Monday, 5 December 2011

The Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Trust is the second biggest medical charity in the world. It funds and supports a huge variety of medical research. As part of that work they run a research library which covers the field of human health in impressive depth. Everything from the history of medicine to public health cartoons to gunshot wounds and parasitic worms. Thanks to the professional development wing of the M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries, the nice people at CPD 25, I was able to join a tour of this amazing library.

The Wellcome Trust was founded by Henry Wellcome. He set up a very successful pharmaceutical firm from scratch and spent a large part of the resulting fortune on funding medical research and building up a staggering collection of items related to the history of medicine. It's a proper nineteenth century, golden age of collecting, eccentric well-travelled millionaire with an obsession type collection. The fruits of his collecting mania can be seen at the Wellcome Trust. I popped into one gallery on the way out and saw Darwin's walking stick, a naturally mummified human body, an infant identification kit, some of George III's hair and various other weird and wonderful things.

His eclectic interest in medicine and human health is also reflected in the Wellcome Library. Its resources reflect its founder's vision. It exists to support research into every aspect of medicine and human health from the obvious to the most obscure.

After Henry's death in 1936 the Wellcome Trust was set up following instructions in his will. Originally it owned Wellcome's drug company. They've now sold the shares but presumably that was a sensible financial move because we were told that the trust's wealth is now around 14 billion pounds.

So this is one library that isn't feeling the chill but that doesn't mean they don't face challenges. The Library is going to be refurbished and redesigned soon in order to attract more visitors. The Collection attracts vast numbers of curious visitors but most of them don't make it up to the Library. It provides an excellent service to the researchers who come to make use of their resources but it is open to everyone and they want to attract more people and a wider range of people.

Getting some of the people who visit the Collection to wander upstairs and visit the Library seems like the obvious solution. The refurbishment will give the Library's decor a 1930's look which is more in keeping with the rest of the building. On the other hand there will be whizzy new technology like smart tables and that sure sign that someone has decided a library needs to be updated, a café.

I can see the logic. Some of the rooms further on have a beautiful atmospheric 1930s style but the first room you enter has a slightly clinical air. Not totally inappropriate of course but I can see that it might put off potential casual visitors. The entrance hall is very white despite the impressive murals that surround the enquiry desks. These kind of subtle little clues are important when you thinking about making a library seem welcoming to everyone.

The Library's classification systems are also a challenge for users and newly arrived staff. Yes, systems plural. They have at least three. The Barnard system sounded particularly interesting. This is a specialist classification system for health libraries. While I'm sure it has strengths it didn't sound like a system that is designed to be easily understood by members of the public.

The plurality of systems has come about because of the organic way that the Library has grown over the years. Given the sheer size of the Library reorganising it would be too huge a task. I think the lesson is that we need to think about the long-term impact of our decisions.

Our guide was very enthusiastic about the work of the Wellcome Trust and the Library's role in supporting it. He also took great pleasure in showing us some of the more unusual items in the Library's collection. Books on body piercing, the history of orgies, witchcraft and other odd corners of the world of human health.

The tour ended in a viewing room where we were shown the online catalogues (there are plans to bring it all together), their online resources and a nurse training video from the sixties.

The overall impression is that the Wellcome Library is a place of wonders. It is a place dedicated to furthering our understanding of our bodies and the things we do or have done to them for good or for ill.

Online 2011 - Designing inspiring digital repositories and knowledge environments plus the launch of a new digital library for the LSE

The least snappy title but one of the better talks. The LSE is about to launch a new digital library. Ed Fay, the head of the project and Sarah Charlton from the design consultancy Mickey and Mallory talked us through the process of setting it up.

The LSE is a collecting research library so the new digital library has the ambitious goal of collecting and preserving digital material for future generations.

The project has three phases.

  1. Digitization – They have digitized key parts of their existing collections. This is an ongoing process.

  2. Born Digital resources – They will collect anything that is relevant for social scientists.

  3. Things they are responsible for archiving – This is a broad area but the LSE is an official archive for the United Nations among others.

The intended audiences for all this are reasonably broad. LSE and other HE researchers are obvious potential users, as are university lecturers and students. However Ed also mentioned FE colleges, schools, local historians, genealogists and last but not least anyone with a general interest.

Setting up this kind of digital library is obviously a huge task so LSE made the most of available outside expertise. Several of the key technical components are open source which allowed them to tap into open source communities that work on digital preservation. Fedora Commons and Hydra were the two main examples.

The LSE felt that the presentation side of the project, creating an attractive and engaging website, was a skills gap for them. To solve this they called in design experts from Mickey and Mallory. Sarah Charlton explained their side of the story.

The brief included the ambitious but slightly vague instruction to create a ‘world class’ website. They used a collaborative design methodology which involved lots of meetings with various stakeholders. They looked at websites which they saw as examples of best practice and discussed them in the hope of reaching a consensus about what ‘world class’ means in this context. Their key conclusion was that the strongest examples had striking designs but the content was always centre stage.

M&M wanted the digital library to make the most of LSE’s strong brand. Everybody wanted the site to combine good search features with space for serendipity. The latter mostly involves showing people selected highlights from the collections.

Ed emphasised that this is an ongoing project. It will be launched early next year but the digital library has space for further developments. They hope to add new functionality in the future. They will monitor stats and respond ‘agilely’ to user behaviour. One of the key hopes is that the digital library will help researchers to uncover relationships between items in different collections.

At the end of the talk a member of the audience asked about their digital preservation strategy. Interestingly the response was that they don’t have one and they are happy with that. The digital library team feel that they have taken the first steps towards preserving digital materials for the future and they have committed to that task. Despite that commitment they take the view that it’s not up to them to solve all of the technical problems surrounding digital preservation. They will keep an eye on what other organisations are doing particularly Microsoft and other big IT companies. Apart from that the plan is to maintain access and face the challenges of digital decay as they come.

The LSE digital library will open to the public early in January.

This is my last blog post about Online 2011. In conclusion this is why I didn’t pick up that many free pens.

Online 2011 - Current and Future E-Book Business Models

The central point of Agor Eiskop’s talk was that piracy is going to be a big problem for e-book publishers.

He suggested three possible paths that they might take to get round that:
1. Selling advertising space in e-books. People would get less advertising in their book if they paid.
2. Product placement. Yes really.
3. Digital Rights Management – The same kind of copyright protection measures that the music industry tried without much success.

He then suggested some business models that are likely to be used by e-book publishers.

  • Subscription based models.
  • Patron driven e-book acquisition for libraries.
  • Crowd driven acquisition for publishers. This involves publishers offering people a range of authors on their website. If an author gets enough support their book gets published. Supporters usually get personal messages or a mention in the book or similar.
  • Freebies i.e. the first half is free but then you have to pay to finish it.
He concluded with some predictions for the future.

  • The publishing industry will be less centralised and there will be more independent players.
  • There will be new ways of reading including collaborative reading.
  • New roles for libraries and others – He said that he thought libraries would focus on preservation which was odd because it didn’t seem to follow from his other points.

Reading between the lines the message seems to be that nobody has a solution to the problem of e-book piracy so the publishing industry is likely to fragment and try lots of different solutions.

Online 2011 - Curate, Create, Innovate: Creating value through content creation

Andy Malonis from Cengage Learning talked about adding value to collections that you curate by creating new resources from existing content.

As he admitted this is much easier for organisations like Cengage who own vast amounts of content. As a result they don’t have to worry about the copyright problems usually involved in playing around with content.

Creative curation is partly inspired by a shift in the way people use the word ‘curate’. People in various creative industries are increasingly using it to imply that they have a ‘discerning eye and great taste’ in whatever their field happens to be. So someone who sees themselves as an expert might claim to curate albums or trainers.

He pointed to DVDs as an example of creative curation. Each DVD is usually a collection that includes the film itself and various extras. The film companies are adding value to content that they own by putting it together in new ways.

Andy’s example from his own work was a new mobile app which visitors to the Arlington National Cemetery can use to look up biographical information about the people who are buried there. Cengage’s huge database of biographies is a core part of their business. This app just applies that content in a new context. Creative curation often involves adding new meta-data to the existing information. In this case they added geospatial information so the biographical information was linked to the location of the right grave.

We are likely to find that suppliers are increasingly repackaging and adapting their existing content for new contexts particularly for use on mobile devices. Some of the resulting products might be useful in the future. However the real hope must be that librarians can play that game too.

Online 2011 - Gamification and E-Learning 2.0

Gamification was defined by our speaker Jonathon Bishop as ‘using elements of game play typically seen in video games to encourage participation in websites such as online communities’. The game elements are things like completing tasks, moving through levels and collecting points.

He has done a lot of research into using this idea for educational purposes and moving it beyond its roots in online communities. His latest work is all about using gamification to rehabilitate young offenders. This mostly seemed to involve relabeling existing methods to make the process seem more like a game but maybe I missed some of the subtleties.

The idea is to change young people’s perceptions of what’s happening so they engage with and perhaps even enjoy the process. This can also be a challenge in education so if gamification works for young offenders maybe it will be coming to a college near you.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Online 2011 - The Challenge of Mobile Literacy in Schools

I heard Sarah Pavey talk at a COFHE Information Literacy / Teach Meet training day earlier this year. She is the School Librarian at Box Hill School and one of the things that she touched upon in that earlier talk was her use of mobiles as learning tools. I remembered her as an enthusiastic speaker with some good ideas so I was looking forward to this session.

The idea that mobiles can be useful in education isn’t universally accepted. In fact at Box Hill School they are officially banned. The relationship between child protection, network security and teaching mobile literacy is a difficult one. Opportunities lead to risk so it is hard to find the right balance.

As you can guess from the title Sarah thinks current approaches are too focussed on avoiding risk at all costs. She also made the point that blanket bans are commonly ignored and argued that clear guidelines might actually be more effective.

She highlighted the advantages of mobile phone apps over letting students search on the open web. We can check where an app comes from and point students towards reliable ones from respected sources. Obviously we try to point students towards reliable websites but the temptation to just google it isn’t there with apps. They are arguably less wild and wooly than the web.

Before I go onto the possible uses I should include the disclaimer that the following assumes high levels of smart phone ownership. Box Hill is an independent school but Sarah provides training on mobile literacy at a variety of schools. She thinks that levels of smart phone ownership are very high among young people from all backgrounds. That said there are obvious ethical and practical issues around assuming that students have access to particular technology.

Educational uses for mobiles

1. Using phones to record information

Filming - Students can record lectures, drama performances etc.

Speaking - Students can use mobiles as Dictaphones to record their thoughts. The Vlingo app even turns speech into text.

Collating – Onenote and Evernote both help students to organise and reference their research.
Easybib lets you scan book barcodes to get the correct reference citation.

2. Using the phone to find information

At Box Hill they signed all of the students up to the local Public Library service. This meant that they all had access to e-books through Overdrive which is apparently particularly good at supplying fiction for young adults.

Various apps exist which supply students with information. The one that jumped out at me (I'm sorry) was Moonjump. If you jump with it turned on it tells you how high you would have jumped if you had been on the moon. She did mention more practical examples.

Sarah puts relevant apps on her subject resources guides. This is a simple thing that we could all do with a little research.

3. Using the phone to revise.

Bitesize and i-revise both exist in mobile app form.

Cramberry- Creating revision flash cards.

Inquizitor – Creating revision quizzes.

Epic win – A to do list but each time you tick off a task you progress through a game. I will come back to gamification in a future blog post on Online 2011.

4. Creativity

QR reading links - Putting a QR code on a book that takes you to further information ie reviews, the author's site etc.

QR codes on brochures and posters.

Interactive storytelling - These sound like great fun. My favourite was a school wide event where students used their phones as ghost detectors and had to complete various tasks.


Sarah acknowledged that her ideas rely on changing perceptions of mobile phones among educators and parents. She wants people to move away from the idea that mobiles are a threat, a source of disorder, a distraction or worse. She wants everyone to see them as an asset. Tools for discovering and organising knowledge. Tools for revision and creativity.

Sarah is advocating a significant cultural shift in schools and colleges. She has some solutions to this challenge. Training sessions for teachers and parents apparently have a big impact. Also parents often drop their initial hostility (which can be intense) once they've seen how the phones are being used for education.

While many good quality apps are free there isn't a mechanism for buying them in bulk. Mobile learning shifts the burden for providing hardware (the smart phones) and much of the software (the apps)onto the students. That might sound tempting in the current climate but if mobile learning is going to be big we will have to be careful to ensure that students who don't have smart phone don't feel excluded. Hunting down good free apps sidesteps the software half of the problem.

In terms of smart phones the point is that a lot of students do have these potentially very powerful tools and they enjoy using them. We risk wasting an opportunity if we ignore the idea that mobiles can be used to engage students and advance their learning.

Online 2011 - Unlocking Archival Magazine Content for Academic Research

Matt Kibble from Proquest gave a talk about their project to make archives of magazines available to libraries. Obviously this was essentially a promotional talk but it was quite interesting.

They are launching two archives. The first one includes every copy of the American edition of Vogue from its launch in 1892 (I had no idea it was that old) to the present day. The second features a range of different magazines on the popular entertainment industry. These range from the big names like NME or Variety to less well-known titles which researchers might have previously overlooked entirely. The popular entertainment collection spans from 1880 to 2000.

From the magazine publishers’ point of view this is a great project because it creates value from previously unexploited resources which they’ve just been sitting on.

The archives will be useful for students and researchers from a range of different academic disciplines. Vogue is most obviously valuable for the study of fashion but it is also a great resource for historians and others. The popular entertainment archive also has historical value. It will help film studies and music students to trace developments in their fields.

There was a lot of work involved in preparing the archives. The Vogue archive alone includes over 400,000 pages. They needed to carry out specialist indexing both in terms of subject matter and the format. Proquest are used to indexing academic journals which have fairly straightforward metadata and very well-established practices. Items like images and adverts needed non-standard metadata and a bit more thought. They also cross-referenced related information and created a controlled vocabulary for fashion.

All kinds of previously largely untapped primary sources are increasingly available for study and research. These archives are an interesting example of that and I appreciated the chance to take a behind the scenes look at all the work that goes into making them available.

Online 2011 - Introduction and Beating Google into Submission

Yesterday I attended the Online Information 2011 exhibition. Described by itself as “the largest event dedicated to the information industry” and by colleagues as an excellent source of boiled sweets and other freebies. The trade fair element of the event did seem to feature a lot of people trying to lure customers with free pens (and very occasionally sweets). RSC Publishing offered free coffee though which was quite clever of them.

The event also features a programme of free seminars on various topics. These were my main motivation for going. To prove I didn’t spend the whole day wondering around picking up sweets and pens I'm going to blog my notes on the talks I attended.

Beating Google into Submission

This presentation and further information is available at

Karen Blakeman’s talk was all about making Google do what you want it to. This is easier said then done because Google is increasingly trying to second guess what you ‘really’ mean. She gave some great examples. Most dramatically trying to find out what two birds in her garden were up to led to confusion between ‘coots’ and ‘lions’. ‘Coots mating behaviour’ turned into ‘Lions mating behaviour’. She assumes that Google decided ‘coots’ was meant to be ‘cats’ but we can’t be sure and that’s part of her point. It’s hard to know exactly what Google is doing with your search terms.

Apparently Google insiders have told her that the search engine is second guessing us more because more people are using it via mobile devices and it’s hard to type correctly on those.

There is a ‘verbatim’ option but you have to run a normal search first and then select ‘verbatim’ from the menu on the left hand side of the results page.

Alternatively you could try repeating a search term i.e. ‘coot coot mating behaviour’ or playing with the order of your search terms. These approaches are a bit hit and miss though.

You’ve probably heard that the + sign no longer works. Apparently the reasoning was that they want to use it to search for Google+ profiles.

In theory you can still use quote marks but in practice if Google doesn’t think it’s found enough results it will panic and throw in stuff that doesn’t quite fit your search.

Second guessing isn’t the only problem. Google has also started to include results from your social media contacts and their contacts. All very well if everyone in your networks (and all their friends) are experts but how likely is that?

Naturally she ran through the Advanced Search features and the essential commands. See her presentation for details. It also includes useful blogs and websites for staying up to date with Google and internet searching generally.

From a librarian perspective perhaps the main problem with all this is that when we are trying to teach people how to search effectively they won’t necessarily be getting the same results as us. That is something we should think about.

Watch this space for notes on the other talks that I attended.