Thursday, 29 September 2011

Thing 15: No conferring

Conferences are brilliant aren't they? You get to take a day (or more!) away from the office. You get to meet, chat and network with new people and hear about the latest developments and practices in your field. You get to learn about what people in other libraries and other sectors are doing, and share your own experiences with them. If you're particularly lucky, the lunchtime buffet will include those little chicken satay sticks; and maybe some posh tortilla wrap things; and for afters a mahoosive fruit platter, which everybody ignores in favour of the mini muffins. And you might get some freebies: a pen, for example, or a triangular highlighter, or those weird little tins of mints that I'm sure nobody ever actually eats. Yes, who can honestly say that they don't love a good conference?

*raises hand sheepishly*

I do occasionally attend events and conferences, but probably not as many as I should and I do find them somewhat challenging. Here are the reasons and, because I don't want to be all Captain Bringdown, in each case I'm going to consider whether there are any tools, practices and information I've picked up during cpd23 that could help me to get more out of events in the future.

Reason 1

The problem: As I have noted previously, I'm terrible for neglecting to follow-up or consolidate any of my learning from training and other events - all the handouts and notes get carefully filed in the bottom of a drawer and I never look at them again.

The solution: The emphasis on reflective practice in Thing 5 was particularly useful and if I make the time afterwards to think about what I've learned from events I attend I can write up my reflections as a short report and post it on this blog. I can also use my beloved Evernote to record notes, reflections and action points from events I attend (and I think if you have a suitably app-ed up smartphone you can just scan your pages straight into Evernote).

Reason 2 

The problem: I know attending a conference is supposed to inspire you and send you back to the workplace with lots of exciting new ideas, but actually I find that even the best, most interesting event has the opposite effect: for me going to a conference is enervating rather than energising, and I usually find that by the 3pm coffee break both I and my small talk are exhausted and I'm longing to go home. I'm sure this has something to do with being an introvert, as the bigger the event the more pronounced the effect: the mere thought of going to one of the mega-conferences like Umbrella makes me sag at the knees slightly. 

The solution: There are lots of useful tips in Jo Alcock's post on Networking for introverts. And once I've mastered those, I can move it up a gear into the realms of Introverts' Power Networking, to which there is an entire blog dedicated. I also liked the first tip in Archelina's post for this Thing - "make sure you build in 'alone' time for reflection/recuperation" - and will try to do this in future.

Reason 3

The problem: I don't wish to come across all "chippy Northerner", but quite often the big conferences and events are held a long way from where I live, so you can add an eight hour round trip and upwards of a hundred and twenty quids' worth of train fares to the cost of attending (it's usually not my money that's being spent, but I still find it irksome).

The solution: Er, move house? Actually, I realise I'm just moaning for the sake of moaning here - I know that lots of people will be in the same position (and might even be going to international conferences) and that if you feel the event is going to be valuable to you then you will make the time and find the money to attend. However, since I've joined Twitter and begun following numerous blogs as part of cpd23 I've discovered that it's possible to follow a lot of conferences online, via Twitter hashtags and reading people's follow-up blogposts. It was also interesting to see that this year's CILIP AGM, which took place last week, was broadcast via a live stream on their website (it's a shame though that a recording of it is not still online). I know these channels are not an exact substitute for the face-to-face contact you get from attending events in person, but in a lot of cases they might be good enough for me.

I think the overall message to take away from this is that planning and preparation is vital if you're to make the most of any conference or event. You need to make time to think beforehand about what you want to get out of the conference and decide how you're going to make the best use of your time while you're there. Then, once you've returned you need to set aside some time to think about, write up and hopefully implement things that you've learned from the conference. 

I'm going to the RSP's Autumn School in a few weeks' time and, despite my moaning above, I am looking forward to it and to meeting fellow repository types from across the country. I'm going to use the lessons and advice above to make sure I really get the most out of the event. 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Thing 14: Giving me ex-citations

When I did my library masters dissertation all those *smothering cough* years ago, I handwrote all of my references and citations as I came across them on index cards, which I filed in a little plastic box. I then used the information recorded on these to type my bibliography out manually. I know some would consider this activity to be a monumental bum-ache, but I actually find referencing and citing quite an absorbing and satisfying task. Also, top dissertation-writing tip: faffing around with your bibliography is an excellent displacement activity for those times when you should actually be writing your main chapters but don't want to/can't bear to. 

Now there are software packages and applications that can be used to automatically generate and manipulate your citations - and in doing so probably offer new and high tech ways to procrastinate. At my institution we use EndNote; although I have received basic instruction in this, my job doesn't involve helping library users with it, nor do I have cause to use it regularly myself, so my knowledge of it is sketchy to say the least. Might as well have a look at some other options then...


I have not used Zotero before, so for the purposes of this Thing I registered an account, installed the Firefox add-on, and set about gathering some citations from various sources. The subsequent wranglings with Zotero left me feeling confused and slightly inadequate. Everywhere I turn, on cpd23 participants' blogs and on the web generally, people seem to be raving about how brilliant and easy to use it is. This was not my experience, and now I'm not sure if the problem lies with me or with Zotero.

Here are a few of the things that irked me:
  • I wasn't able to extract bibliographic details from a record from my own library's catalogue - attempting to do so just gave me a pop-up box with an error message
  • I had similar problems trying to save details from a Web of Knowledge record
  • I received the same error message when trying to save details from a Scopus record, but then when my Zotero account next synced the reference had been added to my library - oh-kaaaay...
  • However, the data taken from the Scopus record did not include the article's DOI - so not ideal, really

To be fair to Zotero, I did manage to extract data from other sources, including Copac and online journal pages, although the punctuation in the resulting citations was slightly iffy and would need to be tidied up. And I was impressed with the way it grabs useful, usable metadata from web pages. And manually adding citations was reasonably easy. And, with a modicum of head-scratching, I managed to create a bibliography from citations in my library (although, again, I needed to edit some of the references to improve their accuracy and consistency). And I'm basing these impressions off about an hour's use and I'm sure I could get Zotero to work effectively for me if I play around with it a bit more. But it was kind of a bruising first encounter, one that replaced the soothing satisfaction of carefully crafting and sorting my own citations with eye-rolling frustration, and it made me not really want to explore it any further.

In spite of my extended moaning, I did manage to compile the beginnings of a library of references using Zotero


I first heard about Mendeley last year when there was a presentation about it at a Repositories Support Project event. Maybe I was being a bit dim (it was the first session immediately after lunch), or maybe the presentation wasn't very clear, but I came away with the impression that it's a tool to extract and share full text files from users' computers. Consequently, my inner copyright guru was screeching "Er, hello? Is that even legal?". Having investigated a bit further I now realise that Mendeley principally extracts bibliographic data rather than the complete files themselves. (However, authors can share their PDFs within small private groups - um, depending on which versions of their articles people are sharing and the contracts they've signed with the publishers, I'm still not sure that's entirely legal, but whatevs.) Anyway, now my inner cataloguing guru is screeching "Er, hello? Authority control anyone?"

In fact, checking out some of the online user reviews of Mendeley reveals that, as with Zotero, you do often have to manually tidy up the citation data that's been extracted, but I can totally dig that for many (non-weird) people this is much less of a pain than having to create all of your citations from scratch.

However, I think where Mendeley does have some advantages is in the social network it builds around users' profiles: user can join or follow public groups based around their interests, and in smaller private groups they can share and annotate documents together. In this sense, Mendeley might be classed as a collaborative tool along with those discussed in Thing 13 as much as a reference management tool.

I'm also intrigued by the function in Mendeley that, for each article or citation, recommends "related" items, chiefly because I would like to see if it's more useful than similar recommendation features such as those offered by and Amazon (newsflash Amazon: the reason I viewed the Box Canvas Print of Paul Ross is because the customer reviews make it the funniest page in the entire history of the internet; it does not necessarily follow from this that I would be interested in purchasing the Paul Ross photo mug or the Paul Ross jigsaw puzzle. But thanks for the suggestions anyway).


Despite, or perhaps because of, its somewhat ridiculous name (did they nick the idea from Spudulike?), I really did like CiteULike. I've now got the "Post to CiteULike" widget installed on my toolbar and have picked up a few citations, which went a lot more smoothly than with Zotero [insert contemptuous snort here]. A few of the features that I liked about this application:
  • You can see which other CiteULike users have the same references as you, and with one click you can go and have a good nose around in their library
  • I particularly loved that you can rate each item in your library according to the likelihood that you will use or look at it (including the blunt but probably accurate assessment "I don't really want to read it")
  • There's a handy little button that lets you write a blog about individual items in your library. I'll probably never use that, but it's a nice feature anyway

Out of the three tools investigated here, CiteULike is probably the most light on features, the least flexible and the least snazzy. But perversely it was the one that I found most charming and the one that I would be most likely to keep using.

Thing 13: Just collaboration (running away with me)

In this Thing we're looking at three tools that enable collaboration and sharing of documents with others. 

Google Docs

Google Docs is a brilliant tool that does everything it claims to easily and smoothly. It's easy to set up (particularly if you already have a Google account), using it to create and edit documents is nice and intuitive, and likewise sharing and controlling access to your documents is a cinch.

I doubt, however, that I'll be using it very much, mainly because I'm not sure if most of the people I work and collaborate with are also Google Docs users. This brings us to one of the problems of collaborative working: everybody has to be using the same tools and applications for things to be shared effectively. At work we have a shared drive where all communal documents are stored. This is where people save documents that they want others to have access to, and it's the first place people look for useful documents. To use Google Docs instead of, or running in tandem with, this would, I think, be difficult. On the other hand, I can see how Google Docs would be useful for collaborating with people from different institutions or geographical areas, so I will certainly keep it in mind for future use.



I had similar misgivings about Dropbox, in that it seems to be solving a problem that I already have solutions for. If I want to transfer documents and files I tend to use a USB stick or email them to my web-based email account (I've also got some cloud-based storage space, which I never use, as part of this account). I wasn't sure that I needed any alternative or additional tools to achieve this.

Nevertheless, I gave Dropbox a go, and found the experience so whizzy that I think it will now become my preferred application for transferring files. Setting up an account was incredibly easy and quick - as in it took nano-seconds, so quick that it had been accomplished before I even realised what was happening.  I used it to store my PDR documents so I could work on them at home (because I'm that much of a girlie swot) and was very impressed with the way documents you edit on one computer are magically synchronized so that they are updated on other computers where you also have the client installed. Dropbox is one of those applications that works so incredibly well I can only assume it is powered by Voodoo! or something.

As with Google Docs, I'm not sure how many of my acquaintances outside of cpd23 are Dropbox users, which limits the collaborative possibilities somewhat. Nevertheless, if I ever need to share any documents with people who happen to have a Dropbox account, then I'm right on it.

Not the contents of my Dropbox, unfortunately
(Photo by Mr Thinktank)


I've recently used and added details to the Library Day in the Life Wiki when I took part in Round 7 of that project. I must admit that I felt slightly trepidatious when doing so: the scope of the Wiki - the fact that it's an international project with hundreds of users - made me more worried than usual  about accidentally hitting the wrong button and erasing other people's contributions. And in fact somebody did manage, accidentally I'm sure, to erase mine and others' entries so that they had to be re-added. This suggests another problem with collaborative tools: as innumerable locked Wikipedia pages testify, you can't guarantee that everyone involved will play nicely or competently with the information displayed in the Wiki. However, I'm willing to concede that this is a problem with the act of collaborating itself, rather than the tools used to enable that collaboration.

As a result of this Thing, I have started thinking about how I could use Wikis to share training and information documents with others in my workplace. In particular, the work I do with our institutional repository generates large amounts of documents and information - user manuals, correspondence with authors and publishers, meeting minutes and training notes - that are currently scattered throughout several folders on the shared drive and in the repository's email inbox. It would be useful to bring all of this information together in one place so that everyone who works on the repository can view, amend and add to it as necessary.

I've looked briefly at PBWorks and MediaWiki in preparation - the former looks slightly more user-friendly and simple to set up (and is free for librarians), so I will be investigating this one further. I have a horrible suspicion that the gravitational pull of the shared drive will be too great to overcome and that after a couple of weeks I might be the only the person looking at and contributing to the resulting Wiki, but I will push on regardless, as I do think planning and setting it up will be a useful exercise in its own right.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Thing 12: Social media reflections

As discussed in previous posts, I have long been a social media naysayer. A combination of Luddism, privacy-lust and the probably erroneous belief that I have better things to do with my time has kept me away from Twitter, Facebook et al. Since I've been taking part in cpd23 that attitude is slowly changing, although in truth it's really only Twitter that has captivated me so far (but I do still intend to make the time to join and participate in LinkedIn, LISNPN and CILIP Communities at some point).

The advantages of social networking

The major draw of networking online is that you can do it at home, sprawled on the settee, wearing your most comfortable, least aesthetically pleasing jogging bottoms. Er, not that I do that, of course. I just mean that you could. If you wanted to. Ahem.

Could you attend the AGM of your local CILIP branch "dressed" like this? Well, could you??

But there are some situations where the usefulness of social media is not just based on the fact you don't need to change out of your jim-jams to participate. 

If, as I currently do, you work in a large organisation, in an established sector or branch of the profession, and your professional specialism is fairly common, then you are probably well-catered for in terms of physical-world networking and development opportunities. You have colleagues to talk to and ask for advice or help. There may be national and regional conferences you can attend. If you're a CILIP member there will most likely be a special interest group for you, with newsletters and training courses and the opportunity to get involved on the committee, if that's your bag. In this situation, social media platforms are a nice addition to your professional life, but not absolutely essential.

However, I've also worked in a job where I was the only librarian/information professional in the building, in a sector where there were only a handful of other people across the country performing a similar role to me (and they were in Leeds and Luton). In circumstances like these, without a ready-built community, you either have to do without or create your own, and social media can be the most effective, cost-efficient (and sometimes just the only) way to do this.

Any disadvantages?

But of course. 

In some ways, the convenience of social networking is also its biggest drawback. A real-world conference or meeting is a limited-time event: you turn up, with a bit of luck you manage to prise yourself away from the coffee urns and pluck up the courage to have conversations with a few other people, and then you go home. You might follow up the meeting with a bit of note-writing or email chit-chat with the other participants, but essentially all of your networking activity is confined to the actual day of the event itself. 

Not so with online networking: the conversations on Twitter and on the forums are always going on, and with them the possibility that you might have a new message or a new follower/friend. The fact that you never know when one is going to pop up only makes the urge to keep checking more compulsive, even when you really should be doing something more pressing or productive instead. If your social media accounts are based largely around your professional contacts and interests, you might even be able to kid yourself that you are doing something productive, even though you are just aimlessly passing time by repeatedly switching between browser tabs and pressing f5.

(NB: In the preceding paragraph, every time I say "you" I do, of course, mean "me".)

There's a nice little article here, from Oliver Burkeman's excellent "This column will change your life" series in the Guardian, on the effects of such "intermittent variable rewards", including how they can be used to reinforce positive behaviours. Ultimately, however, I don't know if the only way to overcome this compulsive activity is to get a grip and turn the bloody laptop off. 

 Can't look away?
(Picture by jypsygen)

Does social networking really help to foster a sense of community? 

I'm not entirely sure what this question is getting at, but if I were to bring my own preconceptions to the table I would guess that it's asking how concrete, long-lasting and ultimately meaningful are the connections made via social media? If introducing yourself to someone is as simple as clicking a "follow" button, how much of a relationship can you really build? I must confess that, among the people I follow on Twitter, the ones I feel most connected to and am most likely to converse with are those I have met or worked with in real life. 

Of course, connections made via social media can be reinforced if you later meet your online friends in person. I've booked a place at the Repositories Support Project's Autumn School, which takes place in a couple of months' time, and one of the things I'm most looking forward to is meeting people who I currently only know via Twitter.

A-meeting and a-tweeting new people 

As a final part of this Thing we are encouraged to make some new contacts on any of the social media platforms we're using. I am gradually increasing the number of people I follow on Twitter. When I first joined during Thing 4 I wondered how it was possible to follow hundreds of people without getting lost among the flow of information and conversation. However, I'm currently following 183 people or organisations and have not found it too overwhelming at all (or perhaps many of the people I'm following just don't tweet very often), so I will keep following interesting and funny accounts as I come across them. Once I'm following 500 or so people I reckon it will be time to start using Twitter's list feature to manage them, so that's a learning activity for the future.