Friday, 20 June 2008

The Hollywood Librarian

Last week saw the screening of The Hollywood Librarian in Sheffield. Nearly 100 librarians and friends of libraries attended the event.

The film was in many ways better than some reviews in the professional press had suggested. It was a paean in celebration of books, libraries and librarians and although at times it might have gone OTT and sometimes sounded a bit desperate it was largely well meant and inspiring.

I had expected from the initial publicity that it would spend a bit more time on the old movie clips and look in more detail about how librarians were portrayed in them. In fact the extracts were usually very brief and served mainly to provide a quick laugh or a groan. Two interesting points were touched upon briefly. The symbolism of a decaying or destroyed library has been used in many films to represent the breakdown of liberal society. Zardoz, Cleopatra and Fahrenheit 451 were given as examples of this.

Looking at how female librarians were portrayed by Hollywood the film mentioned the paradox of their role - a safe job for the spinster/virgin on the one hand and the gatekeeper of all human knowledge on the other. It was suggested that the Dewey Decimal Classification was intended to remove the need for a "scholar librarian" with a detailed knowledge of the stock, and replace him with a system that could be run by clerical assistant - a suitable job for a woman. It is the same sort of disintermediarisation that we are now facing with Google.

A recent review described the real librarians who were featured in the film as "...a string of lady librarians, aged 50+, exhibiting severe haircuts, a passion for square-shouldered trouser suits and a tendency to speak in desiccated tones about values and modes of thinking that... are of little relevance to the communities they serve." This is unfair. Although they were largely of a type they spoke with enthusiasm and sincerity about their role and they were shown to be serving culturally diverse communities. Many of the public librarians had to provide for the disadvantaged in their community while at the same time reaching out to the more affluent sectors of the community that actually fund the library service through local taxation and charitable donations. It is easy to be cynical about some of the people featured and the views that they expressed but on the whole we need more, not less of this sort of passion about our profession.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Getting research into practice

Last week SINTO held its annual Members' Day and AGM at Sheffield Hallam University. I will pass quickly over the AGM (where I had to report a large deficit on the SINTO accounts for the past year) and move instead to the members' day itself.
The theme was "Getting research into practice" and we looked at how research carried out both by LIS academics and by practitioners can be used by librarians.

Our first keynote speaker was Dr Ian Rowlands whose report on Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future has attracted a lot of attention. Ian has explored the reality behind the idea of the "Google generation" i.e. the belief that there is a new generation of people with very different information seeking behaviour based on the use of the Internet and who are turning away from libraries. He suggested that the real situation was more complicated and that we may be seeing the rise of "digital dissidents" - young people who are moving away from the Internet. Dr Rowlands pointed out that librarians have to ensure that their services remain relevant to the needs of students, researchers and the public.

Liz Brewster gave a presentation about her dissertation at the Department of Information Studies, University of Sheffield, on bibliotherapy and the public library. This work won her the SINTO Bob Usherwood prize and is a good example of how student dissertations can be a useful source of information for practitioners. Information on tracing student dissertations from the DIS can be found here.

Matt Borg and Deborah Harrop from Sheffield Hallam University Learning Centre then reported on work they had carried out on information skills training. There keyword was "Inspiration" and they pointed out that information is a mechanism not the outcome and that we need to be learner focused. They also showed that information skills training could produce results.

Our second keynote speaker, Juliet Eve from the University of Brighton gave a paper "Academics are from Mars, practitioners are from Venus" which looked at the gap between the two groups. She has outlined her argument in her own blog on this event.

The discussion that followed was fairly low key despite Bob Usherwood's attempts to stimulate debate. Briony Birdi explained the DIS's commitment to making research available to the wider community and their interest in working with practitioners. Some practitioners explained that although they were interested in using research they had limited time to keep up-to-date with everything that was produced and that if they did carry out their own research they had no time to publish it themselves.

Bob Usherwood mentioned Edward Dudley's column in Update to the effect that librarians don't spend enough time thinking about or discussing professional issues. The members' day was an opportunity to do this and I hope the members found it to be a useful interlude.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Best Practice at Heart of New Dawn for MLA

The above headline appears at the top of the MLA press release announcing the new structure of MLA following the reorganisation. It deserves careful analysis and informed comment... but for now it will just get this :-)

Can you have an "old dawn"? Aren't all dawns new by definition? And does a dawn have a heart? And as for "best practice", best for who or what. Does best practice mean practice that is best for the needs of the individual library authority or are we looking at standardised practice across the country?

OK - the headline is not as important as the content of the press release. The new MLA may be able to achieve things that the old MLA didn't. Roy Clare says “The result will be a leaner, fitter MLA, uniquely positioned to work collaboratively to challenge and invigorate our sector, embrace the future, and work for standards right across the country that measure up to the best.” I hope he is right as these are outcomes devoutly to be wished - but I don't think that the breathless bumph at the top of this press release strikes the right note.