Library Day in the Life – July 2016

The Library day in the life project was a great way to let people know what librarians do. It was an excuse for us to document a day or week in our working life in excruciating detail and, in my case, to inflict those details on the reader(s) of this blog. I joined in the project in 2011 and 2012 but it stopped in 2012 having run its course.  I persisted and in 2013 wrote about another week of my activities. You can read my past Day in the Life posts.

Recently I was musing on changes in what I do at work, and the interesting times that I’m going through, and thought it would be good to try Library Day in the Life again. I made notes in two consecutive weeks in July and here they are. I admit there was a delay between the activities and the writing-up, so they may not feel as fresh as my accounts from previous years.

These two weeks turned out to be busy times. Getting ready to move an institute is quite a challenge.

I had several meetings with labs, helping them prepare to put old lab notebooks etc into off-site storage. I gave a couple of internal talks to key groups (management and influencers);  happily these went well. I’ve been busy dealing with printed books (selecting and disposing) and with a collection of scientific equipment. And there’s been a number of forward-looking activities, starting to move new developments forward.

My working day usually starts by me scanning an assortment of science policy and science news sources, to create the daily Research Buzz news channel for Institute staff. Most days there’s between 2 and 8 items, and sometimes items on women in science or scholarly communications (these go into separate channels). A quick summary of topics covered over the two weeks in July:

Brexit – 10 items
Other EU – 6
Careers/Life in science – 5
Stories about People/Awards – 4
Animals in research – 4
Diversity – 4
UK politics – 3
Research ethics/hygiene – 3
20 other items

Week 1. 18-22 July 2016

Mon 18 July
I read and sent a few emails about an old FACscan machine that is no longer needed. We are hoping to transfer it to the Science Museum. Some paperwork will be needed before we can confirm the transfer. The Museum is also interested in taking an old bioreactor – it’s quite a size so will be challenging.

I went along to two lab records meetings (with a PI and our Records Manager). One was very brief – the lab was relatively new so there was no paperwork needing to be stored. The other one took a bit longer, but things are under control. I received a couple of spreadsheets from labs with details of the contents of boxes they wanted to put into store. That’s my cue to start processing boxes to go into storage.

I was spurred to join a librarians’s group on Slack, after spotting an interesting-sounding tweet. I signed up to Slack a while ago but never did anything with it.  I’ll see how this group goes.

Later in the day I travelled downtown to attend a meeting of the SPOTON advisory group, helping to plan the next SPOTON conference (see their website for more details). It should be good – discussing the future of peer review.

While I was in the SPOTON meeting I checked my email and saw one about a possible OA deal with a publisher. The sender was requesting a meeting with me. Funnily enough I was in the same building, just a few rooms away from him at the time!

After the meeting I made my way to our other lab site to pick up a 30-year old lab notebook and a couple of protein models. The models are bound for our scientific equipment collection, and the lab notebook (with details of a Nobel-winning series of experiments) will be going, along with some others from the same person, to the Royal Society archives. These notebooks were nearly discarded but I managed to intervene in time to rescue them.

Tuesday 19 July
I went early to our downtown offices and worked there for an hour or two. Since I got a new laptop a couple of months back I’ve been surprised at the difference it makes. I can now easily work from any location.  I have a bit more to do to free myself from a desk full of papers, but I’m nearly there.

I am due to talk today to our Executive committee, to update them about library services. They were running a bit late on the agenda so I had plenty of time to run through what I was going to say. They seemed attentive and I was comfortable addressing them. There were one or two searching questions. “What do you fear most?” Hmmm. I suggested that my biggest fear was becoming irrelevant (so we need to work hard to counter that). Another worry was about how open access is going to play out (there is so much uncertainty still). “What about searching and data access?”  I needed more notice for such a big question but sketched some of the parameters. Later I followed up with the questioner by email – I think we might have more to talk about. Then came a surprise – it was decided that space would after all be provided in the new building for a modest collection of printed books, focused on science history/heritage and broader issues (ELSI).

After the meeting I hung around a bit longer as the Chair (the big boss) wanted to have a quick one-to-one talk.

After lunch I had a couple more lab records meetings, then met with colleagues from our Comms team to show them the scientific equipment collection.  They were making preparations to move the objects that had been conserved in Phase 1 of the project, and to appraise and select objects to be conserved in Phase 2. Then I had another lab records meeting. My working day has far more meetings than used to be the case.  Some of this is a temporary thing, concerning tasks related to the impending move, but partly it’s due to a change in my style of working.

While I was out of the office my library colleagues had been somewhat overrun by institute staff wanting to select books to take away. Today was the first day we had invited them to come and select 1 or 2 books for their personal use, as mementos of the old institute. I’d thought only a few people would come but it was pretty hectic. In one or two cases there were multiple people wanting the same book, so some mediation was needed.

In other news, someone asked why he couldn’t access an article from a particular journal. The answer was simple – we don’t subscribe to it, never have and I don’t expect that we ever will. We got hold of a copy of the article through ILL for him.

I also took one of our senior group leaders down to the Library store to help him look through some of the old parasitology and malaria books. He chose four items, including some old books on quinine (Chininum). There is still a load of fascinating material in that thar store, but it seems t’s not fascinating enough that any other library wants any of it. Quite a few libraries have visited and selected books they want, but many books remain.

Late in the day I received an email invitation to talk to our internal Science Leaders’ Meeting next week about Open Access. I’d been expecting this. They just want 10 minutes from me.

I went to the institute bar for a quick drink and to wind down after a very full day.
I got talking with someone about old books, and then about Google as a way to search for articles. I was surprised when he said that he found Google was better than PubMed. When I probed he was talking specifically about searching for known items – articles he knew existed but needed to locate. I suspect this is because Google indexes the full text of articles (I think I’m right saying that).

Wednesday 20 July

An unusual start to the day: I attended a special breakfast viewing of the John Dee exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians. It featured books from the library of John Dee, put on by the RCP Library. The viewing was targeted at librarians and included coffee and pastries, plus a talk from the curator who had assembled the exhibition. It gave me much food for thought, about the benefits of putting on exhibitions, and the large amount of work involved. The story of John Dee’s library touched a nerve – the library of about 3,000 items was destroyed/sold while Dee was away travelling.  Only a few items remain.

Back at base I had a one-to-one meeting with one of my team members.  I try to do these one-to-ones weekly now and I’ve found it’s helpful.  All part of my new way of working.

I exchanged a few emails about the list of artefacts we hold (a mixture of sculptures, paintings, furniture). Decisions will soon be made about their fate.

I’m also catching up with some loose ends of subscriptions – one book series that we used to subscribe to in print only. Last time I asked the publisher, a few year ago, the volumes in the series weren’t available electronically except as part of a bigger package. Now they are available as a series, though the price is still not cheap. I was promised a ‘special price’ for the backfile but it didn’t look very special. After I pointed this out the publisher came back offering a 15% discount.

More good news – an abstract that I’d submitted to a conference on scientific archives has been accepted. That’ll be my first trip to Heidelberg; my first archives conference;  my first time to speak in public about archives; my first speaking engagement for a while.

Finally I went along to the Internal Mill Hill lecture – given by one of our neurophysiologists. I usually find that I can follow the first 10-25 minutes of these lectures but then comprehend less and less. This talk followed the usual pattern.

Thursday 21 July
I resolved a small dispute about which lab a particular book should be located in, and checked on the availability and cost of a couple of ebooks. It’s surprising how difficult it can be to arrange for access to some books in e-format.

I have another lab records meeting.  This lab is a dry lab so you’d think they’d have no paper to speak of. The complications came from the number of visiting workers they are hosting (mostly retired scientists from other parts of the institute) and records from past PIs in the lab.

Following Tuesday’s Exec decision about establishing a book collection, I am selecting books to go into the collection. I went down to our store to pick out interesting historical items.

Then I had a catch-up phone call with my boss. The job description for a new position is just about finalised, so the advert should be issued soon.

I’ve made some progress in planning an open access meeting in October.

Friday 22 July
I received some notification that some boxes of records are ready for collection.  There is going to be a regular flow of boxes over the next few months as labs move. It will be a challenge to keep up with them.

I received a spreadsheet from our other lab site with details of boxes to be collected.  I had to spend some time working through it to put it into the format required.

Then I spent another hour or two selecting books. I choose books with scientific relevance to our current programs, or with links to key figures from the past, or topics that seem worthy of current consideration. And some that pique one’s curiosity or seem too good to leave behind.

Week 2. 25-29 July 2016

Monday 25 July

I’ve been trying to set up an institutional account with one of our key publishers, to make it easier to process open access payments to them for papers we publish. After huge delays this is now almost done. I’m looking forward to some reduction in paperwork.

I had a brief email exchange with the questioner (about searching and data) from last week’s exec. It’s good to have someone interested in such issues, and aware of a broader vision of ‘library’. He even thinks that informationists are a good thing.

Much of my current focus is on paper records from labs, but going forward I will need to be actively involved with digital records from labs. One lab that is closing down (moving to California) hit me with a question about their digital lab records. A solution seems to be coming.

I responded to a question from a lab about how they can comply with open access requirements for a paper about to appear.

I was pleased to get a response from the UKSG about an idea I’d sent in for the 2017 conference. They agreed it was interesting, but want to defer it till 2018.

Tuesday 26 July
Interested to see the Royal Society’s #Scienceisglobal campaign on Twitter. I gave it a bit of a push through our internal communication channels, hoping that some of our labs might join in. A couple of them did.

A few emails exchanged with a medium-size publisher to arrange to meet up soon and discuss some kind of deal. I’m very much take-it-it-leave it with some of these publishers, so if they don’t offer something imaginative (i.e. low-cost, low-commitment) I will not be biting.

The big event for today was a meeting of the NIMR Archives Project Committee. This was set up by the MRC to examine NIMR archive collections and discuss their fate. A Project Archivist has been appraising and listing the collections, and it is her recommendations that the committee considers. We’ve had four meetings already and have already dealt with the main collections. Today we examined several smaller bits and pieces. IN most cases t was agreed to transfer them to other archive collections, but some things will be disposed of. For me it’s always painful to agree to dispose of things. There is always some value in these documents, but sometimes it would need too much effort to extract that value. We then went down to the store, to see other personal archives in situ. These were mostly things in filing cabinets. The Ita Askonas material was particularly impressive – very detailed and neat records of experiments undertaken.

Later in the day I uncovered another drawerful of archive files. I hadn’t realised they were there.  The archivist was not best pleased.

One of our staff (who used to be the institute web manager) had selected an old book about the internet (The Whole Internet Catalog) from about 1992. She found it fascinating. I remembered that somewhere I had a copy of Brendan Kehoe’s book Zen and the Art of the Internet also from 1992. This was a free book – I remember that I’d downloaded it as a postscript file and managed to print it. I was pleased with the result and had it bound. It was a great introduction for those days when few people were excited about the Internet. I thought I’d lost it but miraculously it turned up when I was sorting through my old drawers.  I gave it to our ex-web manager and she said “This is a fabulous book! I love the quotes”.

I’m starting to think about the practicalities of having a book collection in the new building. Of course we will need some shelving, but we’ll also need some kind of classification scheme, or categorisation scheme. I think we should also give the books from the store a good clean too. And I need to think about security for the books and a lending system.

I finished preparing my talk about OA for Friday. I will focus on what Group Leaders need to do.

Wednesday 27 July

I’ve now booked my induction for the new building. I’m not 100% sure when I will move yet, but it should be just weeks away. I have to attend a building induction session before I can move in.

I spent some time processing boxes of records from the labs – barcoding them and adding the barcodes to the spreadsheets. Once you get into a routine it’s OK, but it does get a bit tedious.

I received a notification about a forthcoming paper from one of the labs.  I get these primarily so that we can advise on the open access arrangements, but I also feed anything that looks interesting through to our press office.  This one did look interesting so I forwarded it. This part of my work has massively decreased in the past 18 months. I used to do much more of this, but another department now takes the lead in publicising new research.

A member of staff is retiring on Friday after many years and there will be a bit of a do. I was asked to dig out some information about exactly who he’d worked for and in which labs during his time at the institute.

I went along to another internal Mill Hill Lecture, by one of our developmental biologists. This subject usually involves a long cast-list of genes and proteins and this talk was no exception. I struggled valiantly to stay focused.

After the talk I went along to say farewell to our Project Archivist who has found a permanent job and so leaves us today. The Project is nearly complete so she can be satisfied she has done a great job with it.

Thursday 28 July
We have started integrating our work into that of the IT helpdesk.  So when we get requests for assistance we now respond to them via the helpdesk software. It had a little glitch today and our requests were coming through miscategorised. We got that sorted out.  I think it’s good in the long run to be integrated with the helpdesk, but I can’t help having slight doubts about it, and I fear my colleagues may also see it as a nuisance. hence I try to make sure it works as smoothly as it can.

I received an email from a publisher telling about their 2017 journal collection 2017, and announcing pricing for 2017. The summer is far from over and yet here we are starting to think about 2017 journal subscription renewals already.

Another lab record meeting, and another one-to-one session with a colleague.

Friday 29 July
The next phase of the scientific equipment project started today – all the conserved objects from Phase one (150 of them) were collected for transfer to the new building. That’s a great conclusion for these historical items. Many of them have been saved from destruction several times, and without the intervention of several people (including myself) they might have ended up in the bin. Another 100+ objects are now being considered for preservation or disposal.

I had another meeting with a group leader about lab records. This lab has been around for 25 years or more, so there could be a large amount of paper. The lab head has quite a robust approach though and will only be keeping a modest amount of paper.

I have finally agreed with our off-site storage company on the format I should use for the spreadsheets giving details of boxes we are sending them for storage. Soon I will be able to arrange for collection of the first batch of boxes.

After lunch I went downtown to attend part of the Science Leaders’ meeting, and give my short open access talk. That seemed to go OK, though there was one slightly crazy question at the end from someone with a beef against open access journals. Afterwards I talked to a few people (including an interesting discussion about Otto Warburg).

Then I headed back to the institute to attend the retirement party – this person has worked there for 45 years, so it was quite a party. It also served as an end-of-term party, an end-of-the-old-institute party, an it’ll-never-be-the-same-again party.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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3 Responses to Library Day in the Life – July 2016

  1. Pingback: Book sequences | Trading Knowledge

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    As a mature student at King’s, I have had some interesting conversations with the Profs in the department (Theology and religious studies) about the need to preserve libraries. There seems to be an attitude in the College management that we don’t need books any longer and they will all be replaced by electronic resources. This is fine for relatively recent books, where the book was set from a digital file, but some of the books we work with are a century old and specialised enough that Google never considered scanning them. Recently, the decision to close the undergraduate course in theology at Heythrop College raised questions about the future of its library, which contains many volumes not available in other University of London libraries. Inter-library loans are a useful backstop, but take longer than just going across London to read the book in its library.

    I’ve been through this several times in my career; management sees a library as wasted space that is costing them money, rather than as a service. it is like the ‘long tail’ in book publishing, many books only sell a few copies but for their readers they are what they wanted. To fill library shelves with the equivalent of ‘best-sellers’ is to reduce the library’s value to researchers.

    • Frank Norman says:

      Yes, this is something that public libraries have been through too – Nicholson Baker’s protests about this date back some years. (e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/mar/22/museums.referenceandlanguages )

      I have another post in preparation about this (watch this space). In short, I think it’s just inescapable – we can’t keep everything, and unless things are unique (as opposed to uncommon) it’s hard to make the case to keep them. But it’s still painful!