library events are, generally, not. The cheesy songs are being played without a knowing wink to the audience; the American on the commentary sounds like either a newscaster or Don Draper; unless they’re being very subtle, no-one appears to making any snide remarks or allusions; there’s an honest-to-God autocue machine with those transparent panels on either side of the podium; there’s no hint of anyone laughing at themselves for taking part in this extravagant event. In the dark of the auditorium, it dawns on me that this whole over-the-top opening address is meant to be taken seriously. It’s utterly strange and… yet… really fun and... somehow refreshing. 

It’s all uniquely… American. 

15 July 2012, 0600 CST 

I’ve woken up in America feeling kind of guilty that I didn’t make any notes last night. after the ECCAs descended from the Willis Tower and visited McDonald’s, I ironed my shirts. It felt like a horribly mundane way to send my limited time in this Experience (1). I feel the need to wring every morsel of experience out of this trip and so every second spent not doing something important is time wasted. Hence the unnecessarily early start. 

Wayne Tower (but not really)
Yesterday I briefly wandered the streets of Chicago partly because of the experience-morsel-wringing thing and partly to find the building that appeared as Wayne Tower in Batman Begins. Of all the cities in America for the SLA Conference 2012 to be held, it feels significant that Chicago should be the site of my first trip to the USA. It’s significant because of two personal heroes: Batman and David Foster Wallace. As a massive Batman fan, I was incredibly excited to be travelling to a city that stood in for parts of Gotham in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and on the eve of The Dark Knight Rises appearing in cinemas). Most notable is the Chicago Board of Trade Building: the aforementioned Wayne Tower proxy (2). And as a massive David Foster Wallace fan (3), it felt apt to be going to the state where Wallace grew up and which informed his view of America and the Midwest (Peoria, Il. being the setting for his posthumous novel, The Pale King). Also, Barack Obama is from Chicago and he’s pretty cool. 

So far, the visual influence that I feel most keenly in America is that of the Coen Brothers. Every now and then I see something that reminds of me of The Big Lebowski. My hotel is straight out of Barton Fink: it’s a quiet turn-of-the-last-century building in which the lobby was deserted when I arrived and I’ve yet to see another person in the empty corridors on my floor (4). My room itself is hotel-typical but the style of the furniture, the high ceilings, and the fact that it looks out over an alley and a fire-escape make it look exactly – seriously, eerily so: it freaks me out a little – like the hotel room in which Barton attempts to write his screenplay. On the way into Chicago on the CTA train, I glimpsed some American suburbs which strongly reminded me of the quasi-parodic setting of A Serious Man. Star-Spangled Banners on the lawns of quintessentially middle-class American homes stretching away down perfectly-straight tree-lined streets: they make me imagine a child wearing a baseball cap throwing his bike on the front law and barrelling into the house. This all may say more about the Coen Brothers’ skill at capturing American life than about America itself. 

15 July 2012, 1500 CST 

Social interaction with Americans turns out to a very pleasant experience. After spending the morning among Americans, I am feeling engulfed by their sheer, unrelenting niceness. At breakfast this morning (5) everyone from the maître d’s buzzing around the front desk (6) to the waitress who took our order seemed ridiculously friendly and genuinely interested in our wellbeing. At first, it was disturbingly Lynchian: the rictus grin hiding some dark inner turmoil à la Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. Eventually I came to accept it and by the last day in Chicago I was sharing a joke with the jovial homeless man trying to sell magazines to those queuing to get into the Art Institute of Chicago. But my British cynicism always warned me that, among the service staff particularly, it cannot be genuine: I’m sure more than a few were being so nice to me to get a good tip (7). 

But then earlier today, I went to a Sci-Tech Newcomers Lunch in which new members of the Science-Technology Division of the SLA met up and talked about bosons and lasers and other science-y things (8). This was my first event away from the other ECCAs and all the Americans there (approx. eight Americans and one Canadian) were so friendly and made me feel so at ease. In an American sports bar, 4000 miles from home, watching exotic American sports on the widescreen TVs, I was made to feel more immediately at ease than I’ve felt at some British library events. It turns out that librarians are universally lovely people no matter where they come from. 

Now at the SLA Fellows and First-Timers Meet, in a room full of friendly American info pros and potential career connections, I’ve run out of business cards and I’m actually considering nipping back to the hotel and restocking my card holder. Because this feels like such a massive faux-pas and my previous blog post on business cards was so so wrong. It really is the American custom to introduce oneself by thrusting an 85x55mm card at someone. It’s part of how Americans greet one another professionally and is meshed into the fabric of the ‘conference experience’. At a table chatting to a couple of new people, I’m flushing with embarrassment at the fact that I'm taking cards and not giving any.

15 July 2012, 1600 CST 

The SLA 2012 Annual Conference and Info-Expo is held in McCormick Place Conference Center: the largest conference center in the United States which I think (though Wikipedia doesn’t say this) makes it one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world. 

It feels like it. 

On arrival to the conference center, the complimentary shuttle buses pass into separate 'gates': on our first approach this morning, we passed into one of the tunnels leading underneath the East Building and the lights in the bus turned off leaving us in almost-complete darkness like in the opening scene of Battle Royale. The darkened bus pulled up to a ‘gate’ and we de-bussed, following the crowd through a plush, expensive-looking interior which has the feel of a small airport – from the FedEx office to the gift shop selling Chicago-related knickknacks to the 1930s-style shoe-shine men shouting “Shoe shine! Shine ‘em up!” in a sing-song, 1930s-style way. This turns out to be an entrance floor and to reach the main floor one has to ascend one of four long escalators leading up to a panoramic view of the lakeside. The expansive foyer on the second floor has the floor space of one whole storey of Durham University Library back home and is dotted with booths, seating areas, charging stations, and banks of computers. 


The exhibition hall itself – the site of the Info-Expo – is, without exaggeration, airplane hangar-sized. Stretching as far back as I can see there are booths staffed with congenial looking exhibitors (9) and banners / posters for big-name companies and publishers who I deal with everyday back home but who my info-civilian family and friends would not recognise: ProQuest, Springer, Elsevier, LexisNexis, ASCE, Annual Reviews, etc etc. It’s all very slick and very commercial and I’m a bit overwhelmed. Like when faced with a huge second-hand bookshop, I suddenly can’t remember what I want. I know I have work-related issues to discuss with these exhibitors and I know that I should at least pretend to be professional by doing something related to my job this week but everything about work has slipped out of my mind: it’s an ocean away in a different world entirely. It’s a different Simon who goes to work on ebooks and e-journals every day. I’ve left him behind and who I’m becoming is either a purer or a muddier version of him. 

All I know right now is that everything is bigger here. It’s on a different scale to Britain. The landscape, the buildings, the events, the food portions. Even the personalities of the people I’ve met somehow seem bigger. The conference – a four-day event comprised of days running from 0800 to midnight – will prove to be a bigger, more mentally-exhausting experience than any I’ve ever had. The sheer scale of this week will make everything that comes afterwards seem smaller and easier in comparison. 

16 July 2012, 0830 CST 

I’m vaguely embarrassed at the Sci-Tech Business Meeting and Breakfast and, again, I can feel my face flushing. The breakfast is in the South Building of the McCormick Place Conference Center (my reaction to this: “There’s a whole other building?!”) and the coffee is underwhelming (10). I’m a little worse-for-wear after the ECCAs and I did some networking at as many open house events as we could get to last night, all of which had open bars. However, I was ready to accept my Early Career Conference Award which I did with some blushes and some purposefully half-hearted, semi-ironic, kind-of-laughing-at-myself-but-not-really hoorays. I gave a speech thanking everyone who deserved to be thanked and in which I spoke about the power of technology, its oftentimes rocky relationship with libraries, and my work with Voices for the Library on behalf of the UK’s public libraries (11). Afterwards, I attempted to follow the business meeting portion of the Business Meeting and Breakfast but it was a bit specialised, a bit commercial, and my head was groggy. 

That’s all fine. The reason I’m embarrassed is because I’ve won one of the small joke awards for ‘Youngest Person in the Room’ (12). It’s not only because I don’t want to appear to be hogging awards but because, in truth, I’m kind of embarrassed about my youth. When I was an awkward teenager, I craved the weight of experience: I thought that age would allow me to know what I should do in any given situation and so I wanted to be older. I wanted to be a grown-up. Now, though still being young, my (relative) career success means that I’m playing with the big boys. At the CILIP in Wales Conference for example, I was very very VERY conscious of being not only the youngest person on the Leadership Panel but one of the youngest people in the entire room. The best way of explaining it is that I’d rather be ‘The Guy Who Has Achieved Stuff’ than ‘The Guy Who Has Achieved Stuff Despite Being So Young’. 

Me and Sheila Rosenthal, Chair of the Awards Committee for the Sci-Tech Division. Photo by Bethan Ruddock.

And yet, in hindsight, this experience seems apposite. Because I’d describe the United States of America as a country that is young and is OK with that. Historically the country is only 236 years old and it certainly feels younger than the United Kingdom: there’s something about the people and the collective population that makes it feel more exuberant and less cynical, less ironic and more sincere. America has a certain lack of self-awareness that I associate with youth and, far from being a handicap, while one is surrounded by it, it becomes refreshing. The people there don’t seem to be constantly worried about what other people think of them and so, in a way, their lack of self-knowledge leads to more of a certain kind of freedom. America is a country in which people will dance-walk onto a stage to cheesy pop songs, not because they’re being ironic or self-deprecating, but because the songs are fun and up-tempo and they feel genuinely happy. 

And so, like America, maybe I do need to be young. And maybe that’s OK. What I came to feel in America is that I - my perspective and my attitude towards the world - was wrong and America is right. (13)



(1) Sam Wiggins told me not to iron before going to America but I did anyway. While I’m ironing, I spend my time marvelling at the strangeness of US television, being unduly excited by the American mains socket, and wishing I’d listened to Sam.

(2) Liam Neeson and Batman race towards it during the climactic showdown aboard Gotham’s elevated train which was modelled partly on Chicago’s own elevated train system.

(3) This travelogue owes more than a little to Wallace’s far-superior travelogues such as ‘Big Red Son’, ‘Up, Simba’, and ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’.

(4) There’s an odd moment later in the week when I exit the elevator to discover a girl sobbing on the floor directly opposite the elevator door. She didn’t look up at me and I walked past (4a) and later became not unconvinced that the whole thing had in fact been a dream.

(4a) An act I feel tremendously guilty about but when I finally decided that some attempt at comforting her was the gentlemanly thing to do and went back, she’d already gone. 

(5) We went out for American-style stacks o' pancakes. This seemed an Important Thing To Do.

(6) Multiple maître d’s. Every restaurant seemed to have so many members of staff: a small army of waiters, busboys, maître d’s, and people whose function, as far as I could tell, was to look pretty, smile at people, and ask if they were having a nice day.

(7) I’m fairly certain that during my time in America, I was a chronic under-tipper. I got confused with the whole no-added-tax thing and the tipping thing and it was all too complicated. I understand the economic reasons that make tipping so important over there (7a). That doesn’t mean I like it.

(7a) Basically, American employers don’t pay their employees enough and everyone seems to accept this as the case. So we (conscientious individual customers) ensure that they (the employees) have enough money to survive by giving them a little extra. Why should this be the burden of the individual rather than the business, which, after all, is more directly responsible for the employee? There’s some point to be made here about American individualism and the Randian perversion of the notion of liberty but I’m already in a nested footnote veering dangerously off-topic. 

(8) Those conversation topics didn’t happen. Interestingly, we did talk about the distinction in the US between library schools and i-schools, the gist of which seems to be that library schools are focused on traditional librarianship skills and i-schools focus on the modern role of information in society. This wasn’t a development that I was aware of in the UK and seems to have interesting implications for embedded librarianship, our Profession’s place in an information society, and the changing nature of information.

(9) Exhibitors wear orange name-badges while conference attendees wear purple name-badges. Presumably to warn one that the person one is talking to may have an ulterior motive. (9a) 

(9a) Our ribbons are a name-badge related talking-point. After completing registration and receiving plain name-badges, conference attendees are free to grab as many descriptive ribbons as are applicable from the Information Booth in the foyer. In this way, an attendee may classify him or herself. The ECCAs get approx. five each, thus producing name-badges that stretch down the length of our torsos. It’s kind of ridiculous. 

(10) I didn’t have a good cup of coffee while I was in the States. You really dropped the ball on this one, America.

(11) I wish I’d had the courage to go with my original plan of delivering the speech in the style of Peter Weyland in this promotional video for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

(12) Serendipitously, I was sat on the same table as the Oldest Person in the Room. We chatted about cataloguing.

(13) This is a nice place to end: it’s very positive and upbeat and whatnot but it’s not the whole story. The way I think of it is as a spectrum of perspective-towards-the-world: British cynical ironic detachment on one end and American exuberance on the other. What is true probably lies somewhere in the middle.