Farewell Maeve Binchy


Dublin door in the rain

It was with a lot of sadness that I read of the passing of Maeve Binchy. It was like the death of a kindly aunt that you had somehow lost track of.
I read my first Maeve Binchy Firefly Summer when I was 17. I remember buying it at the airport en route to Australia from Ireland where I had been for my uncle’s wedding. Feeling somewhat bereft after leaving my lovely extended family (whom I saw all too rarely), the book enveloped me in a warm Irish hug. I read it from Ireland all the way to Hawaii, taking a break for meals and sleep. (It was 1988 and inflight entertainment was limited to a couple of movies projected on scratchy screens) I read through my grief and at the end of the book felt much better.
Working in a public library later in life allowed me to indulge in reading all the Maeve Binchy titles there were. Under the guise of reading knowledge to provide advice to borrowers, I made sure every new book by her crossed my desk. Taking it home, I curled up on the couch and delved into the comforting warmth. I read to the exclusion of my boyfriend, and the housework, and emerged to eat and sleep (a precedent which was reinforced with the arrival of a new Harry Potter book years later…)
I loved the fact she was easy to read, and eminently readable. I loved her short stories, especially those with recurring characters. I don’t really have a favourite book,maybe Light a Penny Candle, Circle of Friends or Evening Class are ones which spring to mind. It wasn’t just the story which drew you in but the feelings of comfort that one drew from the story telling. She was simply a nice writer who wrote nice books.
And then over the years I left public libraries, married, made a family of my own, and I changed. I didn’t need to read her as much(though I recommended her to mum, who loves her too!), and she faded from my radar.
So thank you for the stories and the feelings you generated.

Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen

I have the greatest respect for authors, artists, musicians and creative souls who make my world a beautiful place in which to live. To read a book, listen to music, or to look at stunning photography can often turn a bad day into a better one. From an early age, we are taught to share, and it is an ethos which has served us well on the World Wide Web.

Which is why this article just left me wondering if the world has gone completely mad. A Belgian rights group SABAM have been contacting local public libraries to inform them they will be claiming fees for the reading of books to children. Storytime at the library, a way in which to engage and create young readers, is under threat because reading aloud to children in the library is considered a breach of copyright. SABAM, through its hardline approach to protecting the creative output of its members, is effectively limiting their future income stream for a short-term grab for money.

This seems to be the extreme end of what is occurring elsewhere for those who hold the copyright and publishing rights to books, songs, articles, films, and TV programs, but if organisations keep on restricting creative content, this may be a sign of things to come.

Librarians have often played a role in helping protect copyright. Through being aware of what can and cannot be done with the information we have in our library’s collections, we advise our users, and hope that we are not infringing copyright. Librarians are generally very nice people and don’t really like getting in trouble with the law. We also have a role in fostering new readers, to providing quality information for them and guiding them into finding information by themselves. We like to share our knowledge and our own love of information and reading with other people. I want to connect people to the right information and the best books.

So when the sharing of information and the protecting of information are at odds with each other, what do you do?

A recent article in Brain Pickings on the inscriptions found on the margins of illuminated manuscripts by monks helped answer my question. One inscription  stood out:

Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen

Literally, words written are often meant to be spoken, and there can be no greater pleasure than reading aloud to another person. Public libraries’ most popular programs involve big people reading to little people. Half my time at kinder is spent reading books to four year olds, who LOVE IT.

The phrase also had another meaning for me. What is the point of writing something if there are no readers to honor it? Even the private act of writing a journal has an initial readership of one and a potential readership of many. The very act of restriction only serves to dishonour the creator in the first instance.

I will share my information, read my books out aloud and be damned.

5 Lessons from VALA 2012

Last week was a huge week on the Victorian library calendar with the biennial VALA 2012 conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre.

Having been to this conference over a few years, it was good to see how the infrastructure has evolved. The internet kiosk has grown smaller, but wireless connectivity had increased in power and relevancy. The charge up station for tablets, notebooks, and smartphones was a great place to meet people you had never met before. As always, the catering was delicious, the vendors were friendly and helpful, and it was good to see new and familiar faces amongst the crowd.

The favourite tote bag of choice appeared to be a cat tote bag from Baker and Taylor, which combined its cat branding with the librarian cliche of being cat people- a win-win situation! No, I did not one as I have lots of totes at home, and I’m comfortable with the fact I am a cat person anyway :).

I am in the midst of drafting up a report for work on my day at VALA (the library equivalent of singing for one’s supper), but these were the 5 top lessons to draw from the conference I wish to share.

1. You can learn a lot from outside your niche

VALA attracts a great deal of presentations from academic, school, public and special libraries. While librarians may comment on the lack of specificity to their specialisation at conferences such as these, it is a good chance to be exposed to different ideas and approaches to the ultimate question- how can we best help our users?

Eibhlin Roche, who spoke about the use of Guinness archives within the Guinness organisation was one such example. If you look beyond the fancy apps, the genealogical database, and the marketing spin, you see an archive which has linked its collection to the parent organisation’s overall mission and has been very strategic in developing projects which support that mission. The trick for special/corporate libraries is to make yourself indispensable by enmeshing yourself within the heart of the organisation.

2. Be a part of your community

I am talking about this on 2 levels- engaging with the library community as well as the community in which you live and work. The aspect I love about conferences is the chance to catch up and engage in discussions about the profession with those you don’t work with. The challenge is to continue that dialogue with your colleagues who were holding the fort while you were away.

At the same time, you can also reach out to your users through inventive programs, giving them what they want, but especially through talking to them.

3. I came to hear you talk, not you talk to slides

The value of a conference is a gathering of minds to tease out themes and continue the discussion that was started in the papers submitted. It’s not that I want to be entertained with slides of cute cats (okay I do), but if you are going to be putting heaps of words on a slide, make them a) succinct and b) readable. While the PowerPoint presentation is not your paper, over which you have thought, reflected and edited over and over again, it still is something into which presenters have to give a lot of thought.

4. Declare war on DRM, licensing and copyright.

Eli Neiburger’s presentation’s sentiment- ‘We share sh*t’ struck me as gold. While working in an environment where laws are actually made, I don’t think we can actually get away with infringing the law :). However Eli’s sentiment of freeing information for the greater good, a sentiment shared by all librarians, got me thinking on what data libraries have collected over the past  aeons that would be valuable to the greater community- photos, ephemera, papers, records? Such data was released and shared by National and State Libraries to be used in a Library Hack Competition, which attracted non-library users to engage with and manipulate library data.

5. Even librarians get the information overload blues.

Reading Twitter made it hard for me to concentrate on what was being said in front of me, and often reflected what had been said a couple of minutes earlier. I tweeted a bit during the first plenary session, and followed it for a while, but it brought home that I can’t do 2 things at once, and if I do, it’s in a very half-assed fashion. It didn’t help that it wras using up a lot of my power. I do applaud those who were there every day, tweeting and blogging and were able to speak coherently at the end of it. Michelle McLean the Connecting Librarian produced good notes of the sessions she attended,
I also resolved to weed my own RSS feeds, unfollow people on Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to be more mindful of who I follow. This will be an ongoing process, trying to refine the type of information I receive and making it more meaningful.

SOPA-Journey to the Dark Side

On January 18 or today, Wikipedia will go dark, or disappear from view for 24 hours in protest to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) Bills currently in a committee stage in the United States Congress. The Internet Archive  and Reddit will also disappear for 12 hours and Google will use its homepage to provide information on the two bills, which will force Internet Service Providers to block non-US websites if they display pirated content, or content which infringes copyright. When you consider all the clips on Youtube, Facebook, links on Twitter, pictures on Pinterest and Tumblr, it’s a lot of content that television networks, movie studios, media outlets and the music industry want to have under their control.

It’s not just content- it’s information and the right to interact with this information that is under threat with this legislation. It’s yet another attempt by a national government to try and censor global information at the behest of a group who are fearful of losing  traditional revenue sources.

Mashable has suggested other alternatives to Wikipedia, to allay the concerns of students and trivia nerds everywhere (cough), and libraries have been keen to emphasise their resources.

So for the next 24 hours, if you have a question and you can’t ask Wikipedia, ask a librarian. Or me :).



Ready, Set, Read!

2012 marks the National Year of Reading and is part of a compaign by libraries and library associations to help children learn to read, help readers find new stories and inspiration and to promote reading across Australia. Many notable Australians have been awarded the title of Reading Ambassadors, including authors, illustrators, politicians and people in the public eye.

Essentially it is set around books, with competitions being held to determine which books personify Australia, events in Adult Learners Week, as well as those targeting children, youths and indigenous literacy. It is exciting and one that promises to be a great way to expose more Australians to the wonders of reading.

It has also made me reflect upon my own reading habits. I have found over the last few years, the number of books I read have dwindled. I’m still reading every day, but so much of it is online, on online newspaper sites, websites and blogs, facebook and twitter.Much of the information I retrieve for my users at work tends to be online content, which is easily transmitted, or able to be viewed on a desktop. Even my professional development information comes in the form of online articles rather than journals, and I have gotten into the habit of skimming across an article to save time.

Like Kate said in a recent blog post it feels like I’m grazing, rather than reading in depth.

I’d like to, in this National Year of Reading to read mindfully, to absorb and reflect more upon what I have read. I could aim to read over 100 books this year, but I would rather focus on quality reading, rather than powering through a heap of books.

How do you read? Do you have any reading challenges for yourself this year?

I find stuff

Library and Information Week is a big deal in library land. Lots of activities, posters and bookmarks mark the event, including the National Simultaneous Storytime which was held today.

The theme of Library and Information Week is ‘We find stuff’. We do. Librarians locate obscure quotes, how many sheep there are in China, journal articles, speeches, yellow books on volleyball (I kid you not, that was a real request) and lots of bookmarks which get left behind in books. I even found two tickets to the Big Day Out in a book (which I returned to the ticketing office and which were eventually returned to their original owners, after they came into the library frantic for them).

It is something we librarians take pride in, finding stuff, so much so that the journey becomes more interesting than the item we’re supposed to locate. Unfortunately, our users are much more interested in the book or information than our explanation of how we managed to track it down, and not only that, library users are finding stuff on their own.

Regardless of how the statistics are interpreted, reviewed and monitored, reference statistics (or statistics referring to  information questions asked of librarians) are on the decline.

The Internet, digitisation of information and Google have democratised information- no longer is it necessary for librarians to be gatekeepers of knowledge. People can and do find things out for themselves, which is great- but if everyone can find stuff, where does that leave librarians?

Often a desk shift can be very quiet, save for requests to point out the toilet, or help with the photocopier/printer. The skill of the reference interview, considered traditional library work is one which is not in demand as it used to be. We’re still assessing  resources and information, but if people are bypassing librarians and getting all they need from Google, what’s the point of doing all this?

The thing is, not everyone can find stuff, or find stuff well. Many librarians are experts in information literacy and devote their time to helping people help themselves through teaching them how to locate quality information from reputable sources. This takes place in school libraries, public, academic and special libraries across Australia and the rest of the world.

You also have specialists in children’s literacy and literature, conservators, digitization specialists, usability and accessibility advocates.

While the reference librarian may be a dying species, the profession is still tackling with information and users and how best to bring the two together.

Librarians- we do more than just find stuff.

S is for…


Call it  professional curiosity, call it a tax break, others would say ‘nerd alert’, but I like visiting libraries while on holiday.

My last overseas trip in 2001 involved me visiting libraries in Scotland and the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. This time around, it was the Research Library at the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

No, this isn’t the library, rather it’s tucked away at the back in a couple of rooms…

It’s set in huge grounds in the suburbs, unlike many Parliaments which are stuck bang in the middle of the city. The reason for this is largely due to history (as is always the case in Ireland), when Ireland was partitioned in 1920, and Belfast was established as the capital. No room in the city for a Parliament, meant locating it out of the city proper.

View from the steps at Stormont- clearly not in the city!

It being set apart from the city, and for over 50 years, also being the seat of Unionist power , meant that my family were a little puzzled for my interest to visit (they’re Green rather than Orange).

It was a great visit. The library staff were very happy to show me around and talk about what they were providing for their clients, their MLAs, and demonstrate their current awareness service, and their visits to constituency offices. Speaking to their e- Services staff, I learned that they’re facing the usual struggles with getting the Assembly’s IT department to do anything for them. What they have been doing is forging relationships with individual staff in IT rather than going through official channels to get things done.

The library is also trying to remain in the forefront of the MLA’s minds as being useful, with the prospect of looming budget cuts. Still tied to the United Kingdom, the Assembly is reliant on the UK for its funding. As a result there is a concerted push to integrate further with the European Union in the hope of getting further funding and autonomy. They are already squeezed for space, with collection spaces also designated as meeting rooms. This has forced them to embrace e-books and digitize their collections.

On the brighter side, the Assembly has been going for three years without being dissolved. This has allowed the library to employ more than a skeleton staff, and the continuity of service has meant the library staff getting to know their clients better. The interest in the EU has meant staff training and professional development in leanring how what to collect in this new area.

It is also a place in which political correctness is at its height. I was shown the Assembly’s chamber, which was upholstered in a lovely dark blue. Noticing the Senate chamber across the way which was in the traditional red (the former Northern Irish Parliament from 1921-1972 was a bicameral system), I asked why the colour scheme wasn’t green as is the case in Westminster-style parliaments. “Green is too politically charged a colour,” I was told.

I should have known.