Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Making foolish assumptions

There’s a saying about making foolish assumptions, and it certainly applies in this situation. CILIP, a leading professional body for the library sector has recently launched a new Virtual Learning Environment for members, which will provide an online method of tracking and submitting the evidence of members professional registration activities (e.g. Certification, Chartership etc). It should hold all the information we need to do those things, and the My Portfolio area is an add-on to the VLE, a virtual portfolio which allows logging and submission of evidence of your professional activities directly. It should be better than the old, paper based, "oh god, I think I just destroyed half the Amazon, and now I have to index tab it...in triplicate!” option, and simplify and speed up what had become rather time consuming, mainly because of the admin. However..it doesn't appear that the changes, at this present moment, are much of an improvement. I initially went on yesterday to look for information about how my mentee should be tracking their professional activity using it. First though, I thought I should learn more about the VLE, so I went to the section “Getting started on the VLE”. There were two options available - one on getting started, and one on editing your profile. I went to read the getting started section...only to find it was a screencast. On YouTube. With audio. With no subtitling. There are a number of issues associated with the assumptions used with this approach to providing information. The assumption that everyone will have a learning style which works well with videos and audio. The assumption that everyone can access YouTube (one of the most popular sites for work filtering software to block). The assumption that everyone can see visuals when they access the site. The assumption that everyone can listen to audio when they access the site. The assumption that no subtitling is needed with an audio visual resource. And finally, and most importantly, the assumption that no users have visual or hearing impairments, which would mean that a video with no subtitling is completely inaccessible to them. I naturally thought that there would be a text based alternative. After all, given the issues listed above, you would expect there to be some alternative method for accessing these instructions available. However, surprisingly, this was not the case. There is virtually no text of any depth on the site: every section where you expect guidance and information has...a screencast. I cannot understand why anyone thought this was an appropriate or inclusive approach. Many people will be unwilling to sit in their lunch break at work and view time-consuming screencasts, when they could have read the same information in a fraction of the time if it was available as text. Even if they did want to learn in that way, many users couldn’t, and I am one of those people, with a workplace which blocks YouTube. Why is there no text-based guidance for anything? So, frustrated and dispirited, I left the VLE for the day. Then today, I thought I’d try to start logging my professional activities for Revalidation. I tried to look at the criteria for the Evaluative Statement for Revalidation - apparently it should be the same as the Chartership criteria, and can be found in the Chartership Handbook. However, it appears that you can’t see the Chartership Handbook, as clicking on the link to it within the Evaluative Statement tab in the Revalidation section, takes you to a page that requires entry of the enrolment key. However, I do not have an enrolment key as I’m not registered for Chartership. So I decided to put that on hold, and start logging my professional activities. 
My professional activities are meant to be tracked in the My Portfolio area but I’ve never used the My Portfolio area before. When I followed the link within the VLE to My Portfolio, and saw that I needed to log in, I assumed it was a new registration that I needed to do with My Portfolio, so I tried to register myself with my email address. It appears though that this email address is already registered with My Portfolio. So if my email address was already registered, then I assumed it must require my CILIP website password (as I entered via the CILIP VLE, which I had logged in to via the website) to let me log in, but it wasn't accepting that password.

I reset my CILIP website password, just to be sure I was putting in the right password, and tried again: still no access.
Then, I used the button to ask for a password reset, since nothing else so far had worked. I know the email address I asked for the reminder to be sent to is correct, since it’s already told me I’m registered.
Bad idea - I get this nonsense in response: 

The user you requested uses an external authentication method. <a href="http://vle.cilip.org.uk/mahara/contact.php">Ask your administrator</a> for help with changing your password. Or provide another username or email address.


Finally though, I have accidentally found out how to access My Portfolio! 

Attempting access through the link within the Revalidation “course” page doesn’t work (the route I was trying above): the only way I have found to access it is through the Home page of the VLE (but not the "My Home" page, which is a sub-page of the home page, confusingly). In the top right corner is a reference to Network Servers, and CILIP Portfolio sits within that area. Clicking on that link will take you straight into the My Portfolio. But only that link, on that specific page, because as soon as you move into any of the VLE areas to actually use them, that area disappears. This whole process has been extremely dispiriting. I’m not sure if any user testing was done before its launch or whether it was rushed out for a deadline. Either way, it would have been better to delay the launch, than to release something that is far from user-friendly. Like others I was enthusiastic about its launch and was eager to engage with it and document my professional activities. Unfortunately, my experience has been less than positive and all that initial enthusiasm has ebbed away. And I’m not alone - other people are encountering the same issues and frustrations with the site. What concerns me is that somebody was paid to do this, and my membership fees contributed towards it. Myself and other CILIP members partly funded it. Yet it’s currently in a state where it is of limited practical use to myself and other members and, as a result, I am unlikely to use it again until these issues have been ironed out. I hope CILIP resolve these issues as soon as possible. The development of the VLE has been one that has been broadly welcomed and greeted with enthusiasm. It will be a shame for this initial enthusiasm to turn to widespread disillusionment with something that could be a useful and valuable tool.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Living in interesting times

As you’ll have seen if you've been reading this blog this year, it’s been a bit of a bumpy professional time for me recently. The rapid entry of my long-term employer into administration in March, and the changes it brought about, have certainly seen me living through “interesting times”.  My various work roles since March have differed in lots of ways, and yet been oddly similar in others, and I've learned a lot about myself along the way.

  • I've moved from the legal sector, to the higher education sector, and into the government information sector: areas which were completely new to me and not ones I’d really considered moving in to while in the security of a permanent job.

  • I've taken a fixed-term project role, and a short-term contract which became a rolling weekly contract, neither of which I would have considered before. The fixed term role also converted into an opportunity for recruitment to a permanent position during the course of the contract.

  • I've been in a job where I became completely disempowered and began to doubt my own professional skills….and I've been in one where I was trusted to both run and develop an information service, which was an equally unnerving prospect!

  • I've been encouraged to work closely with multiple teams in all areas of the business...and alternatively, I've been in a role where I've been cut off from meaningful support or communication with any other teams.

  • I've worked with some wonderful, talented people who've been great at motivating themselves and others, and inspiring those they work with…but I've also witnessed some terrible bullying, and been disappointed at how badly that workplace dealt with it. Or more to the point: didn't deal with it.

  • I found a role which I enjoyed, and which had lots of potential for me to develop the service in interesting ways. I was also in a role where the basic aims of the project were defeated by comprehensive mismanagement and lack of clear leadership.

  • I've witnessed first hand that those “what would happen if you went home tonight, and weren't able to come in to work for months?” scenarios unfortunately do actually happen in real life. This has also reinforced to me the importance of making sure your core service management documents are centrally accessible, and kept current. It makes the difference for the person providing your emergency service cover between things being straightforward, or a stressful nightmare!

  • I've also seen how useful it is to regularly review the documentation you've created and are retaining for your service provision. By the time I was given 2 days to sort out what I’d need from my work computer after the administration, I’d already spent at least a month in preparation, sifting for materials worth retaining “in case of emergency”. This meant that when I had to quickly rescue anything I’d created in the previous 8 years, the task was simple, quick, and low stress.

  • I've seen that, no matter what sector you’re in, effective communication (or the lack of it) is a permanent and tricky issue. It doesn't matter whether you’re working in a small team or as part of a massive organisation: if good communication isn't at the core of every activity, progress slows and resentment builds. This is true whether you work in the same office, or are distributed throughout the organisation.

  • I've learned a lot of information about developments and core issues in multiple areas, and I've broadened my professional knowledge in a way that would not have been possible had I not worked in these sectors. This has helped in unexpected ways, when my previous experiences have been picked up as being of use in subsequent roles, and have allowed me the opportunity to work with teams and on projects that weren't part of my original job remit.

  • My organisational skills have reached ninja levels, practised by juggling full-time work, scheduling in evenings and weekends of job hunting, and making sure I was completing all the applications well before the deadlines while still retaining a small amount of sanity-preserving social life!

  • I've realised how broad and incredibly useful my professional network is. I've had help from all sorts of people, who've generously given me their time and knowledge in order to help me to learn about the new areas I was working in, giving me assistance in everything from repository creation and management, to sourcing out of date specialist Government publications.

  • Being without the reliable backing of an employer, I've pushed myself to ensure I remain involved in professional activities, and applied for various bursaries and funding to allow me to attend relevant events. This means that I've actually been able to attend more professional events than had been possible for me for many years.

  • I've used the fact that I no longer feel the need to be so anonymous online (as I felt I must be in the law firm) to publicly claim ownership of materials I've written anonymously in the past, and am proud of. I've also felt inspired by learning about all the information issues in multiple sectors, to the extent that I worked with two amazing colleagues to set up Informed. We set the site up in order to give information professionals in all sectors a neutral platform to discuss information society issues, and to try and reach out to engage with people outside the library sphere, and I enjoy being able to contribute to it through my writing.  


Now, I'm going back into the law sector, which is so competitive that I’d resigned myself to believing that such a role wouldn't materialise again. However, an excellent chance came up unexpectedly, and I'm really excited about the opportunities my new role will offer. Once again, I’ll be moving sectors and starting afresh as the new girl, but I'm really looking forward to seeing where this next role will take me.

So, the moral of my story is - even when life throws unexpected and difficult changes at you, and even when sometimes you feel like you don’t have a lot of choices, the reality is that within those changes, you still have a lot of opportunities open to you. The only way to find out if new things fit, is to try them out.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The eternal legal ebook dream


I was recently at a discussion forum, where a legal publisher gave the audience some updates on where they are with their legal ebook offering. The jist of the presentations and discussions was - legal ebooks are great, people love them, if you aren’t using them yet, you will be very soon.

Now this isn’t a new topic to me, I’ve considered how I’d like legal ebooks to work a few times, so forgive me if you've heard this from me before. I identified some of the main problems I think legal ebooks would have to overcome before a law firm library would be happy to begin using them, and I want to see if the recent massive rise in the use of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets has addressed any of the issues I first had with ebooks in a legal setting.


Devices vs desktops

Previously, the big push was to get legal textbooks available in an electronic form through web services such as Westlaw, and access them via desktops computers, and laptops. This is still in evidence, but the newly favoured way of accessing content is now through tablet devices, and to a lesser extent, through smartphones.

However, there are still many unresolved issues around the use of tablets and smartphones, some of which were discussed at the forum by the speakers, or in conversations between sessions.


General issues

  • Despite the publishers saving money on printing and distribution costs, the pricing for the ebook is equivalent to the physical book.
  • Only one book can be read at a time, but devices can potentially hold or access many ebooks at a time.
  • Who pays for the purchase of the device?
  • Who maintains the device/supports it?
  • Who pays for the internet connection which the device will usually need in order to download content?
  • Who pays for the cost of the ebooks, if they can only provide benefit to one individual rather than many?
  • Is there any discount for bulk-buying multiple copies of the same text, to be distributed to multiple devices?
  • Who is responsible for training and supporting users of ebooks and mobile devices - the library, or IT?


Benefits

  • Increased portability of materials
    • Users can carry large amounts of books to court, consultations and home without being laden down with massive piles of paper.

  • Ability to access materials immediately
    • Consultations and discussions on-site with clients often mean new legal issues can arise, and will need to be investigated with further research. Being able to check materials immediately rather than wait until the user returns to the office or library means that client matters can be dealt with more efficiently.

  • Mobile working is made easier
    • Notes and annotations made via one device can be synced with other devices the ebook is loaded onto, if multiple devices are allowed to host the content simultaneously.

  • Content updating
    • It could be possible for updates to books (currently issued as supplement) to be integrated to the content of the ebook version seamlessly. Or looseleaf publications could move to an ebook format with regular electronic updates.


Problems

  • Resistance of judiciary to the presence of devices in the court
    • It’s difficult to rely on your materials being available via your tablet, when the Sheriff or Judge may decide to reject their use in their courtroom.

  • Alienation of and increased need for technical support for less technically literate users
    • Some staff will not be confident in using mobile devices, and will resist using them. In order to assist

  • Assumption by device users that because it's digital, the content is more current than it actually is
    • Merely by being available digitally, there will be a level of belief that the content of the ebook will be current, unlike with physical books where users understand that the contents will only be current at the date printed. Some sort of clear indication of the content currency date must be shown, possibly as a footnote on every page or on every “opening” of the ebook in order to remind users that the content may be dated.

  • Loss of, or damage to device
    • If you lose or break the device holding your ebook collection, what happens? Are those books gone for good? Can the publisher disable them remotely if required? Can they be reloaded onto a new device free of charge?

  • Security of devices
    • If a device cannot be securely locked, if it is ever lost or stolen all the materials on it will be openly accessible to anyone. If the device has ebooks loaded, and the user has been annotating them in relation to a case, sensitive information (both personal or commercial) may be revealed.


Future prospects

As far as I can tell, there’s still no solution to most of the issues I raised earlier in this post.The fact that stockpiling texts on one device means that access to those books is restricted to one user at a time, whereas the paper equivalent has no equivalent access issues for using multiple volumes. The issues around purchase, support and payment for devices and services also seem not to have been resolved either. There seems to be no prospect of any price deal for bulk buying ebooks to make them competitive with their paper versions.

So, what’s my conclusion? Well, to me it seems that currently,  the best format for a legal ebook...isn’t a book. It’s a looseleaf, particularly those used extensively in court. The ability to instantly update a court practitioner handbook like Parliament House Book in a portable format would be a great selling point for users. Even if it had a subscription model that priced electronic updates at the same level as the paper updating service, the saving in admin costs would make it an attractive option.




Monday, October 21, 2013

Not a job I'd envy!

There was a motion proposed last week by the Magistrate's Association in England and Wales, to end the swearing of oaths in court on the bible and other holy books. Although the motion was defeated, there was a sentence that caught my eye:

Had the motion been passed, it would probably have needed the approval of parliament to bring the change about.

The previous version of the story mentioned it in this way:

The practice is so old that it is not clear whether it is simply custom or if Parliament would have to change it.

And

Oaths sworn on the Bible are old enough for the Magistrates' Association to be unsure whether they are mere custom and practice or whether they were laid down by law.
So, whatever the decision in Cardiff, it might need the approval of Parliament to bring the change about.

 I found this quite unusual: changes to the law were being proposed, but the people proposing the changes didn't actually know how they would go about changing it! Even in the final version of the story, the most informative that the writer could be about how the law would have been changed if the vote had approved it, was saying it would "probably" be done via Parliament!

I'm just glad I wasn't the law librarian being asked to research when the Bible and holy book oaths had first been used in the courts, and under which powers they had been created!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Is it time for a new space for information professionals?

This post is a collaboration between @ijclark and myself, and is essentially a very rough outline of something that has been variously discussed between Ian, @ellyob and me. It is rough but we think it might be worth taking forward as an idea and we were hoping others could pitch in and help develop it, potentially bringing it to fruition. Ultimately, we need your input to help refine this idea and, perhaps, to help us get it off the ground. This information is also cross posted on Ian's Infoism blog.


The Why


As a librarian who worked in a commercial law firm, I was very sensitive to the fact that any public statements of opinion made by me, on any topic, could be interpreted by my employer or clients as a breach of my employment contract. This was especially true if they could be seen to contradicted my firm’s stance on certain sectors or were overtly political. This meant that I had to be careful not to involve myself online with any contentious issues, and had to restrict myself to commenting only on library sector issues which couldn’t possibly reflect badly on the aims of, or be misinterpreted by my employer or their clients. I also couldn’t comment on the working practices I personally experienced, or any challenges I felt I was encountering in my career, as again this could be seen to reflect on my employer negatively, and could threaten my continued employment with them.

Unsurprisingly enough though, I did actually have opinions, on all sorts of things! Things I wanted to talk about, processes and systems I encountered that were not working well, or in areas where I felt there were developments that would have an impact on my work and approach to it.

To tackle this desire to speak when I had no place to put my words safely, I have previously blogged anonymously. I have done this as a representative of my local professional group, the Scottish Law Librarians Group, on an international legal information professional group blog (On Firmer Ground) and as a guest on Ian Clark’s Infoism blog. I found the opportunity to be able to speak about professional issues “safely” liberating, and allowed me to speak more freely without fear of repercussions from my employers. I believe I’ll also continue to need a “safe place” for me to discuss issues in, as my own blog is linked to my LinkedIn profile, and thus my workplace (and any discussion of it) is identifiable.

However, as far as I know, there isn’t really a “neutral” space available to me. When I say neutral, I mean somewhere that isn’t controlled by a specific body (e.g. CILIP, SLA or any other information professional group in the UK), somewhere that it would be possible to discuss any professional issues, without feeling that it had implications relating to membership of professional bodies. I feel that there is a need for a place to speak freely, one not controlled by any specific interests, or with a feeling that it could only be used by people to say the profession is perfect!

I initially suggested Ian’s Infoism blog, as I had previously been allowed to post material there, and Ian was interested in the idea of creating a forum, and was happy to give up his blog for the benefit of the profession. However, it’s been mentioned that as a long-standing blog with a defined purpose, it could be seen as not fulfilling the neutral element, which is understandable: it was initially proposed as a shortcut, a way to get a platform that was already established and had a large number of readers, but for the purposes of transparency and neutrality, it’s clear that a new site would be more appropriate.

Below, Ian explains his perspective on this and we have both outlined roughly what we think this could look like. We hope this kicks off some discussion and we’d certainly love to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is an idea worth pursuing and, if so, how we go about pursuing it.


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In the past year I have twice been approached to host guest blogs on my site about generally information based issues that touch on our professional expertise.  Whilst I am obviously quite chuffed that my site is seen as a suitable place to post such content, it has prompted me to wonder if perhaps this suggests the need for a place to host such content.  There seem to be very few websites out there where librarians and information professionals can share their thoughts on such issues where perhaps their blog isn’t an appropriate place, or doesn’t afford them the protections they perhaps require to enable public comment on particular areas.


I’ve recently got to talking about this idea with both @jaffne and @ellyob, who have both suggested an interest in something along these lines (although in what form we are not really sure at present!). I know others have also discussed this with me and think this might be something of possible interest across the profession and beyond, I guess the question is what would this look like and how do we go from here? I am particularly keen on something that is outward looking and expansive, that would tackle issues that are of interest to non-librarians. I feel strongly about this because I think reaching out in this way can go some way to addressing concerns about the profession being considered unnecessary and obsolete. And if not, well, maybe it’s worth a try?


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The How (by @ijclark and @jaffne)


So, how should a proposed UK information professionals blog or website be structured, and run?


Name


If this is to be run as a group site, then a name should be decided among the group. This would be something to be decided on as a first step, as it would allow the creation of all associated materials. A decision on a name could be made by first canvassing suggestions from interested parties, via publicity on blog posts and Twitter, and then running a poll to choose the most popular option.



Aim


Then the site needs an aim. So often, it seems that information professional blogs end up navel gazing and focussing only on insular issues, complaining to librarians about librarians, or people not understanding librarians, so that’s something we’d like to avoid if possible. Where possible, content should be written keeping in mind an audience beyond libraries and the profession. Of course, we want to be able to write about the profession and its issues, but it would be a far more useful blog if it focussed on how the skills of the information profession impact more widely on society, and issues arising around that topic. So, posts could cover everything from how we can aid information gathering, in all its guises, to our understanding of a range of concerns about the information society. However, rather than just focusing on instructional, ‘how to’ type posts, we’d rather focus on outward looking content that demonstrates relevance, how skills and knowledge can support other professions and/or sectors and the broader impact our profession has, or can have, on society in general.



Structure


For our purposes, the format of a group blog with editors managing the upload of materials would be sensible. It would allow contributors who wished to remain anonymous to send materials to the editors to be posted on their behalf (as long as the material was within certain guidelines, as listed below), or materials could be posted by the editors with an introductory block of text, crediting the author. It would also allow an element of risk management, as allowing materials to be posted without some measure of vetting could open the group to the risk of being held liable for the comments and activities of users. Content should be tagged consistently by subject area, and relevant content tags could be agreed upon by crowdsourcing suggestions.



Acceptable Use policy and post management


The site would need acceptable content guidelines for materials to be posted, the core probable guidelines are listed below, although as with most other management of the site, they would need to be decided and agreed upon by the editors prior to the blog launching.


Core acceptable content guidelines:


  • Nothing libelous
  • Nothing slanderous
  • Anonymity does not allow ad hominem attacks   


Materials submitted for publication on the blog which did not meet the requirements of these basic guidelines would be rejected: either entirely, or returned to the author for amendment before resubmission.


Rules would also apply for those commenting on posts, in order to maintain a professional and respectful atmosphere on the site. Those breaching the principles outlined above for content would be deleted, and/or blocked from further comment if they were seen to be deliberately inflammatory without foundation. It would need to be decided whether comments would require approval before publication, or whether they could be posted without checking.


Editors would need to understand that some of the posts they would be responsible for managing may propose viewpoints which they personally do not agree with. However, the editors must remain neutral, and maintain the blog as a place to share ALL viewpoints, within the guidelines outlined above.


Management of the blog


If the above approach to the site structure is used, it would need a team of editors to manage the site. Despite the use of the word “editors”, they would not be responsible for actual editing of the submitted content. The editors would upload the posts/content, monitor the comments to ensure they were not breaching any of the stated guidelines, and possibly write content, if they felt they had relevant material to contribute. It would be best if the editorial team came from as varied backgrounds as possible, in order to be able to give input and the benefit of experience from a variety of working situations. A team of at least 6 voluntary editors would provide a balance of workload, and the required spread of experience to effectively oversee the site. Core site management reference materials would need to be hosted centrally in a space where all editors could access them, most likely in cloud storage such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or if the materials are more extensive, on a wiki. This would need to be decided based on the needs of the initial editorial team.


A public call would be needed for volunteers in the information profession to become editors, with @ijclark and @jaffne as a core team initially.The timescale of commitment to the editorial role would be flexible, dependent on the editors personal needs.



Hosting


It would be preferable to host the site on a named domain, this would ensure it has a more professional appearance than ‘just another blog’. A Wordpress.org installation would be preferable as it is easy to manage and maintain. However, hosting fees would also need to be taken into consideration. How would this be accounted for? It is not a substantial sum of money that needs to be paid on a monthly basis, but it will need to be paid nonetheless. Would this be covered by the editors, donations…how would we approach this? Again, this is something that can be decided once we have a group of volunteers in place to take this forwards. And obviously the URL would be determined by whatever name was given to the website, so that would need to be established first before proceeding.



Conclusion

So what do you think? Is this something that would be of interest? Would you be interested in getting involved? Where do we go from here? Add your comments below and let us know what you think! You can also contact us via email (ukinfoprofs@gmail.com) or tweet at @ijclark.
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