Themed Collections: widening the scope of the Hub

Image of National Association for spinsters' pensions London rally from the papers of Florence White, part of History to Herstory. Image ref 78D86/4/3, courtesy of WYAS Bradford
Image of National Association for spinsters’ pensions London rally from the papers of Florence White, part of History to Herstory. Image ref 78D86/4/3, courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford

A project we’ve been working quietly on over the past few months is adding Themed Collections to the Archives Hub. Themed Collections are collections of digital or digitised archive material that don’t fit the model of a traditional archive collection, but which we think would be of use and interest to researchers. Some of the Themed Collections we’ve added so far include History to Herstory, Observing the 1980sMy Leicestershire Digital Archive, and the Digital Dance Archives. You can browse the full list of Themed Collections.

This has taken a bit more work than we originally anticipated, as we’ve been stretching EAD and the current Hub structure to allow for descriptions of collections that don’t fit with what’s expected of a ‘normal’ archival description. For instance, we require descriptions on the Hub to have (at least one) named originator, but this doesn’t apply to Themed Collections, where the material might have hundreds of different originators, or none at all – finding originators for fossils would be a very interesting challenge! This means that we’ve had to make changes to how we validate the Hub’s EAD requirements, as well as how these descriptions display on the Hub.

This work started out in partnership with Jisc Content, so the Themed Collections currently on the Hub are taken from the descriptions of Jisc Content collections. But we don’t want to stop there, and are inviting submissions of Themed Collections. Adding your collections to the Archives Hub gives you exposure to a worldwide audience of thousands of searchers every month.  If you have a project or collection that you think would make a good Themed Collection, please complete the form to submit it to the Hub, or contact us.

Long Live the Art School!

Archives Hub Feature for August/September 2013

In 1913 the Surrey History Centre celebrated the history of tertiary art education in Surrey, from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s with an exhibition and series of events.

Guildford School of Art, undated [1970s]
Guildford School of Art, undated [1970s]














Industry, Science and Art

Opening of the Epsom Technical Institute by Lord Rosebery
Opening of the Epsom Technical Institute by Lord Rosebery

From our archives Technical Institutes and Art Schools, Industry, Science and Art were combined from the start, in the 19th century. Practical skills and work were taught alongside theoretical, to train students in industry work.

The Epsom Technical Institute 1896 Prospectus states it deals in Technical Instruction of ‘Science, Art, Technical, Manual, and Commercial Classes, and Lectures’  and is run partly by the Science and Art Department in South Kensington. Commercial classes highlight how these classes are meant to be used in work.

1925-1926 Epsom Prospectus
1925-1926 Epsom Prospectus

The combination of Science and Art can be seen clearly in the Drawing and Carpentry Classes where to attend the Carpentry Class ‘it is distinctly understood that pupils must attend the Drawing Class or they will not be accepted into this [Carpentry] Class’

During the 19th century to the 1930s from records that we have in the archives, Art and Technical Institute classes are firmly focused on the industry and how the courses can be used vocationally. As years progress there is a more of a  mix of vocational and theory, more industrial classes, (such as Building Construction) is phased out, and replaced with classes that we associate with Art Schools today, including Graphic Design, Photography, and Fine Art.

Women in the Arts

Throughout the records of the Art Schools there is reference to the specific subject of ‘Women’s Crafts’,  for example in the Epsom School of 1938 timetable. There are also subjects that include ‘Cookery’ and ‘Shorthand’ ,‘Typewriting’  and ‘Dressmaking, that while not explicitly stating that is gender explicit, generated more female than male students.

Epsom and Ewell school of art time table 1938-39
Epsom and Ewell school of art time table 1938-39

Courses included in the Epsom School of Art and Technical Institute 1896 and 1897 prospectuses were: Shorthand, Drawing, Carpentry, Home Nursing, Cookery and French.

In classes in the Epsom 1932 prospectuses ‘the Cookery and Dressmaking classes are recommended to those interested in Domestic Subjects’, while ‘for boys and young men there are carefully arranged classes that should prove of great value. Their attention is also drawn to the instruction given in Interior Decoration, Architectural Design, Geometry and Perspective in the Art School’.

War Time Education

As across the country, including in all education, art schools suffered within both world wars.

Guildford school of art Field and Farm (School of Printing)
Guildford school of art Field and Farm (School of Printing)

There are no records existing for our Art School Archives the period between 1900-1920, but the fact that in the 1920-1921 Epsom prospectus there seems to be more classes seen to be more ‘feminine’ based, suggests that Art Schools suffered a loss of male students after the First World War.

Art Schools have always been associated with Technical Institutes, and industrial work; practical work and work associated with the war effort were a priority.


Art Schools and Activism

The Guildford School of Art students took a protest during 1968 in relation to the quality of art teaching, and the lack of control the students had over this. This protest took place in the background of protesting taking place from other Art schools in the UK.

Guildford Student Protest 1968
Guildford Student Protest 1968

A young Jack Straw was also involved

In his autobiography Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor (Chapter 3, Respected but Not Respectable  Macmillan, 2012)he mentions the following about his time at the NUS (p.74) :

My first six months at the NUS were uncomfortable. I was an intruder. I had stood up against the successful candidate, Trevor Fisk, and was now his deputy. I was given marginal responsibilities, like art colleges, in the hope I’d get bored and go away, but suddenly the art schools erupted. There were long occupations at colleges like Hornsey and Guildford colleges of art. I had something useful to do, and also developed firm friendships with some of those involved, like Kim Howells, later MP for Pontypridd and a fellow Foreign Office minister, and Kate Hoey, later MP for Vauxhall and minister for sport.

More information and images on these themes will be available at the exhibition

The catalogues relating to Surrey Art School education can be found here on Archives Hub

Epsom and Ewell Technical Institute and School of Art:

Guildford School of Art Archive:

Farnham School of Art Archive:

Further material can be seen on our History Pin site|photos/list/ and on our online image page

Rebekah Taylor, University for the Creative Arts




Interoperability, data sharing and standards

I recently spoke at the CILIP MmIT group conference, where I inflicted EAD on a group of unsuspecting librarians. Not just EAD, but MARC and MODS XML and even some Linked Data. They may have said it was a bit like going back to library school, but no-one ran away.

I was talking to them about data sharing and interoperability, and asked them to look at resources described using different schema, to think about appropriateness: how well does the data format allow you to describe the resource? How machine-readable is it? How human-readable is it? How human/machine readable does it need to be? Is the format robust? Transformable? Sustainable? Interoperable?

These are all things you need to consider when you’re deciding which format to put your data in – except, of course, we often don’t think about these things much at all. These decisions might have been effectively made for you by the community. If all of your peer institutions use a certain data format, then you’re more likely to use it too. And if you want to share your data with the community, using the same format as they do is important.

But this means that you’re relying on other people to make these decisions about the best format for your data. Those people might know the sector and the issues involved in general, but they might not know your specific circumstances or users. Their decision might have been made a long time ago, before advances in theory and technology (MARC was first developed in the 1960s, and EAD in the 1990s). The choice of format might have been based on available tools, rather than underlying principles.

The same goes for cataloguing standards. Is sticking strictly to ISAD(G) really the best way to describe your collections to meet the needs of a global audience? (This is a topic that’s up for discussion at the Descriptive Standards Roundtable at the 2013 ARA Conference )

Of course, standards only work as standards if there’s sufficient community take-up, and a consensus on how to apply them.

XKCD on standards

But progress isn’t made by blindly following rules, and ‘there’s already a standard for that’ is no reason not to think about whether there could be a better standard for it.

Standards should be developed from needs. What do people need to know? What do they need to be able to do with the data? What do we need to be able to tell them? And, if we’re looking to the future, what might they want to be able to do in the future? What do we need to do to the data now, to allow for future wants?

We can only work with what’s available, and it is important to have shared standards and points of reference. But if you don’t take time to consider these points when you’re choosing a standard, you’re not really choosing at all. You’re just perpetuating the status quo.

So take the time to think about what you’re doing with your data. Know why you’re using a particular standard, even if it’s because it’s the best of a bad bunch, or closest to what you want to do. Think about what it can and can’t do. Talk to others who are using it. Look for chances to comment on proposed revisions. The future of standards is the future of your data, and your data is valuable. Don’t let it decay.

Season’s greeting and Christmas closure

"Sunshine Annual 1938. The brightest of the year."
“Sunshine Annual 1938. The brightest of the year.”
The Sunshine Annual was a children’s annual produced by the Co-op movement.
Image copyright © National Co-operative Archive.

The Archives Hub team wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

The Archives Hub office will close on 21st December and will reopen on the 2nd January.

The Archives Hub service will be available over Christmas and New Year, but there will be no helpdesk support. Any queries sent over this period will be dealt with when we return.

The Hub out and about – presenting, training, and pubbing

The Hub team like to get out and about to present, teach, and chat about archives and information. It can get a bit lonely being a purely online service, with our users and contributors at the other end of an email or phone call, so we try to ensure that we take advantage of chances to meet them face-to-face.

The last week of November was a busy week for this! On the Wednesday Jane and I (Bethan) gave a presentation to the MA Library & Information students at MMU.

We’ve given similar presentations to Archive students and early-career professionals in the past, but this is the first time we’ve given one to Library students. I’m pleased to say it worked  well – the students were engaged and knowledgeable about archives, and how issues in libraries and archives cross-over.

It’s always very encouraging and stimulating to meet an enthusiastic group (I’d also met them the week before to talk about professional organisations), and both Jane and I really enjoyed giving the session. We had some nice feedback from the students, too, with one person saying:

The workshop was informative as well as entertaining. Complex issues were broken down so they were easier to understand. In a short amount of time a lot of areas were covered and due to the lively presentation style we all remained engaged and interested throughout.

And another said that they wished they had more next week!

I think it’s very important for us to be involved in talking to students, trainees, and early-career professionals. It’s good for them to hear from people who are actually working with the data that they’ll be creating. If nothing else, if we educate them about the need for good, interoperable data now, we’ll get better data from them later on! It’s also great to be able to tell them about the different sorts of jobs and opportunities there are for them, and hopefully give them some ideas about ‘alternative’ careers.

The next day saw me, Jane and Lisa heading down to London, for the inaugural ‘Hub in the Pub‘ on the Thursday evening, before a training session on the Friday. We joined forces with a large contingent of museum folk who were ‘Drinking about Museums’, and had a very enjoyable and useful couple of hours chatting about general information, data, and cultural heritage issues. We hope to have more ‘Hub in the Pub’ events in future, so watch our mailing list and twitter feed for details.

We made sure that the evening didn’t get too merry, so we were on top form for our contributors training day the next day. These training days are designed to help current and potential contributors use our EAD Editor, and are also a great chance to get to know our contributors  and chat to them about any issues they might have. We have a few places left on our next training day in Glagsow in January – do sign up if you’d like to come along, or contact us if you’d like to know more.

If you can’t get along to a training session, we have online audio tutorials and a workbook designed to give you a step-by-step guide to using the Editor – and we’re always happy to answer any questions.

Excel template

Update May 2015: Please Note we need to make some changes to the Excel template and we are not currently working with Excel data. We hope to be able to offer this service in the future.

As part of Project Headway we wanted to create an Excel template which archives could use to catalogue and create EAD. We know that some archives – especially smaller and under-resourced archives – are using spreadsheets or word processing software to catalogue, and often lack the time or resources to switch to using an archival management system. While users can catalogue directly on to the EAD Editor, this isn’t a perfect solution –  it won’t work in some older browsers, or offline.

While we would have liked to offer a script that allowed users to convert their own Excel catalogues to EAD, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t an option. We would have needed to produce a script for each institution, and relied on the institution using Excel in a very consistent, systematic way – and a way that was ISAD(G) compliant, and could easily be mapped to EAD. So we decided to start off with a simple template, which we can adapt to individual user needs if required.

I’d never worked with XML in Excel before, and a lot of the process was simply trial-and-error, googling error messages, and sending forlorn messages to my programmer husband asking ‘what on earth is denormalised data and how do I stop it?’. I found the and sites useful for figuring out the basics of getting XML in and out of Excel – though I often turned to support elsewhere, too (eg Microsoft support will only tell you that denormalised data is not supported – not what it is or how to fix it).

To get started with using XML in Excel, you need to have the XML add-in installed (it says 2003, but will work with other versions) and then make sure you can see the ‘developer’ tab – if you can’t, it’s under options -> customize ribbon.

While it’s hard (in retrospect) to remember all of the stages I went through in the trial-and-error,  I know I started by trying to create an XSD (XML schema file) from in-Excel data entry. It failed. I tried importing the EAD.xsd – which just failed, silently (no error messages- no messages at all).

I was also concerned that the official EAD.xsd was too complicated for my (and our users’) needs – for instance, this project didn’t require lists of enumeration values. I needed something a bit simpler – and I’d already figured out that Excel couldn’t handle multi-level descriptions – so I needed to start with something collection-level only, too.

I created a basic EAD collection-level description in the Archives Hub EAD Editor, saved it as XML, removed the DTD declaration (not allowed in Excel), and imported it (using developer -> xml -> import).  Clicking on ‘source’ in the developer XML tab then shows you the XML fields.

XML map in Excel

You can then export this map as an XSD, creating your XML schema.  Of course, it wasn’t that easy. This is where denormalised data cropped up – and stopped me from exporting. I have to admit, I’m still not entirely sure what exactly denormalised data is – and given definitions such as:

A denormalised data model is not the same as a data model that has not been normalised, and denormalisation should only take place after a satisfactory level of normalisation has taken place and that any required constraints and/or rules have been created to deal with the inherent anomalies in the design. For example, all the relations are in third normal form and any relations with join and multi-valued dependencies are handled appropriately.

(from the usually introductory-friendly Wikipedia)

I’m not sure I’ll ever find out (if you have a really good explanation, please do comment!). But what I did find out was what it meant for me in the context of this XML mapping: no repeated fields. EAD allows for repeated fields – for instance, multiple subjects would be encoded as:

<controlaccess> <subject>subject</subject><subject>subject 2</subject></controlaccess>

Try to import that into Excel, and you get, well, a mess. The whole description appears twice – once with subject, and once with subject 2. And if you try to export the schema, you get the error message that the map is not exportable because it contains denormalized data.

For this reason, Excel won’t support hierarchy. In EAD, the same fields are repeated at component level as at collection-level, just inside a different wrapper. If you thought it got messy when you add a single repeated field, just imaging having anything up to several thousand…

So, strip everything down to a single instance (which means separating collection and component level into different spreadsheets), and you have an XSD which will export (follow instructions in step 4 of that link – if you get a VBA error, debug instructions are in step 2). Hurrah! But how to make it useable?

Well, you have to put it back into Excel, and map the XML fields to Excel cells. This was tedious, but achievably tedious rather than crawling-through-help-forums tedious. Open up a new Excel document, click on ‘source’, and choose your shiny new XSD. This will give you a list of all the fields, in the right-hand pane. Mapping them to cells is simply a case of drag-and-drop – once you’ve mapped a field to a cell, that cell will be outlined in blue (as long as the source pane is showing). There’s an option to have Excel auto-label your fields with the content of the XML tag, but I decided that wouldn’t give the user-friendly interface I wanted, so I labelled them myself. Then colour-coded them. The result?

Screenshot of collection-level template

I had to tweak the exported XSD a little to allow for a field in which users can enter the reference codes of any components. This was my first experiences of hand-coding any of an XML schema, and it took a few tries to get right! But I managed to add and map the <dsc> and <c> elements:

<xsd:element minOccurs=”0″ nillable=”true” name=”dsc” form=”unqualified”>
<xsd:sequence minOccurs=”0″>
<xsd:element minOccurs=”0″ nillable=”true” type=”xsd:string” name=”c” form=”unqualified”/>

(If I wanted to play with the XSD a bit more, I guess I could make mandatory fields really mandatory, by fiddling with the minOccurs and/or nillable attributes, but I haven’t worked up the courage yet…)

This allows users to enter the reference codes of parent/child descriptions. Each component needs its own spreadsheet, and its own XML export. These are then run through a script by our programmer, which will use these parent/child references to create a single, hierarchical description. Theoretically, anyway – we haven’t been able to do much testing on it yet, and we’re not sure how well it will cope with components that are more than a level or two deep.

Remember denormalised data, and how you can’t have repeated fields? Obviously we can’t tell contributors that they can only have a single subject for each description! So in repeatable fields, multiple entries are pipe | delimited, so we can split them, eg:

<controlaccess><subject>subject 1|subject2|subject3</subject></controlaccess>



If users enter their subject sources in the same order, they’ll be matched up as attributes to the correct subject. The script also removes any empty fields (valid XML, but they break the EAD Editor), and adds the special Archives Hub mark-up for access points (used to distinguish between eg surname and forename in a personal name, and handy for linked data).

And there we are: a description, created in Excel, that’s valid EAD. We’re still in the process of testing the template, and making sure that it’s robust and meets users’ needs. If you’d like to be involved with testing, please get in touch.


Making ‘Headway’

One of our key aims at the Hub is to increase the range of archives who can contribute. Not just because we like having lots of contributors (we do!), but because we want to help open up hidden archive collections, and help archivists to make them discoverable online.

Used under a CC licence from

So, new for 2012 is Project Headway. Building on some work we’ve been doing over the past couple of years with Calm and Adlib to improve the EAD export, Project Headway aims to make it easier for archives to contribute to the Archives Hub. We’re especially thinking about archives with little or no online presence, who may not have archival management systems.

With this in mind, one of the things Headway is going to be looking at is producing an Excel template, to allow institutions which catalogue in Excel to convert their catalogues to EAD. This would mean that they could upload their descriptions to online catalogues (such as the Hub), as well as giving them a version of their data that’s in a robust, sustainable, platform-neutral format.

Project headway is scheduled to run until then end of June, and we’re also going to be looking at EAD exports from ICA-AtoM, the Archivist’s Toolkit, and Modes, as well as  continuing our work with Calm and Adlib.

We hope to be able to expand on Headway work in the second half of the year, and look at other archival management systems, as well as export from Access databases.

If you’d like to know more about the project, want to volunteer to send us some descriptions, or have a system you’d like us to consider for phase 2, please get in touch!

UKAD Forum

The National Archives
The National Archives (used under a CC licence from

Weds 2nd March was the inaugural event of the UK Archives Discovery Network – better known as UKAD.  Held at the National Archives, the UKAD Forum was a chance for archive practitioners to get together, share ideas, and hear about interesting new projects.

The day was organised into 3 tracks: A key themes for information discovery; B standards and crowdsourcing; and C demonstrating sites and systems.  Plenary sessions came from John Sheridan of TNA, Richard Wallis of Talis, David Flanders of Jisc, and Teresa Doherty of the Women’s Library.

I would normally have been tweeting away, but unfortunately although I could connect to the wifi, I couldn’t get any further!  So here are my edited highlights of the day (also known as ‘tweets I wish I could have sent’).

Richard Sheridan kicked off the proceedings by talking about open data.  The government’s Coalition Agreement contains a commitment to open data, which obviously affects The National Archives, as repository for government data.  They are using light-weight existing Linked Data vocabularies, and then specialising them for their needs. I was particularly interested to hear about the particular challenges posed by, explained by John as ‘A changes B when C says so’: new legislation may alter existing legislation, and these changes might come into force at a time specified by a third piece of legislation…

Richard Wallis carried on the open data theme, by talking about Linked Data and Linked Open Data. His big prediction? That the impact of Linked Data will be greater than the impact of the World Wide Web it builds on. A potentially controversial statement, delivered with a very nice slide deck.

Off to the tracks, and I headed for track B to hear Victoria Peters from Strathclyde talk about ICA-AtoM.  This is open source, web based archival  description software, aimed at archivists and institutions with limited financial and technical resources.  It looks rather nifty, and supports EAD and EAC import and export, as well as digital objects.  If you want to try it out, you can download a demo from the ICA-AtoM website, or have a look at Strathclyde’s installation.

Bill Stockting from the BL gave us an update on EAD and EAC-CPF.  I’m just starting to learn about EAC-CPF, so it was interesting to hear the plans for it.  One of Bill’s main points was that they’re trying to move beyond purely archival concerns, and are hoping that EAC-CPF can be used in other domains, such as MARC.  This is an interesting development, and I hope to hear more about it in the future!  Bill also mentioned SNAC, the Social Networks and Archival Context project, which is looking at using EAC-CPF with a number of tools (including VIAF) to ‘to “unlock” descriptions of people from finding aids and link them together in exciting new ways’.

David Flanders’ post-lunch plenary provided absolutely my favourite moment of the day: David said ‘Technology will fail if not supported by the users’… and then, with perfect timing, the projector turned off.  One of David’s key points was that ‘you are not your users’.  You can’t be both expert and user, and you will never know exactly how what users want from your systems, and how they will use them unless you actually ask them! Get users involved in your projects and bids, and you’re likely to be much more successful.

Alexandra Eveleigh spoke in track B about ‘crowds and communities: user participation in the archives’.  I especially liked her distinction between ‘crowds’ and ‘communities’ – crowds are likely to be larger, and quickly dip in and out, while communities are likely to be smaller overall, but dedicate more time and effort.  She also pointed out that getting users involved isn’t a new thing – there’s always been a place in archives for those pursuing ‘serious leisure’, and bringing their own specialist knowledge and experience.  A point Alexandra made that I found particularly interesting was that of being fair to your users – don’t ask them to participate and help you, if you’re not going to listen to their opinions!

I have to admit that I’d never really heard of Historypin before I saw them on the conference programme.  Don’t click on that link if you have anything you need to get done today!  Historypin takes old photographs, and ‘pins’ them to their exact geographic location using Google maps.  You can see them in streetview, overlaid on the modern background, and it is absolutely fascinating.  Photos can be contributed by anyone, and anyone can add stories or more information to photos on the site.  One of the developments on the way is the ability to ‘pin’ video and audio clips in the same way.

CEO Nick Stanhope was keen to point out that Historypin is a not-for-profit – they’re in partnership with Google, but not owned by them, and they don’t ask for any rights to any of the material posted on Historypin.  They’re keen to work with archives to add their photographic collections, and have a couple of things they hope to soon be able to offer archives in return (as well as increased exposure!):  they’ll be allowing any archive to have an instance of Historypin embedded on the archive’s site for free.  They’re also developing a smartphone app, and will be offering any archive their own branded version of the app – for free!  These developments sound really exciting, and I hope we hear more from them soon.

Teresa Doherty’s closing plenary was on the re-launch of the Genesis project.  As Teresa said ‘many of you will be sitting there thinking ‘this isn’t plenary material! what’s going on?”, but Teresa definitely made it a plenary worth attending.  Genesis is a project which allows users to cross-search women’s studies resources from museums, libraries and archives in the UK, and Teresa made the persuasive point that while the project itself might not be revolutionary, how they’ve done it is.  Genesis has had no funding since 200 – everything they’ve done since then, including the relaunch, has been done with only the in-house resources they have available.  They’ve used SRU to search the Archives Hub, and managed to put together a valuable service with minimal resources.

As a librarian and a new professional, I found Teresa’s insights into the history of archival cataloguing particularly fascinating.  I knew that ISAD(G) was released in 1996, but I hadn’t had any real understanding of what that meant: that before 1996, there were no standards or guidelines for archival cataloguing. Each institution would catalogue in entirely their way – a revelation to me, and completely alien to my entirely standards-based professional background!  And I now have a new mantra, learned from one of Teresa’s old managers back in the early 90s:

‘We may not have a database now, but if we have structured data then one day we will have a database to put it in!’

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better definition of the interoperability mindset.

After the day officially ended, it was off the the pub for a swift pint and wind-down. An excellent, instructive, and fun day.

Slides from the day are available on SlideShare – tag ukad.

Voices for the Library

Voices for the Library is a place for anyone who loves and values libraries to share their experiences and stories about what libraries mean to them.  Also known as VftL, or simply ‘Voices’, the campaign was set up in September 2010 by a group of information professionals who were concerned about the negative and inaccurate coverage of libraries in the media.

The group felt that public libraries were being misrepresented in the media, for instance by their insistence on using footfall as the only measure of library use, ignoring all online services and interactions.  Voices started out as a way to combat this, to provide accurate information, and to share stories of what libraries mean to people.   Much of our content comes from library users, who want to share their stories about how libraries have affected their lives.

And of, course, there are stories from librarians as well.  Some are examples of the kind of work they do, to show the range and depth of what trained library staff do, and to illustrate that it’s not all stamping books and shushing!  And some are more theoretical debates, about the philosophy of public libraries.

Recently, we’ve started to look into the impact these closure might have on archives and special collections.  This was prompted by a blog post from Alison Cullingford, and campaigners are starting to look at what might happen to archive services in their region, as VftL member Lauren has done for Doncaster.

As more closures and cutbacks are threatened, the VftL team have been working overtime.  We’re all volunteers, and do Voices work on top of our day jobs, other professional involvement, continuing education – oh, and real lives!  We’re also scattered across the country, from Brighton to Harrogate, and all points between.  This means that the entire campaign so far has been co-ordinated virtually, using email and various other social media tools.  Most of the team had never even met each other.

Until Wednesday 26 Jan, that is!  Thanks to sponsorship from Credo Reference we were able to get most of the team down to London for a proper face-to-face board meeting, which I chaired.  I’ve never chaired a real meeting before, and I have to thank the Voices team for making it incredibly easy!  We only ran an hour over time, and managed to discuss and make decisions on several key points.   I think it definitely ranks as the best all-day meeting I’ve ever attended.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is that we’re always on the lookout for stories about the value of public library services, and why they are so important to people.  If you’d like to share your story, or tell us more about what’s going on in your area, you can contact us at

Is the reading room an echo chamber?

I attended the CILIP Yorkshire and Humberside branch & CDG members day at Leeds Met last week.  It was a great day overall, but one of the highlights – and one of the main reasons I’d wanted to attend – was Laura and Ned’s presentation on Escaping the Echo Chamber.

I’d really recommend watching the presentation – it’s a great example of a well-done Prezi, and although it obviously can’t capture everything from the presentation, it stands alone very well.

The basic premise is this:  librarians talk a lot about the state of libraries and information management and literacy and society and all sorts of other highly interesting and exciting stuff. But they only talk about it to other librarians.  They (we!) only talk about it in library blogs read by other librarians.  And I think it really is only other librarians – I can’t do my usual device here of saying ‘librarians/info profs’, because I’m not sure if librarians even talk to other information professionals about these issues.  Well, I’m here to make a tiny start – I’m going to break out of the librarian echo chamber and extend the conversation to archivists. And record-managers.  And knowledge-managers.  And anyone else who reads this blog!

The problem is: how do we get this information, these discussions to people outside our immediate professional neighbourhood?  This seems to be especially urgent now, with funding under threat – to demonstrate the value of what we do to people outside our professions.  Ideally, to our users and stakeholders – or to create new users and stakeholders by fuelling their understanding of what we do and what we stand for.

I don’t think this problem is unique to the information professions.  All professions suffer from a skewed public perception of their work.  The trouble is, for most professions this perception is formed from the exciting side of their job:  police catch criminals; doctors cure sick people; firefighters rush heroically into burning buildings.  For information professionals, it’s formed from the most boring and routine part of their job: stamping books, putting documents into boxes, making lists.  Why? Police, doctors and firefighters all do paperwork too, they all have the boring and mundane side to their jobs.  Yet no-one (and I really hope that this is still true by the time this post is published, with how the Big Society is shaping up) is suggesting that volunteers can police our streets, remove our appendices, or extinguish our blazes.

Is this because the routine work for most other professions is done in back rooms, behind closed doors?  For information professionals it’s often the exact opposite – we do our most interesting and exciting work away from the public view.  What people often see us doing are those rote jobs that could be (and increasingly are) done by machines.

So how can we address this? How do we get people to understand the value of what we really do?  It’s far from an easy task. Too often we rely on the same sources that have perpetuated the ‘boring’ stereotypes to bring them down – I’m sure that  ‘Who do you think you are?‘ has helped to change the public perception of archives and archivists.  But we can’t rely on the media deciding to use our professions as a prop for their next hit.  So how can we get out there ourselves?

Please do comment!  There’s a lively debate going on about this over on Twitter – check out #echolib to see what’s been said so far.