Posts Tagged ‘Information’

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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This may set a new record in my life for ‘quickest blog post ever’… I have just found out that my article ‘What are we here for?’ has been published in CILIP Update (the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, for any non-librarians reading this blog). I submitted it with the aim of meeting the December deadline but knew that realistically it could get bumped to next year, or even dispensed with completely. But no – here it is staring me in the face!

The article basically outlines my ‘purpose in life’ and explains my somewhat chequered career. I’ve skipped from job to job, but all the roles I’ve undertaken have had a common purpose: to connect people with the information they need to live their lives or run their businesses.

If you’re a member of CILIP and can access the article, I’d be keen to hear what you have to say about my thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the points I make? Please note, though, that my primary aim is not to state my position as the be-all-and-end-all: it’s just my views, my perspective on life, and I have no doubt that everyone else will have a different take on things based on their own life experiences. Variety is the spice of life, after all!

Above all – digest and enjoy.

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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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Every picture tells a story

Just a quick post about the image I’ve chosen for the top of this blog. It’s a small portion of a picture of Lake Baikal in Siberia, taken by my father in September 2007. We were travelling together with friend David on what I like to think of as the ‘trip of a lifetime’, taking in Beijing, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian Railway, ending up in Moscow before coming home.

Why pick this picture? Well, firstly because it’s pretty and shows off the sparkle of the water in the sun! Secondly, because it reminds me of a great holiday, where I was able to get away from the usual concerns of life and experience several totally different cultures. And thirdly, because the sea symbolises (for me) the flow of information.

Information comes and goes, it flows in and out of our lives. And I’m interested in the whole package. Whether I’m helping people find out things they need to know, or using my writing and speaking skills to get relevant information out to others, I love it all. We’ve all experienced the frustration of broken systems and unnecessary hold-ups, and we all know what a relief it is when things work the way they’re supposed to. Well, that’s what I’m all about – I want life to run as smoothly as the tides, and I’ll do what I can to make that happen.

We stayed by Lake Baikal in a ‘log cabin’ open to tourists. There was no shower, the loo was a hole in the ground (albeit in a carpeted shed!), and the only opportunity for cleansing oneself was the sauna. Despite it being autumn in Siberia, we found ourselves sitting on the outside terrace of a lakeside bar, in our T-shirts, listening to Britney Spears on the sound system. Not quite what you might expect!

Information can come from surprising places, and I believe librarians have the ability to keep their eyes open, their ears alert and their noses to the ground in order to spot it when needed. We can find the right information at the right time, help identify that crucial piece of evidence, or push out that key message, to make the difference in someone’s life.

Plain sailing, you might say!

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Welcome to my world…

This is the domain of the Constant Librarian! I’ll post more soon about what I mean by that name, so please stay tuned and hopefully you’ll find out a little more about the wonderful world of those whose lifeblood is information in all its varied forms…

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