Archive for December, 2013

On Wednesday 4th December I attended my first ever Knowledge Cafe, organised by SLA Europe and hosted at my previous place of work, at the beautiful offices of Norton Rose looking out on to Tower Bridge.

The reason I attended this event was largely due to the fact that I knew Allan Foster would be leading the session, and it would be loosely based on his Business Information Survey and consequently on trends within the information profession and how we can ensure the survival of our profession. But I was also keen to attend as I knew that a knowledge café is very interactive, and this in combination with the variation of professionals that SLA events tend to attract, would result in an enlightening evening.

As before any event, there was an opportunity to network before we all settled down. I had a really interesting conversation with someone who had worked in the financial sector as an information professional for all of his working career, and only the week before had moved to work for Macmillan Cancer Support. I was astonished at how brave such a move was, and was also delighted to find real evidence that moves between sectors can be done, even when you have been in one particular sector for 20 years or more! Although on speaking to someone later on in the evening from the British Library, there seems to be a view that it is easier to move from a corporate to a public or charity sector role, rather than the other way around, for whatever reason.

Knowledge CafeThe room was laid out with circles of 4 chairs, and David Gurteen proceeded to tell us knowledge café novices how the evening was to proceed. Allan Foster would speak for 5 minutes on a topic of his choice, and pose a question to us, which we would then discuss in our groups of 4. After 5 5 minutes of discussion, you changed groups, and then 5 minutes later changed again. This resulted in everyone having a chance to say what they thought, and in an informal group of 4 it was easy to chip in and develop on someone else’s point, and it was a very relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. You often brought with you what someone else had said in your previous group discussion as well as your own views, so it was a really effective way of sharing information very quickly.

So the topic Allan spoke on was the key pressures on the information industry, including:

  • Organisational turbulence
  • Changed user demands
  • Disruptive technologies
  • Role competition
  • Ever increasing pressure on costs & central overheads
  • Managerial skepticism

The question he then posed to us to discuss was:

Reporting to a highly sceptical senior manager, how do you convince her that the Information & Research Service is worth its continuing investment and has a future?

I thought this was a very pertinent question to ask, as we are in a time where the branding and image of a librarian to the general public generally doesn’t convey our professionalism (I am constantly presented with shocked faces when I tell people I had to obtain a Master to get my current role), and where users (in many cases misguidedly) feel they can retrieve the information they need for themselves using Google. It is also important in the particularly difficult economic time, where local authorities and large corporate organisations alike are under pressure to make save money, and the value of library and information services are under more scrutiny than ever.

I think what really came across in our group discussions on this topic was that in order to demonstrate your value successfully to your firm, you had to think of the objectives and strategy of your particular firm and how the work you do aligns and helps achieve those objectives. For example, as a legal librarian, I started off by saying that minimizing risk is of huge importance to a law firm. Legal information by its nature is constantly evolving, and it is my job is to ensure that users are directed to our paid for services such as Westlaw and LexisLibrary to retrieve current, validated and authoritative information – rather than simply Googling and using sources such as Wikipedia! One single error by a trainee finding a source on the Internet which contains out of date information could ruin a multi-million pound deal; and ultimately the reputation of the firm. So one of the reasons I would argue to a sceptical manager why the Information and Research service is worth investment is to minimize risk, which is a key objective of any law firm, as it is my job to organise services such as Westlaw and LexisLibrary so that we have appropriate sources of information to use in work for clients, and my job to provide training so that users know the potential dangers of simply Googling for information.Knowledge Cafe

Following our 3 group discussions, we then all came together in one (very large) circle, and various people volunteered to report back on what they had learned from the discussions and how they would tackle Allan’s question. Here are some of the key points:

  • Contextualise your argument in the terms of your particular business and use the kind of language your management will understand – if you work for a financial firm focus on cost and how you contribute to profitability, if you work for a law firm use legal terminology, etc.
  • A point I have previously mentioned – tailor your argument to the strategy and senior objectives of your organisation – what is important to senior management, and how do you help them achieve their goals? For example, if you work for the Medical Research Council, show how your open access policy and information service provides innovation and benefits society.
  • You can take another approach and explore the alternatives – how would it affect your organisation if they didn’t have an information service?
  • Discuss how you impinge on the other departments around you – have you embedded your service around the organisation? For example, do you help the Marketing or IT departments, and have you made yourself invaluable to them? If not, then maybe this is something you should explore.
  • Always be prepared with an elevator pitch (or 5 minute sales pitch) to anyone at any level of seniority – if you have a story of a specific example of how you service has helped, or equally a horror story of how someone used an inappropriate information source because they didn’t come to you, then this can be more powerful and memorable than rolling off a list of statistics.
  • There was some talk that if you got to the situation of being asked by senior management to demonstrate the value of your service, then you have already failed. I think this is a really harsh point of view, and there is no reason why senior management shouldn’t ask this question, as we should be confident in our worth! But ways of preventing getting to this situation was to prove your value pro-actively. At Norton Rose Fulbright (law firm) the library circulate usage statistics and highlight key examples of they have helped users to key individuals within the firm every month – without waiting to be asked for them.

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Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the Perfect Information Conference 2013, hosted at the Aviator Hotel, 22-25 May 2013. I was also very lucky in that one of my fellow SLA ECCA winners, Ruth Jenkins, was also attending the conference for the first time, so that I had a friend to navigate the conference with and to share the odd sneaky cocktail with! You may be interested in reading my own and Ruth’s SLA Europe blog posts with our general impressions of the conference which were published earlier in the year.

Aviation themed lift

Aviation themed lift

Compared to previous conferences I have attended such as the SLA and BIALL annual conferences, the Perfect Information Conference is a lot more intimate, with approximately 90 delegates from primarily the legal and financial sectors. The majority of the delegates (possibly all) stayed at the Aviator Hotel, where the conference was hosted, and this meant there were numerous and constant networking opportunities. I found myself meeting people in the formal networking sessions, then constantly bumping in to the same people at breakfast and lunch and throughout the day. This meant that you had the opportunity to really get to know fellow delegates and develop meaningful relationships.

The first day was very much an affair of checking in at the very glamorous hotel (with lots of ooing and aahing at the posh aviation themed décor), settling in to our rooms, and attending the evening drinks reception and dinner, with an opening talk by Allan Foster on his Business Information Survey 2013.

 Add value or die – the fate of corporate information services by Allan Foster

Allan has been conducting his annual Business Information Survey for the past 20 years, and the results of the survey are based on detailed interviews with 20 senior information managers, UK and European managers who work for global organisations, with average budgets of £250,000 – £500,000, and who manage teams of 8-10 members of staff on average. Below is a summary of the key points I took from the results of Allan’s survey.

Key pressures of the past year:

  • Redundancies – staff morale is low and cost control is taking too much importance
  • Changed user demands – for example, users have more direct access to data, and don’t believe that they need professionals to mediate this access
  • Disruptive technologies (social media and data mining)
  • Managerial scepticism regarding the value of information services
  • Pressure on costs and central overheads – the effects of mergers and re-orientating library and information services accordingly

Changes over the past year:

  • Budgets not affected too much since last year, but after 2008 there is a more mature relationship with vendors
  • Problem of externalisation and working or collaborating with third party partners, and getting them licenses to be able to access and use your services
  • Outsourcing and offshoring of staff and services – the survey reported mixed experiences, whether staff are embedded within teams or isolated
  • The fracturing of the staff development pipeline – the work has disappeared, so staff have also disappeared

Routes to success:

  • Good old fashioned good management – making sure your service is efficient, effective and that you have good cost control
  • Moving service up the value chain (add value or die) – take risks getting involved in projects and initiatives outside of the avenues of traditional library services – diversification in to other areas of the company
  • Adoption and leadership of new technologies – this is being taken over by other departments but we need to ensure that we make a visible contribution
  • Using stories of success to disseminate knowledge about our abilities
  • Develop political awareness – get close to senior management and align yourself and your work with their business priorities.

Allan has himself written 2 blog posts for SLA Europe on the results of the survey, and I would highly recommend reading part one and part two, as they are much more informative than my summary above! Also see the Business Information Survey 2013 podcast and original article.

After Allan’s thought provoking session, we continued to network at the drinks reception, which was closely followed by dinner. During the networking there were 2 things that particularly struck me that I didn’t necessarily expect; the first was the high number of vendors that were present, and the second, the seniority of library and information professionals attending this conference.

CocktailsMany of the delegates were very experienced professionals in senior roles, such as information managers, directors or heads of service; and so I found the networking to be particularly beneficial to me as a new professional. All of the delegates I met were very knowledgeable experts at what they do, and so I learnt about their roles and how their library services differed from my own, but importantly I was often able to find out about their extensive and varied career paths and gain advice for my own career.

I think this is why the Perfect Information Conference is possibly the best, and certainly the most unique conference I have attended so far. Not only is the networking with such highly experienced professionals so interesting and educational, but the conference sessions are necessarily aimed at a higher managerial level. Although the sessions are not of direct relevance to me right now, they were extremely interesting and very thought provoking. I hope this serves as a cliff hanger for next week’s summary of day 2 of my PIC experience!

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Firstly my apologies for misquoting Shakespeare, but I thought it captured the topic of what I wanted to discuss perfectly. Secondly, the following post is a personal train of thought that I have had and all views are my own!

RoseIt was widely reported that CILIP recently put forward a motion to re-brand and change its name. I know of other library and information associations around the world that have also felt that there may be a need to review our profession and rebrand in order to appear more modern and to include a wider range of professionals under their umbrella.

The potential name changes of large library and information associations seem to be symptomatic of a change in our views regarding the term ‘librarian’. I think this change can largely be put to the opinion that the term ‘librarian’ does not accurately describe the work we do and the roles we have any more.

With the development of the web and the increasing focus on virtual library resources as opposed to physical resources, it seems to me that there is a parallel move away from job titles that include the word ‘librarian’, and a move towards ‘knowledge and information professionals’.

I am not a historian, but I believe the role of the librarian has existed for millenia. The term ‘librarian’ comes from the Latin term ‘liber’, which means ‘book’. The role of the librarian is a historical one that has evolved from the gatekeeper of knowledge to what could be currently described as the guide through the seemingly infinitesimal world of physical and particularly online resources available to us in the modern day age (see Ned Potter’s great prezi on this thought). When our roles contain less emphasis on book collections and more on information online, should the job title of ‘librarian’ also change to reflect our jobs more accurately?

Before we ask this, maybe we should go back to the title of this blog post and ask what is in a name? Or more specifically, a job title? Is it more important to represent how we view ourselves internally within the library and information profession – that we accurately describe our work so that other professionals know what we do – or is it more important how we represent our jobs to our family, friends, library and information service users and the wider public, so that they can understand our roles?

For example, I am an Information Officer. When I am introduced to a stranger at a family party and I am asked what I do, I tell them that I am an Information Officer and I receive a blank face as a response. I then hurriedly add that I am a half librarian half researcher for a law firm, and their eyes light up with understanding. The public knows what a librarian is – even if it tends to be an outdated image of our profession that has remained solidly in the 20th century, while in many cases our jobs have changed beyond recognition as we have moved in to the 21st century.

What actually inspired this blog post was a number of conversations that I have had with other professionals in the past year. These particular professionals indicated that they didn’t feel that they were librarians. In fact, they actually appeared to be slightly offended at the term. As such, they felt that professional associations that included the terms ‘library’ or ‘librarians’, such as CILIP or SLA for example, did not represent them, and that they could not accordingly belong to such organisations.

I have to admit that I was stunned when I first encountered this school of thought, and even more surprised when I found it repeated by different individuals with different jobs and in different organisations. Personally, I feel that as CILIP includes ‘information professionals’ as well as ‘librarians’ in its name, it would cover those who feel that they are not traditional librarians. The term ‘information profession’ appears to me to be inclusive of anyone who works with information in a professional role, and I don’t quite understand what name CILIP could take to be more encompassing than that!

I personally don’t feel offended when someone calls me a ‘librarian’, rather than an ‘Information Officer’. The librarian has the time-honoured role of organising knowledge and information (whether it is in a physical or online form), and this has been vitally important for the development of society for centuries. What I think is the problem is not the term ‘librarian’ itself, but the public’s perception of librarians not developing with modernity as it should have done. Can this be solved by CILIP changing its name to something like ‘The Knowledge People’? Of course not. In fact, this is more likely to mystify and isolate the public from us, when we need to accomplish the opposite. We need to bring them closer to demonstrate to them the significant value and vast number of modern technical skills that librarians and information professionals of today possess; we need to present ourselves as professionals who can navigate the murky depths of the Internet and curate the digital world, as well as professionals who possess the more traditional (and still essential) skills of managing physical libraries and book collections.

How can we accomplish this feat? I honestly don’t know. But I’ll leave you with the full quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as food for thought:

O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet.

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. (II.ii.42-47)

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