Support for Researchers: how librarians can support REF, data management etc

On the 8th May I went to the CILIP headquarters to hear my colleague Monique Ritchie and Andria McGrath, from Kings College, and David Buckley talk about their positions (Research Librarian, Research Information Specialist, and Liaison Officer for Any Book Library Services respectively) and how they support academics in their research. I arrived early, and after some considerable confusion as to what room the event was in, and having walked in on two separate meetings (one was a roundtable discussion that I have to admit I’m glad I wasn’t involved in; it appeared quite heated...) and walking around the labyrinthine CILIP's corridors for some time, I arrived, still punctually, for the meeting and sat down with a coffee and biscuit, courtesy of David Buckley.

David Buckley was the first to speak, and humorously too, about his company: Any Book Library Services. The company started in Greenwich and has since moved to Leicester where they are now based. They pick up books from libraries and sell them, splitting the money between the library and themselves. It sounded very interesting and I’m definitely more positive about giving books to them to sell; to pump the money back into the library as well as David’s company is surely better than hiring a skip to dump them in unloving. (And, of course, I feel compelled to support a fellow Buckley!)  David's company collect the books free of charge and 100% of profits are given to the library if the book sells on the first day of being uploaded to all of the usual suspects online (Amazon, Abe (also now owned by Amazon), Libris etc.). If it sells after that, the money given to the library is on a daily sliding scale; 1st day 100%, 2nd day 99%, and so on.  David seems passionate about his company and it’s certainly an interesting and seemingly profitable business model for both libraries and the company itself, but I have to admit I’m not entirely sure how it makes enough money, considering the competition for selling books online and the percentages Amazon, and the like, take from sellers.

Next up was Andria who discussed the importance of working with IT and research management as well as supporting academics. Andria highlighted the importance of providing training that is designed for supporting the researchers, however designing this training it seems is only half of the work; getting people to attend being the other half. Together with providing the teaching, Andria mentioned, the key to success is having very solid relationships with the institution, such as a good working relationship with the Graduate School in order to publicize and get people through the training room door. Along with providing training, another key skill is a willingness to professionally develop. Andria attended a course in Leiden, which, along with an amazing trip, helped her to fulfill her role to her full potential. Obviously this is not something that every institution is willing to pay for, especially in a time of falling student numbers and smaller budgets, but attending free events and training is something that is available, and well worthwhile.

The third Speaker, Monique Ritchie, Research Librarian at Brunel University, spoke about her new post supporting researchers and the Research Data Management Project. The key skills that Monique brought attention to are:

·      Flexibility and adaptability
·      Prioritizing
·      Diplomacy
·      Sense of adventure
·      Thinking strategically
·      Networking

Networking is something that has always sent a shiver down my spine, and many other people’s as well, but from the events that I have attended that have included that twenty minutes for “coffee, tea and (yes! the dreaded) chat”, that very twenty minutes has often been for me the most memorable. I’ve met some very interesting people and even stayed in touch with some. Other skills Monique drew our attention to are those that many other library roles require as well; most people it seems must be flexible with the ability to move around the institution, but with such a heavy workload for librarians supporting researchers, the skill of prioritization certainly seemed like a must. Other skills at first seemed more aligned with Parliament than libraries, such as diplomacy and strategy, but Monique soon explained that she often had to justify what she was doing and fight her corner. The research librarian has to stay up to date and even determine in advance what the needs of the researcher will be.

Supporting researchers seems to be a fluid role that constantly changes with the developing needs of researchers themselves, the publishing world, and changing academic practices.  Both speakers were incredibly enthusiastic towards their professional lives and appeared to relish the dynamic positions they held, and the opportunities for learning and developing they offered.

Monique's slides are available here:

Andria's slides are available here:

British History Online Focus Group

Not knowing quite what to expect from an invitation to join a British History Online focus group, a gaggle of slightly trepidatious graduate library trainees arrived at the IHR on Tuesday afternoon armed with their laptops and were treated to a few hours of gentle mental exercise with one of the leading digital history resources.
We were introduced to the online resource which is run at the Institute of Historical Research by Bruce Tate, Project manager at British History Online, and Jonathan Blaney, its Project Editor. BHO is essentially a digital library which aims to provide primary and secondary sources for the history of the British Isles between the middle ages and c.1900. The team have, to date, digitised more than 1,000 sources and choose these sources based not only on their centrality to historical research, but also their interconnection. The resource also has a strong element of collaboration since users are able to annotate and correct the digitised sources, greatly enhancing their value to the history community. Notable BHO collections include the Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords, as well as a huge amount of local history sources which draw from the IHR’s Centre for Metropolitan History and Victoria County History, to name but a few. They've even made some nifty online tutorials to help even the most technology averse historian along, which you can see here.
What’s really great about the resource though is the fact that on top of digitisation Bruce and Jonathan are also always looking to develop text analysis features designed to allow historians and researches to search and organise their findings in new and exciting ways. And it was in this area of text analysis features that we, enthusiastic knowledgeable and digitally literate (hmmm) early career librarians that we are, came in. Goodness help us.
In actual fact the features we tested were all manageable, intuitive, and interesting enough for us all to navigate easily and have an opinion on. So we started off with looking at ways the journals of the Lords and Commons could be searched and manipulated to give the user a quick colour coded visual representation of when and how frequently a searched-for topic (eg. Naval budget, war, cattle etc) was talked about in the Houses across a specified period of time. Elsewhere, we created social network diagrams which used the correspondences between individuals in the records to show how connected people in the houses were. Another great resource was BHO use of online maps to organise local history sources, something that can be played around with here
In addition to us trying out the resources and commenting on their usefulness as (broadly) cogent and (seemingly) intelligent young people, it was also a really interesting opportunity to be asked, as library professionals, to consider what other kind of interactive digital resources our respective library users value, or might value if only they had the opportunity. The energy behind the projects was infectious and certainly encouraged me to think about the role of today’s librarian as being - at least in part - a trainer or facilitator in these ways.
Thanks to Bruce and Jonathan for arranging such an interesting afternoon - and for keeping us happy with timeouts!

The Library of the Institute of Historical Research

Tuesday 7th May 2013

After an interesting feedback session with the British History Online team, we headed upstairs for a tour of the Institute of Historical Research’s Library with Mike Townsend, Collection Librarian.

We were treated to a trip up the Tower, where Mike had dug out some of the library’s treasures, which he felt represented the work of the library at the IHR today. This was a really interesting and useful way of telling us about the library and illustrating the work it does. Plus we all enjoy an old book or two: Diderot’s Encyclopedie, a major Enlightenment work, certainly caught our attention! The key themes illuminated were collection management, discovery and promotion.

The IHR is currently reclassifying its material and is increasingly discovering new gems among its collection. They have been uncovering items which have never been catalogued, which is quite incredible. As well as cataloguing and classifying these works, the IHR has been working diligently to ensure that these works enrich their current collections, publicising them on their website, seeking out themes and trends, and writing interesting blog posts. For example, see this fascinating post by the lovely Katherine Quinn:

Collection subject guides have been created highlighting topics within the IHR’s vast collections, including books and e-resources. One example Mike gave us was the History of Food and Drink – this topic encompasses a great array of material, with works ranging from swan offal to cannibalisation. (  I really admire the fact that the IHR is striving to engage with its collections to make them more accessible, user-friendly and engaging, particularly for readers who wish to browse. It struck me as a great demonstration of 'adding value'! 

However, the reach of the IHR's Library has been limited to some extent by being short-staffed. Mike explained that they have been unable to go to universities to promote their materials or to spread word of their extensive and exciting collections. Things are looking positive for the future however, when they will be moving to new premises, as they are planning a grand launch to promote their materials. It’s encouraging to see that in a difficult climate, the IHR is still expanding and it is working hard to reach more people and to promote its collections.

The calm carpeted library itself seemed a lovely traditional place to visit. People were working hard and there was a nice ambience – very different from the bustle of the business library I currently work in!

After a brief tour, Mike took us into a study room to give us an introduction to cataloguing. After kindly furnishing us with a guide to cataloguing and classifying, he spoke about the importance of these skills to librarianship and the emphasis on ‘cat and class’ at UCL. Mike told us that the more subject knowledge you gain, the better your cataloguing can be, as you can include more subject headings, insert extra notes and provide further information to make each entry rich in detail. He tried to impress upon us the importance of cataloguing skills, particularly if you end up as the sole librarian, and spoke of MARC21, entries and fields. 

It was great to hear Mike sound so positive about an area I’ve always perceived to be rather tedious, so that was encouraging. As a host, Mike was interesting, engaging and lively. Another enjoyable Tuesday afternoon! 

Visit to the Natural History Museum Library, 30th April 2013

Last week a smaller group than usual – others of us caught up in the start of summer term rush – journeyed to South Kensington to visit the Natural History Museum Library. And sorry to say it, but those who couldn’t make it missed a treat. So much so that I am going to write this blog post as a top ten reasons why being a NHM librarian is such a splendid and glamorous thing. Starting with:

1.    The Museum itself. What a place to work! Usually I am more of a V&A girl and haven’t crossed over to this side of Exhibition Road for many years, but those dinosaurs got me as soon as we walked in. Aside from the obvious attractions, the details in Waterhouse’s architecture keep you continually entertained. Terracotta animals and plants are dotted about the building, with extinct creatures in the east wing and living in the west. The NHM started life in the 18th century as part of the British Museum, moving to the current site in the mid-19th century, and now houses the most important natural history collection in the world, an animatronic T.rex, and a library.

2.    The variety of visitors. The primary role of library is to support the research of the museum – there are PhD students based there, and MSc students at nearby Imperial College who are linked with the museum. Alongside the academic research that is done in the library, visitors ranging from families from Australia wanting to know more about the first fleet, to Sir David Attenborough himself come to access the library’s collections. Anyone can register and is free to join. Visits are by appointment only so they don’t have many casual callers, and a quiet, serious research environment is fostered.  Readers can request anything from the collections, but first edition Darwins needs a good reason before they are retrieved!

3.    Working in a museum library. This is a bit different to many people’s experience and perception of library work. There are elements of the academic environment (working with students and academic staff) as well as other facets that might usually be associated with public library, such as public outreach. The library also serves a number of independent researchers, including art students. NHM library and archives are members of MLAG, the UK Museum Librarians and Archivists Group – a good place to start looking if you are interested in working in the sector.

4.    Learning opportunities. As a reference library where material is retrieved in advance and invigilated, staff here have an amazing opportunity to interact with visitors and talk to them about their research. We spoke to staff about their own academic backgrounds, and found that not everybody had a science background.  The best way to learn about the subjects covered by the library is to get to know the collections – the more you retrieve from the store, the more you can absorb, often by learning from readers and their research. Again, did I mention Attenborough? NHM staff can gain specialist subject knowledge in various areas. Which leads me on to…

5.    Moonlighting as an author. NHM used to have several small libraries littered across the museum, covering various the subject areas of natural history: botany, zoology, ornithology, entomology anthropology, palaeontology, and mineralogy. Each library had its own team, and staff came to specialise in these areas. Some years ago it was decided that the libraries should merge and centralise into a more conventional academic-style structure. Still, the various expertises remained, and to make use of this library staff are now heavily involved in curating the Images of Nature gallery within the museum, and in the publication of the accompanying catalogues. We met special collections librarian Andrea Hart who spoke to us about her involvement in the soon-to-be-installed exhibition and catalogue, utilising the women’s collection (we had a sneak-peek at some amazingly vibrant coloured drawings of natural history and ethnography by Olivia Tonge from the early 1900s). Andrea is able to make use of her knowledge and research skills to write and be published – an unusual opportunity. Similarly, Hellen Sharman was able to write on her own specialist subject of ephemera, in an article in the museum’s magazine Evolve.

6.    Art collections. Unlike in many other museum and gallery structures, the art collections in NHM come under the wing of the library and archives. The library’s special collections (more of which shortly) encompasses rare books, manuscripts and art works. You might not think of it, but the museum has the third largest art on paper collection in the UK. You can have a look at their online picture library for an idea of NHM image collections.

7.     Conservation. Now for some photos. This is one of the special collections items that Andrea was kind enough to get out for us. I’ve gone for the oldest, which is in fact the second oldest book in the collection: Pliny’s Natural History from 1472. Note the vellum binging and handsome furniture.

We also saw botanical illustrations by Arthur Harry Church, Kew Gardens botanical artist Franz Bauer, Ferdinand Bauer and Georg Ehret. With such important, and in many cases delicate, examples in the collection, staff take conservation seriously. All prints are mounted on acid-free boards, and hinged with Japanese paper & wheat starch paste. This means that should they be needed for exhibition, water can be applied to the hinge, and the artwork removed from the board without damaging the paper. All boards are tissue interleaved and stored in solander boxes, and kept in the special collections store which has UV-filtered lights. Perspex mounts and book supports are used to display rare books; and smaller pieces such as photographs are stored in polyester archival sleeves, meaning that any annotations or other useful content on the reverse of the item can be seen whilst minimising manual handling of the originals.

8.    Digitisation. Having been involved in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) since its inception five years ago, the NHM is still working as part of this project which aims to digitise biodiversity literature to create an open access resource for researchers. Within the library there is a digitisation workstation, including this hard-to-miss scanning unit known as a scribe.

Out of copyright published material can be requested, and any of these requests held by the library can be digitised here and uploaded to BHL website as tiffs, later converted to JP2 files.  The pressure that these units put on the books is potentially quite destructive, so special collections items are not included in this project.

9.    Social media. They are ever so modern at the NHM, and have all the social media covered. I could make a pun here (something on the subject of tweeting about ornithology...); instead I will draw your attention to the NHM blog, NaturePlus. The library’s part of this blog is widely used, with new acquisitions updates and special items of the month, as well as more discursive pieces written by different library staff. They do also use Twitter...  @NHM_Library. If you look closely you might even see a twitpic of us “lovely graduate trainee librarians”!

10.  Performing. As if all of this wasn’t exciting enough, the library also get involved in the public engagement programme in the museum. There have been live video links to lecture theatre (on the other side of the museum) to showcase interesting items from the collection that can’t be removed from the controlled conditions of the reading room – for example William Smith’s geological map from 1815 (for a sense of the scale of it, see this blog post). Joining up the library with the museum’s public events is a really effective way of unlocking the collection, and must be great fun for the staff members who get to show their extrovert side in doing it!

So there we have it. Huge thanks to Hellen Sharman for organising such a great visit.