I was taught as a child that if you are walking on a road that has no pavement then you should walk on the side of the road so as to face the oncoming traffic. If the cars are driving on the left, as in the UK, then you must walk on the right.  This was drummed into me as a safety thing. I think the rationale is that you will be able to see (and take action to avoid) vehicles that are coming towards the spot where you are. Walking on the same as the cars would mean that they could come up behind you, unseen.

During my recent holiday (well, it was May/June so it seems an age away now) my favourite route for a morning run was along the side of the Marikina river. There was a good path, almost a road, alongside the river. Even at 6am it was well-populated with walkers, runners and cyclists. One short stretch of it allowed motor vehicles but mostly it was car-free.

OK, so this part of the path was a bit quiet when I took this photo.

By instinct I followed my childhood rule, running on the side to ensure that I was facing oncoming traffic (bicycles). But it felt wrong.  Most of the other users of the path were walking or running, not on wheels. Should I be running on the same side as them, or the opposite side? I didn’t need to take evasive action against them. Furthermore, many of those who were on cycles were going so slowly that I was actually running faster than them. I was part of the same stream as the walkers, runners and cyclists, so I should stop seeing them as a different flow to be opposed and just join their side.

That’s a bit how it is for me at work just now. By instinct I am flowing along in the ‘old Institute’ and feel that the ‘new Institute’ is flowing on the other side of the road. We have had several years of taking guard against the opposing flow (foe). Thus the habit of talking about the new as “them” and the old as “us” has become ingrained and is hard to shake off. Partly this is because the locus of all decisions about the new Institute is outside any management structure that I am a part of. In a matter of months we will be formally incorporated into the new organisation. I need to start thinking of myself as part of the same stream as the new Institute, not walking on the other side of the road. I hope that soon I will instinctively join the flow towards the future.

Posted in Crick | 1 Comment

One hundred years old

Just a few years back it seemed unlikely that we would ever celebrate our centenary. We were to be rejuvenated exterminated absorbed into a new Institute.  Back in 2007 when this project was announced we expected that 2013 would be the beginning of the new, and the end of the old Institute just shy of its 100 years. But the awesome immensity of the project to design and build the Francis Crick Institute meant its opening date was pushed a little further into the future. Now it is anticipated that the official transfer of staff from NIMR to the new Institute will take place in 2015 (though physical relocation to the new building will take a bit longer). Hence, NIMR will cease to exist as an entity having reached the Adrian Mole-esque age of 100 and three-quarters.

The Centenary

I like anniversaries so I’m glad we made it to 100.  Just over three years ago I remarked to those in power that 2014 would be our 100th anniversary. A consensus quickly formed that we should mark this centenary. A variety of ideas were floated, and we prioritised three of them: a book about the history of the Institute, a film about the Institute, and a scientific symposium/celebration. These all came to fruition, though some had a more tortuous path than others.

The date of foundation of the Institute is not clear-cut. Many people assume that we started life in 1950 – when we moved into our present purpose-built accommodation in Mill Hill. Some think we began in 1920 – which is when the Institute moved into its first home at Hampstead and when it first acquired the name of National Institute for Medical Research. I have also seen the date given as 1918 – I am not sure why. There is some rationale for giving the start date as 1913, when the MRC was created and when it decided, in one of its first meetings, to create a “Central Institute”.

I examined the first annual report of the MRC, for 1914-15, in hope of finding an answer. I learnt that the MRC purchased the building in Hampstead in early 1914, and that the first Institute staff commenced MRC employment on 1 July 1914. This – the beginning of research work – seemed like a reasonable criterion for determining the first existence of the Institute, even though the staff were not housed in the Hampstead building at that time.  So we agreed to settle for 1 July 2014 as our anniversary date.

The Symposium

The speakers were a mixture of current staff and alumni, covering all areas of science from infectious disease and immunology to structural biology, developmental biology and neuroscience. I attended all the talks and  pushed out tweets for two days from the Institute Twitter account, using hashtag #100NIMR. Some talks were pitched better than others, so listening could be hard work and extracting something meaningful to tweet about was challenging for a non-specialist like me. Luckily I had help from some fellow Institute tweeters. If you really want to read all about it see the Storify for the symposium.

After the main symposium there were two further events. Julie Clayton, author of the new book on the history of the Institute, gave a talk on Institute history, and a film about the Institute made by Taslima Khan was shown.

The Book

The book about the Institute history was my main contribution to the centenary. I gave shape to the idea, I created an outline, I pushed for it to happen, I made plans, I suggested sources, I oversaw the project and was involved at all stages.  I even drafted a couple of chapters and did some editing.  I also had to make sure that the project was delivered on time, meant we had to be realistic about what we could achieve in the time available.  How we wished we could have included more material, spoken to more people, added further chapters, but that would have needed more time than we had. Our primary target audience was current and past staff of the Institute, and we wanted to deliver something that was readable and enjoyable. (See my previous post  about our thought processes in defining the book’s scope).

It was 18 months of hard work, both for the writer we engaged, Julie Clayton, and for me. We were lucky to have a summer assistant in 2013 – Sophie Hopkins – who analysed several printed sources (Annual Reports mostly) to extract lists of names, Divisions, and associated dates and affiliations. The master spreadsheets that Sophie produced, covering 100 years, proved invaluable.  My workload increased as we gradually got closer to the final form with round after round of editing and rewriting. Colleagues in the PhotoGraphics department put the book together into its final shape, and scanned the hundreds of photos that were included in the book.


I think the result is everything that we hoped it might be but a lot better than I dared hope it would be. It would have been easy to write something quite dry and factual. It would have been fun to focus on amusing anecdotes. Julie steered a careful path between these two extremes, managing to tell the institutional story alongside several human stories. She also lowered the level of technical detail so that the text would be accessible to non-specialists. Each of the 22 chapters is a good read in itself but put together they add up to a great book.

All staff have been given a copy. The book is also published online as a series of PDFs, on a special History of NIMR blog created for the purpose.  We will be adding more material there in due course. I aim to post most of the images used in the book to Wikimedia Commons.

The Film

In 1964 the BBC’s Horizon series made a film about NIMR. We wanted to make a fresh film, about the Institute in 2014, one that captured the essence of the place and the people who work there today. I grabbed this ball and ran with it for a bit, having discussions with a group of interested ex-staff including two who were in the film-making business. We thought we could make a commercially viable film, something for BBC4 say, but it became apparent that the kind of film that could be made for that market would not fit with our ambitions – just to reflect the reality of the Institute and its life. So the idea was abandoned. Disappointment was tempered with relief – I needed to focus on the book project.

However, one of the group – a past PhD student who still lived locally – held on to the idea and eventually she was given approval to make a film on her own initiative.  She interviewed various past members of staff and a few current staff, and assembled these interviews very skilfully into a coherent whole. The result was magnificent – a funny and informative and revealing film.

She is doing a little more work on the film and hopes to produce a version that can be shared more widely by the end of this year. The film is a great complement to the history book, with some overlap as well as some fresh material.

The Memory

I really enjoyed the final session of the Symposium on Wednesday afternoon, with the history talk, film, cake-cutting and party all going off splendidly. I hope that an awareness of the Institute’s past is now fixed in the minds of the present staff, and that the foundations of NIMR’s research culture and achievements are now writ large for the future.

Posted in Books, Film and music, History | Tagged | Comments Off on One hundred years old

Boundaries and boxes

No-one likes to be pigeonholed but the tendency to pigeonhole, or put things into boxes, comes naturally to us and can be valuable, within reason.


I think pigeonholing gets an overly bad press. The word has a pejorative ring, suggesting a kneejerk, over-simplistic focus on superficial elements. (“Don’t judge a book by its cover”). The impulse behind it, though, is our desire to organise our thoughts and our mental representations of the world. The trouble is that the pigeons have a habit of flying out of one hole and into another, or flitting between two adjacent holes.

Our mistake comes if we set too much store by the categories we use, and believe in their reality. They are just a convenience, a mental tool.

I used to do a bit of cat and class and subject indexing. One thing you learn when you have to apply classification and indexing systems to the real world is that categories are fluid – they leak into each other. Whenever you think you can see a clear boundary between two categories then you will discover something that destroys that clarity.

“Here is chemistry. Here is biology. Oh, wait – what’s this? Biological chemistry? (or chemical biology)? “.

“Here’s a biscuit. Here’s a cake. So what is a Jaffa cake?”

I encountered a problem about boundaries and definitions a little while ago when trying to find the right person to write a book.

Finding a writer

This year, 2014, is the centenary of our Institute so it was decided that we should produce a book about its 100-year history. We agreed on the intended audience, a structure, an outline of chapters and the overall style. The book was to be a record of the Institute’s achievements, its growth and development during the 20th century. It would document the research culture and the many scientists who worked in the Institute. There would be a series of chapters describing the overall development, followed by a number of chapters going into more detail about various scientific areas. The book was aimed primarily at Institute staff, past and present, plus other scientists and those interested in science policy or organisation.

We just needed someone to write the book. To put it another way, we needed a writer. But as there was going to be a good deal of science in the book we agreed that we needed a science writer, or a writing scientist. Then again, as the book is about history (albeit recent history) maybe we needed a historian, that is a historian of science. Or perhaps a scientist interested in history. This was getting complicated.

We had some constraints – resource was limited and we had barely 18 months to complete the project before the target date of our centenary in July 2014. This meant the book had to be a canter rather than a slow walk through history.

I tentatively put out an enquiry via email and Twitter about my need to “find a science writer with a historical bent“. This generated some helpful advice, quite a few people interested in bidding for the work, and some critical comments to the effect that I should be looking for a science historian not a writer. These latter comments did cause me to think again but my conclusion was the same. We were not in a position to commission a full history of the Institute – that would probably take five years and fill several volumes. We were also not looking to commission an academic work of history but a more popular overview – a memoir rather than a scholarly biography.

A little after this I saw a blogpost by Rebekah Higgitt which made me wonder again whether I was being hopelessly naive. She said:

Simplistic and heroic accounts of the history of science cannot be defended by the claim that the public like them…

science’s history should be  crowded and full of tangents, dead ends and competing approaches. The question is how to capture such complexity in an elegant way, not whether or not we should give up on the task.

I could see that we were in danger of being simplistic and telling the story from just one point of view, that of the Institute. This seemed the inescapable result of the path we had chosen. We also wanted to tell the stories behind the science however – including some stories of the people doing the science. I hoped we could manage to tell a realistic story that included more than just the so-called heroes.

Well, we found our writer – Julie Clayton. She is an ex-scientist, having previously done postdoc work in immunology. She also has editorial experience (at Nature), has worked in TV and journalism, and is now a freelance science writer. She has written a couple of historical booklets previously. All of that experience seemed very pertinent to the job at hand.

The book

We planned that the book would have two sections. The first was to be a series of chapters that told the story of each Director in turn, and the way they steered the Institute as a whole.  These were to be written largely by Julie based on published reports, materials from our archives, and interviews. The second was a series of chapters (‘boxes’) about key areas of science and these were to be written by a number of current and retired members of staff, then expanded and edited by Julie. We had a draft list of topics, for instance Henry Dale would be covered in the Neuroscience chapter. But then someone complained that Dale had been a pharmacologist not a neuroscientist and we should really put him in the Pharmacology chapter (except pharmacology wasn’t on our initial list of chapters!). Noting that Dale was originally head of the ‘Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology’ I had to concede that the complainant had a point so we created a new chapter (box) for Pharmacology. As things turned out he is also mentioned prominently in the Biochemistry chapter, the Chemistry chapter and the Biological Standards chapter. He really didn’t like staying in one box.

Julie has done a remarkable job. I had expected the book would be a collection of facts, drawn from official documents, with some photos and a bit of narrative. She has thrown her net far more widely, conducting interviews with many people and combing our archives for interesting and revealing details. The result is something really colourful and fascinating, readable and entertaining.

It has been a great journey through the history, and we are nearly at the end. The chapters are going through their final stages of editing and assembly right now. In fact, I must stop right here and go back to copy-editing chapter 11.  I’ll post again to let you know when the book is published.


Posted in History | 1 Comment

Address, affiliate, attribute

A few weeks back I saw an OA paper published in PNAS that has over 37,000 authors. (Well, that’s one way to defray the costs of OA charges!). There are ten regular authors, plus “EteRNA Participants” and a link in the footnotes to the EteRNA author list delivered as a 2Mb supplementary CSV file (ht Greg Jordan).

Science magazine commented:

researchers have now crowdsourced their experiments by connecting players of a video game to an actual biochemistry lab.

This got me to pondering about authors and OA. I imagine that no-one else in the world is interested in this, but here goes anyway.

Deciding who should and who should not qualify as an author has received a good deal of attention over the years, including a post by me. The question of what address each author should use is much less scrutinised. In particular, I have not seen generalised guidance on whether the address given should reflect the address at which the research was carried out or the current address of the researcher.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the ideal is to always list the address at which the research was carried out, with a footnote listing the current address if that is different. But perhaps that reflects my primary interest in things like attribution of credit.  For me the address (or affiliation) is there partly to show which institution “owns” the credit for the research, and partly in order to make it possible to communicate with the author. But I have come to realise that many authors are not concerned with that first function. One said to me recently “I put on my new address as my old email doesn’t work any longer and I wanted people to be able to contact me here”.  The idea of putting a research address AND a correspondence address had not occurred to him.

I am forever looking at lists of publications and trying to decide whether they should or should not be included in the list of outputs from this Institute. We search for anything that mentions the Institute in the address field, and add those to our outputs database. This requires some vigilance though as the search throws up many papers that have our address in but turn out to be authored by current staff  before they came here. Only rarely is this clear from the addresses given on the paper.

Does this matter? I think it does for two reasons. One is that mis-attribution to Institution X rather than Institution Y can potentially affect bibliometric analyses. OK, maybe that is a marginal effect (a guesstimate would say 10% of papers include a wrong address like this) but who knows?  The other reason is that it can confound the picture around Open Access compliance. We have been set a target for compliance as an Institute and there may be a financial penalty if we do not make it. I am not sure how the compliance calculation will be done, but if it involves a simple search for our address then the denominator in the calculation will be higher than it should be, probably making our compliance appear lower than it really is (depending on the open access status of the extra papers).

Guidance to authors is patchy. I have not made a detailed study of journal policies, but I found a few encouraging signs. One Elsevier journal stipulates:

If an author has moved since the work described in the article was done, or was visiting at the time, a ‘Present address’ (or ‘Permanent address’) may be indicated as a footnote to that author’s name. The address at which the author actually did the work must be retained as the main, affiliation address. Superscript Arabic numerals are used for such footnotes.

A society journal requires:

  • the names of all authors (first name, middle initial, last name) and their departmental and institutional affiliations at the time the research was done. Indicate which authors are associated with which institutions by listing the appropriate author initials in parentheses after each affiliation listed.
  • If an author has changed affiliations and wants this information in the article, then this information should be included in a separate line on the title page.

But Nature says only:

ensure addresses and affiliations are current

I was pleased to see that the issue had been discussed briefly in a thread at ResearchGate, though opinions varied. The actual question posed was what affiliation should be reported if the experimental work was carried out at Institution X but the data analysis and writing up was done at Institution Y, which is more tricky. I think it is justified to use both addresses in that case, provided the work at Institution Y was ‘substantial’. Another tricky example is where a review article was started in one place but finished in another. Again, probably both addresses are justified.

I am not about to start a big campaign about this, but maybe someone will notice and slowly more people will adopt the idea of using a separate Research address and Correspondence address. I did see that ORCID are going to launch an affiliation module, so perhaps they might help to spread the word.

Thanks for reading this far.  I feel better now I have got that off my chest!

Posted in Authorship | Tagged | 7 Comments

Music for love

Today, 14 February, was a day of celebration devoted to lovers and their love. Love remained a mystery to me for many years. Now that its full majesty has been revealed to me I embrace it with all my limbs and I pulsate with love.

Music and love are natural companions. The ecstasy aroused by music can (almost) match that derived from love. Both music and love can make you feel deeply, both joy and pain, and both have an irresistible force that can leave you gasping.

Here then is my musical compilation for lovers, or perhaps it is just a compilation of love in music, or a meditation on love and music. At any rate, it is music that I love.

1. Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

This is romantic music, music from the heart, played here with a gloriously sweet tone by Jascha Heifetz. I love the phrase that comes a little after 3 minutes into this clip: a blast of extra sweetness like a sudden gesture of affection between lovers. It always makes me catch my breath, like a rush of hormonal emotion.

2. Rachmaninov’s vespers

Rachmaninov wrote so much wonderful romantic music! He is forever associated with thwarted love because the film Brief Encounter used music from his 2nd piano concerto. The 3rd piano concerto and the deliciously tender 18th variation from his Paganini Variations are equally lovely, but I am choosing something from his Vespers – section 12, the Greater Doxology (Znamenny Chant). To me this conveys not love exactly but rather awe, a muscular serenity, and ecstasy. Imagine you are walking into a great church building; you feel the silence and immensity. Then you hear this music coming from somewhere, you can’t see where. It is beautiful and heartfelt and sweeps you up in its flow. Soon you are flying, high up, like an angel, looking down from the ceiling.

3. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

I think Prokofiev was at his most intensely lyrical in his ballet music, Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare’s play. Many years ago I saw Rudolf Nureyev dancing Romeo to his own choreography at Covent Garden and I have loved the piece ever since. I am ashamed to say that I was not familiar with the play before, so when the ending came I was shocked (i.e. wept buckets). It is a classic romantic tale, so gorgeous but so tragic. I know it’s only a story, but it is too sad. In the balcony scene Prokofiev gives us throbbing bass, surging music, soaring strings that match the intensity of emotions of these young lovers. This is music that expresses my heart.

4. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

A little contemplation to follow that: the last movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Religion and love were two of Messiaen’s preoccupations and here he expresses his love for Jesus. Yes, it may seem weird, but love of God is a thing too. This is not romantic love then, but something noumenal. The beauty of the violin tone evokes for me the contemplation of your beloved, like watching your lover sleeping.

5. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Tristan is another classic tale of love, again with an outcome that I’m not eager to match. Liebestod seemed an alien concept to me for many years – what connection is there between love and death?  Now I can understand it. Having found love, experienced that joy, one may feel a satisfaction with one’s life, a sense of completion. Death can come and there is no regret. At the climax of this music the feeling of release is incredible.

6. Philip Glass’s Songs of Liquid Days

These songs are not about love. However, the text of one of them – Forgetting – conjures up for me a vision of the ideal lover:

Bravery. Kindness. Clarity.
Honesty. Compassion. Generosity.
Bravery. Honesty. Dignity.
Clarity. Kindness. Compassion.

Linda Ronstadt sounds oh so sultry, and the Roches on backing vocals give an edge of sweet frenzy to the music. It is full of energy and light.

7. Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Duke Bluebeard is the kind of man that I’m sure your mother warned you about. In the opera Judit has gone and married him anyway. Love is blind and all that. Bartok’s opera tells the story as Bluebeard shows his new wife round his castle There are seven doors that he unlocks one by one to reveal a succession of horrors, a bit like a scary estate agent. The fifth door is the least scary – a vision of his vast lands. The music is grand and terrifyingly impressive. This doesn’t really fit well with the Valentine’s Day theme, except as a warning that all may not be as it seems. Bartok coaxes some ear-ticklingly beguiling sonorities from the orchestra which make this piece come alive for me. Plus, the soprano in this clip is one of my favourites – Jessye (no relation) Norman.

8. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe

Another ballet, another love story. Ravel’s sumptuous orchestration is masterful and overwhelming. He includes a large choir at certain points which adds another dimension. The music is hard to sing but thrilling. This extract includes my favourite section, reaching a truly pornographic climax. From about 13mins 30secs it is pure sexual energy. I used to be innocent and to think it wasn’t really meant that way, but now I’m sure it is.

9. Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss produced an evocation of beauty, pain, love and regret in the closing scene of his opera Der Rosenkavalier. The music always has a profound effect on me, I can’t explain why. Well, I can – I suspect it has something to do with my father. He loved this music. I bought tickets to see the opera with him in 1981. Sadly he had a stroke and died a month before we were due to see it. I still have not seen it performed live. Put this one down to filial love.

10. Poulenc’s Figure Humaine

Poulenc’s cantata Figure Humaine is an a capella setting of Paul Eluard’s poetry. The last movement is extraordinary. It begins:

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

The tension builds as each stanza ends with the same line: I write your name. You think you know where it is going – it seems like a love poem. As the movement proceeds your expectation and curiosity increase – whose name?  Who is it?  The final word of the final verse reveals the true meaning of the poem. It comes as a blinding flash, with a suitably ear-splitting final top note for the top sopranos.

The poem was first published in 1942 and reprinted a number of times.  The RAF dropped copies of the poem over occupied France as a morale-booster.  This piece is not about the love of a person, but about the love for an idea. It is just as powerful as the other kinds of love described above. You can love and idea, and love a person because of their ideas.

Posted in Music | Comments Off on Music for love

The Linnaean Society Library

Visiting other libraries can be a great source of inspiration to a librarian, giving you ideas to copy and making you jealous of the lovely things that other libraries have. Over the past twelve months I have hosted visits to my Library by three separate groups of librarians, during which I told them about our library service and showed them our collection. The most recent of these was on Tuesday this week.  Yesterday I sat on the other side of the fence, joining a group visiting the Library of the Linnaean Society of London.

Portrait of Carl Linnaeus.  Original in Linnaean Society of London

Carl Linnaeus on his wedding day
Click to enlarge

I read Wilfrid Blunt’s 1971 biography of Linnaeus not too long ago, so I knew a little about the man, but I had not visited the Linnaean Society before.  It is one of those Learned Societies housed in the rather lovely Burlington House in London’s Piccadilly. It is an interesting example of an institution founded around a collection – Carl Linnaeus’ own collection of his published books, his library of books, and his notebooks and specimens.  When Linnaeus died in 1778 Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society and longtime correspondent of Linnaeus, made an offer for his collection but at that time Linnaeus’ widow decided to give the collection to her son. Sadly he too died just five years later, so the collection was offered to Banks again. This time he was not in a position to purchase it but recommended it to his young protege James Edward Smith. Smith persuaded his father to put up the money for purchase, not without some difficulty. The collection arrived in London in 1784 and in 1786 Smith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Linnean Society was founded in 1788. You can read more about this story in a lecture by Mark Seaward on the Joseph Banks Society website.

My visit to the Society comprised a very good introduction to the man and the society, a tour of the Library collection and a bit of archival scholarship thrown in for good measure. We started off in the Society’s meeting room, where we were told about Linnaeus and the Society that bears his name.  I spotted a plaque on the wall from 1 July 1958, commemorating 100 years since the day when Darwin and Wallace’s paper was read out to the Society members. At the time I didn’t realise that the visit was taking place on Darwin Day, so this was very appropriate.

Plaque from the Linnean Society meeting room

Memorial plaque

In the meeting room there a number of portraits, pride of place going to those of Darwin and of Wallace. I particularly liked the portrait of Wallace, painted by Roger Remington in 1990 or thereabouts.

Next we went down into the basement, into something like a strong room, with a heavy door and carefully controlled temperature. There were about a dozen shelves of books by Linnaeus and a whole lot more with the rest of his library, the earliest volume dating back to 1488. We were shown a copy of the 12th edition of one of his works, with interleaved blank pages containing his notes of corrections and additions to be made for the following edition. He was clearly a methodical and meticulous man. We also saw a first edition of his Systema Naturae – it is a very large format book, with pages like charts. Someone commented that the pages would make great posters.

Systema Naturae

Close up of Systema Naturae

Next to come out were the beetles. Not live ones, obviously.  These were Linnaeus’ specimens so they were well and truly dead, and dried. Apparently once dried then the specimens can last for a very long time. We also saw some beautiful butterflies, but I decided to scare you with a photo of the beetles instead.

Beetles from the Linnaean Society
Click to enlarge

We then left the basement and went up to the main Library upstairs. Now, that’s what I *call* a Library – a beautiful double height room with a sculpted ceiling.

The Library of the Linnaean Society of London
Click to enlarge

Here we were treated to a display of some of the Library’s treasures, including Edward Lear’s book of parrots. Lear was an accomplished painter as a well as a writer, it seems. Sometimes I wish I worked in a botanical or zoological library – they have such beautiful books. Those floras and, er, whatever the zoological equivalent is (do they call them faunas?). I remember when I was a library student we were treated to a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens Library in Edinburgh and I was astounded at the beauty of the drawings they held. I recall that the Zoological Society of London Library also has some fantastic visual material. The closest I ever got was when I worked in a hospital library and we had some colour medical atlases. The most gruesome were A colour atlas of Accident and Emergency medicine and A colour atlas of genitourinary medicine.

One of Edward Lear’s parrots
Click to enlarge

An Indian reed
Click to enlarge

Flora Graeca
Click to enlarge

One of the most interesting items on display was  a book of ‘cyanotypes’ by Anna Atkins. Cyanotype is a photographic printing process, the origin of blueprints. Anna Atkins, an English botanist and photographer, used this process for capturing botanic specimens.

Book by Anna Atkins
Click to enlarge

Not content with delighting our eyes and our sense of history, the Librarian then introduced Isabelle Charmentier, a historian working on Linnaeus, who explained her research into “the writing technologies of Carl Linnaeus“. Briefly, and as far as I understood it, she has explored the way that Linnaeus collected information in his various notebooks. At one time he used a blank notebook, reserving chunks of pages for groups of species. Of course, if he underestimated how many pages he would need for a particular group then he would have a problem. Later he moved onto using looseleaf pages. He might still have problems if he needed to insert a new species into an already-crowded page, but at least he could always add an additional page. Later still he used index slips – one for each species. This was apparently the first use of what we now call index cards. Just think what he could have done if he had had Filemaker Pro?

One of Linnaeus’ notebooks
Click to enlarge

A looseleaf notebook
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Index cards
Click to enlarge

This was truly a fascinating visit, and I am indebted to the Librarian and Deputy Librarian, as well as Dr Charmentier, for their time and erudition. Thanks also to the CILIP ARL group for organising the visit.

Note added 14 Feb.  I forgot to say that more information is available on the Library’s website, including digitised versions of 16 of Linnaeus’ manuscripts and images of his specimen collections 

I was very pleased to be able to take photos during the visit, though at one point the phone on my camera got confused and this photo appeared by mistake.


What is this photo of me doing here?

Posted in History, Libraries and librarians | 8 Comments

Marking the occasion

Yesterday was my first anniversary. See this and this for more details of what the anniversary was.

A first anniversary is a special day – and hopefully the first of many more to come. But, though it marks a whole year, it is quite a lowly event in the cannon of anniversaries. I checked and found that the first anniversary is deemed to be the paper anniversary, so gifts of paper are to be exchanged. That struck me as very retro and quite inappropriate for a digital hipster like me, fluent in the multifarious ways of online scholarly communication. So I set about drawing up an alternative list. Here is my version of the Twelve days of Christmas the first ten years of anniversaries. Sadly I ran out of inspiration after 8th.

I made a start yesterday.

Anniversary Old style My style
1st Paper Tweet

2nd Cotton Tweet with Instagram

3rd Leather Tweet with Vine

4th Linen Short blogpost (up to 200 words)
5th Wooden Full blogpost (500 words)
6th Iron Long blogpost (1000+ words)
7th Copper Blogpost with video

8th Bronze Guest blogpost somewhere more high-profile
9th Pottery
10th Tin


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Paperless at last

1 January 2014 marks a watershed moment for my library: I have cancelled the last of our print journal subscriptions.

Back in 1995 we subscribed to our first online journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, from Highwire Press. I still have the email which announced:

We are pleased to announce that a World Wide Web version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry is now available for testing. Beginning with the April 14, 1995 issue, the full-text of all articles, including images are available. The URL is:

After opening the JBC Home Page, we recommend that users read the “JBC Online Handbook” so that they can configure their machines properly. Netscape version 1.1 is the recommended (and the only supported) browser for accessing the Internet version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

This was, to the best of my recollection, the first online production version of a mainstream bioscience journal, though there had been a great deal of other development activity (including publishers sending out their journals on CDROM! We had a drawerfull but never used them).

During the years 1995-2000 we gradually built up our portfolio of online journals corresponding to our print journal subscriptions, so we had both print and online in parallel.  In 2000 a JBC editorial celebrated the journal’s 5th year of being online, saying:

Now virtually every life science journal, as well as journals of many other disciplines, publish online.

Declan Butler reported in Nature in 1999, in a fascinating round up of publishing at the time, that one Danish library had:

decided to phase out print altogether, and deliver journals direct to staff desktops via the World-Wide Web.

Many librarians (including me) were more hesitant to abandon print, wanting reassurance on issues of continuity and archiving.

A joint ICSU/UNESCO symposium was held in 1996 to consider the issues raised by electronic publishing in science. The eminent biologist Joshua Lederberg addressed the conference and his talk makes interesting reading today – much of what he says still holds true.  He stated:  “Electronic materials need to be archived”. Print journals were archived by libraries, but the model that was adopted for publishing electronic journals meant that the publishers held the content of the journals in digital form. Would the publishers commit to longterm archiving, and if not who would? This was an issue that gnawed at librarians’ souls – we wanted to embrace the e-future but didn’t want to abandon our archival duties. This was much-discussed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Initiatives such as LOCKSS (1999) and Portico (2002), together with the activities of various national libraries, began to provide that reassurance (though there are still fears that not everything is adequately preserved). Thus libraries began to cancel print subscriptions, relying only on the online versions of journals.

I was a bit slow to join the print cancellation trend. I didn’t want to race ahead of our library users, many of whom still seemed uneasy about the idea of relying on online journals.  I remember getting comments such as “I no longer use the print journals, but I like to know that they are there” and “it would be unthinkable for an institute like this not to have PNAS on the shelves”. But by the mid 2000s I could hold off no longer and I did begin to cancel – at first cancelling print subscriptions that would save us money, picking off a few more each year. Then I cut print titles even when we would make no direct saving by so doing (thanks to the vagaries of publisher pricing and UK VAT anomalies). It made no sense to spend staff time on processing printed issues that hardly anybody ever read, so I kept on pruning.

Thus for the last few years we have had only a handful of print titles: those that seemed too important to lose (e.g. Science, Nature), those that were not important enough for us to purchase higher-priced online versions (e.g. New Scientist, Scientific American) and one or two that our agent insisted were not available online only.

This year I have finally cancelled this last clutch of print titles. The usage of even these titles proved very low so I don’t think that anyone will notice. Fingers crossed that there is no internet apocalypse. Now, where did I put those old CDROMs?

(Footnote: If you are interested in how ejournals developed, Martin White traces some more of the history of ejournal development in a 2012 article.)

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Mind, the map

Last week I attended the launch of a new exhibition at the Science Museum, called Mind Maps: stories from psychology. This is an exhibition, sponsored by the British Psychological Society, which:

.. explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years. …this exhibition looks at key breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed, from Mesmerism to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) …. Bringing together psychology, other related sciences, medicine and human stories, the exhibition is illustrated through a rich array of historical and contemporary objects, artworks and archive images.

I was there thanks to a shiny black and gold sign that has appeared on my blog before, courtesy of the MRC Centenary exhibition Strictly Science.

I had always thought the sign looked rather attractive, in an olde-worlde kind of way, so I brought it to the attention of the Strictly Science curators when they came for a look around last year. They recognised it as the sign for Henry Dale’s old lab at NIMR when it was in Hampstead, so they borrowed it for their exhibition at Imperial College in April this year. Dale’s lab was the fourth lab on the first floor of the building, hence F4. Presumably someone from the Science Museum then spotted the sign at the Strictly Science exhibition because I subsequently received an email asking if I would lend it to them for their Mind Maps exhibition.

The Mind Maps exhibition includes much that I would class as neuroscience and neurophysiology rather than psychology.  It goes back to Galvani – his 300 year old apparatus is displayed in the exhibition – and continues right up to current research on connectomics.

The exhibits that have been gathered together in this exhibition are pretty impressive – you get a real sense of history – and they tell a great story of neurophysiological research, albeit just touching the peaks rather diving into its depths. As well as the Galvani table I rather liked Charles Sherrington’s cat (move over Schrodinger’s cat!)

I also loved the rather scary section on medical electricity. The look of terror on the face of the man in this painting is all too realistic.

The exhibition also featured displays about Hipp, George Adams, William Grey Walter, Hans Eysenck, Sigmund Freud and more recent material on Valium, Prozac, fMRI and EEG.

My F4 sign is displayed in a small section about Henry Dale which includes excerpts from the film Let’s get an effect. This was a film made by members of Dale’s F4 lab in 1949, some years after he had retired, and just before they all moved to the new building in Mill Hill. It is apparently full of in-jokes about Henry Dale and his lab, though they are a bit obscure to the casual observer. Tilli Tansey has described the film, the jokes and the people portrayed in the various scenes of the film, in her W.D.M. Paton Memorial Lecture about Henry Dale’s lab:

The film is called LET’S GET AN EFFECT, which was a favourite saying of Henry Dale’s whilst doing an experiment, and subtitled AN EF-FOUR-VESCENT EPISODE, an obvious pun.

The Science Museum website has some more information about some of the objects in the exhibition and there is a blog post plus video by Samira Ahmed too, about the making of the exhibition.

Mind Maps runs until August 2014 and is free to view, so do get yourself to have a look if you have any interest in matters neuro or psycho, and find yourself within reach of London’s Exhibition Road.

Postscript: Just after posting this I spotted a longer and more scholarly review of the exhibition by Keith Laws on his blog.

Posted in Communicating science, History | Comments Off on Mind, the map

Being special

Classification is something that librarians are supposed to be good at, but when it comes to classifying types of libraries there is a bit of a #FAIL. At library school I was taught that there are three main kinds of libraries: public libraries, academic libraries and ‘special’ libraries. Public libraries are well-understood, usually considered as the prime exemplar of what libraries are.  Academic libraries too are broadly familiar. I think of them mainly as libraries in universities and higher education institutions, but the term can also encompass further education libraries and perhaps school libraries too at a stretch. But who knows what ‘special libraries’ are?  It is a cop-out – a class of libraries that aren’t in one of the other classes. Miscellaneous, ‘other’, odds-and-sods. There is a sop to their vanity by calling them ‘special’, though that is a mixed compliment.  These libraries are in fact an enormous and enormously varied bag of different kinds of library.


My career has been spent in this kind of library – I think of them as the non-aligned movement of libraries, defined by what they are not as much as by what they are. Almost any statement you make about special libraries as a whole will be inaccurate.  They are workplace libraries, but not all of them. They are small libraries, except for those that are rather large. They focus on a narrow subject range, though some are broader-based. Sometimes ‘special’ is taken to be synonymous with ‘corporate’ libraries, but there are many examples in the public and charity sectors too. Special libraries include several large sub-types: medical libraries, law libraries, finance libraries, government libraries, learned society and professional libraries, charity libraries. Some of them may be more information services than libraries per se, their main focus being on delivering information to members of the public rather than building a collection. The definition of special librarians may also be stretched to include other information professionals working as information managers, though they probably would not consider themselves to be working as librarians at all.

Library Camp

Last weekend I attended the third UK Library Camp, held in the marvellous new Library of Birmingham.  I had not visited the library before, though I had heard many good things about it. It is still new and it seems to be a tourist attraction as much as a library – it was very crowded.

The Library of Birmingham – exterior

The Library of Birmingham – interior views

Library camp, or Libcamp, is now an annual tradition: an unconference for all kinds of librarian. It is a great chance to mix with library people from different backgrounds and to take part in informal discussions as part of the unconference format. I like Libcamp. I have attended each of the three UK national Libcamps and a couple of local libcamps.

The recent event started with a round of very brief introductions (very brief as there about 150 people there) and then there was a chance for each of those wanting to propose a session to make their pitch. Then at the end of that the organisers sorted out the timetable, trying to avoid clashes, and squeezing some sessions on similar topics  together. As we waited for this to be completed one of the facilitators asked for shows of hands for those from public libraries, academic libraries etc. He did not actually ask about special libraries though – as usual we got overlooked.

Special libraries

One session I went to at Libcamp was devoted to special libraries.  It was a joint proposal: in the preliminary list of session proposals one proposer asked “Am I still a librarian?” and the other described herself as a “Third sector librarian without a library” – they teamed up on the day to hold a joint session. It attracted a good crowd, including quite a few graduate trainee librarians who were interested to learn more about the sector.

I remember that my first introduction to the richness of special libraries was a visit arranged by my Library School to the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. This was a great collection with many rare books, including beautiful flora and collections of illustrations.  At Library School I was also introduced to an organisation called ASLIB: the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux.  ASLIB used to publish a wonderful directory of specialist libraries, and was a membership organisation supporting special libraries. Aslib still exists but has changed its name so it is no longer an acronym and it has a different remit these days. In the US there is a Special Libraries Association, and they have an active European Chapter. There are also many smaller groupings representing particular segments of the special library menagerie:

  • CHILL (Independent health libraries)
  • LIKE (Information and knowledge managers)
  • CLSI (commercial, legal and scientific)
  • NGLIS (government libraries)
  • PIPA (pharmaceutical information)
  • HLG (health libraries)
  • BIALL (law libraries)

This is just a small collection of the groups I am familiar with but I am sure there are many more. Some of them are subject based and so may include members from academic libraries too. An interesting group I have heard about recently is the Association of Pall Mall Libraries. It started out as a group of libraries serving gentlemen’s clubs but broadened to include other subscription-based libraries, so is quite diverse.

Library Camp logo

Solo / small team work

The Libcamp discussion on special libraries mentioned some of the characteristics of work in the sector.  Many special librarians are solo operators or small teams. This can lead to feelings of professional isolation. They are also very likely to be managed by someone who is not a librarian, and who probably has little knowledge of library work and trends. This presents particular challenges (no names, no packdrill). Special librarians need good influencing and self-promotion skills. Library services are often seen as easy prey when budgets are tight, so the threat of closure is ever-present.

More positively, working in a small library brings opportunities to try your hand at all kinds of tasks, and to take responsibility at an early stage in your career. This is something you do not experience so easily when you are just a small cog in a large library service. Sometimes though the small size can be frustratingly limiting, e.g. sophisticated IT support may not be so readily available.


Often special libraries are workplace libraries, meaning that you are serving the professional information needs of adults, rather than dealing with students or general reading material.  Special libraries therefore tend not to be concerned with learning materials (though of course workplace learning is all the rage nowadays) nor with fiction or books aimed at the mass market.

One person in the session mentioned something that, for me, is a defining characteristic of special libraries: you are serving a well-defined group of people (members of the organisation).  I can remember thinking this back when I was at library school – serving a defined set of people seemed like an easier task than trying to serve the whole population of a city, say, as a public library service must do. A key aspect of work in the special library sector is the need to gain a really good understanding of the needs of that set of users, putting yourself as close as possible to them.


Interestingly, the following session at Libcamp that I attended was devoted to embedded librarianship. This refers to the notion that, particularly in academic libraries, librarians should rethink their location and get closer to users, or as the Embedded Librarian blog has it:

the trend of moving librarians out of libraries, both physically and organizationally, is growing, can be of great value to the organization, and can be very rewarding to the librarian — if done well.

It seems to be a new trend, though it has antecedents in e.g. clinical librarianship and of course in special libraries, where librarians are partially embedded to begin with. There is a growing literature about embedded librarianship, including a big report on Models of Embedded Librarianship sponsored by the Special Libraries Association a few years back. About the same time the Association of Research Libraries put out a special issue of their journal, on report on Transforming Liaison Roles in Research Libraries

At the LibCamp session we heard from a librarian working in a specialist school of a university who has ‘gone native’. She identifies strongly with the school and is involved in teaching and research duties there to the extent that she has withdrawn from most duties in the central University library. Others had not moved so far in that direction, but came up with various ideas for getting closer to their users, like “pop-up libraries”, tailored current awareness searches and just simply being nosey.

More generally I think embedding is a response by those academic libraries which serve large populations of researchers to the perception that researchers are ignoring library services. Only by getting closer to researchers, and effectively becoming part of their teams, can librarians have a hope of catching any business from them. This seems more feasible in the USA, where academic librarians have a tradition of “scholar librarians” who know their subject (be it music, anthropology or neuroscience) and can gain the respect of researchers.

I don’t think this tradition is so strong in the UK.  My impression is that senior researchers this side of the Atlantic do not see the need for more intensive information support personnel, also sometimes called ‘informationists‘. Other embedded roles related to information processing – grant wrangling, writing papers, data curation – may be identified as useful but these are likely to be filled by those with direct research experience. I think librarians’ best chance is to identify and work with people carrying out these roles in research groups, and not to attempt to become fully embedded themselves.


Posted in Libraries and librarians | 2 Comments