Saturday, 6 February 2016

Collective strength

It's National Libraries Day. I could  stand at the railings outside what this time last year was my local library, pining for services lost but I'd much rather think of positive things.

National Library Day is the date chosen for the public launch of the Greater Manchester Libraries Consortium.

The consortium's been a work in the wings for the best part of five years, three years in concrete form. The heart of the technical architecture is the library management system: we started sharing the bibliographic data three years ago and this first phase of the shared lending functions was technically live just before Christmas. It's a small but important step: customers can look at an online catalogue shared by the whole consortium — Blackburn, Bolton, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport and Trafford — and reserve an item from any of them.

At this stage you'll need to go to the item's "home" library to pick it up, there's a big piece of work to be done on transit logistics across the consortium but even with this caveat it's an exciting first step and it was good to see not only a big piece in the Manchester Evening News but also a very approving editorial. We don't often get high-profile hugs these days, we should enjoy them when they come along.

Strangely enough, although reservations are easily the most complicated part of the lending library operation this phase has been the easiest to implement because for all intents and purposes each authority's operation is still acting in a stand-alone basis.The next phase will require more of an integration of circulation systems and the scoping work for that is going on at the moment.

Like any decent undertaking like this we've had our fair share of stumbles and oh no moments, and one of the painful consequences of sharing a system across a consortium is the need for a fair bit of coordinating effort to get the ducks in a row ready for routine system upgrades. But there are upsides: we've built up a couple of useful support networks and the benefits have certainly extended beyond the confines of the library management system and the consortium.

And the public have a new extension to their library services and the promise of more to come.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

A (very brief) introduction to library management systems for people who've never worked in a library

For one reason or another we're doing quite a lot of knowledge-sharing in our team at the moment. In my case I'm doing a lot of preparation for handing over the support for the library management systems. The first big step in this was a session introducing a "vanilla" LMS and the business that it's trying to support. Given that I'm the only person in our team who's ever worked in a library I thought it important to begin by mapping out the landscape of what our customers are doing so that when we're looking at specific functions there's an operational, rather than just technical, context.


A (very brief) introduction to library management systems from Steven Heywood

Pretty good response to it. We had a useful discussion of where the key support loads are:
  • Acquisitions is always disproportionately problematic, even when it's fully-automated. And the road to fully-automating a vendor's EDI stream can be very rocky indeed.
  • Given the huge volume of transactional traffic involved in Circulation functions it doesn't generate a lot of support work.
  • The workload generated by management information requirements is caused, with a few exceptions, by the ad-hoc nature of the requirements, 
  • The end of the financial year is busy but that's largely because that's when changes to parameters such as fines and charges, budgets, etc. need to be made.
Rochdale's part of a consortium but for the purposes of this and the next couple of sessions we're pretending that it's a stand-alone operation so that people can get their heads around the principles of the system. My thinking is that, Acquisitions aside, supporting a stand-alone LMS these days is pretty straight sailing and this is the feedback I got from my colleagues. Moving into consortium working is a lot more tricky and generates a lot of work due to the need to co-ordinate efforts and align both processes and parameters. So one of the sessions I'm planning will involve my walking through the steps we've taken this far — and the systemic work involved — and the roadmap for the immediate future.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Library task force: "community libraries" toolkit

I can't say that I'm impressed with the notion of replacing public libraries with "community libraries," especially not when the engagement with the community is at the end of an Austerity shotgun.

That being said, one of the jobs to be done by the Library Task Force is a review of the process and the building of guidance — for and against the idea — for those thinking of embarking on the adventure. And they're inviting contributions to this toolkit.

This is the contribution I've added to the discussion:

I think we need to address the brief you've been given, not least because it gives the opportunity to explore some of the practical issues involved in taking public libraries out of the public sector and why there are real fears about it. 
Firstly, a strategic issue: review after review (and Sieghert was no exception) has noted that part of the problem with the public library service is its fragmented nature. That, together with the fact that nigh on everything in English public library land is optional, means that there's little strategic development; limited opportunity for significant economies of scale outside book-buying consortia; and nationwide initiatives depend for their critical mass on a postcode lottery of acceptance. Other important national failures are an absence of KPIs and no definitive asset register — the debates on the future of public libraries have no benchmarking to work from; no consistent trends data; no nation-wide evidence-based analysis of outcomes; and not only do we not have an empirical national picture of what the public library service is and how it's doing, we don't even know how many public libraries there are in England! (by way of contrast, I chose Moldova at random and found the answer in three clicks). Further fragmenting the service to a hyperlocal extent pretty much puts paid to any hopes that any of this could be corrected. 
Secondly, *whose* community? The idea of a single, close-knit, easily-identifiable community sits well with Camberwick Green but is meaningless in dormitory suburbs and mosaic inner cities. Back in Browne Issue days when demographic data was hard to come by it was horribly easy for some public libraries to become by ladies of a certain age for ladies of a certain age. Decades of work dedicated to building the culture that "public libraries are for everybody, not just people like us" risk being a waste of time and effort. How can equality impact assessments be made? How can they be made consistently? If made, what would be done with them? 
How accountable can the organisations running the community libraries be, and to whom? Whatever the shortcomings of elected members at least they can be voted out and are accountable to standards authorities. The model of imposition of community management doesn't allow for the organic growth of management and accountability structures. Grassroots voluntary activity works well when it grows from the ground up, it seldom prospers by parachute implementation and recruitment at bayonet point. 
Who owns the library data? There are intellectual property rights issues regarding the catalogue data. There are information governance issues, particularly data protection issues, regarding the customer data, loans data, the use of online resources and browsing histories within the library. Who are the Information Asset Owners? What are the information risk plans? Where are the data sharing plans? Who's going to be there to stop that person who thinks it would be a jolly good idea to collect all the names and addresses of library users and sell them to junk mail foundries to earn a few bob? 
The culture industry is one of the UK's big earners. A lot of small-scale, small-budget operations won't each have the critical mass needed to be able to afford both enough popular topics and best-sellers required for the bread-and-butter market and also a representative range of niche topics, new authors, locally-relevant stock and experimental guesses at The Next Big Thing. This will be a huge loss of seed-funding to the industry and a huge diminution of opportunity to the communities involved. One of the key drivers of human development is serendipitous discovery; if all that remains to be discovered is what is already known then there'll be a withering effect in both use and effectiveness of these services. 
That's my starter before bedtime. I hope more people add to the discussion.There's plenty more left for somebody to go at.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Herding digital cats

It's interesting that the report on the national digital presence for public libraries finally saw the light of day at the same time that BIC and a lot of library technology supply companies were meeting to progress the Library Communications Framework (LCF).

In their own ways they are each trying to solve the same problem: how to pull together a myriad disparate resources and services, each built to their own specific requirements, into a single user experience without requiring the availability of hundreds of library technologists in the front line of public libraries who probably will never exist.

I think they are both doable, with fair winds and fair spirits prevailing.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

To the fray

I'm glad to see that CILIP's taking a more active part in the fight against the destruction of the public library service. It's churlish of us to ask: "Where was you?" They're here now and they're getting their hands dirty and let's be glad of it.

This is part of an ongoing change in the way that CILIP's conducting itself. It's notable that this Summer is the first one in years that hasn't been overwhelmed by a multi-channel caterwaul about some navel-gazing inconsequence. It can only be a good thing if the annual Summer CILIP shitstorm has had its day: it never did The Profession any favours and diverted energies from more urgent and productive matters.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Providing a context

In the new year I'm going to be delivering some training sessions to colleagues in my team, showing them how to support the library systems we support particularly the LMS (Spydus), the public PC management system (iCAM) and the RFID kit we have from Bibliotheca. We're a generic applications support team these days though we each have our particular specialisms. For instance: besides the library systems I'm responsible for a transport management system, a CRM and a lot of the day-to-day housekeeping on the revenues & benefits system. Over the past couple of years we've been trying to build in a bit of resilience so that we've not got too many critical single points of failure.

None of my colleagues have a library background, though most of them are library customers. I know from my own experience of taking over systems from other people that getting your head round one without a basic understanding of the business operation it's supporting makes for a steep learning curve so I think it would be a good idea by starting the programme with an overview of the library operation. This would necessarily be very broad brush but it'll give us a landscape to work in.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Memory biases for unforgettable e-learning

infographicI'm putting together a lot of documentation and training materials these days so I'm always on the lookout for helpful ideas. My style's always been more discursive than most instructional notes tend to be, not just because it's my natural style to waffle on a bit. I try to explain why something's happening and to give some type of contextual sense to the experience that I hope helps with both the navigation and the application of the training.

I enjoyed the infographic accompanying this article on the Pure learning site, it's a nice précis of some of the tools that make for effective learning activities:
  • Bizarreness
  • Humour
  • Generation
  • Picture superiority
As well as providing hooks for recall and review (and addressing at least four of Gagné's Nine Events of Instruction) it's interesting to see that they also address common barriers to learning:
  • The need to be prodded into curiosity
  • The need to be involved
  • The need to find out for yourself
  • The need for a quick reward

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Public library technology requirements

Ken Chad's put together a schematic derived from the initial discussions that have been going on about a new generation of core specification(s) for library management systems. You can see a copy here. The more I think about this the more I think that what we really need is a standard methodology rather than a standard specification. When I get a bit of space and time I need to revisit this thinking.