In The News: Long Overdue

Long Overdue: Changing student needs results in a new chapter for Milner.

When students were asked what they’d  like to see more of at Milner Library, the answer was surprising.

Outlets. No one said books, and a wander through the six floors tells you why…

This is an amazing article from the Illinois State University’s Milner Library about how they are changing the library’s physical space and services offered to adapt to changing student patron needs.  The Milner is among the front runners of libraries that I am familiar with in fundamentally changing the concept of what a library is and how it can best support the research needs of undergraduates.

On a personal note, at the PMA Library we’re currently putting together a report on what our physical space provides for students and what it lacks, and outlets is at the very top of the list of things we desperately want!

In the immortal words of Boromir:

I think that one of the most important things that libraries can do right now is begin to assess exactly what their patrons really need.  One of the best and most inspiring stories of libraries that exist with their community’s real needs in mind is that of the new Canada Water Library, which was built at the cost of £14 million by Southwark (London, UK) Council.  Faced with the closure altogether of several libraries across Southwark—a borough which covers much of London on the south side of the Thames—members of the community spoke out:

“Our libraries have been well managed over a long period of time and what we’ve managed to do is listen to people. Over 6,000 people said they would rather we did things like reduce hours or use volunteers than close libraries. That was enough people saying libraries were important.” (From: “Super Library in Southwark Opens Its Doors”)

The library will hold 40,000 books, but it also has a variety of community spaces such as a café, meeting rooms, and a small community theater.  The library even incorporates an entrance to the Canada Water London Underground tube station, so that patrons can easily access the library and its resources without having to go outside.  By listening to the needs of the Canada Water community, Southwark Council and its library staff are providing a building that provides not only books for education and pleasure, but meeting spaces, access to the Internet, and a community space that is by and for the local community.

What is the library of the future?  In my opinion, the librarians, archivists, and curators of the future must directly engage with their local community to provide institutions that respond to the actual needs of its patrons, not the perceived or idealized needs as dictated by archaic library science theory and philosophy.  The library, archive, and museum of the future should incorporate more than the traditional analogue collections generally associated with these institutions, but it should also be wary of rejecting these traditional collections for digital-only resources.  Above all, libraries, archives, and museums should embrace and respond to their communities’ needs and desires.



The Skills You Don’t Learn In School

Over at Hack Library School, one of the contributors recently posted about The Skills You Don’t Learn In School: interpersonal skills. As they say in the post, “librarianship is a profession that’s all about helping people.”

I posted a bit about this last fall when I was first (re)starting graduate school. I’m lucky enough to have worked in the “real” world for a couple of years before diving back into graduate school, so I have experience of working with people in a professional setting and not just from my undergraduate days working on the computer lab help desk and selling soap at Bath Junkie. When I was interviewing for my Graduate Assistant position at the Physics, Maths & Astronomy Library, one of the skills that I had that made the biggest impression was my time working as a Marketing Coordinator, where I spent most of my day every day communicating with clients and answering the same questions over and over (“what do you mean I have to put the FDIC disclaimers on everything? They’re so long!” “BECAUSE IT’S THE LAW!!”) as well as effectively running my firm’s small in-house marketing department with almost no supervision. Excellent communication and interpersonal skills? Check! Ability to manage complex workload, prioritize tasks and complete work on time with minimum supervision? Check!

However, I know of other students in my program at the UT-Austin iSchool who worry about their resumes and their chances of getting jobs because they only have retail or work study experience from their undergraduate days. To quote again from Hack Library School’s post, “Even if you don’t have prior library experience, there are transferable skills that you can use in a library setting. I spent many years slinging coffee beans, working in customer service. I had no clue that the experiences I had at the coffee shop would actually help me as a reference librarian.” They also link to a post from April 2011 that gives concrete advice on Ways to Improve Your Soft Skills.

It’s Always Nice to Be Remembered

Sincerest apologies for disappearing — I can’t believe it’s January 2012 already! The end of last semester passed me by in a blur of papers, projects, readings, handings-in, celebrations, and blissful, guilt-free relaxation. When the dust had settled, I ended up with the grades I expected and the first (and highest, I think) hurdle of another graduate degree cleared.

This semester I’m taking:

Collection Management: Philosophical and social context, objectives and methodology of evaluating and selecting library materials.

Introduction to Archival Enterprise I: Introduction to the records aspect of archival enterprise, from acquisition to use, with emphasis on arrangement and description.

Conservation Risk Assessment and Management: Agents of deterioration, including physical forces, security, disaster, and environmental conditions; risk assessment, strategies to reduce risk, and personal safety

These classes represent the real meat and potatoes work I’ve come to do at the iSchool (as opposed to last semester’s classes, which were mostly grounding theory and more focused on the technological aspect of information management). In just these two short weeks, I’ve already started realizing some interesting and surprising things, so I’m going to work on writing up a blog post about each one.

Before I go, though, I’ll leave you with a link to the UTSA English Department’s news page, where (I believe) my undergraduate advisor got my recent publication mentioned. It makes me smile to think of how proud I am to represent UTSA well and to be remembered by them.

Graduate Studies: Frivolous? Necessary? Somewhere in-between?

The eight types of graduate student

“I initially figured that we must all be there because of a pure thirst for knowledge. I’ve since realised, however, that the impulses that draw someone to academic study beyond graduation are a lot more varied than that.”

This link came across my Facebook dash a couple of days ago and of course I had to pass it on.  It generated quite a few humorous responses, as well as a few more thoughtful comments.  Most of my friends (and myself) easily identified with one of the listed choices (I definitely identify with #7), and I found it telling that I could go through the list and put names of friends and acquaintances next to each entry, but it wasn’t long before people were pointing out the areas the article missed — my friend Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread said, “There does not seem to be one for ‘I could not think of anything else to do at the time'” and my friend Virginia followed that up with “I think I’m with Jane on this one. Does crushing boredom count as sufficient motivation?”

While boredom is a valid reason for going to graduate school, it was my friend Matt of three4history who really got me thinking about what types of graduate student Patrick Tomlin neglected to mention (which has naturally snowballed somewhat as I have reflected on discussions I’ve had with other people recently).  Matt said, ” Initially, my reason was going to grad school to obtain a usable degree in my field (history)…” [emphasis mine].

Matt’s degree is, if I’m not mistaken (and feel free to correct me, Matt!), a Masters of Public History in Archives and Records Management, which is a very close relative of my own degree-in-progress in Archives and Preservation.  These degrees fall under the missing item in Patrick Tomlin’s list, 9. The Professional Degree.

What makes our degrees “professional”?  Why wasn’t “I had to have a graduate degree to get a job in my field” included in the list of types of graduate student?  It’s not like there aren’t a lot of degrees and a lot of people that fall under this heading — I’d argue that law school and medical school fall under this professional degree heading, as well as the many public service and heritage degrees.  For my part, I doubt I would have come back to graduate school to do another master’s if it hadn’t been for the fact that the MSIS/MLIS is required to get full time employment as a full librarian rather than a paraprofessional library assistant.  I’m sure there are many people out there who would sympathize with my view and who would skip graduate school if they could.

So why ignore this wide swath of graduate students?  It was suggested to me recently that I’m not a “real” graduate student because I’m not in a “traditional” academic, research-focused department.  And it is true that being in a practical, professional degree program feels very different from being in an English literature graduate program — maybe that also has something to do with the fact that I’m older and far more focused on getting the very specific, practical skills that fulfill concrete real-life job requirements than in taking any class that sounds interesting (“Ooooh, ‘Imagining the Polity in England, 1377-1422,’ that sounds neat!  I like Gower!!”).

All of this feeds into the question whether or not MSIS/MLIS degrees are practical, professional degrees and whether they should be required for librarian jobs.  In Texas, there’s been a lot of debate recently about whether or not librarians should have their masters degree, especially in cases like public school librarianship — is it really necessary for someone to have a masters degree in library science to serve as an elementary school librarian in Small Town, Texas?  There’s been a push to remove that requirement in some school districts lately, partly as a money-saving initiative — why pay someone twice as much for a masters when they can do the job just as well without it?  It also has to do with job creation and opening positions up to more people.

I can see both sides.  Of course, any MSIS/MLIS candidate is sure to say “But of course the MSIS/MLIS should be required!!” because I’m sure no one wants to admit that they’ve spent two years and thousands of dollars getting a special professional degree that is, ultimately, proved worthless — and I’m sure none of us want to be in competition with even more people for jobs.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot to be gained by opening up librarian jobs to more candidates, especially in school districts that might otherwise not be able to afford to staff their library.

This is also related to some discussions of subject librarianship that I have read recently which suggest that reference librarians for specific subjects (for example, business or medicine) should have a degree or a minor in that subject — with the implication that unless you’ve studied and somewhat specialized in that field, you can’t understand it well enough to adequately serve the needs of your patrons.  As someone who has worked in two specialist libraries and provided reference services for two subject areas very, very far outside her specialty, I have to admit the idea that I’m not good enough at providing reference services because I didn’t minor in mathematics or astronomy kind of gets my back up.  I think subject reference librarianship is composed of one part transferable research skills that can be gained in any field, and one part specialist knowledge that is learned on the job.  The suggestion that I should get another degree or minor in physics to properly serve the students at my PMA Library is a bit absurd.

Learning (With) New Technology

It is a bit of an understatement to say that technology has changed the way people study over the past decade. When I first started my university career, I had a Dell Inspiron 600M that I rarely took to class or used to take notes with. I can’t think of many people who did take notes on their computers — my classes were all filled with people toting pens and notepads around. I certainly did, and I still have all those notebooks. It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year, when I bought a MacBook that was easier to carry around than my Dell, that I made the conversion to electronic notes-taking, but even then I still used real books and printed out the journal articles I needed rather than using electronic resources on my computer, and for the most part I still took notes by hand (and typed them up later).  When I wrote my undergraduate honours dissertation, I typed notes out of my primary and secondary sources up in meticulous Word documents and then printed them out because I didn’t like having all the windows I needed open on my screen at the same time.

For my first master’s, I took my notes in class on paper (as did all of my coursemates), but tended to always take my MacBook to the Bodleian to take notes and write down quotes from the books I was studying.  I think I would have continued printing out my typed-up notes if it hadn’t been for Apple’s advent of the Spaces feature in OS X in early 2008.  For those who aren’t Mac users, Spaces allows you to create multiple desktop spaces and spread multiple windows across them.  For me, it allowed me to have each chapter of my dissertation and its attendant notes documents open in their own separate spaces.

Changing spaces: my desk in the Lower Radcliffe Camera reading room in June 2008...

With the advent of the Kindle and the iPad and tiny netbooks, things have changed noticeably and drastically since I left Oxford.  In my new courses, the majority of students seem to be taking their notes on MacBooks or netbooks or tablet PCs.  I’m sure there are a lot of advantages to using computers to take notes, and I’d love to hear some perspectives on this, but I find them distracting and I’m not alone.  Personally, I feel about it the same way I feel about people eating in cinemas: lots of unnecessary and distracting noise, but that’s probably because I am far too easily annoyed or distracted by noises.  Last week I went to lunch with a group of medievalists from around UT, and we were discussing the “wall” that a PC’s screen puts up in front of students that impede discussion.  One of the medievalists told me that she makes students who want to use their laptops sit at the back of the classroom and keeps her TA sitting behind them so that they can ask students playing games or being distracting to leave the class.  There have also been many recent articles we’ve all encountered who say that the use of computers in classrooms to take notes negatively affect a student’s ability to focus and retain knowledge.  I tend to agree — there is a lot more evidence that backs up the argument that handwriting notes makes it easier to retain classroom knowledge than typing, and for me that is certainly true.

But even I am treading a careful line between screen and paper: all my notes for my courses are meticulously handwritten in a notebook and colour-coded with pencils, but I have finally started to get real use out of my iPad for something other than Netflix and Fruit Ninja.

... and my workspace in the Perry-Castañeda Library at UT in September 2011.

I think there are a lot of advantages to using an iPad or similar tablet/eReader in class over using a laptop — aside from my tendency to Twitter in class, the iPad isn’t easy to surf idly or Facebook on like a laptop and so aside from scrolling through class readings or checking the syllabus, I tend not to use it very much and concentrate more on taking notes.  The iPad’s biggest advantage for me is that the reading materials for my classes are (blessedly) mostly articles that my professors are kindly providing through Blackboard, so I’ve started using my iPad to download them into iBooks so that I can easily access them in class or read them on the bus.  It’s a system that is really working out for me and allows me to “travel light” as I flit between campus libraries, work and class: instead of printing out reams of paper and carrying the physical articles or books around with me, I just need my iPad, notebooks, pen case and bus pass — the inside of my trusty Moop bag doesn’t change from day to day and I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything.

This is a very different brave new world from when I started out at UTSA carrying my pens, binders, notebooks, textbooks and sundries around with me in a giant backpack, and even a very different brave new world from when I was at Oxford and hauling a laptop case AND a carrier bag everywhere.  But in this case I think different is better — it’s certainly meaning fewer backaches!

Gone To Texas

This post is for and about my dad, my family and traditions, both those that are “mine” and what traditions mean to me in general.

Yesterday was the first day of classes here at the University of Texas at Austin. I worked in the morning at the PMA library and was… oddly disappointed. With a student body population of around 50,000, I expected there to be a lot more hustle and bustle, but the campus was quiet and peaceful in the early-morning heat.


The Tower.

When I wrote recently about why I chose to come to UT, I rather half-heartedly mentioned the fact that I am now the third generation in my family to come to UT. To me, that’s more than just an idle statement and it’s something that becomes more meaningful to me as I listened to the speakers at the annual Gone To Texas (GTT) ceremony.


Setting up for GTT.

I chose to go to Oxford because it was the best place to do what I wanted to do, and I still feel incredibly lucky that I got to live childhood!me’s dream of going to Oxford. When I went to Oxford, one of the things that constantly struck me was the thread of world history that now connected me to all the other Oxonians around the world and throughout that university’s history. I became part of a staggeringly amazing group of alumni — Wikipedia helpfully lists a number of the most famous. The traditions of the university became very dear to me and I relished wearing my sub fusc and reciting the Bodleian Library’s oath.


The University of Oxford crest adorns the base of the Tower.

Many of the Oxford traditions (for better or for worse) stretch back centuries and it still makes me smile to think that for a little while they were part of my daily life. Even at UT, respect and admiration for the world’s oldest universities is prominently acknowledged on the sides of the UT Tower where the crests of the Universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salmanca, Cambridge and Heidelberg have been placed. We may not dress in sub fusc or swear oaths to our libraries, but clearly the dons of UT’s past wanted our university to be part of the list of elite institutions of the world.


The Tower is lit up orange for sports victories and special occasions.

While the Oxford traditions connect me to the thread of the world’s history, the traditions at UT connect me to the thread of my own family. My father and grandfather were Longhorns, as were a number of my other relatives. My dad raised me to be a Longhorn, too, and I remember many walks along “The Drag” with him telling me about all the most interesting places on campus. One of my favourite memories is of going to see the UT college maces on display in the Student Union. Even though I may have taken some of his advice with a grain of salt (“you have to live within five blocks of campus!!”) and although I joke about his finally getting to use that “I’m a Longhorn Dad” bumper sticker, I am glad I’ve finally followed in his footsteps and given him an opportunity to give it. I’m not sure if my graduation from UT will mean as much to him as my graduation from Oxford, but it will mean as much to me.


The Longhorn Band plays the Fight Song.

If my fellow new iSchoolers are anything to go by, it’s very uncool to be patriotic about your graduate school. Perhaps this is a valid way of looking at things, especially since you can’t go just anywhere to study libraries and archives. But at the Gone To Texas evening, I couldn’t help but feel very emotional about the fact that when I walk around campus and hear the 56 great carillon bells playing, they are being rung by the same man who rang them when my dad was a student in the 1970s. Maybe it’s because my undergraduate university was so young and had so few traditions, but I’m thrilled to bits to show my school spirit and have the eyes of Texas upon me. I feel very lucky that the program that is best for me (and best in the country) happened to be at a university I’ve wanted to go to since I was little. Again.

I am proud to be a Longhorn. I’m proud to throw up the horns and say ‘Hook ‘Em.’ I’m proud to continue a family tradition.

Do open windows keep the rain away?


Empty shelves, like blank pages, always make me smile.

It’s been a week now since my big move to Austin.  For the most part I’m settled in: my kitchen is unpacked and ready for all those gourmet meals I’m planning to cook (we’ll see how long that urge lasts!) and my clothes are (mostly) all sorted into the closet or chest of drawers.  I haven’t quite worked up the energy to put together the IKEA chairs for my table, but my couch is set up and my TV and AppleTV are ready to stream all the Star Trek: the Original Series (my current TV obsession) in the world.

Even my cat is settling in.  At the moment she’s stretched out full length across the back of my couch, but her favourite place is the small Edwardian “lady chair” I brought home with me from England and which sits now right next to my gorgeous, huge bedroom window.  From her perch there she can look down at the street outside and watch all the people, dogs, birds and squirrels and talk trash about them.

The only things that haven’t emerged from their boxes are my books.  All the shelves are set up and waiting, but the books are still lurking in acid-free boxes.  I really wasn’t kidding when I asked about what classification system I should use. ;)  Not really, I am just kidding.  I may be a complete OCD bibliophile but I’m not THAT bad.

No.  Really.  I’m not.

I’m not sure what I’m waiting for, really.  When I came home from England I threw them all up onto my shelves with no thought and I want to avoid that as much as I can.  My medieval studies and primary texts need to be put back together and my Dumas books need to be carefully dusted and arranged.  But that all requires time and thought and for the moment I’m kind of enjoying the unbridled thrill of potential that an empty shelf gives me.  I can reorganize my books any way I want.  I can put all the Christies together with the Crichtons and then follow that with the Blaylocks or I can alphabatise them.  It’s all so exciting to think about. :)

I May Need To Start Using That Organiser, Finally


Learning to tie library knots.

Last week, as I mentioned, I had an interview at a library here in Austin. On Monday I was offered and accepted the position, and yesterday I started as the serials Graduate Research Assistant at the Kuehne Physics, Maths & Astronomy Library here at the University of Texas.  I’m super excited to be joining the team there, and to be continuing to get lots of valuable practical library experience.

This week I’ve also been oriented, advised and registered for my fall classes.  Thanks to the way the “alphabet discrimination” worked out for me, I was able to register in the second time slot open for new students and was lucky enough to get into all three of my first choice classes:

Information in Social and Cultural Context: Examines the role of information in human activities, particularly how it shapes and is shaped by the social and cultural context. Considers how individuals, groups, organizations, institutions, and society at large create, find, use, understand, share, transform, and curate information.

Perspectives on Information: A multi-disciplinary and historical examination of information as a primary and foundational concept. Contrasts key literature from information studies with perspectives from other fields.Three lecture hours a week for one semester.

Studies in the Book Arts: An elective seminar course intended for those who wish to develop their understanding of books and manuscripts as physical objects. The course will explore the role of these primary source materials in archives and special collections libraries. A major focus of the course is hands-on examination of rare books and manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center. The course seeks to foster a sense of connoisseurship in the Book Arts in the broadest sense; participants will examine, study, and discuss printed books and manuscripts from the Medieval to the Modern Era, including early printed books, Gothic and Renaissance bookbindings, illustrated Books and illustration processes from the 15th-century to the present day, Victorian publisher’s bookbindings, Americana, Artist Books, and much more.

I’m sure no one will be surprised at the joy that elective brings to my heart. :)  When I met the instructor at orientation, he warned me about how difficult it might be to get a copy of the advanced readings for the first class and was amused when I told him I already owned a copy of both.

Between studying full time, working part time and volunteering, it looks like this is going to be a busy first semester.  All the busier as I continue to raid with my Warcraft guild and join the local MINI driving club!  My poor Cowley Eyston looks reproachfully at me every time I pass him now that I’m commuting by bus or walking and not driving him daily.  To give him some love, I’m going to take him out tomorrow on one of my favourite roads towards Hamilton Pool which is full of switchbacks and twisties.  Soon I’ll be joining the Austin MINI Motoring Club for their Sunday morning coffee meet-ups in Wimberley and other scenic Texas Hill Country towns, but this weekend I’m joining the Special Libraries Association student chapter for brunch at Caffé Medici.

What Makes A Medievalist?

I identify myself as a medievalist, but I don’t work as a professor of medieval literature or a medieval historian.  I’m not a student working on a degree in medieval studies.  I’m not employed in a library that allows me to work with medieval materials.  Am I really a medievalist?  What will I be in the future?  A medievalist AND a librarian?  A medievalist OR a librarian?  A medievalist THEN a librarian?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my yearly pilgrimages to the “Greete Feste” of Kalamazoo, it is that the definition of the term “medievalist” is fluid and inclusive and can range from serious to comical — as Rick Godden says, a medievalist is “n. one who medievals.” At the other end of the spectrum, the good people at say that their site is for “people interested in the Middle Ages.  This includes scholars, writers, historians, readers and anyone who enjoys medieval history or culture.  For me, the broadest possible definition is the best: you’re a medievalist if you love anything about the Middle Ages.  Are you a well-known scholar and veteran of Valley III’s wine hours?  You’re a medievalist.  Are you a writer of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages?  You’re a medievalist.  Do you enjoy participating in living history/SCA/Renaissance Faires?  Congratulations!  You’re a medievalist!

But even when you start using terms like “I love medieval [history/literature/culture/food/books/whatever]” you start running into problems — as my friend Jess of Ask An Islamacist pointed out on Google+, “For me, the term always implies someone who works on Western European history from the end of the Late Roman period to the Reformation (so circa 600s to 1500s). I’m not sure why I think of Medievalists as Western-focused, maybe just because all the ones I know are… Certainly for the Late Antique and Islamic world, the further divisions into the early/high/late Middle Ages are really unhelpful, and we seem to spend a lot of time trying to stop people from using them.”

This idea that medievalists are primarily focused on European cultures is something that makes a lot of sense to me.  My focus is almost exclusively on England and France and I know only the barest bones of Swedish history after the Vikings, for example, and I know nothing of medieval Asian cultures.  I think The Tale of Genji is about 800 years old because I read part of it once, but outside of that book I can’t tell you anything about Japan in the twelfth century.  To return to Google+ and my shameless abuse of the discussion features there, I will agree with Brandon Hawk: “So, with a fairly flexible and wide-ranging definition, I view a medievalist as one who studies aspects of the temporal period between the Decline of Rome and the Reformation, with a special focus on the cultures of the West and its surrounding influences.”

In the end, I think being a “medievalist” has a lot to do with self-identification.  I self-identify as a medievalist because my passion is late fourteenth century and fifteenth century manuscripts and incunables.

Looking To The Future

On Facebook, my Aunt Gwen asked,

“Will archivists of the future still have copies of hard copy books and manuscripts or only electronic files or chips or wave surfaces?”

My response was,

If I have anything to say about it, the books and manuscripts of the world will survive well into the future! Digitisation is a hot topic right now, but I don’t think having a digital copy means the “real” thing is obsolete or that it should be locked up and kept away from people.

This is something friends and family have asked me about quite often. I have complex feelings about digitisation that I hope to fuss out over the next two years. On the one hand, I think digitisation is great. It can allow you to preserve and make available a copy of a fragile or unique manuscript on CD, as in the example of the Electronic Beowulf. These can give students and researches access to materials that are too vulnerable to be made available to the general public.

On the other hand, I think too often there is a feeling of “well, if you have it on CD, why do you need to see the real thing?” I have heard researchers complaining for years that the availability of manuscripts on CD has negatively affected their ability to get funding to travel and view these manuscripts in person. I’ve also encountered people who are reluctant to let me view a manuscript because “isn’t the CD good enough?”

No, in fact, it’s not. There are things that cannot be learned from looking at digitised images. Things like the texture difference between the hair side and skin side of vellum. Maybe you can see watermarks better when they’re digitised, but I found that half the fun was trying to puzzle out whether that was a star above that deer’s head or some kind of palm tree (it was a star). Or things like the fineness of laid gold leaf. Things like the simple extraordinary reality of holding a 600 year old book in your hand or placing your finger on the fingerprint of a medieval man’s.

Here we are back at this same image of a smear. Sure I can look at this on a computer screen and think, “Golly, how amazing.” But that doesn’t give me the breathless thrill of connecting with a medieval life across the ages, and that’s why I say no, for me, access to a digitised manuscript is not “good enough.” There has to be a balance where digitisation doesn’t mean a book is suddenly obsolete or that there is no value in helping a researcher travel to see it, while making the most of the wider availability of resources that digitisation facilitates. Finding that balance is something I hope to work on in the next two years.