2014 (ICYMI)

Notably absent from the cards which I received over the current festive season, were the ‘round robin’ letters that used to give me a potted summary of what had been happening in the lives of my friends and relatives, (notably the accomplishments of their offspring) over the past year. These notes were a great source of delight, although mischievous delight in some ways, as I unpicked the gloss to guess at the reality beneath the veneer of the perfect lives portrayed in the endless round of promotions, new houses and exam successes. Nowadays, all of the children have reached the age of adulthood, so they are less fruitful sources of ‘news’ for their parents, but most obviously, the regular ping of updates from social media has alleviated the need for the annual news missive. The creative talent required to concoct superlative, social media statuses for the festive season is usually beyond most of us, as we are exhausted by the need to star in our own lives the entire year round – so unless something astonishing happens (hopefully good rather than catastrophic!), the end of the year is celebrated not only by the vestiges of pagan tradition, but by wholesale summary and review posts. An outpouring of “In Case You Missed It” headlines.

The summary and review posts are also evident in the professional realm, and although my experience with social media is mostly limited to Twitter, it is clear that the turn of the year demands fierce promotion of what happened over the past 12 months. This manifests in posts labelled ‘highlights’, ‘top 10 best moments’ ‘top 10 worst moments’ and so on, and although I remember end-of-year reviews from the analogue world back in the day, (Number 1 hit records from Top of the Pops!) the pervasiveness of contemporary digital culture means we are now exposed to summaries and reviews of just about everything, from everyone we know. Because we can count it, we do.

Two things trouble me about this – the first is of little consequence, and is that with a few exceptions, I find these summaries tedious. I read the news/articles the first time around, and if I didn’t have time for something then, I certainly don’t over the festive period.

The second concern is metrics. Many of the summaries include numbers. Numbers of posts, followers, hits, likes and downloads. Irrespective of meaning, measurement is implicit in any quantitative dialog, and the ease with which social media statistics are generated, encourages the feeling that more equals better.

The academic community has recently been treated to REF exercise, the metrics of which have generated much critique from more informed minds than mine. Nevertheless, academia, like the health service and other state-funded operations, faces increasing competition for increasingly limited resources, and so some way has to be found to ‘rank’ achievements, and to quantify ‘academic output’. Whilst I would like to argue that it is impossible, not only undesirable, to reduce academic/creative ability (which is wide and varied) to a number, numbers are increasingly the way in which we are judged. One problem with assigning numbers to aspects of our work (outputs) is that most of us, very sensibly, choose to focus our creative and research energy solely on the game of getting as high a number as possible for the criteria listed. It doesn’t matter if grant applications are unsuccessful, count the number of applications made

Relatively few of my immediate colleagues engage with social media, and so have yet to enter the arena for what are broadly referred to as altmetrics. But this will doubtless change as ways to count every utterance we make become more widely known.  I have colleagues from a wider pool of acquaintance who already promote the number of hits to videos of their lectures as a measure of credibility, even though it could also be a measure of how many students don’t think that their lectures are worth turning up to. This is not to say that numbers are always irrelevant or misleading. I am a known advocate of social media as channels of communication, and of course improving access to research, ideas and communities is beneficial to all. The thinking behind the numbers needs to be understood, but context is rarely immediate from altmetric visualisations. I am certainly not the first or only person to highlight that the attempt by everyone and their mum to achieve cult status by numbers, is, with the exception of one or two highly talented and/or lucky individuals, meaningless. If we are all celebrities, who is left in the audience? I come back to the contemporary need to star in our own lives, the measure of which seems to be large numbers of followers and mentions on various social media channels, such as hits on shared decks of slides, references to blog posts and links to video uploads. I wonder, really, what any of this means, when so many of us are employing the same strategy. Perhaps what is needed is more discussion around what is meaningful as ‘academic output’.

In the current climate, many of us seem increasingly driven, even when we have nothing new to say, to communicate regardless. It’s a bit like going down the rabbit hole isn’t it? A fantastically busy journey at the end of which, when we wake up, nothing much has happened.

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21st Century Library and Information Science

Time .. always changing things ..

Time .. always changing things ..

Some thoughts based on my recent presentation to the INFODAYS14 conference held at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic 5-7th November 2014.

The future of library and information science (LIS), is inextricably linked to the future of the document. Leaving aside for the moment, the question of exactly “what is a document?” this comes as no surprise to those of us working in this area, as we know that civilization owes its existence to recorded knowledge. For the time being also, let us allow ourselves to consider knowledge and information to be interchangeable terms, and within our LIS discipline, we will assume that for the purposes of communication, such knowledge or information must be instantiated as a document of some kind.

We can further understand that documents contain, and therefore allow access to, ‘formal’ information – i.e. something that is published, and therefore subject to the processes of the information communication chain, [Popper’s World III, instantiated in World I, physical objects]. This is in contrast to ‘informal’ information, which remains inside someone’s head – although developments in telepathic communication are starting to enter the research literature, we are still some way away from being able to intercept and understanding the thought processes of another being, [Popper’s World II].

I am often called on to comment on the nature of library and information science. To reiterate, here at City University London, we consider the discipline of library and information science to be the study of documents, on their journey through the information communication chain.

The realm of library and information science then, is the realm of the document. We, as researchers and practitioners within this field, are concerned with the activities surrounding the creation, dissemination, management, organisation and retrieval, and use of documents. We study these processes of documentation through the lens of Hjørland’s concept of domain analysis, invoking study and praxis within facets such as knowledge organisation, information retrieval, document preservation, historical studies, and research into information behaviour.

The changes in this chain of events, are driven largely by technology, although factors such as economics, politics and social tastes are all able to impact on the business of recorded knowledge.

Let us take a look at some of the developments that can be seen to be influencing the nature and definition of documents, as 2014 draws to a close.

Information Theory

A quick scan of the literature on the definition of information, reveals the troubled history of the concept central to our discipline. To-date, there is no single, satisfactory explanation of what information actually is. There are many attempts at definition, and indeed theories, both within the field of LIS and within other, seemingly unrelated disciplines. Resurgence in interest in information communications theory, can be seen to have heralded interest in information physics, philosophy of information and information biology. To some, the concept of information in these fields remains unconnected to the social discipline of library and information science, but to others, there is an interest in looking for connections and a possible theory of unification. See Bawden and Robinson papers below, for further reading in this latter area.

Data Science

The jump to prominence of data science and related areas (big data, data analytics, data visualisation) can be seen in the number of recent university courses being introduced (we have introduced one this year at City University), and reflected in the required skills listed in many job advertisements. One of the top skills sets required by employers across the sectors is the ability to collect, analyse and interpret data. Data handling and communication are now sitting alongside the more traditional ‘verbal and written communication skills’ that professional level work demands. These skills are becoming essential to practitioners within library and information science as e-science and the digital humanities pour more and more data sets into our sphere of influence. These digital data files are one example of the new forms of document that require the attention and understanding of members of our discipline. The move to open data, and the expectation that data will be published alongside findings are changing the way library and information professionals support scholarly communication. Indeed the move towards digital scholarship heralds a new era for partnerships between librarians and researchers.

Digital Humanities

The mass digitization of literature, poetry, art and music has led to an increase in materials and methods available for humanities based studies. There is a movement towards situating digital humanities research within the library and information environment, which seems to many, to be its natural home. Again, as with e-science, the availability of large data sets and multi-media files is fuelling new growth areas for understanding patterns and trends (text mining), and for facilitating the final convergence of the GLAM sector, where digital renderings of text, image, sounds or even objects bring the previously separate collection disciplines into a melting pot of new services and interpretations. We are witnessing new roles redefining library and information science as a producer of new content, understanding and insight, supporter of new forms of scholarship, and a leader in scholarly communications.


Library and information science has always had an intimate relationship with the processes of publishing and dissemination. Changes in both scholarly and trade publishing are well documented, driven by the open access movement and the demand for new models of consumption respectively. The rapid growth of mobile devices and social media has revolutionised what it means to be an author and what it means to be a disseminator or a reader. It is probably fair to say that anyone with access to technology (not everyone) can be both an author and a publisher. New mechanisms for content creation (image/media capture devices, writing for transmedia) allow new forms of documents (interactive narratives) to flourish, and we are seeing a move towards content marketing, an increase in the use of images or video over text, and in data mashups. New tools to help us understand the reach and potential impact of new publishing formats, referred to as altmetrics, are entering the armoury of library and information science alongside existing bibliometric and informetric analyses. What it means to publish is changing alongside the development of the document.

Computer Science/Technology

Technological advances undoubtedly drive the most significant changes in the form and nature of documents.

I have written previously in this blog, that developments in pervasive computing, multisensory network technologies and participatory human computer interfaces will allow new forms of documents to emerge, specifically ‘immersive’ documents, where unreality can be perceived as reality. News of current developments in virtual reality headsets and roomscape projection abounds, and consumer versions of games, narratives and training scenarios appear to be just around the corner timewise, rather than siting themselves somewhere in the mid to long term future. Before we arrive at the availability of completely immersive documents, we will see a range of lesser, participatory experiences, such as the interactive, transmedia narratives mentioned in the previous section. In these narratives, the story reaches out beyond the imaginary world, into the reality of the reader, with texts, phone calls and connections, seemingly coming from characters within the plot. The way the narrative plays out can be influenced by the reader, as can the ending.

The blurring of boundaries between a game, a learning experience or pure fiction with this type of document is evident. There will also be ethical implications with regard to how these documents are used.

Implications for Library and Information Science

As documents evolve, so then will the scope and processes of what we understand as library and information science. New forms of document will require extensions and adaptations to our current tools for knowledge organisation, new information architectures and new understandings of human information behaviours. Most interestingly perhaps, for the LIS profession, will be the need to engage with and promote ‘immersive literacy’, possibly in a similar way to which Gilster suggested for digital literacy less than two decades ago.

Further Reading

Bawden D and Robinson L (2013). “Deep down things”: in what ways is information physical, and why does it matter for LIS? Information Research 18(3), paper C03 [online], available at http://InformationR.net/ir/18-3/colis/paperC03.html

Gilster P (1997). Digital Literacy. New York NY: Wiley, New York.

Hjørland B (2002). Domain Analysis in Information Science: Eleven approaches – traditional as well as innovative. Journal of Documentation, vol 58(4), 422-462.

Robinson L (2009). Information Science: the communication chain and domain analysis. Journal of Documentation, vol 65(4), 578-591.

Robinson L and Bawden D (2013). Mind the gap: transitions between concepts of information in varied domains. In: Theories of information, communication and knowledge. A multidisciplinary approach. Eds. Ibekwe-SanJuan F and Dousa T. Springer.

Robinson L (2014a). Multisensory, Pervasive, Immersive: towards a new generation of documents. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, in press.

Robinson L (2014b). Immersive information behaviour; using the documents of the future. New Library World, in press.

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The Bad Note

diana rigg A lifetime ago, I wanted to be Emma Peel. Oh how I longed for her looks, her London lifestyle, stylish wardrobe, surreal adventures, and cool cat-suit; I envied the way the roads she drove around were always empty, and resented that my idol also had a PhD in physics (and, yeah, her relationship with Steed).

In this, a completely different life, I long to be quite a lot like Dame Diana Rigg. In London, I caught her solo presentation of material from her book “No Turn Unstoned” – an unoriginal title, although new and amusing to me. In ‘real life’, so many years after I first crushed over her high-kicking persona on the telly, I was delighted to be reminded of the pleasure of good performance in presentation. Dame Diana’s book has been described as scholarly, and indeed we were treated to some of the, now hilarious, bad performance reviews from classical Greece, and a subsequent exposition of the bad review in the theatre world throughout the centuries. But her storytelling technique is also enviable, pulling us into her world to the extent to which I currently refer to as ‘immersive’ – where unreality seems real. She did this with just her own voice and impersonations – reading from extracts and occasionally diverting, and enriching our attention with seemingly unscripted anecdotes. She is funny, as well as intelligent. Immersive storytelling, with a dash of humour, is a plausible format for the contemporary lecture. I learnt and retained, much of the narrative, in addition to running through ways in my head, in which I could incorporate aspects of her style into my own teaching repertoire.

The bad note, is a criticism given to an actor by the director – the more famous actors never being given their ‘bad notes’ in public. A common cause of the ‘bad note’ is the desire of the actor to improve their part, and the director’s desire to remove the, often contentious, consequences from the characterisations.

In my own rather modest time as an academic, I have noticed the advantages of performance skills creeping into my job. Lecturing (good lecturing) used to be about communicating concepts effectively; now it is about performing them. Today’s student cohort is drenched in high definition video and computer generated worlds, to say nothing of exposure to the torrent of celebrity lecturers with acting credentials, as well as a PhD in physics. A few bullet points thrown onto a white PowerPoint slide somehow doesn’t cut it anymore. This all leaves those of us with limited thespian backgrounds a bit adrift. We are judged continually on student satisfaction; via class feedback, module feedback, student-staff liaison committees, appraisal and peer-review. But the goalposts of satisfaction shift constantly, and in order to pass muster we need the resilience skills of performance, in addition to taking on-board new learning technologies, and methods of teaching and evaluation, alongside keeping up within our own areas of expertise.

Teaching now centres around a strong element of immersive engagement; I, like many students, can be readily drawn in to any topic presented with enthusiasm and conviction, and higher education needs to address the need for academics to possess performance skills.

With performance, however, comes the bad note. Where we were once judged on our academic ability, we are now also rated on our enthusiasm, and our ability to deliver satisfaction. We need to script not just slides and papers, but the whole show, from student lifestyle to learning outcomes. Whilst this may be no bad thing for learning and teaching in higher education, we have to learn to cope with the constant criticism; not all of us are famous enough to receive our bad notes in private, and often our attempts to improve our parts attract only derision.

Diana Rigg read out some of her bad notes, and suggested that a way to get over them was to share them publicly, and with colleagues, thus removing their sting – and also reminding the authors of bad reviews that their words may be the subject of their subject’s next lecture.

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On pleats and puffs: the trials of academic costume

lynxigraduation14This piece by Louise Byrne in the Times Higher Education supplement, dares to suggest that academic gowns don’t work so well for everyone. Specifically those without the broad shoulders and strategic buttons necessary to secure the hood, and even more specifically shorter people, say, those under 5’ 2”.

I am pleased, because this means I am not the only dissenter, having recently faced a barrage of criticism from lovers of pomp and tradition, when I complained to colleagues that wearing academic dress made me feel trollopsy, and that I would prefer not to wear it to present my students at graduation.

I am not against tradition, nor against ‘dressing up’ for the occasion. I just hate feeling hot, anxious about needing to prevent a variety of wardrobe malfunctions and generally looking over pleated, as I stand in front of a huge audience of parents, being videoed as I attempt to focus on getting the names right and not fluffing the lines. A costume should enhance a performance, not hinder it.

Seriously who designs these things? Well, Viviene Westwood has designed a series of robes for King’s College, where at least the hood appears to be attached to the shoulders of the gown, rather than the traditional slip over horror, which demands complex wielding of safety pins, which in turn make holes in your clothes.

But still, all the pictures on the website show tall girls in significantly high heels, with gowns which don’t meet in the middle. I recall Vivienne’s iridescent violet wedding gown for Dita Von Teese (currently on display at the V&A’s Wedding Dresses exhibition), and I am perturbed. Vivienne, this gown is spectacular. Can you not then, design a graduation gown that flatters the majority of us, without the puffery and unworkable accessories, and which fastens at the front?

At least the new King’s College gowns come without hats. Even Henry VIII looked a bit of a chump in the pancake-like headwear which is supposed to be a reward for getting a PhD. Better to stick with the mortarboard rather than suffer the indignity of the floppy beret flattening your fringe. I don’t mind anyone else wearing a hat, but I am uneasy when in the 21st century some of us face regulations which state that we have to.

Of course many of my colleagues are beautiful people, who carry the pleated shroud off with aplomb. Still others don’t care as they get paid anyway. But in case anyone with sympathy and design talent is listening, here are some hints and tips:

  • Black is a good colour. Black is the new black. Not orange and certainly not pale grey (UCL what are you thinking ?)
  • Hoods can look imposing and foster scope for customisation of the gown. They should be firmly attached by skilled seamstresses, not safety pins, so that it is unnecessary to choke, hold the ribbon down with one hand to prevent choking, or look at photos of your special day showing the hood slipping down your shoulders.
  • Pleats are expensive. They make everyone look fat. Unless you have signed with Models One, you don’t need pleats on the shoulders, or across the back, or anything puffy at all.
  • A longer line at the back of the gown makes it flow elegantly, and the drop sleeves from the elbow make the arms look graceful.
  • Gowns should aim for mid calf, no longer. There are always steps and hitching the gown up to climb them should be reserved for Gone with the Wind cosplay events.
  • Some kind of fastening at the front is comforting. This doesn’t have to be the romper suit zipper going all the way up that I have notice on some US gowns – a single toggle or button with a rope loop is easy, classy and effective. Pulling your gown around you all the time makes you look anxious on stage and deranged on camera.
  • A small pocket for the cloakroom ticket would be great, and another way to reduce anxiety.
  • Hats; awkward and unnecessary
  • Did I mention black?
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From Interactive to Participatory

The emergence of immersive documents, wherein unreality is perceived as reality by the ‘reader’, is a consequence of three converging technologies:

  • networked/mobile computing becoming pervasive
  • multimedia becoming multisensory
  • interactive becoming participatory

Alongside this synthesis, we can identify five tangential areas of interest, in which developments contribute to the facilitation of immersive documents. These are:

  • enabling technologies such as virtual reality, made popular by devices such as Oculus Rift
  • developments in graphic art and design ( see Diagon Alley brought to life for the immersive Harry Potter theme park)
  • new understanding of creative writing techniques underpinned by research into transmedia, literary/narrative theory, scriptwriting and game design
  • the desire by people (players/audience/readers) to participate, evidenced by activities such as cosplay, interactive gaming, web 2.0, participatory theatre, films, e-books and exhibitions.
  • a small but growing interest from the library and information science community on the implications of ‘immersive’ documents for our profession (collecting, indexing, retrieving, preserving, making available to readers or users)

The usual definition of the term ‘reader’ is expanded here to encompass the person or persons experiencing, or participating in, the unreal, immersive document. This may be by engaging with a transmedia story, by joining the audience of an immersive play, or by interfacing with virtual reality technology to enter a virtual world. The activity of ‘reading’ thus becomes participatory, so that the reader perceives the documented world as a reality, and posseses the ability to make choices in the story, and influence the eventual outcome.

The image above shows the cast from immersive theatre play “Venice Preserv’d” in action; drawing the audience into a timeless world filled with contemporary meaning. There are an increasing number of participatory theatre experiences on offer to those willing to suspend reality and join the cast (if only at the superficial level of donning a robe and singing along) but the number of attendees at such events demonstrates the lure of participation.

In talking about participation we are obliged to mention the whole spectrum of video games – hardly a new phenomenon, but one which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and to some extent, perhaps merging with immersive, transmedia e-books, so that the boundary between what is a game, and what is participating in a story becomes blurred. The educational opportunity for immersive games is already evident, in prototype products including: In Ulysses: Proteus and Dolus: Finding the Journal of Odysseus.

On the boundary between what is a game and what is a participatory ‘story’, writer Mike Jones offers the clarification that

“A Game does not need, nor have to have, a Story.”

He uses the phrase ‘interactive narrative‘ to further distinguish between immersive games and immersive stories:

“Interactive Narrative.. a term which can encompass a broad range of experiences where the audience is asked to play a role, to participate or to engage directly with character and plot through action. An experience that involves game-play but does so in the context and service of telling a story.”

Old Dramatic Principles in New, Interactive Narratives. Mike Jones 11/08/2014. http://www.mikejones.tv/journal/2014/8/11/old-dramatic-principles-in-new-interactive-narratives.html [accessed 16/10/2014]

I think this is helpful in attempting to understand what sort of things could be immersive documents, and the differences between them.

Immersive documents do not yet exist. Today’s emergent versions are still reliant on the suspension of disbelief – but technological advances fuelled by the popular desire to participate are moving us towards documents that allow us to perceive an unreal story as reality.

Below is a list of resources supporting the move from interaction (where the computer generated world is separate from the user) to participation (where the experience is more believable). They emphasize the strong desire in many people to escape reality and engage with a scripted world. This listing is in its early stages, and it will develop over time.

Further proof: our lovely #citylis student @MeganWaples, participating in “Venice Preserv’d”.

Venice Preserv'd + Meghan

Immersive Plays/Theatre

The Kindness of Strangers

Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d

Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man – London

Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More – New York

Immersive Films

What it’s like to shoot a feature film for Oculus Rift

Immersive Books/Texts

The Craftsman

Immersive Games

Blood and Laurels

In Ulysses: Proteus

Dolus: Finding the Journal of Odysseus

Immersive Exhibitions

David Bowie is


Diagon Alley Theme Park at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter


At Hyper Japan

Japanese ‘Cosplay’ craze becoming popular in London

Immersive/Transmedia Writing

Will virtual reality reshape documentary journalism?

The Writing Platform

Marie-Laure Ryan on Narrative Theory

Mike Jones: Old Dramatic Principles in New Interactive Narratives

Enabling Technologies

Julian McCrea from Portal Entertainment talks about how audience’s facial data can be used in immersive entertainment.

Stretchable electronics could lead to robotic skin, computerised clothes.

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On telling immersive stories

Neil Gaiman

I joined a packed house at the Barbican last Friday, to listen to the words and voice of Neil Gaiman [@neilhimself]. The audience sat in rapture for several hours, listening as he read his stories out loud, and I was reminded that storytelling is not only a powerful art, it is a furiously popular one. Gaiman’s darkish genre is not immediately appealing to me, but his performance, billed as ‘A revolutionary new concept of multi-media storytelling’, certainly was.

The multi-media component of the evening comprised a blending of the author’s mellifluous narrative, with projected drawings by the artist Eddie Campbell, and the ethereal acoustics of string quartet FourPlay. This seems rather low key when we are bombarded with announcements of increasingly realistic virtual reality applications all day, but it was effective enough to draw me into the world inhabited by the characters within the story ‘The truth is a cave in the black mountains’.

Good stories have always been immersive. Whilst the grading of a story as good or not is somewhat subjective, the aim of the writer is surely to draw the reader as close as possible to perceiving the tale as reality; to suspend disbelief, if only for a while.

I often refer to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series to illustrate what is meant by ‘immersive’, as many readers easily agree the world depicted in the mind solely by the text persuades the reader that Harry and his chums really exist. Artwork pushes this further, giving the reader something concrete to imagine. Many stories, have achieved this, possibly since the earliest narratives were written down. It is arguable that even earlier, oral documents, stories told by telling or singing, are an effective mechanism by which to deliver the feeling of immersion.

The level of immersion offered by oral documents, or those consisting of text and drawings, is limited, however. The reader takes the role of a passive observer in the fictional world. The cinematic experience, film and video, provides a richer environment from which to fuel our feeling of immersion – but still we are unable to participate in any way.

If we add contemporary interactive technology to multimedia’s sound and vision, we are granted permission to enter the unreal world and perform actions which influence the outcome. With video games for example, we are able to contribute in some way to the world loaded into computer memory.

I have written previously, that the combination of pervasive networked computing, multi-sensory, rather than merely multimedia communication, plus participatory interaction, will eventually allow us to experience unreality as reality – to experience a story, a game, a film or any other scripted device as reality. Our disbelief will be suspended to the extent that we cannot distinguish between reality and the virtual world. Documents will offer us truly immersive experiences.

Immersive documents then, are the containers for a story, experience, fantasy, game, memory or idea, which allow the reader to perceive unreality as reality. As technology progresses, we creep closer and closer to the worlds portrayed in science fiction. The world of the holosuite for example.

It is not however, merely the enabling technologies which carry us along on the quest for ever more believable stories. It is something also of human nature. The desire to suspend reality, the willingness to enter fully into the unreal world is popular. We, as readers or users of immersive documents,  wish to participate in, or interact with the story, often in a way which allows us to  influence the sequence of events or the final outcome. In unreality, we may be offered a level of control unimaginable in real life.

The legacy of immersive documents undoubtedly stems from the pleasure of reading a good book. Before the spread of digital technologies some authors attempted to allow the reader a modicum of interactivity – to choose an ending to the story, either by selecting from pre-written options, or by voting by post. As technology advanced, more realistic interaction has been supported by interactive video or online gaming and by web 2.0 technologies leading to dynamic web pages and applications such as Second Life. In the cultural sector we witness the popularity of immersive exhibitions such as the recent David Bowie is shown at the V & A, immersive theatre, 3D cinema and the astonishing outpouring of content created by cultmedia fans, including simulated worlds and real-life cosplay.

The possibilities here are endless, and immersive stories can move beyond fiction and entertainment to include teaching and learning in realistic, yet safe environments. There is a dark side too, though. The unreal world may be somewhere we prefer to stay. Whilst Neil Gaiman came to end of his excellent dark reading and we all went home, the immersive documents just around the corner may be harder to switch off.


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Reinventing the (colour) wheel

colorIf you are a little jaded with the grey skies of London, try a visit to the Making Colour exhibition, showing at the National Gallery this summer.

Deep in basement darkness, we are reminded of how to see colour as the layout focuses on the discovery and development of pigments through the centuries. Each room considers a single colour, looking at how artists have painted according to  available hues; astonishing palettes derived from limited offerings derived from ground up minerals, sea creatures and insects, suspended in either oil or egg yolk. Fascinating representations of textiles – the pile of velvet, the sheen of silk. Understanding how the colour was made enhances our appreciation of the appearance of the delicate skin tones in frescos, (faces under painted in green earth, then overlaid with pinks), the rendering of silver from black and white, and the appearance of gold from yellows. We are given a reminder of how time fades organic pigments, and changes how we see today, a different image to that originally created by the artist; red lake in particular fading from its mix with blue, so that originally vivid purples fade to grey. Modern synthetic paints in tubes subtly transformed artistic licence – allowing the impressionists to create their dreamy mixes with ease.

Making Colour is illustrated with examples from the National Gallery’s fabulous collection – including some of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite works.

Go and be inspired – think about all the different shades of red and how to see the colours in clouds.

harris colour wheel card





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Videogames as Cultural Heritage

videogamesAn engaging seminar at the Daiwa Foundation on 3/6/14, allowed games experts and enthusiasts James Newman and Iain Simons to treat us to an entertaining and thought provoking romp through the history of videogames. Their relaxed style kept our attention for around 90 minutes, which still wasn’t really enough time to cover all aspects of the questions ‘are videogames a part of cultural heritage, and if so, should they be preserved?’

The intuitive answer would seem to be ‘yes, of course’, but it is interesting to consider some of the evidence for why. A slide of Super Mario (1985) and Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) instantly transported many of the audience back in time; game imagery has the ability to evoke strong memories of place, music and feelings, perhaps akin to the power of smell. We could then, consider the preservation of out-dated games purely for nostalgia, but historic games also offer us a record of technology at a given point in time, an insight into what was considered a ‘game’ from a socio-cultural perspective, and material from which to predict future trends.

Irrespective of the reasons for preserving the games, there are problems with this. There is no legal deposit in the UK for videogames, and thus no systematic policy or funding (one consideration is that an archiving initiative should come from the industry rather than the state). Games archives require space for the accompanying technological platforms, which demand an increasing amount of conservation to combat the unavoidable decay (bitrot), as plastics become brittle and powdery, and circuit boards return, like all of us, to dust. Rewriting games into the current age so that they function on modern technology is a plausible solution, but not one appreciated by either games lovers or historians, as the authenticity experience of playing the game is lost.

Our speakers were both involved in setting up the National Videogame Archive, within the National Media Museum at Bradford.

A comparison of the videogames industry in the UK with that in Japan. Showed us that serious game playing is very serious in Japan. Here, even the range of literature found in bookstores is wider than that found in the UK. Pictures from a six storey games emporium in Tokyo convinced us that historic games are fantastically popular, although interestingly, the players of archaic games were from the same youngish demographic as those of up-to-the-minute productions. The profitability of this type of venture clearly works out despite the outlay for space and maintenance.

I was left with the thought that games *are* part of our cultural heritage, and something very much worth preserving. From the perspective of library and information science, games can be regarded as documents; they can be studied from a variety of angles, in the same way books can within the context of ‘book history’.

Worth further thought is whether we are preserving the physical game alone, so that future players can have a go in a different time, or whether we are including the preservation of the experience of a player at a given moment. Watching a video clip of expert players in Japan, it was evident that understanding how it feels to play is a compelling quest, likewise we could explore the symbiotic movements of two or more people playing the same game. There is though, the question of how to record the feelings of the players, and what sort of measures we use to interpret any meaning to the record.

If we consider that future documents will embrace immersive, multisensory and participative experiences, then videogames are undoubtedly of concern to those of us within LIS. Serious leisure people, it has to be done.

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Spaces for learning

Raphael Gallery at the V&A

Room 48a: The Raphael Gallery at the V&A

Ludi (@ludiprice) and I attended the preview of Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, currently showing at the V&A. The exhibition is gorgeous, so do go if you can, but what stuck me was not so much the dresses as the feeling whilst we were gazing at them, wandering around in the darkish space, watching all the videos and learning all the time. Why isn’t going to university quite like that? Why are the spaces not so conducive to engaging with material? It could be the cost – I admired the videos playing silently in the recesses of the fabulous domed ceiling about us; Ludi agreed: “.. but we need a dome …”, although I am not sure that cost is everything. The classrooms at City are undergoing an expensive refit – with a theme that reminds me of the barbie doll furniture I used to play with as a child, reinterpreted in 21st century windowless bunkers. What is taught in these rooms and what is learnt? I hope nobody thought to consider these questions, but I have a suspicion that, depressingly, this is a considered, contemporary vision of learning space.

We left the wedding dresses and wandered into the Raphael Gallery (shown above). “The game is,” I explained, “to come here just before closing time, and wait until you are the last person in the room – then for a few moments, in this calm, cathedral like space, all the Raphael paintings here exist just for you…”.

When we ask students to pay £9,000 a year to study face-to-face, we should be confident that we can at least offer a physical space which instills a feeling of timelessness, inspiration, connection with others and above all, a desire to learn.

What spaces say to each of us is subjective, and often personal. But there are spaces which many of us, collectively feel inspired by. Spaces which encourage us to pay attention, to realise that something interesting and important is being communicated. Spaces which objectively promote not just the learning process, but the desire to learn. They are somewhat elusive in today’s educational landscape however.

.. obligatory wedding dress ..

Stunning contemporary dress from Ian Stuart Bride (http://www.ianstuart-bride.com/)

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My name is Lynxi … I am an academic

What is a LIS degree? This question is a favourite concern to me as director of a postgraduate LIS programme (#citylis). Surrounded by rocketing costs for the professional masters, piled on top of hiked-up undergraduate fees and set in the midst of global economic uncertainty, there is the very real question of why anyone would choose to enrol on a face-to-face taught course instead of learning on the job.

Leaving aside for the moment, the choice of which subjects should be presented in the classroom, our slant at #citylis has always been on an academic focus, emphasizing the theoretical principles underlying professional practice.

Unsurprisingly, we face the occasional suggestion that it might be better to teach more about what people actually do in the workplace. This latter approach has always seemed short sighted to me. Skills I used in the workplace 5 years ago are already sliding from dinner party conversation (command line searching anyone?) and I am constantly being reminded that what employers value most are those harder-to-quantify skills, which start with ‘excellent oral and written communication’ and run through to the pinnacle of ‘flexible thinker’.

Whilst it is difficult to find an agreed upon definition of  ‘flexible thinking’, let alone ensure its presence in the curriculum, it is unlikely to emerge from a purely vocational based course. Our belief is that thinking skills develop from academic study. That is to say, if you want to learn to think, practice thinking.

But there is more to a successful career than being able to pronounce on theory. It is important to show how theoretical principles can be used to deliver results in the workplace. Here again, practice is the key, and to this end we augment our research based content with practical examples delivered by leading practitioners. This blended approach has received two welcome validations recently. The first by Andrew Preater (@preater) comes in his concise blog posting Reflections on the LIS Professional Qualification where he writes:

Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.

Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practice.

The second comes from Diane Pennington, speaking at a Symposium organized by McGill University’s iSchool, (reported in InsideASIS&T Oct/Nov 2013, 40(1) p 16) who argued against divisions in the curriculum between those intent on a vocational career, and those aiming for PhD study.

All of this should be obvious, but the situation often seems a little hopeless to those of us who are constantly called upon to justify the existence of our cross-disciplinary, academic curriculum in terms of immediate job skills and learning outcomes. It is good to stand back and remind ourselves of the bigger picture. In our academic approach, we are laying the foundations of resilience and adaptability that will support a life-long career, rather than just a first position.

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