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or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Harvard System. (Er, not.)

Open bookThe other day I spotted someone citing a reference on Twitter. Fab stuff; it’s good to see people helping others connect with useful sources. However, the reference was constructed, very carefully and correctly – meticulously, even – using the Harvard system. Which meant that it took at least two, if not three, tweets to fully convey all the details.

I should at this point hold my hands up and state that I’m a Vancouver system girl. This may be partly because I work largely with medical research, where Vancouver is widely used (albeit with different variations depending on individual journal style), so I’m much more familiar with it than Harvard. But I’ve also grown to love it for its relative simplicity. And every time I see a Harvard reference, my inner KISSer* starts rumbling and grumbling and finally going ‘Aarghh!’ at what I see as totally extraneous and unnecessary punctuation.

I realise that I may be overreacting a little here.

A system is a system. I get it. I’ve had a quick mooch on the internet to see if I can find out some reasoning behind it and, while I’ve located some info about the value of citing dates in-text,† I’ve not found anything yet that tells me why somebody somewhere deemed it such a good thing for the bibliography to have So. Much. Punctuation. Punctuation to no purpose, that is – you’ll have just spotted my own use of extraneous, non-grammatical punctuation to Make. A. Point. That’s different 🙂  But, when all a reference is designed to do is point the reader toward the interesting source that’s being cited, why do we need a full point after every initial and a comma between surname and initial? Really, why?! It gets my goat badly enough <<insert bleating goat noise here>> when I see this system in print, but I think seeing it on Twitter made me reach a new level of ‘Aarghh’ness. <<insert whole ruckus of bleating goats waiting for their tea and probably being harassed by sheep and getting pretty damn cross about it>>

Twitter is perhaps the most notable form of communication where brevity is a virtue. In fact, brevity is dictated by the maximum tweet length of 140 characters. The idea that anyone wishing to cite a correct reference has to take three tweets to do it just makes me raise my eyes to the heavens (I’m an agnostic, but you never know, there might be a friendly seagull flapping about waiting to poop in my eye to give me the wake-up call I need to stop being so flippin’ nerdy…).

But I digress.

It made me wonder if librarians could pioneer the use of a form of referencing designed specifically for Twitter, i.e. using the minimum number of characters possible to convey all relevant information.‡

I have to say that there are shortened forms of Vancouver – which I’ve seen on medical congress posters, for example, where space is at a premium – that could be adopted here. For instance:

Marshman G et al. Annoying Referencing Journal 2013;42:1-10

(Even better if the journal has an official abbreviated title that can be used; for obvious reasons, BMJ is one of my favourites, and if I come across a journal that uses a full word in its title, I can’t stop myself from quickly Googling or PubMedding it to check that it can’t be shortened…)

Yes, I know that any librarian conducting library-related CPD/research is likely to be using Harvard and probably has it embedded in their bones – but if librarians are good at one thing it’s adapting to new and changing circumstances. So why not start here?

Thoughts, opinions and other views welcome below! And if you are a fan of Harvard, fear not, I won’t bite – just bark a lot 🙂

———————————————————————————-
*Keep It Short & Simple.
†Interestingly, it seems that Harvard was devised by scientists and Vancouver by humanities/arts scholars, because of the greater significance attached to publication date in scientific research. I’ll bear that in mind for the next pub quiz…
‡And yes, I realise that stripping out a few commas and full points from a reference probably won’t make a huge amount of difference to the length of a tweet, but my point about simplicity remains. And in Twitter, every character has to earn its place. We see enough greengrocer’s’ apostrophe’s’ in real life – we don’t need comma’,s joining forces with them! Stop the rampage!!§
§Ahem. As you were.

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PyramidWell, it’s been a busy few weeks – my clients are very busy, which means I’m busy too! Which is all good. But it does mean that the blogging suffers. Being a perfectionist, I find it difficult to post something without having carefully considered every word, ensuring that what I’m posting is meaningful, helpful and useful to any readers out there. However, I’ve been reminded of that old aphorism ‘Done is better than perfect’, so am determining to get my thoughts out there a bit more often. Because I do find, frequently, that my ‘half-baked’ is someone else’s ‘fantastic!’ (Of course, my ‘fantastic!’ is often someone else’s ‘meh’, but you can’t have everything.)

Today I’m pondering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Heavy stuff, eh? I remember the theory from (probably) management lectures at library school, (certainly) training courses in my first couple of jobs, and more recently the inner debates I’ve been having about the freelance life and why it suits me. And it got me thinking that Maslow’s theory might not hold up when it comes to this kind of lifestyle / career approach. (Stick with me – I only said ‘might’…)

[NB: I am not an expert in psychology, anthropology, sociology or ideology [I’m better at tragical-comical-historical-pastoral], so please don’t take what follows as anything other than the ramblings of a mind at leisure.)

Maslow proposes that humans experience different stages of growth, moving from basic functional needs to ‘higher’ aspirations. This is traditionally represented in a pyramid shape, with ‘physiological needs’ at the bottom, and progressing through ‘safety needs’, ‘love and belonging’ and ‘esteem’ before reaching ‘self-actualisation’ at the top. The idea is that you need to satisfy your basic requirements before you can spare a thought for more lofty, intellectual ideals; in other words, if you’re starving, homeless and jobless you won’t be concerning yourself with ‘stretch objectives’ to enable you to move up to the next rung of management – never mind saving the world.

Which got me thinking… I’m a freelancer. All’s going well at the moment, but I’m constantly aware that it could all come crashing down at any moment. My husband has a job, but we still need my income to pay for our house and everything that goes with it. So in theory I’m not really that secure. And yet most of the questions I’m bothering myself with at the moment relate absolutely to the ‘self-actualisation’ peak of the pyramid. Do I like what I’m doing? Does it have meaning? Is there anything else I could be doing to contribute to society and the world at large? Have I fulfilled my creative potential? Hardly the thoughts of someone who’s worried about whether they’ll have a home in six months’ time.

Why is this? Is it because, despite working in an insecure fashion, I’m not really that much more insecure than any ‘normal’ person in a ‘normal’ job with the very real and ‘normal’ threat of redundancy hanging over them? Because even though in six months’ time I may not have an income, right now I do – which is more than can be said for many? Because I definitely, always, absolutely know where my next meal is coming from? Maybe my idea of ‘insecurity’ reeks of that frankly irritating Twitter hashtag #firstworldproblems. I know that, if crunch time came and I lost all my clients in a freak earthquake, I would somehow get through. I have a husband with a job. I have a family with spare beds. I have – I hope – a sweet and friendly personality that will endear me to anyone of whom I might need to beg a favour. Plus, of course, I have skills I can sell – and there will always be people needing what I have to offer. So maybe what seems like insecurity to me really isn’t worthy of the name.

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that, while many people see self-employment (in a recession! Heavens!) as the scary option that’s going to leave them starving, homeless and jobless, this isn’t necessarily the case. I genuinely started this blog post thinking I was going to overturn Maslow and his precious theory, by showing that it is possible to work on intellectual aspirations while also fretting about the food bill – but as I’ve reflected on what this actually means, I’ve come to realise that I’m nowhere near as badly off as I thought. And believe me, I’m greedily counting my blessings.

So there it is. The reason I’m able to sit here in a cafe writing this blog post is because I spent the last month slogging away earning hard cash, postponing that sense of real insecurity for a while yet. But what I need to do, constantly, is ensure that I have additional options tucked away for a rainy day. I can never stop looking for new initiatives, new ways of working, new places to go and people to meet – which is at the same time horrifically insecure and unbelievably exciting.

So maybe Maslow was wrong after all…

What do you think? Am I talking out of my behind, or do we need to revisit what ‘security’ means to us these days? Please share your comments below!

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SeagullIt’s over a year now since I quit my last job to go freelance full time, so it feels like a good point to reflect on all that has happened, and share some thoughts that may be helpful to others considering making a similar leap.

Going freelance is a big step for anyone, and I imagine everyone has their own reasons, their own ‘final straw’ for taking that determined plunge into the cold waters. This could be anything from losing your job, through wanting to take a hobby to the next level, to realising that life is too short not to aim for your dreams.

For me, it was simply a matter of the uncertainty (and all its associated risks) being a more palatable alternative than carrying on as I was.

For years I’d struggled to build a traditional career within traditional organisations. I’d tried a whole range of sectors and roles, and never quite got that sense of ‘yes, this is where I fit in’. I had a particular issue with having to follow the rules simply because the rules were there, and I could never get used to the idea of someone else, however benign, dictating the course of my life.

But for years I kept telling myself (probably because the world was telling me) that I had to buckle down and fall into line. Everyone has to have a job, don’t they? No-one likes having to get up every morning and go into the office, but we don’t have a choice, do we?

Actually, we do have a choice. And it sometimes takes an uncomfortable situation to bring it home to you just what your choices are.

My journey towards the freelance life began in earnest a few years ago, when I found myself working in an organisation whose management culture, shall we say, I disagreed with. But, for the first time in my life, instead of thinking ‘it’s all my fault, I must be rubbish’, I thought ‘No. I am extremely good at what I do. This environment simply doesn’t provide me with what I need.’

I knew then that I had the self-confidence to really make something of myself.

I made the decision to leave that job and, during my notice period, went to business start-up workshops organised by my local council. That was the first time I actually felt freelancing was possibly for someone like me; the workshops addressed many of my fears and worked through them with practical advice and suggestions. However, I still didn’t feel quite confident enough to go it alone straight away, so I decided to go for another full-time job and see if I could build up the freelancing in my spare time, as an investment towards the future.

That didn’t quite happen. The new job was an hour and a half’s commute each way, so that by the time I got home each night I was exhausted and only just capable of cooking dinner, watching TV and going to bed. Certainly no time for any tinkering with a freelance career ‘on the side’.

The upside was that the job was brilliant. (As jobs go!) The company was forward thinking, the management were highly supportive and gave great, regular, constructive feedback. If I’d wanted to build my career in a normal workplace environment, I couldn’t have asked for much better. Any lingering doubts about my own abilities were scotched entirely.

However, I was still office-based, doing one job, with no time whatsoever for fitting in anything else (even a hobby) on the side. And it was eventually the commute that did for me. It wore me out so much that I got ill, and then I knew it was crunch time. I had to do something. But after job-hopping for so many years there didn’t seem to be another logical move other than to break out on my own. But could I really do it?

All the usual fears kicked in. What if I couldn’t make it work, couldn’t pay the bills, lost the house? But then, for the first time ever, I saw that I had a choice. I realised that, no matter how scary the worst case scenario, no matter what sort of financial trouble I might be storing up for myself, nothing could possibly be as bad as what I was currently putting myself through. An three-hour daily commute? That was making me ill? For a career that still didn’t feel 100% right for me? It was like the proverbial flash of light – and that’s when I decided to do it.

I should stress that this wasn’t a blind leap in the dark. I’d been thinking about this for a year, I’d already done a lot of research, I’d got tons of information under my belt, and I knew where to go for advice and support networks.

Another important point to stress is that, when I leapt, I had a financial buffer to last me several months. So I knew I wasn’t facing immediate potential ruin. But there was still the issue of ‘what will happen when the money runs out?’ I just had to trust that, in that time, I could come up with a plan that would work.

Yet another key factor in my faith that I’d make it was that, whilst employed, I’d been able to research the market for my freelance skills, and knew that there was one out there. Now it was just up to me to get on with it.

And so I jumped.

As I said, it’s now been over a year since I quit that last job. I’m very aware that it could all come crashing down at any time; I still live ‘on the edge’ in that respect. I don’t make a fortune either – but that’s partly down to my own decision that time is as important to me as money; and for now, as long as I have enough to live on, and can still find time to do the things I love that don’t pay, that’s exactly how I like it. I’m already looking at alternative options for my future, different paths to take and projects to try. It’s the freedom that I love the most, and I have that in spades. I consider myself very blessed.

To return to the ‘taking the plunge’ metaphor. While the waters of going it alone can seem very cold to begin with, it’s important to remember that they often warm up once you’ve been swimming for a while. You just need to keep moving your arms and legs, keep heading forward, and with persistence (and a healthy dollop of luck) you might even reach a point where you’re so comfortable you’ll never want to get out.

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Or: How to get management experience without being a manager

DucksThis is sort of not strictly possible; you can’t get experience of what it’s like to formally manage other people without formally managing other people. You don’t know what it’s like to have the job title ‘manager’ until you, er, have the job title ‘manager’.

But if you take a different view of what ‘managing’ actually means, it’s likely you’re already doing it in your daily life without even thinking about it.

A quick peek at Merriam-Webster Online tells us that the first definition of ‘to manage’ is ‘to handle or direct with a degree of skill’. Well, who hasn’t done that at some point? Certainly if you’re in a job you’ll be doing that every day. Have you heard of the phrase ‘managing upwards’? It means to ‘manage your manager’, i.e. guide them in the direction you’d like them to go in and help them do their job in such a way that you both gain from the relationship. Managing is basically learning how to deal with people and, once you’ve figured that out, it’s easy to see how you can look to other areas of your life to hone those skills without even setting foot in a workplace.

The example I’m going to give you is from my own life. In my spare time I belong to an amateur dramatics group. In addition to people who act we also have a group of individuals who run the place, taking charge of different departments such as technical, publicity and catering (to name but a few). In my time I’ve taken on roles in a wide range of backstage or admin areas, and – despite it all being voluntary – have gained significant experience of managing a service and directing teams of volunteers.

(It’s true that volunteers are a different kettle of fish to paid employees, and I’m not even going to get into the whole debate about library volunteers, but for the purpose of this blog post I think the basic lessons are the same.)

In catering, for instance, I’ve had to persuade people to do shifts on interval coffee, manage the rotas so that everyone gets to work at times that suit them, and fill in the gaps in service one way or another (and yes, sometimes this has meant doing it myself). I’ve managed a budget, ensured we maintained appropriate stock levels (ordering and liaising with suppliers as necessary) and kept basic accounts. One year we even hosted a conference for other Little Theatres in the region, which was a huge challenge: in addition to the usual jobs I also had to ensure a) that we had adequate equipment for the extra bodies we were catering for, and b) that people providing food were reimbursed for their costs. All of this was done on top of a regular working day and for sheer enjoyment (although admittedly it didn’t always feel like it at the time…).

In publicity I had an even bigger budget to manage, not to mention the expectations of everyone in the entire society. (Anyone out there working in marketing? Find you’re always the ones blamed for lack of business, regardless of circumstances? Everyone else always knows how to do it better than you? Yep, been there.) In our society this was tied up to a large extent with other roles such as internal communications, membership and box office, meaning that the pool of people with whom I had to liaise to ensure everything ran smoothly increased massively. My ability to manage multiple projects was tested to the utmost – liaising with the press, writing marketing copy, organising promotional events, maintaining the display boards, persuading people to come and stuff envelopes – and for me the biggest learning experience was that I found it far easier to manage ‘things’ rather than ‘people’ 😀

However, ‘manage’ I did, and in jobs where I’ve held formal management responsibilities I have been helped in no small amount by the experience I’ve gained from my extra-curricular activities. In fact, in the workplace it’s often easier, as at least you have an element of accountability and lines of reporting to establish boundaries. In a voluntary group it’s very much a case of ‘well, we’re all doing this out of the goodness of our hearts’, which can make it very difficult to hold anyone to what you think they should be doing (especially if they disagree).

So those of you who are wondering how to get out of this Catch-22 situation and gain experience of a job you haven’t done yet – look to your hobbies. If you don’t have one, find one that will enable you to build up your skills in such a way as to give you the experience you need. I appreciate that not everyone will want to join a group in their spare time simply for the purpose of increasing their employability (fitting in a hobby can be difficult even if you are doing it purely for love). However, if lack of experience is the one stumbling block that you’re trying to overcome, then maybe this could be a route forward.

And, who knows, you might even have fun in the process…

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This time it’s personal

I am not a prolific blogger; any visitors to my website will have spotted this. In today’s world of sharing, liking and tweeting this may seem a little odd. But here are my reasons:

  1. I am a perfectionist. As someone whose career is anchored fundamentally in the use of words, I feel I have to hone my every utterance to be a shining example of language at the peak of its utility and beauty before I can release it to the masses. Naturally this never happens, if only because priority has to be given to paid work rather than my own whimsical meanderings. Like Joseph Grand in Camus’ La Peste, when it comes to the creative expression of my own thoughts, I can never stop editing. Perfection getting in the way of function yet again.
  2. I am an introvert. I’ve blogged before about this contrary aspect of my nature, and there is simply no getting away from the fact that, at heart, I simply don’t have an urge to share my innermost thoughts with the world. It’s generally enough that they’re there in my head. Any thoughts that need to be acted upon just get acted upon: I don’t feel the need to have a preamble about what I’m thinking about what I’m planning to get round to doing when I can finally drag myself away from blogging about… oh, wait, the moment has passed. You see?

However, one thing I have found in my first few months as an active freelancer is that I am absolutely rubbish at knowing how to relax and spend my ‘down time’. I used to come home from work, have a glass of wine (or two), cook dinner, watch TV and go to bed. Now I have (slightly) more choice as to when exactly I start/stop work and when I fit in relaxation/domestic chores. I enjoy swimming, going out for walks and running a nice hot bath, but often to enjoy these things fully I need more time than is available to me. I wish I could sit still for half an hour and just chill out, but I seem to be incapable of doing this. So I need to start making some more practical use of my time, something that engages my brain, keeps it busy and stops it wandering off on pathways that simply aren’t helpful. (My inner landscape is a thing of wonder and not a little wilderness. Imagine the blasted heath of Macbeth‘s witches, complete with storms, weirdness and full-on Shakespearian poetry, and mix it up with a substantial dose of Doctor Who navigating the perils of the space-time continuum in a dilapidated Tardis, and you come somewhere close to beginning to understand what it’s like inside my head.)

So I’ve decide to make a conscious effort to to start blogging more, if only to try to cling on to some semblance of what others perceive as reality. It’s quite nerve-racking for me, as one of my biggest fears is that potential clients could read what I have to say and not like it – and that this will impact on the work I get offered. But one of the main reasons I went freelance was to enjoy the, er, freedom that comes from being outside a company-bound environment – and if my thoughts provoke disagreement or disapproval, then I hope I can at least engage in a discussion as to why.

This, then, is my inaugural ‘kick-starting the blog’ post. Read it and digest, or weep. You’re more than welcome to comment below, but please be advised that I haven’t really got the hang of this yet, so if I am a little tardy in responding to any comments, it is nothing personal. I’m just otherwise engaged somewhere in my inner wilderness – quite possibly without a map – and will be with you just as soon as I can reprogramme the teleporter to whisk myself away from those pesky Daleks…

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Dear librarians, it has been five+ months since my last blog post.

I do feel that this is something of a ‘confession’, given that librarians are all about sharing information. And what’s the point of a blog if you don’t use it? But, you see, I’m in a bit of a dilemma. I’m an introvert. And there’s nothing an introvert hates more than randomly sharing personal thoughts and feelings with others. I mean, why would you want to do that????

And yet, and yet… Here I am in a profession that defines itself by its natural inclination to SHARE and CONNECT. It’s a bit of a mis-match, don’t you think? Well, here’s my take on why I’m drawn to what I do, despite my own persona.

As an introvert I get drained by too much interaction with others. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it; I really do love socialising with people I know well, who are close to me, and with whom I can just be myself. It’s just that it takes me a lot longer to recover from these interactions than people who are more extrovert. Extroverts gain energy from socialising, introverts’ energy is depleted.

So why would I choose a profession that requires me to interact with people? Here’s what I think.

I find the world hugely interesting and, despite being introverted, have no desire to go off and be a hermit in the woods. I love being able to observe what others do, enjoy the results of their creativity, and become informed by their discussions on life. I therefore recognise that I need to exist in the world of others and, to do that, I have to accept that a certain amount of interaction with others is required; it’s part of the deal, as it were.

There are different ways in which we can interact with others. There is the positive, and there is the negative. And this is key.

‘Positive’ includes the abovementioned socialising with friends, chatting, sharing food & wine, chilling in each others’ company, knowing you’re among people who understand you and love you for who you are. Or it’s about working with a bunch of people with shared objectives and mutual respect, who support and encourage each other to be the best they can be. It’s about things working, people helping other, and life going according to plan.

‘Negative’ includes complaining about things, griping about how unfair life is, and grumbling at things that should work but don’t. How many of the negative experiences you have in a day come about because of something that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to? The call centre that puts you on hold for half an hour before telling you there are no operators free to take your call? The shop that declines to honour your discount voucher because you didn’t read the small print that tells you it ran out last week? The library that fines you for an overdue book because its system was down when you tried to renew online? AARGHHH!

Introverts avoid interactions with others, but if we have to have them, we’d prefer them to be positive because it is SO MUCH EASIER AND LESS STRESSFUL. And so I think the reason I’m drawn to librarianship (and associated branches of the information professions) is because it is all about helping people, breaking down barriers, fixing problems, and facilitating all the processes that make life run more smoothly. When did you ever hear someone complain that they’d been given all the information they needed to make an educated decision? Or grumble about being introduced to the wonders of literature? Or snipe at being pointed in the right direction for claiming their benefits?

So that’s why I do what I do. I engage in interactions with people, even though it takes a huge amount of energy on my part, because I hope that the end result will be an easier life for us all – and fewer people coming to me to grumble about things.

Any other introverts recognise this? Or am I alone in my interpretation? Perhaps I should go off to be a hermit in the woods after all… Oh, but where would I go to find out about such opportunities?

Guess…

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It’s been an interesting day for tweets and blog posts about libraries, mostly sparked by Seth Godin’s post on ‘The future of the library‘. I found it really interesting as, for me, it encapsulated the whole problem with why libraries and librarians have such a hard time getting their message and mission out there.

You see, I think the issue is entirely to do with whether people see the library as (in Godin’s words) a ‘warehouse for books’ or a ‘house for the librarian’.

There are those, mostly in the public library arena (which, to be fair, is the arena Godin focuses on in this post), who want to promote the library as community space, bringing the joy of reading to the masses, providing beautiful, tactile, ink-n-dust-n-paper-smelling actual physical books to its users, an antidote to the quick-as-you-like dotcom world of hyperlinks, URLs and (gasp!) tweets.

And this is a really valuable point. I remember going to library school in the early ’90s and attending a lecture entitled ‘Is the book dead?’ Really – it’s not, and looks not to be for some time, and yes we do need to remind people that not everything is available at the touch of a button. There are joys to browsing a physical copy of, say, the complete works of Shakespeare that simply can’t be matched by clicking on a link and searching for that elusive, misquoted quote.

However, there is another side to libraries – and that’s the focus on ‘information’ as opposed to ‘books’. This argument runs: it’s not the medium, it’s the message! And, in my view, this has to be the key.

Not everyone values the look, feel and smell of a leather-bound folio or a Penguin paperback. Many people these days are overwhelmed by the absolute mire of information that engulfs them on a daily basis, and need help negotiating a route through the swamp. And that’s where the ultimate point of Godin’s blog post comes in.

Librarians’ unique value comes not from ‘guarding dead paper’ but from encouraging, guiding and helping people to see what’s contained within those pages. Whether it’s a first edition of The Canterbury Tales or the latest news feed from the Department of Health about the prospects for your granny’s social care, librarians are the ones who can help you find what is meaningful in this. They can help you filter what’s relevant to you personally and teach you the skills to locate, evaluate and absorb it yourself in future without help. They can advise you on what other choices are out there (Harry Potter fan? Try Tolkien! Setting up your own business? Try Companies House!) and lead you towards self-sufficiency, whether that’s in the realm of traditional print fiction, or the latest social web technologies, or something that hasn’t even been imagined yet.

The problem that librarians have is that defending the public library often means focusing on books – which are, absolutely and without doubt, one of the essential parts of a librarian’s remit. However, when the battle moves from public libraries to corporate libraries / academic libraries / hospital libraries / etc, where the emphasis is on accessing information in whatever format it’s currently available – and these days, more and more, that means electronically – how well are we serving our library comrades if the only message we’ve given out is that it’s all about books? What about electronic subscriptions to vital databases? Providing remote current awareness services over the web to people who work off-site? Accessing that vital up-to-the-minute medical research to treat that unusual patient? A five-year-old textbook isn’t always going to cut it.

I’m not knocking the role of libraries as physical book warehouses – I love books and would happily fill my home with them to the exclusion of many other things. But please, for the sake of our colleagues in less traditional settings, let’s at least acknowledge that there’s more to libraries than print, and that the primary role of librarians is to guide people to the information they need to manage their lives as well as their loves.

Godin describes the librarian as “a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher” – and that’s a description I’m happy to identify with.

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