Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Libraries and free technology – Bargains to be found if you look around and avoid the pitfalls

Image of Andy Tattersall
Andy Tattersall
This post was originally written by Andy Tattersall ahead of his and fellow MmIT committee member Christina Harbour’s participation in the next #uklibchat

There is the line that you can never have too much of good thing and these days there are so many good things that librarians and information professionals can employ in their working environment. The great thing is that since we emerged from the world of Web 1.0 to 2.0 that a lot of these newer tools are free and actually quite useful. The flipside is that a lot aren’t that good or just can’t be applied in a library setting, regardless of how hard you try and knock a square peg into a round hole, it won’t go (unless the square peg is smaller of course).

Libraries are no different from any kind of organisation, they have to use formally licensed software for the day to day running of their service. Even though this does not always mean the leanest or most dynamic of packages serving your library, but it does mean you will get a good level of service support and that is essential. The smaller, more niche tools have a part to play in this technology ecosystem - just like the microbes and bugs on Planet Earth - if we remove them the whole system would collapse. The larger technology companies often need the smaller companies to keep the environment from becoming stale and predictable. They also can eat them up from time to time, just like our bugs and other real world creatures. Take for example how - at the time independent company - Mendeley changed reference management dramatically for the better. The smaller technology companies are less likely to get bogged down by bloated platforms run by large companies who focus first on foremost in delivering a stable product for their users. Like I say, the stability of large platforms is essential, the flexibility and dynamic nature of smaller technologies is often where the real action is at.
Image of uklibchat logo
The last ten years has seen a tremendous growth in new technologies that can be applied in a library setting. The financial cost of these tools, such as Canva, Twitter, Adobe Spark and Eventbrite can be free. Yet with freedom can come a cost as problems can start to float to the surface, although not all of these problems are that worrisome. The old adage ‘If you are not paying for the product - you are the product’ certainly rings true with how some technologies will give you a free ride if you give them your data in return. There are also issues around what do you do when you become hooked into a useful platform, but want more from the premium add ons and the person holding the purse strings says no. How do you know whether the tool you are using will be here tomorrow - remember PageFlakes, Storify, Readability, Google Reader and Silk anyone?

Another question for the typical library or information professional is which tools are best and how can they be applied and which will work on their system - take for example a librarian in an NHS setting. The final and most crucial issue is around the investment of time used to master new tools and that can be problematic depending on the learning curve, but if you know how to use Microsoft Word you’ll probably master most lightweight tools in very little time. The sheer number of tools that can be used in the library sector is overwhelming, regardless of whether you are a public, NHS, business or academic librarian. One tool may solve a host of problems for one librarian but be as useful as a chocolate teapot for another. It is all about application and one of the greatest things to see in technology uptake in the library is how one person can use a tool and then another take that same tool and apply it in a totally unexpected way just as successfully. This is the wonderful thing about these technologies, whether it is Menitmeter for polling, Pocket for curating or Piktochart for posters, you you use it may be totally different from how someone else does.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Academic Writing: Less Pain, More Joy


As I am coming to the end of a part-time EdD, I am feeling the pain of bringing all my chapters up to standard, and creating a whole thesis, rather than a book of stand-alone pieces. The analogy of assembling a wheelbarrow rings true: first make sure all the parts are there, then tighten it up (Wolcott, 1990). Through this final bit, I’m going to have to draw on everything I’ve learnt about writing in order to get to the finish line. I thought I’d share some of my learning with you, in case you find it useful in your situation.

It seems to me that when sitting down to write there are three usual scenarios:

  1. You can’t settle, it’s boring, you don’t want to do any work because it’s the weekend and you’re tired, and everyone else in the universe is having fun. ("Maungy", as we say in Yorkshire)
  2. You have tried numerous ways of structuring something and ways to generate ideas, but you are getting nowhere. (Thwarted)
  3. Engagement, flow of ideas, productivity, happiness, the sun dappling on the wall as your half-drunk tea starts to go cold. (Joy)

Scenario one, where you are distracted, needs a strict approach, which will lead to Scenario three (Joy). How restrictive you need to be depends upon how bad your state is.  If it is acute, then it might be a scenario this bad:

You know that in order to start you need to find a reference and extract the ideas from it to get going, but you have been faffing about in guilty misery for ages. So, face it square on, bribing yourself that if you find the article, you can momentarily think about something else. Once you have found the article, and get into the ideas it should get better. Continue with tiny, tiny tasks and commensurate rewards.

Other Practical Ways to a Resolution

My colleague Andy Tattersall reminded me about using a table for writing my discussion chapter. It proved a life-line in finding a way to speed up the writing process, by splitting the job of writing the discussion into two processes (once I’d got over Scenario two). Other ways to tackle Scenario one are: to use the pomodoro technique, a writing retreat, or split the day/session into quadrants and allocate a task for each one, factoring in mini and larger breaks.

Scenario two, where you are working but getting nowhere - in my experience this can go on for ages (days or weeks)  and is equally awful, but in a different way to Scenario one. There are lots of solutions to this one as well, and come in two types of not-mind blowing strategy.

Get structural examples

Look at other theses and see how the authors have structured the chapter you are working on. This can reveal: what sections are most commonly included, how long they give to each section, the quality of the writing, a laugh, lots of things. Compare a few and a picture starts to build. Another one is to read a few blogs / sections of methods textbooks / talk to other people writing the same kind of thing / speak to your supervisor. In all these approaches, ask specific questions, and seek specific information. Then leave it all to percolate, which brings me to the second part of how to respond to scenario two:

Walk away, leave it alone and go and do some exercise, go to church, play the saxophone or whatever floats your boat. It’s well known that if forced, tacit ideas retreat, but leaving them alone and re-acquainting yourself with your family and friends or getting absorbed in a film might just do the trick. Next time you write, Scenario two might have shifted, revealing a structure that is working; and once you have that, you know it, increasing your confidence and leading you onwards to Scenario three: writing joy and a less irascible you (for now).

Of course the challenge is to diagnose when it really is Scenario two (thwarted), and not just taking off because you are hurting with the pain of scenario one (Ms Maungy).

Picture of a cat screaming
Image by Mingo Hagan “Scream”
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Happy writing, and if all else fails, try writing about why you can’t write.