Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

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:


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:


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.

Photo credit

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)


Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: (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: (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

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.


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.


Clark, I.J. (2014) ‘My challenge to experienced librarians: lobby for a better degree’, Infoism, 13 February. Available at:

Library Loon (2013) ‘Uncertainty will never be zero’, Gavialib, 18 September. Available at:

Lindley, J. and Machim, S. (2013) The postgraduate premium. [Online]. Available at:

Playdon Z, and Josephy, A (2011) Journeys in postgraduate medical education. London: Third Space.

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

Radical library camp

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).


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.


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.

Dealing with change in LIS – a personal perspective for #uklibchat

This blog post also appears on the uklibchat site for the chat of 6 August 2013, ‘The changing world of libraries and information‘. This post contains an additional reference to a blog post by the Library Loon on ‘steady-state librarianship‘ which was omitted from the version published by uklibchat – my error.

I have to change to stay the same
– Willem de Kooning

In this guest blog post for uklibchat I’ll talk about how I deal with change in my role at Senate House Libraries, University of London.

For my library masters I studied various models for describing change and how to manage change. I won’t dwell on these in detail but to give one example to think about, Lewin’s (1947) model describes change as a three step process:

  1. Unfreezing: preparing the organization for change, building a case, dismantling the existing “mindset”.
  2. Change: an uncomfortable period of uncertainty with the organization beginning to make and embrace changes.
  3. Freezing: finalizing the organization in a new, stable state and returning to former levels of comfort.

I use this model as a way of understanding a traditional view, sometimes presented as a “common sense” view, of change processes though I find the underlying assumptions in the model itself quite manipulative – for example the idea that to create change, the transient pain of change must be understood to be less for the organization than the pain of keeping things the same. Other models have more steps and so greater complexity. Kotter’s (1996) eight step change model is one example; at that level of complexity it reads more like “Kotter’s tips for implementing change” rather than a theoretical model.

The main things I take from these models and work experience are that:

  • The major challenges in implementing change come down to people rather than technology or machines.
  • The period of implementing change will be disruptive and uncomfortable, as a manager you cannot ignore but must engage with this.
  • Communication at all stages is key to a successful change process – including celebrating success afterwards.

At Senate House Libraries we’ve experienced a considerable period of disruptive change since the mid-2000s. One conclusion I’ve made from this is we are definitely no longer in the business of steady-state librarianship (Library Loon, 2012). Our “business as usual” now includes an implicit assumption that we need to constantly review and adjust our processes and services to meet changing needs and demands, hence my inclusion of Willem de Kooning’s wonderfully mysterious quote above.

This does not mean slavishly following every new trend in technology or being led by the nose by technology, particularly technology as repackaged and sold by library software and hardware suppliers, but actively maintaining current awareness and honestly evaluating the status quo as thoroughly as we do new ideas.

I say this because in some libraries I notice a willingness to subject the new thing in a change process to exacting and rigorous examination but not examine the status quo in the same way. There is an assumption here about the ‘rightness’ of our current approaches, whatever they happen to be. What I find troubling about this is the idea our way of working will remain ‘right’ for any length of time in a changing landscape. It is absolutely right not to try to fix something that isn’t broken or enact change for the sake of change, but this is something only knowable following evaluation.

For me the operational aspect of library service must inform strategic thinking and planning, as it’s those staff that are in constant contact with library members and understand the fine detail of the service. For this reason I involve my whole team in developing operational plans and contributing to strategy by identifying priorities for future work. My view is change shouldn’t just be something that ‘just happens’ to staff but something for all to take an active role in.

Personally I am influenced by approaches from IT as I have a systems background, and more broadly am influenced by application of researched-based and evidence-based practise in librarianship. To be clear I include qualitative research in this as an essential parter to quantitative research, adding much-needed richness and depth to our understanding of user experience and behaviour.

One change process at my workplace where I’ve used this approach is implementing a new discovery layer, or library catalogue, as part of our implementation of a new library management system, Kuali Open Library Environment (OLE). OLE does not have a traditional catalogue so a catalogue or discovery layer such as VuFind or Blacklight is needed.

To do this, we have built and developed the case for changing by:

  • Presenting about the project formally at all-staff meetings and individual team meetings.
  • Informal conversation with staff to answer questions and build awareness ‘things are happening’ around discovery.
  • Involving staff in thinking creatively about discovery in a workshop environment (I blogged about this aspect a few months ago).
  • Giving discovery the respect it deserves by treating it as a Web project that puts user experience at the core – and being seen to do so. This includes hosting a student from UCL Department of Information Studies doing ethnographic research on catalogue user behaviour.
  • Answer technical questions quickly and with confidence, including in-depth questions about SolrMARC (really) and metadata issues.

The important point for me as the head of our systems team is so much of this is not about technology, it’s about surfacing opinion and including staff in conversation. For example we’ve set up a beta test VuFind 2.0 instance to provide food for thought, but it’s not core

By necessity this blog post is brief, but I hope this specific example and the more general things I’ve said above help seed discussion for uklibchat.


Lewin, K. (1947) ‘Frontiers in group dynamics: concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change’, Human Relations, 1 (1), pp. 5-41, PsycINFO [Online] doi:10.1177/001872674700100103 (Accessed: 27 July 2013)

Kotter, J.P. (1996) Leading change. Watertown, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Library Loon (2012) ‘Steady-state vs. expanding-universe librarianship’, Gavia Libraria, 22 July. Available at: (Accessed: 7 August 2013).

Transcending the LMS – Jisc Library Systems Programme workshop

On Monday 15 July I attended Jisc’s Library Systems Programme workshop which summed up experience from the LMS Change programme and the various Jisc-funded pathfinder projects. Our Bloomsbury LMS project to implement the Kuali OLE library services platform at the University of London is not funded by Jisc, we were participating as part of Jisc’s wider community engagement.

Helen Harrop of Sero Consulting collected tweets from the day here – Jisc Library Systems Programme Event on Storify and Ben Showers blogged a summary of the day including presentations here – Library Systems Workshop.

Thanks to Jisc for organizing the workshop – super job.

On being provocative

In the afternoon I spoke on a panel with Owen Stephens and Martin Myhill. I was asked to be provocative and talk about what I want to see in my imagined library system of the future – what is on my systems wishlist?

What a great platform. I think systems librarians and shambrarians are good at provocative, sweeping statements as we often need to see things terms of complete systems and the structure and interconnectedness of their component parts. Add to this years of experience with libraryland systems, and the 2012-13 turning point where next-generation library services platforms started being deployed in our libraries and things get quite interesting.

As I prepared slides in advance I didn’t have much chance to tweak what I’d say over the day. Listening to Ann Rossiter of Sconul and Ben Showers of Jisc speak about the history of the project and the current landscape I worried I might just be telling directors and systems workers things they already know and agree with. Nice as motherhood and apple pie is, it’s not provocative.

I wanted to expand on my points and relate things other speakers said to my vision of how I think we should develop our systems. My sides from the day are available on Slideshare, but they were only intended as soundbites for me to talk around so I’ve reproduced those as my headings below.

What’s I’ve missed out is a major point about the opportunity to disrupt our traditional procurement approaches to drive new systems and especially adoption of Free and Open Source software. This point was made by Ben Showers early on and it kept coming back to my mind over the course of the day, what I heard from Glyn Ryland of the Whelf shared LMS project about their next steps to procure and implement a new system was particularly thought-provoking. A blog post will follow on this in future.

Transcending the LMS

Transcending the library management system is the fundamental issue for me.

Next-generation library services platforms are now being implemented and deployed in libraries in higher education. They are a thing of concrete reality not of the imagination. For me the vision of the next-generation is hidebound and limited by notions of what is appropriate for libraries and what lies outside these systems.

I guess most of us in systems are familiar with the corporate slide decks library vendors present for these platforms. They are all similar with a circle of components such as discovery, resource discovery, ERM, perhaps even digital asset management and reading lists, grouped around the vendor’s core library system at the centre. The implication is the vendor understands the complete picture and you’re in safe hands buying everything you need from them.

There is something seductive about this, but for me it’s incomplete and self-limiting. There are risks here too, as Owen Stephens made the point that by buying from that one vendor, you might end up prioritizing ease over your strategic goals.

To unpack this with an example, I want a library system that understands metadata and content beyond library. So I imagine a system that can manage our library and archives metadata equally well and support cataloguing workflows for both. This will be possible because my future system won’t have one cataloguing user interface; it’ll be possible to build your own interface as needed for different staff and workflows. My future system would be built with an understanding of our need to move to linked data approaches to cataloguing (catalinking, if we must), and our need for cohesive presentation of different types of content and descriptive metadata while avoiding creation of yet more silos.

My system of the future would transcend the limited notion of a library system for managing local bibliographic data and providing inventory and circulation functions – and it could really exist! In the cataloguing examples above I’m cheating as these are features either being coded or planned for future Kuali OLE releases, not pie in the sky.

By and for higher education

I want a library system that does what an academic research library wants and needs to support our business. A system we can employ to improve user experience for our students, and the academics who rely on us for their research and supporting their teaching. But library staff and IT staff count too. Improving user experience for colleagues in the library, and system functionality for our IT departments smooths the operation and maintenance of our systems.

Some of this sounds abstract, but comes into sharp focus as I think of how many times I’ve run into problems with my favourite monolithic library system because it’s just not designed for a complex group of higher education libraries.

In defence of librarians

It’s a bit fashionable to say librarians don’t really understand concepts around service and should borrow ideas from other sectors. Retail springs to mind here. For my part I think librarians don’t appreciate how similar the customer-facing aspects of our roles are to those in IT services, and how service management concepts can be re-used in libraries.

However, as a professional I believe strongly librarians in higher education do know what we’re doing in supporting our core purpose as universities, and I have much less faith in software suppliers to do that. One point made on the day was it’s not just what library software supplier are doing doesn’t reflect what libraries need, but that it might not reflect what they themselves think they should be doing. Rather, they are doing whatever best creates value for the private equity firms that own most of them nowadays.

The Kuali Foundation ‘gets it’ in this respect as our subject matter experts – meaning librarians and other library workers with expert knowledge – sit within a foundation that includes development expertise in analysis, consultancy, and project management. That means you avoid pitfalls that you can imagine if I asked you to imagine a library management system built by librarians.

Enterprise, not libraryland

Having said all that I think we’ll get best use from our future library systems by focusing on what we’re good at, which is providing library services, rather than what we’re not, which is generic IT and systems administration.

To enable this my wishlist includes features that allow our future systems to be taken seriously by colleagues in IT and the wider university. This means stepping away from libraryland systems and towards enterprise IT.

So, expect to take various options for cloud hosting using commodity IT services to our IT department rather than a single ‘vendor cloud’. I expect the future system to plug into a standard enterprise backup system, and I expect it to support virtualized hardware without being overly fussy about which particular Linux distribution or virtualization technology it runs on. I expect to be able to cope with peaks of demand over the academic year by temporarily bringing in more (virtualized) application servers.

Open and interoperable

My future library system will be open and interoperable with documented, web-based APIs and will be based on service-oriented architecture. Here I am almost quoting Ken Chad in his presentation on the day word-for-word.

It will be possible to get data into and out of the system easily, in whatever machine or human-readable form we wish to describe. These will be standard features rather than expensive optional extras. I’m thinking of features at the level of then button present in Kuali OLE 0.8 that produces XML output from the bibliographic database to feed into a discovery layer.

I’m entirely opposed to building the hacked-together and kludgy solutions “made out of glue and string” as my colleague Tim Fletcher at Birkbeck, University of London calls them.

Any library technology company could and should be able to do this now: there are no excuses. In my view software supplies do understand this and are moving in the right direction. This is great to see as we have been asking for this for quite some years. The point where vendors start getting tricky is in trying to convince us that some limited “openness” in the form of open APIs and accessible data is quite enough, which finally brings me on to…

Free and Open Source software

My future LMS will be be released under a license that appears in the Free Software Foundation’s list of free software licenses.

Let’s get this out of the way, the GNU four freedoms are a matter of liberty rather than cost and for me are central as a wishlist item for a future library system.

However there are more sophisticated and nuanced arguments to be made in favour of Open Source software. Liberty is important for practical reasons because it drains away risks associated with having a single software supplier for support and development, and it provides a safe and secure future for our system that won’t be influenced by private equity firms buying up library vendors. Commissioning development specifically of an Open Source system would allow a group of libraries to pool resources without one partner ceding their control to others, or becoming locked in to the particular technology or development roadmap that suits the vendor best.

Happily, we know systems vendors agree Free and Open Source Software is good software, because they use this software themselves as components to develop and build their systems. It’s wonderful to see library technology companies generating value by selling this software. No sarcasm intended: it’s what that Free Software Foundation think too.

Discovery at Senate House Libraries: staff focus groups


At Senate House Libraries, University of London we’re part way though our project to migrate our library management system (LMS) to Kuali OLE, a Free Software / Open Source library services platform. As a deliberate design choice OLE does not come with an online catalogue for end users, so we are approaching discovery as a work package in our LMS project. To this end I recently ran focus groups for staff to start to specify what goes into a functional specification for our discovery system.

Part way into writing my summary of the high-level requirements I realised I was writing something like a manifesto. I stopped and split this into a separate page in our Confluence wiki, and this is what I wanted to share with you. If you want to see something more like a specification for a library discovery / vertical search system, take a look at Ken Chad’s libtechrfp site on Vertical Search as a starting point.

Running focus groups

From my point of view it’s liberating to start with a clean slate for discovery and not with the limitations of existing library vendor solutions. There are a whole host of implications here, primary for me are not being tied to vendor development roadmaps and technology choices, and not having limitations from the LMS carry through to the discovery layer. So, I wanted to start with an open mind and not presume too much about staff received opinion or staff use of our existing discovery systems.

I asked participants to think about some questions as a prelude to a mix of small- and big-group discussion in a workshop context.

  • What’s valued in our current discovery systems, and what are outstanding problems?
  • What’s missing that should be included in the next discovery system?
  • What’s most important to researchers?
  • What would a good discovery system look like, and how would it behave?

I have to apologize for management-speak of asking what does good look like, but it’s a serious point. It is incredibly hard to describe what a successful new system would be like to use, but these are the things we need to be thinking about rather than say, a list of missing features in Innovative’s Encore Discovery versus their older WebPAC Pro catalogue.

Just to add that yes, testing with library members is to follow. This will include the usual usability testing that accompanies and informs any sane web project, and also a more in-depth investigation into user behaviour using ethnographic methods.

“[We want] the moon on a stick”

These group discussions were incredibly productive and featured a good deal of imaginative and daring thinking about what a library catalogue should be and how it should behave. My favourite headline from these small group discussions was a page titled, “the moon on a stick”. I think this is a good starting point: we should think big and aspirational, not small and limited.

Our goal should be full discovery of everything including searching across books, journals, archives, images, and so on in a way that is clear about what you’re searching and provides options to include and exclude different content. In this context the local bibliographic database becomes the biggest of several databases that discovery draws from alongside the archives catalogue, eprints repository, and digital asset management system.

Unfolding complexity

So, how do we provide breadth and depth of discovery without overwhelming the reader with a firehose-like experience of masses of information; and impossible complexity that requires a LIS masters degree to understand?

The key point for us is discovery needs the ability to be as simple or complex as you want to at any given time. We need a way of providing a range of levels of complexity in the same system rather than hiding all the complexity behind an ‘advanced search’ link.

This doesn’t just mean copying from web search, as a single search box is very difficult to get right in the library context. Even if many libraries are going this way nowadays it is very hard to do it well and impossible to please everyone. On the one hand, old school OPACs rely too much on specialist knowledge of how the catalogue works and the structure of the underlying metadata that powers them. On the other, library attempts at single search boxes use keyword indexes that fail to make best use of the complexity and richness of that underlying metadata.

Instead we need an approach that respects the intellectual ability of our readership and the status of our institution, and respects the reader’s conceptual understanding of the library. Our approach should reflect the pride we have in being a library and our professional abilities as librarians, without attempting to turn readers into mini-librarians.

Discovery must include ways of bringing in complexity from a simple starting point, something web search engines can do quite well.

Readers shouldn’t feel they’re starting from a position where they’re telling the library, “I’m stupid”, or “I’m intelligent”. Discovery needs to reconcile providing a simple starting point with surfacing information that may be relevant, but is deep and complex. We know that buried somewhere in the clutter are results that are useful to the reader. The underlying technology may be very complicated but the experience of the system should be the opposite.

We need to meet the needs of different groups of users, or the differing needs of the same user. We know there are primary and secondary uses of our collections for the same person, and a reader may have a different approach in a different context depending on what they are using us for. Staff are users of the catalogue and discovery tools should be easier for staff, too.

User experience

To inform this ‘unfolding complexity’, discovery must bring in user experience concepts and best practise from elsewhere in and outside libraries. The starting point in our thinking here is discovery should be navigable like a modern web site is, and to achieve this it will be designed in a similar way to how our our website was designed. That is, similar approaches and techniques given a library spin that respects our role and the reasons readers choose to sign up for membership.

User experience is key to our web presence but it must be a theme throughout the services we offer: it can’t stop at the library website. There is a gulf between library websites and library catalogues and discovery that we need to bridge. Libraries spend time and money building good websites, but you’ll still find terrible usability when you move over to their catalogues. John Blyberg sums this up as:

The problem lies with inflexible and outdated systems rather than no-one bothering with usability testing or not caring about their readers. Our next discovery system can’t be another weird product from Libraryland that is disconnected from the approach we take when building our websites.

Objecting to my own methodology

I’d like to end on a little reflection about methodology and our subjective views of catalogues based on our experience and familiarity.

Many staff expressed a wish for a “simple”, “uncluttered”, “user friendly”, or “intuitive” interface as contrasted with a “busy”, “cluttered”, or “clunky” interface. I understand these wishes, and I think there is a certain know it when I see it gut feeling about overall user experience that makes something “simple” or “clunky”, but intellectually I know it’s difficult to unpack what these terms mean as they’re so subjective. You might guess a concern here is a term like “user friendly” being used as a proxy for personal preferences or familiarity, and there is a contrast between familiarity of staff traditional information retrieval interfaces versus familiarity of readers with modern websites that I think is important too.

So we do need to dig in! At this point the workshop format breaks down because it’s difficult to employ methods such as close questioning or laddering in a group work situation, you really need a one-to-one interview. However, I tried to unpick this as much as possible in the focus groups without anyone feeling too interrogated. For example, if the Encore feel is “cluttered” what is it that would improve it? What is it about the classic WebPAC Pro or another catalogue that is uncluttered?

I can see a danger here in acting as an interpretive layer or a translator between what someone says and what I think they really mean, and then how I think that should be implemented in a new discovery layer. In hindsight I wish I could’ve sat everyone down one-to-one and ran through some repertory grids to allow for comparisons between different catalogue interfaces based on those constructs such as “clutteredness”.

I had done this in my masters dissertation on library catalogue user experience and found it works really well, once you get over it being an “out-there method” (I smiled in agreement when I read that in Lauren Smith’s recent blog post on fieldwork).

This is something I may try as part of testing options for discovery interfaces such as VuFind and Blacklight.


Thanks to Andrea Meyer-Ludowisy (Research Librarian, Western European Languages) and Joe Honywill (Associate Director, Digital Futures) at Senate House Libraries for helpful discussion on the subject.

Practical suggestions for running your own Library Camp

Library Camp London timetable board following pitching.

So you want to run your own Library Camp unconference?

This is meant as practical advice in contrast to my reflective post.

I realized doing this was feasible when I attended a “Run your own Library Camp” session at Library Camp UK 2012 (blog post summarizing this from Carolin). With experience it’s fair to say the organizers of that session were modest, and underplayed how much work went into their events. It is quite some work – but less than organizing the equivalent size traditional conference would be. Here are my thoughts grouped into general themes.


Alongside several other great ideas, Anne encouraged me to reserve places at Library Camp London for students. This meant they had the best possible chance of attending as they could be certain of a ticket and arrange travel more cheaply in advance. I expected better uptake if this came from lecturers themselves, so I circulated an advert for the unconference to colleagues at UCL, City University, London Met, and Brighton. I was able to sell out the student tickets in a day.

I wanted to ensure Library Camp London was emphatically cross-sector in outlook. I made contact with our local public library authority, London Borough of Camden, to ask about co-hosting. I had several reasons for doing this:

  • To widen participation and facilitate discussion and sharing between those from academic, public, special libraries, and non-library backgrounds.
  • At previous regional camps I’d noticed a tendency for attendees to be weighted towards the sector of the hosting institution.
  • To demonstrate how the University of London is engaging our colleagues beyond academic libraries. (We’re doing it; we need to demonstrate it too!)

I also contacted colleagues at special libraries to advertise the unconference internally, and spoke at a Camden Libraries Network meeting held at the Weiner Library to promote the event.

Encouraging contributions

Unconferences subvert the traditional conference approach as they are participant-driven and lack top-down organization. It was essential to maintain this spirit at Library Camp London.

However, I knew I could build interest by doing some groundwork. In practical terms this meant encouraging library folk to attend and pitch (this is easier over a drink), and talking to people I thought would have something interesting to contribute. Even those who could not make it in the end provided useful ideas, suggestions, and helped promote the event but talking to others. Additionally, I felt asking others to facilitate who hadn’t done so before was actively encouraging their development. Sometimes people just need a little nudge.

I was pleased we could provide a setting and importantly the technology needed to enable a live uklibchat on the day. I love the idea of a live uklibchat at an unconference but to be successful it is very technology-dependent so that aspect had to work perfectly – this means preparation.


We had fairly complex requirements for ticketing and a waiting list and Eventbrite met these. It’s free and works.

The only thing I missed is a way of emailing the waiting list as you can with ticket-holders. What I did was export the waiting list to CSV and use that as the basis for a mail-merge.

On the day we needed effective ticketing as the library was open as usual. We used the Eventbrite Entry Manager app for Android to check-in on the gate. This was speedy and efficient with two or three of us present all the time. Eventbrite allows delegating limited access to your account to another user, so they can just do check-ins for an event without having access to the rest of your account.

I left a printed delegate list at our membership desk for latecomers, along with an example printed ticket.


It’s sensible to over-sell tickets for a free event, the question is by how much. I found out other Library Camps have had drop-out rates between 10-25% but that has been highly dependant on things like transport problems on the day. We thought our central London location would lead to fewer drop-outs so I spent some time working out the limits of what we could do with our space. 150 library campers would have been too many but 120-130 would have been OK, I reasoned. I assumed a drop-out rate of about 10-15%.

We had 139 delegates on Eventbrite and checked-in 111 on the day. If I ignore those who cancelled after the point I could reallocate their tickets but did still cancel, it was 16% drop-out.

It was helpful to do several mailouts using Eventbrite ahead of the event to remind people who could no longer attend to release their tickets. Email is effective at this; asking on Twitter doesn’t seem to be. Richard had warned me about it, but I was still surprised how many people cancelled one day before the event. I was ready to go with a mail-merge for last minute ticket requests using my Eventbrite waiting list.

Unsure of final numbers, I found it very useful to have a ‘spare’ session location. I had planned three sessions in one room and two in another, but knew we could fit three sessions in both rooms if needed. We had pitches to fill those three spaces in both rooms for two of the morning sessions, so having an extra space pre-arranged was helpful.

Staffing and assistance

Having staff from Senate House Library available on the day made a huge difference to the smooth running of the event. In particular, my colleague Esme Stephens made strong contributions to several sessions alongside being a whirlwind of activity helping with the practical organization. If you can find one, have an Esme helping you.

Offers of help from others were appreciated, but unless it’s people involved from early on I’d recommend only accepting offers where you have a specific and defined job in mind. What I needed on the day were people to respond immediately to requests and take action. This would be very disruptive and somewhat unfair for someone expecting to attend the conference who had innocently offered to lend a hand.


Details matter a great deal – they all add up to the overall experience of your venue and event. If you miss something it will be talked about in public and you’ll be apologizing for it.

  • Wifi / wireless absolutely needs to be working.
  • Make sure signs – including things like direction arrows – are printed correctly and ready to go before the event.
  • Make sure each session has flipchart paper and more than one pen.
  • Water bottles are better than glasses of water for carrying around a library. I accidentally ordered only fizzy water rather than a mix of fizzy and still which was an oversight.
  • We moved a lot of tables around for the event which uncovered carpet that needed a clean. Our cleaners were in there hoovering before I’d even asked.


I thought the choice of two big rooms was a positive one given experience from other unconference events that big rooms allow freer movement between sessions than small ones. People are uncomfortable getting up in front of everyone to leave a small room through a door/ Unfortunately it meant loud sessions disrupted quieter ones. The speed networking event and rhymetime sessions were quite loud – these were were both excellent sessions and brilliantly facilitated, but louder than the sessions next to them:

Ideally I would have provided separate space for especially quite or noisy sessions to be more contained. I was limited by the spaces actually available in the library though. I had initially planned to use different rooms including smaller spaces, but that would have made for a much smaller event.