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.




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