Anybook Oxford Libraries Conference 2015

On 21st July, I attended the Anybook Oxford Libraries Conference organised by the Bodleian Library, sponsored by The last time the Bodleian Library held a conference was in 2010 when I was brand new to the library profession as a trainee. It was interesting to attend this conference with library school and Chartership under my belt.

The conference was held at the Andrew Wiles Building at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford, which opened in October 2013. It is located in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, originally opened as the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1770 and named after John Radcliffe. You can find further information about the site’s history on the University website. Holding the conference in such a new and modern building made for a comfortable environment and it was a pleasure to spend a day in such a fascinating building.

Andrew Green (former Librarian of the National Library of Wales)

The future of research libraries

The first keynote speaker of the day was Andrew Green who gave a presentation that was amusing and lighthearted with a slideshow of the Welsh countryside on the screen as he reminisced about his early years as a librarian, although the speech was peppered with more serious considerations. The audience were entertained with memories of the introduction of technology and Andrew having to walk some distance to use the only computer available to carry out searches for library users. This brought us on to the more serious message about the effect technology is having, and will have, on libraries.

Andrew explained that, once upon a time, libraries could choose to adopt technology. If they didn’t choose to, the consequences were small as libraries concentrated on print collections, which is no longer the case. Libraries do not tend to boast of their print collections to encourage visits nowadays, instead promoting their extensive subscriptions to electronic material and databases. Andrew continued to explain that digital material is taking library users’ dependence off librarians – libraries’ holdings are no longer unique as their material can most often be found elsewhere. Also, companies who provide material to libraries, like publisher and suppliers, hold great power. Libraries do not own digital material; the publisher and suppliers do. Libraries simply rent the material for as long as it is needed.

Libraries can take something positive from digital material though, offering library users help with digital literacy and being involved with Intellectual Property and research communication, redefining the librarian’s role. Although digital material means that libraries’ print collections of journals and books may not be unique anymore, their distinctive collections of archives and rare books, for example, will most likely be unique and this is where, Andrew says, that libraries should concentrate their efforts; cherishing and promoting these distinctive collections, promoting them and making them visible, both physically and virtually.

This made me think of what distinctive collections Nuffield College Library has, most likely a lot of the material in its archives, and how we can improve our promotion of it. At the moment, we blog about individual collections or people whose collections we hold but I think that there are other avenues to explore, such as collaborating with the College and providing some material for College events. Overall, a thought provoking speech, which, although lighthearted, held some deeper thoughts about libraries’ future as technology continues to preside.

Andy Priestner (Information & Library Services Manager, Cambridge Judge Business School)

Space and place: new insights from ethnography

This was an enthusiastic, passionate and engaging presentation. I learnt what the term UX means, which I’ve seen floating around recently (user experience, by the way) and that it refers to how someone feels when using a product or service, whether they’re using a website, signage, space, emails, databases, furniture, etc.

Andy looked at the faults of librarians and the effect that has on our service – that we can be too desperately helpful (“Please come and ask us a question! We’re very nice people”). Librarians tend to use quantitative research, such as surveys, to discover library users’ thoughts on the service. While this provides data that can be easily matched to institutional statistics, there are generally too many surveys that have been poorly constructed. People who fill in surveys are not necessarily the opinions of people we seek and self-reporting is unreliable; people tell us what they think we want to hear. Ultimately, quantitative data doesn’t tell us how our users feel.

And so we moved on to the benefits of ethnography whereby researchers observe and interact with participants in a real-life environment. Ethnography involves:

Interest in context and culture

Exploring personal and social

Holistic approach

Less structure

More detail


Breaking down preconceptions

Lots of time

Embracing complexity

Offers more complete picture

Andy showed us some examples of research into user experience that had taken place at Judge Business School. Firstly, we were introduced to behavioural mapping, in which staff observed the use of the library and mapped the results. This involved mapping library users routes, their duration of stay, activities undertaken, choice of desk, devices used, and more. Staff then produced a visual representation of those maps, which showed the most popular routes through the library. They discovered, for example, that a lot of people walk straight through the ground floor room and on to the first floor. As a result, staff opened up some doors that led directly to the first floor entrance so that users didn’t have to walk through the ground floor room. A small change but one that makes a big difference.

Andy then told us about the ‘show-me-round’, where staff got students to guide them around the library explaining along the way the choices they made, e.g. seat preference. This was recorded for analysis later on. This research revealed some concerning results; that students are failing to access key services like wi-fi, databases and printing, that students were very opinionated about what made a good work space. Staff could then respond to these newly discovered needs, like purchasing cushions to make uncomfortable furniture more comfortable.

Finally, we had  a look at the library’s graffiti wall. The library put up a large piece of paper and provided some pens, inviting library users to write on it with the aim of finding out what they would like changed in the library and also what they might already like about the library. Andy stressed that it was important to locate the graffiti wall far away from staff otherwise people would be less likely to write down what they thought.

I thought that the three research methods used at Judge Business School were excellent. I was definitely inspired by the potential of such investigation but also recall that it is time intensive work and wonder whether we have the staffing to carry out such extensive studies.

Alistair McNaught (Subject Specialist (Accessibility and Inclusion), Jisc)

Divergent independence: promoting agile approaches to inclusion

This was a very practical session in which Alistair demonstrated free/in-built tools that can be used to help people with dyslexia in their research. It was an especially timely presentation with proposed changes to the Disabled Student Allowance meaning those with ‘milder’ forms of disability, such as dyslexia, will receive less funding.

I never knew there were so many tools available to help people with dyslexia, including some things I already use like Google Drive. I learnt that Google Drive can apply OCR to documents. For instance, after uploading a PDF to Google Drive, opening it in Google Docs means that the PDF is now editable.

Alistair demonstrated a number of excellent tools. To highlight a few, DeeperWeb (powered by Google) offers various ways of interrogating search results, e.g. by using a word cloud, which is great for people with non-linear thinking and provides a visual way of searching. Robobraille allows you to upload files and convert them into an alternative accessible format including MP3, braille or an e-book. Finally, VoiceNote II is a Chrome extension that converts speech to text, i.e. allowing you to generate text through your voice, eliminating the barrier of typing.

I was impressed by Alistair’s knowledge and came away from the session feeling that I, and perhaps my colleagues, should become better equipped to help library users with dyslexia, or other disabilities, especially with the changes to the Disabled Student Allowance.

James Baker (Curator in the Digital Research Team, British Library)

Library users of the future

Suffering from a post-lunch slump, I found this session slightly more difficult to follow than the others. James provided a very intelligent and eloquent presentation about the influence of technology on library users’ behaviour in the future.

The key messages I took away were that library users will use different research patterns in the future that are not geared towards print or playback. They will use some other digitally enabled form, which we may not even know about yet. Unfortunately, librarians are, at the moment, not very good with material that is born digital, they are better with material that has been converted from print to digital, like an electronic book or electronic journal. We need to think about how we can integrate born digital material into our systems, which will change the library’s profile and influence what library users want from us.

Although libraries have had to changed significantly with the introduction of technology, there will undoubtedly be much more to do as technology becomes more intelligent and transforms the way people research.

Jan Wilkinson (University Librarian & Director of the John Rylands Library)

Leadership and embedding a culture of innovation

This was a massively inspiring keynote speech from Jan Wilkinson, both because it was a pleasure to listen to such a successful woman and because of the hope for the future of libraries. I was so taken by the presentation I didn’t note an awful lot down so will do my best to remember.

Jan explained that her aim at John Rylands Library is to move from being good to great. What can we do to make our library great and how do we go about it? We need:

Market intelligence

Knowing your customer.

Strategic vision

In creating a strategic vision plans for the future, in order to make it into the vision, need to be ‘wow!, bold, hard to crack, leading edge, big, stop change’.


Here Jan described an innovative competition they did at John Rylands. It was a Dragons’ Den style competition called Eureka! in which students pitched a library improvement to the panel and received a £1,000 prize if they won. Here are some of the ideas put into practice. As a result of Eureka!, the library now has a sleep pod and a system where students can book a study space. I have wondered how to get library uses to tell us what they really want from their library and this was an excellent way of doing that with some wonderfully clever ideas to improve the user experience.

Culture change

Jan asked ‘is our current culture enabling us or inhibiting us’? I think that both are true. Although libraries are changing to suit modern students and their needs, it is perhaps done slowly and with trepidation.

That’s all I have noted down! I was very impressed by the innovation at John Rylands and their lack of fear in trying new things. One final thing I recall stirring some of the audience is that at John Rylands, they are trying to recruit people who are not necessarily library professionals but have other talents such as a finance or marketing background. This originally caused concern about qualified librarians’ future if the library is actively seeking not to employ them (especially as there are so few jobs around at the moment) but we were reassured it was to introduce variation to the workforce to improve the library. I thought that this is a great idea but can also understand that what new professionals don’t need is a decrease in jobs!


I had an excellent day at the conference and was pleased to mingle with people I hadn’t seen for a long time and also to match faces from Twitter to people. The location was fantastic and I have come away from the various sessions with many ideas.

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