“UX for the win!” at #CityMash: open and focused coding of qualitative research data for discovery user experience

In Library Services at Imperial College London, between January and April 2015 my team completed two iterations of user experience testing of our Ex Libris Primo discovery system with a view to redeveloping the user interface to provide improved an user experience.

For the #CityMash Mashed Library unconference, Karine Larose and I are running a workshop on the methods we used in our second iteration of testing. Rather than run a ‘show and tell’ about our approach, the workshop will provide experience using our methods with some of our data in a similar way to how we conducted the research ourselves. We will provide hands-on experience of these methods, attempt to demystify the approaches used, and hope to demonstrate how exciting we find the professional praxis of systems librarianship.

This blog post explains the background and provides a practical overview and some theoretical scaffolding ahead of #CityMash. What we present is just one approach and all methods are flawed; we are extremely interested in hearing comments on or objections to our methodology around discovery user experience.

Acknowledgement

We’d like to acknowledge the hard work of George Bray, Master’s student at UCL Department of Information Studies, during a work placement with our team. George designed and undertook much of this testing during his work placement, based on our overall guidance, and we would not have been able to produce what we did without him with us.

Why we use constructivist grounded theory

The methods we chose for our user experience research were qualitative and post-positivist. They are based ideas developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967) in their classic (and arguably classical, read on…) The discovery of grounded theory. Grounded theory includes:

  • Data collection and analysis as a simultaneous process
  • Analytically constructing “codes” and categories from data itself
  • The “constant comparative method” of comparing existing and new data in an ongoing process
  • Developing theory during each stage of data collection and analysis
  • Sampling to aid building theory, rather than being representative of the population
  • In pure grounded theory, the literature review comes after the analysis

This list is paraphrased from Charmaz (2012; 2014 p. 7).

The above may sound unusual to those with experience of more quantitative methods, and the idea of the literature review coming last may sound unusual to everyone. Bear with me. If you are interested in reading more I don’t necessarily recommend Glaser & Strauss as a first step. For an introduction to grounded theory at LIS Masters’s level, there is a chapter in the second edition of Alison Pickard’s Research methods in information (2013) which provides a detailed and readable outline.

Our touchstone work has been Kathy Charmaz’s Constructing grounded theory (2014) where she explains a constructivist approach to grounded theory. Core to her ideas are the acknowledgement of subjectivity and relativity in the research process, and a drive towards abstract understanding of observed phenomena within the specific circumstances of the research (Charmaz, 2008) which particularly resonated with us doing discovery research.

Charmaz is no ideologue, for her different traditions in grounded theory represent a “Constellation of methods” (2014 p. 14) rather than binary opposition. We have drawn on elements from both the empirical interpretivist grounded theory tradition, constructivist grounded theory, and the critical theory approaches that inform my thinking elsewhere in LIS. These are the differences we understand:

Objectivist grounded theoryConstructivist grounded theory
Theory ‘emerges’ from the dataResearchers construct categories from the data
Researchers develop generalizations and explanations out of contextResearchers aim to create an interpretive understanding accounting for context
The researcher’s voice has priorityThe participant’s voice is integral to analysis and presentation
Grounded theory comparison paraphrased from Charmaz (2008).

What does this mean for user experience work?

You can see how a constructivist approach will focus on the voice of the user as an integral feature in understanding and presenting data. In my team (and I hope in your team) user experience work has never been informed by the “Librarian knowing best”, but this approach provides a particular emphasis. My experience is the voice of the user, seeing her context and affective responses, is a powerful way of making the case for making changes to our systems. This presentation can be extremely eye-opening even for those who work day-to-day in user-facing roles and know our users well.

We definitely did want to inductively develop theory from our data, but we wanted to be mindful of the user’s context and be interpretive, as we know our discovery system is just one part of a complex and shifting information landscape our users inhabit. We use the iterative and analytical approach of coding, and codes necessarily result from the researcher and data interacting (Charmaz, 2012). However our focus is wherever possible on trying to analyse the data rather than describe it. Ideally this should happen from the first moments of coding; more on this below.

Fundamental to constructivist grounded theory, the resulting ideas we develop are based on our interpretation of data and as researchers we cannot stand ‘outside’ that interpretation. What we create from the data is based on conceptualizing what we have studied and observed in user behaviours: we must stand inside and ‘own’ our analyses which will be affected by our biases, our preconceptions, and the emotional investment in the work we do.

This is not unprofessional, but an acknowledgement of the shared humanity of the researcher and the participant, and of the value of our work experience as practitioners that allows us to critically reflect on and develop theories of practice. To balance our subjectivity as researchers, a key part of the constructivist process has been to critically reflect on our preconceptions about discovery, information literacy, and users’ behaviour and expectations of doing their research using the tools we provide.

Working with qualitative data for user experience research

We are doing analysis of qualitative data collected during interviews to investigate Primo user experience. Ahead of interviewing proper, we held planning meetings with Library Services staff drawn from all sections of the library to work through starting points: primarily, what we wanted to get from the interviewing process, and what we wanted to know by the end of this round of investigation.

Extensive notes of these workshops were taken, and used by George to provide an initial focus for our interviewing. These are not quite research questions, but areas to focus on. These were:

  • The purpose, construction, and use of search and resources
  • Presentation of information in search: what matters to the user when selecting the right result?

Following this George and Karine developed an interview script for use by facilitators. This included general questions about information seeking as well as some specific tasks to carry out on Primo. This interview is structured and in grounded theory ideally would be based around open questions, helping us as researchers unpick meaning and move towards answering “why” questions in our analysis. We used a mixture of questions and posing specific tasks for users to complete. Our interview script is available: Primo UX Interview questions June 2015 (PDF).

In practice interviewers have different styles, and some facilitators stuck more closely to the script than others. This is not necessarily a problem, remember as an observer you are free to suggest places where we need to run another iteration and gather more data.

Our research data comprises the audiovisual recordings and the facilitator’s notes. The notes help understand the facilitator’s perspective on the interview and provide useful observations.

For #CityMash, we are providing a recording of the first part of an interview. In the full interviews at Imperial we did longer interviews making use of other methods drawn from web usability testing. The #CityMash data does not contain these. We gained informed consent for participant interview recordings and our written notes to be used for presentation and data analysis at #CityMash.

#CityMash technical requirements

  • You will need at least a tablet, ideally a laptop, to watch and listen to the audiovisual recordings. A smartphone screen will likely not be big enough to see what’s going on. Headphones are ideal but are not entirely necessary.
  • Sharing a device with another delegate is possible. Coding together and sharing your observations and thoughts as you go in a negotiated process would provide an interesting alternative to doing this on your own.
  • You will need a way of recording your coding and writing memos and any other notes. Any text editor, word processor, or pen and paper will work fine. (At Imperial College to facilitate collaborative coding, sharing, and to save time, we just write directly in our staff wiki.)

Beginning the process of open coding

Charmaz’s (2014, p. 116) guidance is that during initial or open coding, we ask:

  • What is this data a study of?
  • What do the data suggest? [What do they p]ronounce? [What do they l]eave unsaid?
  • From whose point of view?
  • What theoretical category does this specific [data] indicate?

Grounded theory textbooks often give examples of coding based on narrative such as diaries or written accounts and show example codes side-by-side with this. We are using audiovisual recordings instead, but the process is similar: listen to each statement and sentence spoken and the user’s behaviour as you go through the video and code piece-by-piece. Try to “sweep” through the data fairly quickly rather than spending too much time on each code. You will get better and faster at this as you go.

For codes themselves, try starting by writing down short analytic observations about the data as you experience it. Codes should “result from what strikes you in the data” (Charmaz, 2012) and should be “short, simple, active, and analytic” (Charmaz, 2014 p. 120 ). Remember you’re trying to be analytical about what you see, not just record what is happening.

Charmaz’s (2014 p. 120) ‘code for coding’ is:

  • Remain open
  • Stay close to the data
  • Keep your codes simple and precise
  • Construct short codes
  • Preserve actions
  • Compare data with data
  • Move quickly through the data

Keep the facilitator’s notes alongside you and try to understand how these relate to what she saw and understood in the interview.

Don’t worry about being perfect the first time. Coding is iterative and you are allowed to go back and rework things, and make new connections between data. Initial codes are provisional, and working quickly both forces you be to spontaneous and gives more time to go back and iterate over the data again.

It is very difficult, but try to put your favourite theoretical “lens” to one side during initial coding. It’s perfectly fine to bring in these ideas later, but for open coding you are trying to spark thoughts and bring out new ideas from the data rather than apply someone else’s grand theory.

Focused coding: refining data to begin to develop theory

Our #CityMash workshop is limited in time so we will do an initial round of open coding followed by small group discussion exploring focused coding.

Focused coding is the process of analyzing and assessing your first round of codes, and as a guide it should be a reasonably fast process. You are looking for connections and relationships between codes, and comparing them with the data and with each other. Looking at particular pairs of codes, which work better as overall analytical categories? Which give a better direction in developing an overall theory from the data?

Think about how you might create a theoretical framework later about discovery user experience to help inform changes to the system. Which codes better fit the data in allowing you to do this?

Charmaz (2014, pp. 140-151.) poses the following questions to help make choices about focused coding:

  • What do you find when you compare your initial codes with data?
  • In which ways might your initial codes reveal patterns?
  • Which of these codes best account for the data?
  • Have you raised these codes to focused codes?
  • What do you comparisons between codes indicate?
  • Do your focused codes reveal gaps in the data?

The results of George’s analysis of our focused coding was written up into a summary report of the things we needed to concentrate on in redeveloping our Primo interface. The systems team is currently working on Primo back-end configuration and front-end design to fulfill this, and these findings will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

#CityMash slides

Our slides from our #CityMash talk are also available.

References

Charmaz, K. (2008) ‘Constructionism and the grounded theory method’, in Holstein, J.A. & Gubrium, J.F. (eds.), Handbook of constructionist research. New York, NY: Guilford Press, pp. 397-412.

Charmaz, K. (2012) ‘The power and potential of grounded theory’, Medical Sociology Online, 6(3), pp. 2-15. Available at: http://www.medicalsociologyonline.org/resources/Vol6Iss3/MSo-600x_The-Power-and-Potential-Grounded-Theory_Charmaz.pdf (Accessed: 11 June 2015).

Charmaz, K. (2014) Constructing grounded theory. 2nd edn. London: Sage

Glaser, B.G. & Strauss, A.L. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: de Gruyter

Pickard, A.J. (2013) Research methods in information. 2nd edn. London: Facet.

Creators not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries

'Power to the People' by Ian Clark, license CC-BY. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrshoes/15039746959
‘Power to the People’ photograph by Ian Clark, license CC-BY.

The following post was written in collaboration with Ian Clark.

We are often presented with two choices within librarianship: a forward-thinking approach and a supposedly old-fashioned approach. These are sometimes characterised as progressive and conservative positions respectively. We argue, however, that this is a mis-characterisation and, in fact, the forward-thinking approach could be best described as conservative.

When considering what is progressive and what is conservative we need to consider our context. We exist in an environment that increasingly focuses on market fundamentalism as the default approach, and assumes markets as the most efficient path to provide solutions, drive progress, and ensure the most equitable outcome for all. Indeed, market fundamentalists argue that where there is a fault, it is due to a failure to make our economic system truly market-oriented. We see this for example in the way the cause of the current economic crisis is presented as rooted in public spending, rather than the failure of free market economics.

For us, this raises a question: what is progressive? Slotting in comfortably with the market consensus, the status quo, or embarking on a path that is visionary and alternative? Surely if we are to ponder what constitutes forward-thinking, we would want to consider alternatives that are original, distinct, and even radical?

The use of language is important. The packaging of certain ideas as “progressive” more easily allow questioning, protesting, or rejection of such ideas to be cast as old-fashioned or even regressive. Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users. We see this abduction of language played out repeatedly throughout social and political discourse. A particular path – typically one that rejects a sense of ethics – is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.

Regarding libraries, a “progressive” approach has increasingly accepted marketised solutions to service provision. As a profession we have broadly accepted the idea of members or users as “customers” or “consumers”, and accepted the need to adopt market strategies to meet their needs. Within the broader context of a societal shift towards neoliberalism, it is hardly surprisingly the societal consensus – the common sense of our time – has been replicated within libraries. This is so accepted that a rejection of this approach, for example rejecting the label of “customer”, has become seen to be old-fashioned and outdated.

This progressive approach to libraries is problematic. It advocates a belief there is a market relationship between the service and the user, with barriers placed between the two, and reduces the relationship between libraries and users to a transactional one with the library supplying information – viewed as a commodity in a market setting. Strategies based on market approaches seek ways to overcome these barriers, to better understand users and research their needs to market the service more effectively and to more efficiently provide commodified information. However, we argue a more radical approach might see library users incorporated into the library service itself in a model of co-creation of service and co-production of knowledge, with librarians challenging dominant, marketised models of service provision. In a model of co-creation or co-ownership users would own the service as much as those running it. This would negate a need to “market” the service or to promote “customer service” as users would already be fully embedded within the service itself.

While not perfect by any means, the approach taken at Mondragon University in Spain offers an example of what can be possible if we re-calibrate the relationship between our services and our users. Rather than making the user distinct from the service, the user (in this case the student) is incorporated into the running of the university. Mondragon realises this through a democratic governance structure with a General Assembly composed of a third staff, a third students, and a third outside interested parties. As David Matthews’ article notes, this Assembly has significant powers from deciding priorities to dismissing senior managers. This is certainly radical in the current climate of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The Mondragon approach is far from ideal. It does, however, point to alternative ways of delivering HE and, potentially, for delivering services to students and our broader publics, and there are lessons we can learn and utilise for delivery of academic and public library services. There is no doubt this sits outside the normative discourse in UK HE. It is, in that sense, a radical and forward-thinking approach in opposition to the conservative marketised approach that dominates.

The problem we face is, increasingly, alternatives to the market-based approach such as that offered at Mondragon, seem so far removed from the dominant ideology as to be almost impossible to imagine within the existing framework. As we have moved further down a consumerist path, the default position of our profession has shifted further towards neoliberalism so alternatives become increasingly seen as too “radical”. Whereas a rejection of a market-based approach was once seen as acceptable, partly due to it being at odds with our professional ethics, such opposition has become seen to act as a barrier or an unnecessary restrainer on progress, and those expressing such moderate views have become irritants that “hold us back”. On the other hand, those enthused by commodification of information and market approaches are motivated and driven to enact changes they feel are necessary.

As once-moderate alternatives are seen as increasingly radical, so that creates a range of problems. Spaces for resistance shrink and the effect is to make a move to an alternative seem so large, that it seems barely possible to realise. Indeed, the effort to engender such change becomes so large as to encourage a sense of hopelessness at the task ahead. This hopelessness itself paralyses opposition to neoliberal approaches and even inhibits engagement with the issues at hand. People feel that the task is so substantial, so difficult, that it is not worth making an effort to challenge the dominant ideology.

This plays out against a backdrop of economic crises and austerity economics that make any form of resistance that much more challenging. For example, in public libraries we see fears that during cuts to public services those who speak against the dominant ideology will be those targeted first as trouble-makers. In higher education we see the use of political policing and other forms of repression of student and trade union protests as a warning not to resist.

The library profession is hampered by a growing apathy at its centre. There is a motivated or “activist” core on both sides, both driven by ideological convictions to realise alternatives in the delivery of services. But there is a disengaged, detached middle who are less motivated. This middle are a powerful weapon for the forces of progression. They can be counted on not to protest or resist because they lack the motivation or will to engage on this level, due either to exhaustion or a more general apathy.

This is not to apportion blame, or pretend we can deliver a radical alternative by being a bit more professionally engaged. Across the board we see a tendency for people to engage less with the forces affecting them, evidenced by declining political party membership and declining trades union and professional organisation membership. Opposition is stymied and alternative paths are inhibited as we lack both spaces and structures within which to organise and the willingness itself to resist.

Herein lies a major challenge for radicals to overcome. The odds are stacked against them both in terms of those driving “progression” and an exhausted or disengaged middle. Disengagement benefits orthodoxy after all, not alternatives: the alternative requires action, progressives merely require a weak, ineffectual alternative to prevail.

Advocates for a radical alternative need to be patient. With the odds so stacked against them, an alternative approach will not be quickly accepted and adopted: it will take time. Radical alternatives must be constructed carefully and persuasively. At this stage, the most significant victory for the radical alternative can have is to open dialogue about the alternatives. Without dialogue, without alternatives being voiced and discussed, there is no hope for a radical alternative. So long as the progressive option is dominant and unchallenged, it will remain ascendant.

We need public discussion about the alternatives because it sparks interest, galvanises those who lean towards a radical alternative, and in doing so, builds momentum for a movement. But in sparking discourse, the radical alternative must capture the language. It has to re-frame the discussion. It has to be made clear that the “progressive” course is not forward-thinking, but rather sits within a conservative viewpoint that accepts the dominant ideology, rather than pushing against it to create something new and alternative. It is not true progression but rather it is drift – in part due to the lack of critical analysis that would accompany serious progression.

It is possible to create an alternative. We have the skill and imagination to construct an alternative vision to that which sits comfortably with the dominant ideology. But to do so we must communicate the alternative clearly and publicly. We must be careful in how we utilise language to ensure that the alternative is not perceived to be simply harking back to the past, but as something new and challenging. Something that has not previously been visualised or realised. Something that is distinct from the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Something alternative. Something radical.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Reflections on organizing the Pi and Mash conference #piandmash

Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.
Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.

Introduction

Earlier in August I had the pleasure of helping organize and run a tech-focused library unconference, Pi and Mash, at Senate House Library at the University of London. The other organizers were Simon Barron of University of London, and Ka-Ming Pang of St Georges, University of London. They were both brilliant to work with and brought enormous energy, fresh perspectives, and thoughtfulness and professionalism to organizing the day. This event was a long time in gestation, from the initial agreement back in January that we’d work together to the day itself in early August. I had previously hosted Library Camp London at Senate House in March 2013, and following that event I’d thought about running something tech-focused as a Mashed Library event. Ultimately for me Pi and Mash was that event, though full credit is to Ka-Ming for suggesting we do it, kicking off the initial discussion on Twitter to gauge interest, and starting to organize us.

As an organizer it’s always encouraging to receive good feedback, and participants said some lovely things about Pi and Mash during and at the end of the day. Examples on this Storify (This used to be embedded; I’ve temporarily disable Storify embedding because a script it loads is causing page loading to stall.)

What I learned from organizing the event

The limits of ‘unconferencing’

Ahead of the event we wanted to provide a programme with appeal to different levels of technical ability, and especially beyond experienced systems workers. To do this we reached out to professional contacts for session ideas and pitches so we could launch with a timetable already partly populated. This timetabling in itself introduced a contradiction to the event that was never really resolved, and caused some issues: were we running a participant-driven unconference, or a regular conference with a top-down organization? I formed an impression from feedback that on seeing our speaker lineup, some participants felt intimidated about pitching due to not feeling technically knowledgeable enough. Additionally, we presented an ‘almost full’ timetable with space for unconference-style pitching. While this helped generate buzz and encouraged people to get a ticket so they could come to those sessions, it made it easier to view the day as a traditional conference that didn’t demand participants set the agenda. A related point is I’ve noticed unconference sessions, for example at Library Camp, becoming increased sophisticated over time and more pre-planned. Sessions are often no longer discussions, but make more use of technology such as online collaborative editing, use more formal methods in research and analysis, and attempt to engage people beyond the conference for example by tying in with planned chats on Twitter. For me this increased sophistication deepens engagement, but can work against the more exciting aspects of unconference spontaneity such as pitching an idea that is not fully-formed on the day. We did get pitches ahead of time on our discussion and ideas document, but these were the only ones pitched on the day so it felt a bit more like a call for papers than pitching.

What this means for practical technical sessions

As noted we wanted to ensure broad appeal to a range of different technical abilities. We especially wanted to demonstrate practical aspects of library systems work that would give a flavour of what it is systems librarians and other systems workers do. To this end it was wonderful that many delegates saw the day as an opportunity to stretch themselves with professional development, and expressed an interest in getting more involved with systems work in future. One of the facilitators observed to me on day there is a real difficulty in how to ‘bring people along with you’ if they are at different levels at the start. This makes running sessions that rely on pre-existing technical knowledge that much more difficult. One suggestion from feedback was to provide pre-work or reading ahead of the day for sessions that would benefit from it. I have mixed feelings about this as despite having run such sessions like that at conferences, I feel participants should also easily be able to choose what they will on the day, or even move between sessions. For me, this was most apparent for the Linked Data and OntoWiki session, although I know there were issues in other sessions too. This combined with technical dependencies for participants, who needed to install software on their own computers to get the best from the practical work. In hindsight, what we needed to provide were laptop computers with the relevant software pre-installed and ready to use, so we could simply hand a machine with a ‘known good’ configuration to everyone attending the session. This would have been challenging, but perhaps could have been feasible using loan laptops from Senate House Library stock and given enough time for preparation.

Safer spaces, and an apology

Ka-Ming provided the idea of very actively promoting and encouraging women facilitators and participants. Essentially, we did not want to run yet another tech event dominated by men but rather one that better reflected how our profession is populated. It was great to get positive feedback on this aspect, and suggestions from critical friends where we erred. One point I want to apologize for is our gender binarism in the initial ticket allocations to men and women. As organizers we discussed this after it was pointed out, and learned from it. In future I will do better, I will approach gender more carefully to help avoid reinforcing bias and discrimination. I am glad we implemented a safer spaces policy, repurposed with permission from OK Café. As professionals we might prefer to believe policies shouldn’t be necessary, but I argue they help create inclusive events in the first place. Even if a policy doesn’t need to be acted on, it provides a context to set expectations and helps attendees develop confidence they will be supported in resolving any problems. I now firmly believe safer spaces policies or codes of practice are necessary for conferences.

Being the organizer

The way in which participants interact, learn, and spark ideas off each other is something you try to positively influence as a conference organizer, but ultimately much of ‘the magic’ is out of your control. It helped that we provided a space that participants found friendly and inclusive, with longer session times than normal conferences. This allowed for discursive conversations and digging into the technical ‘long weeds’ as participants wished. This was an important aspect for my own development, as I identified I need to move beyond running events successfully (without say, some disaster befalling us), to thinking more deeply about the value gained by delegates for their own development and understanding ways in which we can support and facilitate this. Overall I would strongly recommend (un)conferencing organizing as a means of professional development.

Thoughts on practical aspects

Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.
Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.

Following Library Camp London I’d reflected on what made the day a success, practically, and we implemented much of this for Pi and Mash. This is summarized here: Practical suggestions for running your own Library Camp. Some things that remain true:

  • Especially true for a technical event, your wireless absolutely needs to be working.
  • Individual bottles are better than glasses for carrying water around the library.
  • If you’re relying on someone for preparation such as moving furniture, survey the space ahead of time and prepare with the expectation your instructions will be followed to the letter.
  • One thing that was again a problem was noise, as we were using large rooms with two sessions in them noise carried. This was a limit inherent in the spaces available to us, which were provided free of charge by Senate House Library. However we would definitely have been better to provide smaller separate rooms, or found a way to screen off larger spaces to dampen noise.

We organized Pi and Mash almost exclusively online, which saved a lot of travelling time even with all of us being London-based. We used:

  • Google Hangouts to provide audio and video for meetings.
  • Google Docs / Drive for collaborative editing and sharing of meeting notes and actions lists.
  • WordPress.org for our website, plus TablePress for tables. This was low cost as we could use existing web hosting and we all had practical experience with the software.
  • Gmail for email. Specifically the trick was to push the ‘info@’ domain address to my own Gmail using POP3 and set it up to allow responding from that address. This made for quick and efficient replies to questions.
  • Eventbrite for ticketing and emails to delegates. I still favour Eventbrite despite its quirks. Checkin is a breeze and mailouts are simple, and the quirks are at least quirks I’m very familiar with.
  • Twitter – of course, the place for professional engagement in libraryland.
  • Qualtrics for our post-conference survey (Imperial College London has a subscription).

We made some choices about what not to do with social media and other tools:

  • We considered use of Lanyrd for session slides and materials, but it seemed a more useful tool for larger, more formal conferences where you would want to draw together lots of different media types, session recordings, and so on.
  • Wiki. Ultimately we decided not to set up a wiki for Pi and Mash as we felt the limited amount of collaborative editing needed ahead of the event could be handed using a Google Doc. This is the model uklibchat use successfully, but from feedback some delegates reasonably expected a wiki to be available.
  • Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to live-stream any presentations. There was demand for this ahead of the event, but it was too difficult to achieve technically and with limited staff resource. I have done this for events by using Google Hangouts on Air which can provides a slick, professional solution at low cost using consumer webcams and microphones.

In hindsight, in thinking about our approaches to communication I found Ned Potter’s description of communication channels as white noise, peripheral vision, or line of sight from a recent conference presentation very helpful.

The main area for improvement I would focus on for future events are reaching those who do not routinely professionally engage with social media:

  • Mailing lists are still widely-used by library workers and I noticed rushes of interest when we mentioned Pi and Mash on mailing lists like lis-link.
  • Targeted personal communication is very effective at helping publicize the event by word-of-mouth. For example: encouraging library and information science lecturers to promote the event to students; and to our colleagues to encourage team members to attend the event for professional development.

Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

'Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles - Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) - Saturday November 2, 2013' by Flickr use Corey Seeman https://flic.kr/p/hV31UF (license CC BY-NC-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)
‘Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles – Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) – Saturday November 2, 2013′ by Flickr use Corey Seeman (license CC BY-NC-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

Introduction

I pitched this session at the Radical Librarians Collective (formerly Radical Library Camp) unconference in May following encouragement on Twitter from other delegates.

I wanted to open a discussion on information as a commodity using Marx’s analysis from Capital as a starting point to provide theoretical perspective. I hoped for free-flowing discussion about problems this relation introduces into information work – if indeed what I proposed was a reasonable analysis.

Commodities and the labour theory of value

Commodities in Marxian economics are products of human labour that have a value. They are typically sold or exchanged on the market and can be physical goods, or intangible services. Marx presents various ‘cycles’ of capital in his analysis, describing how money and commodities circulate by processes of exchange and how this introduces various contradictions that, Marx argues, lead inevitably to crises.

The notation takes a little getting used to. One of the simpler cycles in Capital volume 1 is:

M-C-M’

The hyphen means an exchange has taken place. Money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1976 pp. 247-257).

Marx really gets into the idea of cycles of capital in Capital volume 2. More complicated but relevant to our interests as workers is the cycle of:

M-CP-C’-M’

The ellipsis indicates interruption – here, capital moving from circulation into production. Money (M) is used to purchase commodities (C) in the form of means of production, and labour. These are used in a process of “productive consumption” (P) that forms extra value to produce new commodities (C’) which are sold for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1978 pp. 109-143).

I like Marx’s approach here because he recognizes the central importance of living labour in the production process of society as a whole. Important to Marx’s labour theory of value is the idea invested capital is ‘valorized’ with added surplus value from the labour process of the workforce above and beyond the cost of their own labour.

One sobering implication of this cycle is that the labour power, that is our own time and energy, is also a commodity.

Information as a commodity

John Feather (2008 p. 109) states plainly information is a commodity:

Information is a commodity which is brought and sold. However difficult it may be to define how it acquires value, the fact of the commodification of information cannot be denied.

Marx’s examples are of their time and place so there is a lot about linen, iron, and corn, and less about intangibles like information. I read Feather’s comment as a rational and dispassionate statement of fact about life in the information society.

The session took place in the library of the London Action Resource Centre so I gave an example of a book on the shelf (a single author monograph) as a commodity that was produced for sale. No-one would disagree the pulp, card, ink etc. that makes up the print book are commodities and it follows the content created by the author’s intellectual process is also treated this way. Removing the print book, if we present the same information in the form of an ebook we would still have a commodity.

Commodification and commoditization

A former BT phone box containing books in rural Essex.
A former BT phone box containing books, in rural Essex.

Straying from classical Marxian economics, information can in another sense be commoditized. To avoid confusion I use these meanings:

  • Commodification means making something saleable that wasn’t before
  • Commoditization is the process of a product becoming a simple commodity, where there is little to differentiate different brands and suppliers

In the commoditized sense above, information becomes independent of its intellectual meaning. The RLC session wasn’t focused on this meaning, but I mentioned it as I find expressions of this idea particularly dangerous. It can justify thinking along the lines of closing libraries because the simple commodity ‘information’ can be delivered in other ways, for example books sold cheaply in supermarkets.

Commodities and information work

What does this cycle of exchange, valorization of intellectual work, and commodified information mean for information workers? There were thought-provoking points made in discussion of which I will give a flavour as I was trying to facilitate rather than takes notes.

Dan Grace spoke about the idea of the knowledge commons, and how commons being enclosed and commodified is the start of a process of turning knowledge commons – shared by all – into something exploited for private gain. Following the RLC conference Dan recommended The wealth of the commons edited by Bollier and Helfrich (2014) which is focused on resistance to this process. It is naturally enough Creative Commons-licensed and available online.

Charles Oppenheim noted that information has special characteristics related to its intangibility, for example:

  • It can be copied without loss of content. With digital media the marginal cost of making extra copies approaches zero.
  • More than one person can own it without depriving others of it, it is not “used up” in the way goods and services are.

Information is not like widgets rolling off a factory production line. Copyright is central as it represents an artificial limit on copying that, however originally intended, can be used to exert control over intellectual work. This introduces a contradiction in information work for the library worker who may oppose such control but have a responsibility of enforcing copyright in their workplace. We reached no easy conclusions about this particularly thorny problem.

I speculated on the “copyright judo” of copyleft approaches such as Free and Open Source Software and Creative Commons licenses. These approaches use copyright law as a lever to ensure enduring openness and freedom to use information-as-commodities for whatever purpose the user wishes. The question is, does co-opting these levers for our own use get us far enough? Arguably not, as this approach still perpetuates control of intellectual work and existing hierarchies of knowledge creation.

That said, access is powerful in itself because knowledge in our minds – versus information on a page or represented as bits – cannot be subject to copyright or otherwise controlled. In higher education there are drivers from Hefce (2014) and others to provide open access to the quintessential commodity made in higher education, research.

I believe this driver is strong enough to make this process part of a changed institutional approach to the research lifecycle as a whole, but a more subtle reading of the policy includes the implication academics as knowledge workers should be more sensitive to issues in licensing and copyright of their intellectual outputs.

In discussion Stuart Lawson shared a proposed declaration for LIS professionals to make their own work open access wherever possible. Since the RLC event Stuart and others have worked on finalizing the LIS open access declaration.

Overall I felt the analysis worked, and discussion provided interesting food for thought around the characteristics that make information special and how its flows are limited or encouraged. The LIS open access declaration is a particularly inspiring professional statement of intent and I hope many library workers sign up.

References

Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: http://wealthofthecommons.org/ (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Feather, J (2008) The information society. 5th edn. London: Facet.

Hefce (2014) Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2014/201407/#d.en.86771 (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Marx, K (1976) Capital volume I. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin.

Marx, K (1978) Capital volume II. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.

Reflections on the LIS professional qualification

Introduction

For some time I’ve been trying to reach conclusions about the purpose and value of our professional masters qualification in library and information science (LIS) and this post is a reflective piece about this.

To set out my stall I am a higher education worker and I believe education has an intrinsic value, that is it has value for the sake of itself. I believe in education as a transformative process as well as an engine of social mobility, and I see professional qualifications such as the LIS masters as providing both aspects of this.

Anyone in higher education will also understand ‘social mobility’ as a polite way of noting the wage premium holders of degrees and especially postgraduate qualifications attract – a readable, recent summary of trends and issues in this area is available in Lindley and Machin (2013).

Episteme and gnosis

'fried egg on toast' by Flickr user Anastasia Liem, License CC-BY-NC.
‘fried egg on toast’ by Flickr user Anastasia Liem, License CC-BY-NC.

Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.

Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practise.

To expand on this, I’ll borrow the fried egg model from Playdon and Josephy (2011) where it is presented in the context of postgraduate medical education. In this model:

  • Episteme is knowledge of fixed systems: our knowledge of what is true in library and information science
  • Gnosis is knowledge arising from relationships: our insight developed from our work
  • Importantly, gnosis contains episteme and so it is the egg white in our model; episteme is the yolk

In Playdon and Josephy it’s argued these two kinds of knowledge are not either-or, rather the masters is one way of allowing us to bridge the gap between episteme and gnosis. One aspect of being an effective and rounded professional is being able to give meaning to theoretical ‘fact’ in practice.

I believe this is one reason why we see a difference between an experienced practitioner and a newcomer in the ability to reach insight seemingly effortlessly. My argument is knowledge of LIS theory is essential to what we do but is not everything we need to know for professional practice. This comes in time by learning and developing our ability and skill in the workplace.

I absolutely have the feeling of having levelled up by completing a LIS masters, and I apply the theoretical and practical content of the course in my work every day. One highlight, a very useful module for me was research methods. This has enduring value for application in evidence-based librarianship, and rounded out my understanding of qualitative methods alongside the very quantitative focus of my first degree in biology.

Problems in hiring and the LIS professional qualification

The Library Loon as a LIS educator has written insightfully on the ‘didn’t learn that in library school’ trope as the manifestation of feelings, especially of new professionals, of wanting to avoid uncertainty or unpleasant surprises and wanting to feel expert. I certainly don’t think a LIS masters will give everything you need to feel and moreover be expert, and it can’t be considered a replacement for getting in years of focused practice – many thousands of hours – to achieve mastery.

I think problematizing the LIS masters is an unhelpful mistake. I am particularly concerned by qualified librarians, speaking from a position of privilege, talking down the professional qualification as ‘just a piece of paper’ or ‘a hoop to jump through’. Balance is vital here. We must acknowledge the value of focused practice in a workplace context and commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) alongside any formal professional qualification a person holds.

This is one reason when shortlisting, interviewing, or writing or giving input into a person specification I always take ‘or equivalent experience’ as seriously as the ‘Postgraduate qualification in LIS’ that precedes it. Another major reason for me, and for any HR department, is this is of course an equality and diversity issue.

There are definitely aspects of my masters course I would have altered given the chance. Specifically, I think closing the loop between theory and practice is important, but equally so is feeding practitioners’ recent knowledge back into LIS education as this is one contact point between gnosis and episteme in our profession. This is something campus-based LIS courses tend to do very well, and I think with current technology it should be possible to provide a similar learning experience for the likes of me, the part-time distance learner.

I would connect this to the argument in Ian Clark’s recent blog post, that we as LIS professionals have a responsibility to be active in this area and should lobby for better degrees where think current provision is lacking.

Acknowledgement

My thanks to Dr Muna Al-Jawad for helpful discussion on the subject of postgraduate education as professional qualification. Muna blogs at Old Person Whisperer.

References

Clark, I.J. (2014) ‘My challenge to experienced librarians: lobby for a better degree’, Infoism, 13 February. Available at: http://infoism.co.uk/2014/02/my-challenge-to-experienced-librarians-lobby-for-a-better-degree/
Library Loon (2013) ‘Uncertainty will never be zero’, Gavialib, 18 September. Available at: http://gavialib.com/2013/09/uncertainty-will-never-be-zero/
Lindley, J. and Machim, S. (2013) The postgraduate premium. [Online]. Available at: http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/postgraduate-premium-report-1-.pdf
Playdon Z, and Josephy, A (2011) Journeys in postgraduate medical education. London: Third Space.

Management and leadership, a radical approach? At Radical Library Camp

Introduction

I recently attended, and made a very small contribution to help organize, a library unconference in Bradford. This was the first Radical Library Camp or #radlibcamp on Twitter.

There was some discussion pre-conference about the nature of a self-identified ‘radical’ unconference. I think the nature of unconferencing is already radical compared to formal conferences but what I thought made Radical Library Camp different was open space technology applied in a context of different issues and with knowledge of various issues and concepts already present with the attendees (or campers). In practical terms this meant sessions could hit the ground running with relatively little need to explain what we are about, and meant we could immediately dig into the issues at hand.

To me Radical Library Camp definitely still felt like a Library Camp event and ran along similar lines. It all went off very well. The venue, Bradford Resource Centre, was particularly welcoming and hosted us perfectly so many thanks to them.

For the event I had decided to try to talk less and spend more time listening and thinking about others’ contributions. However I couldn’t resist pitching something as I had recently been thinking about management and leadership and whether there could ever be a workable ‘radical’ approach, so…

Management and leadership session

'Leadership and radicalism...' session, modified from a photopgraph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.
‘Leadership and radicalism…’ session, modified from a photograph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.

I had done some reading about this, mainly at the excellent Institute of Education library, but really I wanted to open the question to the group and see where discussion took us. To this end I posed some questions after a brief opener:

  1. Is there an approach to managing people in libraries that remains honest? And if you manage people how do you do it?
  2. Making the leap: if you move from a ‘clerical / technical’ role to a ‘management / professional’ role, what changes? Is this just about others’ perceptions?
  3. Is it possible to be ‘management’ without selling out? How do you handle this yourself?

I explained I had been thinking primarily about leadership, but that we could easily look at ‘radical’ in different contexts such as supervision, management, or leadership. I suggested looking more broadly to be inclusive, as often staff on lower grades have supervisory or management responsibility without perceiving themselves as ‘management’ but will face some of the same issues as senior managers.

Some brief definitions of the difference between these roles:

  • The supervisor’s job is directing and instructing
  • The manager’s job is to planning, organizing, and coordinating
  • The leader’s job is inspiring and and motivating

It seems much easier to pitch a radical approach to leadership than to management. It’s much easier to bring to mind approaches exemplified by leaders, for example in trade unions or politics, who take a bona fide ‘radical’ approach. The managing and supervising context is more difficult and on reflection I do not think we were able to develop answers much beyond a leadership context.

It can seem obvious or self-evident that libraries like other organizations need management to ensure they are efficiently organized and productive. Daniel Wren for example presents management as a quite natural thing that follows the evolution of human society:

As people’s conceptual ability has been refined through evolution, they have also refined their understanding of the art of arranging physical and human resource for guidance towards purposeful ends. We call this art management… (Wren, 1987 p. 11, italics in original)

From a very different angle Marx (1976 pp. 448-451) identifies managers and supervisors as ‘a special kind of wage labourer’ with a function made necessary by the need to maximize generation of surplus value and hence profit. Marx of course relates this function to class struggle and casts management as a function necessary to make wage labourers cooperate with each other under capital.

I also gave some context about new public management (NPM) from the contemporary public sector. NPM as a concept denotes broad government policies since the 1980s that aimed to make the public sector more efficient and effective, the idea being a market-oriented management style could be used to drive cost-efficiency for government. For the organization and workers this meant a shift from a bureaucratic approach based on state administration to a managerialist approach based on performance: from ‘state-regulated’ to ‘market-regulated’ (Ward, 2012 pp. 47-52).

Discussion

Personally I took two major themes or points from the session: if there is a radical approach to management and leadership it is based on both fairness as a manager and authenticity as a leader.

Several in the group raised the idea of changing things from the inside as a manager – the idea is similar to entryism in politics and was called such by one of the campers. This deserves credit as leaders are likely best placed with opportunity, power, and freedom to act to make improvements, and certainly to lead by example. One possible trap here would be overemphasising the role of the individual and thinking it’s down to the ‘heroic leader’ doing everything themselves that drives improvements.

A general point made was that we should seek good practice in management and leadership even if this isn’t ‘radical’, indeed much of it won’t be so. Examples given were communicating well, listening even if you cannot act on everything you hear, and involving staff to get input on decision-making. One point raised in the session and beforehand by Sarah on Twitter was that good management practice isn’t linked to left or right-wing political opinions.

Authenticity and fairness

Liz raised authenticity in leadership as a vital characteristic. This is about being authentic yourself as a leader, and also how you implement an authentic approach in your context as a manager. Goffee and Jones describe how leaders translate this into behaviour to demonstrate authenticity:

  • A consistency between words and deeds – the leader practises what she preaches
  • Presentation of a consistent ‘real self’, despite the need to play different roles to different audiences
  • A sense of the leader being comfortable with her origins

These bullets are a paraphrased summary from Goffee and Jones (2006 pp. 16-17).

It doesn’t follow that the authentic leader is one everyone always agrees with or who is universally liked by staff, and the point was reinforced in discussion that it’s not possible to please everyone all the time.

Liz also raised the issue of being fair and being seen to be fair as a manager in treatment of staff as important. This means for example dealing with issues in a way that gives fair treatment to all and not playing favourites. To make one distinction here I would emphasize a difference between fairness and justice. The outcome of a situation may not be considered subjectively fair by everyone concerned, but from a management point of view it had better be just.

For me there was an outstanding question about personal responsibility and ensuring our personal values and professional ethics are congruent with our work and the values of the organizations we work for. One tweet commenting on the session discussion in this spirit from Dave:

One point raised from the audience here was this is a very difficult proposition for those in a situation of precarious labour. An example given was you may find you have no real choice but to work in an organization that doesn’t match your own ideals or professional ethics because there are no other jobs to move to. Points of principle rub up against real-world responsibilities like paying the rent or mortgage.

Stepping back from this very immediate example, more broadly from the point of view of managers and staff there is an issue here about the limits on what we can do personally to affect change. For example perhaps we dislike hierarchy, but we work in organizations that represent classic Weberian bureaucracies which rely on hierarchy to get things done. There is a balance here between going too far and selling out and being ineffective due to failing to engage with the cultural norms of the organization.

Reflecting on this further I think the key issue in authentic leadership is knowing where and how much to compromise to create progress without undermining our personal morals and professional ethics.

References

Goffee, R. and Jones, G. (2006) Why should anyone be led by you? Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
Marx, K. (1976) Capital: a critique of political economy. Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ward, S.C. (2012) Neoliberalism and the global restructuring of knowledge and education. London: Routledge.
Weber, M. (1947) The theory of social and economic organization. New York, NY: Free Press.
Wren, D.A. (1987) The evolution of management thought. 3rd edn. New York, NY: John Wiley.