Monday, March 05, 2012

Back to the future and into the cloud: 24th February event

The JIBS User Group's winter event this year was both a celebration of 21 years since the formation of the group (previously known as the BIDS User Group) and a look forward to the future of cloud computing and applications.

Over seventy attendees from across HE, FE, and intermediaries assembled at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS to hear presentations from a range of speakers including Tony Hirst, Mary Auckland, Ben Showers, Antony Brewerton, Robert Bley, and Ian Corns.

Kicking off proceedings was former JIBS User Group chair Sue Cumberpatch, who puzzled us with long-forgotten acronyms (Alfi, anyone?) and the wisdom of previous chairs who worked towards the ethos we now have of being independent and interested in any resource from a user point of view. JIBS User Group members now sit on the boards of various providers, lead groups in different areas of interest, and participate in the JISC working groups.

Next up was Tony Hirst from the Open University, an academic who is clearly well-enveloped in 'the cloud' and its possibilities. His title for the day was 'The Frictionless Library', and he took his inspiration from the five laws of library science created by S.R. Ranganathan (which those of us who attended library school will remember well). Tony's presentation was wide ranging and thought-provoking - including such soundbites as 'the library is at the heart of the university system', the library is about 'knowledge and engagement with other people, not just resources', we need to 'know when to stop', 'the library lives in a networked world', 'visualisation [macroscopes, finding out what makes the customer tick and what interests them] is going to become more important', and the future of the library is 'the invisible librarian' [one who guides and ranks resources for relevance and provenance].

Hirst talked about the causes of 'friction' in relation to web resources, such as licensing restrictions and authentication hurdles. In his words 'patience is short on the web' so a one-click environment is preferable to one which means a customer needs to browse through several levels. He also referred to the power of systems such as Google+ (and Custom Search), Facebook, Twitter (and TweetDeck), and much more. In his arguments about relevance, rediscovery, and influence, he sees a powerful, if different, role for the librarian of the future.

Tony can be reached through his blog,, where a draft of his presentation can be found.

Mary Auckland, a consultant, chose for her title 'You need wings to fly in the clouds: future skills for librarians', and focused on two studies in which she has been involved: an internal one for the Open University, and a publicly available study for RLUK entitled 'Reskilling for research'.

Although the studies focused on subject librarians, many of the skills identified can carry across to other professional roles as we move forward. Auckland mentioned a quotation from Alice Crawford at the University of St Andrews: "Confidence is the key ... in product and our roles", as well as something which came from the OU report: "using and thinking the language of learning, not professional jargon ... mutually understood language". In Auckland's view, "if we don't use these [new] skills we will become archaic."

The RLUK study looked specifically at the information needs and behaviours of researchers, and identified a set of skills and knowledge that were relevant to these needs. Auckland's view is that librarians 'must respond well to change ... may be early adopters'. She queries whether the digital revolution is relevant and here to stay, and whether there is any scope for further evolution. If there is going to be no further evolution [and there may not be] it is still necessary to develop the skills to change. The customer now has higher expectations -so we need to 'redefine core skills ... and ensure we can deliver expertly'.

The library is no longer a place for purely information-based activities, argues Auckland, so we 'need to listen and deliver what customers want ... and don't try to influence them or change their behaviour. They will use Google!' So the librarian needs to build their soft skills (influencing, persuasion) as well as hard skills relating directly to data management.

In conclusion, Auckland focused on the need to not just identify skills but also acquire them, and to develop and focus job descriptions and person specs away from generic descriptors.

The RLUK report can be viewed at

On to Antony Brewerton from the University of Warwick, and 'There's a lot more to the library than the building itself'. Again nodding back to Ranganathan, Brewerton started his presentation with the news that the library is now about relationships and networks - 'from collections to connections'. The customer is the person of most importance, wherever they are.

Long known for his seminars on marketing and branding, Brewerton shared an entertaining video where students at Warwick spoke to camera about their interpretation of library services, with the main message 'there is a lot more to the library ...'. Brewerton's ideas are interesting: 'it's all about relationships ... information ... support ... community.'

At Warwick the traditional shape of library teams has been restructured into areas such as research and development [idea generating], with roving teams working on low-level enquiries, freeing professional staff time for more quality work such as bringing resources together in portals, encouraging comments and discussions online, encouraging student interactivity, and working on high-end, in-depth enquiries. This all allows preparation for the future.

Brewerton's main message was 'be traditional! ... but don't lose sight of the core parts of the job'. He also argues that we shouldn't 'throw the baby out with the bath water' but instead 'decide which babies we want to keep'. Looking to the future we need to talk to the customers and recognise 'when it is time to let go', instead focusing on what is needed, collaboration, marketing. We need to 'bring people in and get out in the world'.

Antony Brewerton is @librarian_boy on Twitter.

Robert Bley from ExLibris was next up with 'Cloud computing: what it means'. His focus was firmly that of a provider of cloud solutions, and he started his presentation from a viewpoint of looking back to 2005 when the first cloud and mobile topics started. Many popular applications we use every day are already in the cloud [Google, Amazon, eBay] as well as the main social networking solutions. Now library management systems are moving the same way - especially with the introduction of the ExLibris solution, Alma.

Bley went over what cloud computing is and isn't [it isn't hosting legacy systems, or a client server; it is web or app based]. It is a changing business model for libraries and providers, with the safety and reliability of services a paramount concern. The 'cloud' requires support staff who are not just techies but also proactive problem solvers. This might impact on libraries as those who used to look after servers can be redeployed into 'innovation and development', focusing on 'mashups not backups'. It isn't about cutting numbers of staff, it 'frees people up to do more creative things ... facilitates collaboration....'

Robert Bley is @RobertBley on Twitter.

Ben Showers, from the JISC Infrastructure team, spoke about 'KnowledgeBase+', a new cloud-based community knowledge base, currently in its first stage. It links to other projects such as KBART, the JISC Entitlement Registry, and JUSP, and is helping to analyse data in a variety of new ways.

Showers discussed the benefits and problems of such a project, as well as the basic principles surrounding it. He also talked about issues relating directly to the 'cloud': infrastructure and skills, the obsolesence of services and hardware, and the need for standard formats across cloud providers [making the traditional part of the job as efficient and simple as possible]. In standardising system, there is a 'new approach to skills', which might well be the 'silver lining'.

The KnowledgeBase+ project has a blog at

Finally, to wrap up the day, Ian Corns from Talis Aspire, presented 'Re-imagining the delivery of course resources with Talis Aspire'. His focus was on reading lists and much more, encouraging the interactivity referred to by earlier speakers. Aspire's primary purpose was 'to provide the resources the students need' [although it can be argued that reading lists are not necessarily the main driver for this].

In discussing Aspire, Corns brought up themes which had already been mentioned earlier in the day: changing local dynamics, moving from a 'formalised and formulaic' acquisitions policy to one that is 'shared and open', building better relationships, increased interaction between library and academics. The cloud solution allows a saving of time/cost, a reduction of risk, and business scaleability.

Corns argues that in some ways, the cloud is 'old hat' as we have had Gmail, Hotmail, Facebook and the like for many years now - but the potential to libraries to lead and generate discussion (within an institution or cross-institution) and to bring different resources and groups together, is an interesting new use of the technology.

Ian Corns is @theagileanalyst on Twitter.

I was struck by the potential of many of the ideas raised across the day. Tony Hirst's presentation might have been deliberately off-the-wall and provocative, but Mary Auckland and Antony Brewerton's studies and experience bear some of his points out. From a provider point of view it was good to hear beyond the product pitch to see what value these new solutions have. I feel this has been one of our more successful events and it certainly left me leaving with lots of ideas and positivity about what the future holds for us as professionals in the library sector.

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