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Katie Fraser's blog and website

I'm an academic librarian, working in the UK Higher Educational sector, supporting academics and students. Prior to this, I was a researcher, working with social and learning technologies.

My interests include the application of emerging and traditional technologies, research support in libraries, learning spaces, evidence-based practice and the professional development of library and information workers.

You can find out more about more about me from the links to the left. Note that the views expressed on this website/blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other individual or organisation.

Visit to University of East Anglia

August 22nd, 2008

My last library visit of the graduate trainee post was to the University of East Anglia University Library in Norwich – although there’s plenty more library visits coming up, I’m going to the University of Leicester in September and there’s some in my course from October onwards.

First things first, the library did look like a nice place to work and study. It was very light on the ground floor and there were obvious and welcoming reception, enquiry and IT areas. I’m not too fond of the multi-layer concrete labyrinth style of architecture that’s employed in the university as a whole, but the library was welcoming, and there was an absolutely lovely computer lab attached – one of the few computer areas I’ve ever entered that felt light and airy rather than slightly oppressive.

The UEA tour is fairly notorious in my current workplace for having the most technically advanced systems of any the libraries we visit. Their books are RFID tagged and can be issued electronically or returned into a post-slot affair on the outside wall or the inside wall of the library.

As you can see from the picture on the left the books are then seized by a conveyor belt. Then the clever bit happens: the machine reads the RFID tags and sorts the books into bins, one for each floor. Clever. However, I do have my reservations about the system. In fact, these reservations extend across a lot of library technologies which I’ve seen. Library systems just aren’t… well… perfect. I’ve worked in design research doing my PhD, and a lot of the time in that area you’re working with prototypes, or even ‘Wizard of Oz‘ set ups, where apparently working systems are fudged together, and I see some of this spilt over into library technology, where systems require a bit of fiddling to actually work.

I’m sure I’m not the only person to encounter the ‘reads your barcode when you put your card in here if you give it a bit of a wiggle sometimes’ phenomenon in a number of research and public libraries. And the UEA RFID sorter system suffered from a slightly different problem, poor integration into existing practices. When I first saw this wonderful conveyor belt system I was really impressed, and imagined it zooming books straight up to the floor for shelving (or at least reference) in seconds. But in fact, the system you can see on the right applies – the books are wheeled over to some shelves, and then from there they are put on trolleys and then taken to the correct floor. This leads to a significant delay, which may mean students have to ask enquiry desk staff to check on the shelves in the (locked off) room if they can’t find recently returned books (and if they know to ask). This was partly an issue with the size of the room: apparently there just wasn’t enough space to put trolleys in the room and easily access their shelves, which would have removed one step from the process, at least.

On one hand, this is kind of disappointing: a system-wide problem of the ‘works if you give it a wiggle’ school. The other side of this, however is that UEA is not only trying new things but forging ahead into new ground. My traineeship this year has been in a very traditional library, and it’s the kind of place that will benefit from the struggles and pioneering attitude of places like UEA in the future. However, the part of me that’s worked producing make-shift technologies in a research context just can’t help but disapprove when make-shift technologies are sold through commercial channels for real money!

Back in Cat(aloguing)

May 7th, 2008

So, I’m over two thirds of the way through my traineeship, and back in the cataloguing department. This means waving goodbye to the cosy little office that is interlibrary loans, and back to the wide open spaces that are cataloguing. I’m picking up stuff again reasonably quickly – as I was assured, cataloguing is rather like riding a bicycle, except I can’t ride a bicycle, and I can, to some degree, catalogue, as I hope I’ve been proving this week!

So, having experienced my fill of the library’s departments (at least the ones we get to actively experience) I suppose I ought to jot down a few thoughts. The first is something that has come up a couple of times in this blog before, and that’s the idea of circulation. The great thing about switching between departments is that you get to see the links between those departments. I’ve never worked in acquisitions, but as soon as books are ordered and received, they come straight through to be catalogued. They get labelled – okay, so I miss this step! – then I get to shelve them, issue them on my circulation desk shifts in the evenings and weekends, and then they come back to me to shelve again. In addition, having worked in interlibrary loans, I now know what it’s like when other libraries want our books, and how we deal with researchers with wider needs than we can serve through our books and journals alone, which is pretty central to my interest in supporting research. I’ve got a much wider appreciation for the system of libraries than I had before I worked here, even though I was behind the desk in a library before.

In addition, I think I’ve picked up some pretty cool skills here. Not a lot of graduate trainees get to catalogue, and while I’m not sure that’s terribly heartbreaking (and although cataloguing’s not my dream job) it’s illuminating to understand cataloguing at a certain level, and I’m sure it’ll stand me in good stead in library school and future job interviews. Getting enquiry desk experience has given me oodles to think about in terms of how to interact with library users, and again is something really important to have on my CV. I keep on saying that this post has been a great preparation for library school. I’ve still got 4 months before I’ll find out how true that is!

Weekend shift

April 20th, 2008

I’m in for my first Sunday of the term. Actually, I’m in for my last Sunday of the term. Each term staff of my level are assigned approximately one Saturday and two Sundays to work. This term I’ve been assigned one Saturday, one Sunday, and one Saturday reserve. Generally, Sundays are better to work than Saturdays as overtime pay is better, and the hours are shorter and (for me) more convenient. However, if I manage to avoid being called in on reserve, I only have two weekend shifts this term. We’ll see whether this works out well or not so well.

There are obvious downsides to working weekends, but I’ve got mixed feelings about this. In my old job I was an ‘access assistant’ which entailed working the hours which the core library staff didn’t support: 16.45 to 21.15 twice a week on weekdays, and alternate Saturdays, although there was a member of the core staff on with me 16.45 to 19.00 on my weekday shifts. In my current post the core staff work weekends on shifts, meaning that the load is spread. I can see the upsides of both systems. If you can get the same staff working at weekends they have a far better idea of what’s going on, and can provide a more professional service. But on the other hand, when I chose to work unsociable shifts in my old job this was a conscious choice on my part – in fact I was pleased to be able to work at those times. This meant I was far more enthusiastic and happy about working at those times, and didn’t feel put upon, as I sometimes do now when my weekend shifts come up.

This all ties into the professionalism debate in librarianship. I’m about to embark on training to become a professional librarian, but in my time in libraries I’ve fulfilled various roles and provided a lot of help as a library assistant. The thing I like about weekend shifts in my current job is that there are genuine librarians on-site whenever the library’s open. However, I wouldn’t knock the level of service I managed to provide as the sole member of counter staff in my old post. Part of the reason I was able to help people out was because I was a PhD student at the university, and knew my way around research and the library system, it wasn’t my job to know as such. However, with staff of a high standard willing to work unsociable hours, is it always necessary to have a qualified librarian on-site? I’m afraid I’m going to cop out, and say that I really don’t know.