Waving Not Drowning

lyn's tweet feed from 29/03/16Unusually, libraries have been making the news this week. The publicity surrounding the BBC’s investigation into public library closures has generated much controversy about the – admittedly not new – phenomenon of the alleged decline of libraries and librarians.

Two responses come naturally to a provider of library/information education, concerned at the implication that we are educating students for a terminally declining profession. We can rebuke the sloppy journalism that writes of the decline of ‘libraries’ and ‘librarians’, when what is meant is the much more limited, though still important, context of the public library service in the UK. We can deplore the shallow voices that proclaim, as they have been doing for nearly two decades now, that we don’t need libraries any more, now that we have Google/Wikipedia/smartphones.

This though, isn’t really enough. Complain though we might about the limitations of reporting, and the ignorance of some commentators, we cannot ignore the dramatically changing library/information landscape, and we need to be continually reconsidering what we offer to meet changing demands. Not that we haven’t already been doing so; a post I wrote almost a year ago [Time for the Blue Whale] outlined our thinking of that time about the way library/information education needed to adapt. But, in view of the current bruhaha, it’s worth setting out how #citylis sees itself adapting to meet the challenges.

The five points here are really an elaboration of the ideas in my earlier post, not a replacement for them.

Wide horizons

We support public libraries, of course we do, and we object strongly to many of the more stupid attitudes being expressed at the moment. We cover public library issues on our courses, and will continue to do so. But only a minority of students will ever be professionally active in the public library sector. Along with many others commenting on the current controversy, we remind ourselves that the library/information sector is much bigger than this one aspect. Even if all public libraries in the country went out of business, which is unthinkable, there would still be a vibrant library profession, and a need for library education.

Wider horizons

As I pointed out in my earlier post, and as many others have reiterated, library/information skills are relevant, indeed increasingly relevant, way beyond the wider bounds of any conception of the library/information sector. Our subject is the whole communication chain of information recorded in documents. We will continue to emphasise these wider implications in our courses; both to cater for the increasing proportion of our students who do not see themselves as library/information professionals, and to help those who do prepare to support this wider application of our perspectives and skills.

We’ve been here before, but it’s different now

While it is idiotic to say that library are obsolescent because of Google and smartphones, we cannot, and do not, ignore the changes brought about by technology. We are unashamedly digital, and want all of our students to leave with a good appreciation of the possibilities of technology. For those who want it, we will be offering more opportunities for gaining skills in metadata, coding, data analysis, social media, and the like. But this has to be balanced by a continued interest in the historical core, and development of our subject; if we don’t know where we’ve come from, we can’t really understand where we are, still less where we’re going. New technologies and resources often do not bring new issues and behaviours; just a new variant on what’s gone before.

Making friends

Another thing that we have said before, but which is very relevant in thinking how library/information education can flourish in difficult times, is that we are a meta-discipline. Our concern is information and documents, but that gives us an overlap with several other disciplines. It is well-known that LIS has no unique place within the academic landscape, shown by the varied range of faculties in which the subject is placed in different universities. In our case, we overlap City University’s Schools of Technology and of Arts/Social Sciences. This could be seen a weakness, but we intend to turn it into a strength in our course provision, by involving the whole range of information interests, from performance art to robots, and from philosophy to cult media fans. Information is central to many conversations and domains.

Theory and practice

Something else we have emphasised in the past, but which will stand statement, is that we try to strike a balance between theory and practice in LIS education. If we were focused just on training our students for immediate practice, then we would rightly be concerned about the ‘decline of a profession’ headlines that we are now seeing (inaccurate though they may be). But we don’t do that. On the contrary, we focus very firmly on the body of theory, concepts and principles that will allow our students to thrive in the future information environment, however it develops and changes. That doesn’t mean that we neglect skills; on the contrary we are putting more emphasis on directly linking conceptual and skills-based materials, partly though curriculum changes and partly through addition of more optional workshops, seminars, etc.

So, it would be tempting to simply rail against those who wrongly report that all libraries are in decline, and that library/information professionals are no longer needed. But we prefer to acknowledge that, wrong-headed as many of their pronouncements are, there is a sea-change in the sector taking place. #citylis will change, and is changing, to meet the need for graduates with a thorough understanding of the world of information, and an ability to impact it. And the need for those people is increasing, not declining.

Ada Lovelace: why do we care?


Ada Lovelace Symposium 9/10 December 2015: photo @lynrobinson cc-by

Last week, I attended the Symposium at the Mathematical Institute in Oxford, held over 9/10th December 2015, in celebration of Ada Lovelace’s (1815-1852) 200th birthday.

As at least an honorary member of the computer science discipline, I have always been quick to cite Ada as an example of ‘a really clever girl’, someone who represents equality for women in what is still, in many universities, a male dominated subject.

I held the impression that Ada was rather more clever than those who influenced her, but apart from the well told, but often disputed, line that she was the world’s first ‘programmer’, I knew little about her, and hence my desire to join an audience of mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists for a couple of days of hardcore Ada.

The sessions certainly brought Ada to life for me, allowing me to move beyond my association of her with the workings of the Analytical Engine, and with her somewhat severe photographs.

As I listened to the presentations around findings from computer science, music and literary analysis, I was reminded of the contribution which library and information science (LIS) makes to progress within other disciplines: from promoting the value of original sources, through the creation of collections and discovery systems, to the question of archiving, in which the selection, preservation, and provision of access to the documents comprising our heritage has important implications for our future.

Several speakers drew on the connection between Ada and imagination, and her understanding of its central role  in the process of discovery within both the arts and sciences. As LIS professionals, we could perhaps draw more attention to ways in which our knowledge and skills can be used to stimulate imagination, and to support creativity, connections and new understanding.

Ursula Martin described materials selected (with Mary Clapinson) from the archives of the Lovelace family papers, in building the current exhibition at the Bodleian. [A digital collection of Ada’s mathematical papers will be available online in 2016]. The papers, having spawned much overlapping analysis of Ada already, promise there is still much to be discovered, and the delight shown by Martin, a computer scientist, in realising the meaning of scribbled diagrams sketched across snippets of paper was infectious. The documents she described revealed Ada’s wide ranging scientific interests and abilities, including her fascination with ‘magic squares’, an example of which was deftly demonstrated in modern time by Soren Riis (really seems like magic!).

The correspondence between Ada and her tutor, August de Morgan, and between her and Charles Babbage, provide us with rich sources of evidence for the development of Ada’s thinking, in support of the claim as to whether or not she was the world’s first programmer. It is worth considering perhaps, the longevity and accessibility of contemporary emails as evidence for future historians. Much development of modern thinking takes place in digital forums and on multiple social media and publishing platforms. This is likely to prove challenging to any attempt to reconstruct accurate trails of the emergence of ideas, which in today’s world often involve multiple players, in contrast to the one-to-one conversations of the analogue past. An important question for library and information science, is not just ‘what to preserve?’ but how to know it even exists.

Author Betty Toole (Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science), presented evidence for Ada’s human characteristics, and suggested that computer science today would benefit more from a focus on Ada’s humanity, than on the issue of whether or not she wrote the first computer programme. Ada saw beyond the calculations, to envisage how the Analytical Engine could change the world, and how it could be used to benefit all. Toole recalled a letter from fellow author Bruce Sterling, who wrote that he would never have written his acclaimed ‘The Difference Engine’ (co-authored with William Gibson) had he first read Toole’s work, as her interpretation of Ada made him see a human being, in contrast to a stereotype.

Toole read extracts on fashion advice from Ada’s letters to her daughter, Ann Isabella, as evidence for her gentle humour and understanding – letters written even though she was extremely ill (Ada died aged 36). Other examples included extracts from letters to her tutor, de Morgan, explicating her struggle with functional equations, and revealing her unassuming nature in asking repeatedly for explanations of things she could not understand. This quality, of not being afraid to keep asking, is something I think LIS should emphasise as an essential part of information literacy today.

Ada was herself, highly information literate, and Toole outlined what we know of her sources of information. On encountering the Difference Engine 1 in 1833, Ada attended the lectures of 19th century popular writer and speaker, Dionysius Lardner, and obtained blueprints from Babbage’s son, Herschel Babbage. She went to see the machine, and she held conversations with Babbage about the Analytical Engine. This appreciation of original sources is the foundation of contemporary research, but it is often overlooked in our modern fondness for a quick fix from the Internet.

For background research to her own work, Toole hand transcribed information from original sources in the Bodleian archives. Amongst a collection held by a friend, she came across a blue slip of paper, a letter written by Ada to her mother, which reads:

If you cannot concede me poetry, can you concede me poetical science?

This, now famous line, Toole stated, suggests to us that Ada was both her father Byron the poet’s, daughter, as well as her mother Annabella’s daughter, the mathematician. Ada’s abilities grew from a balance between art and science.

Ada later wrote that it was more important for scientists to have imagination, than for anyone else, as it was primarily the ‘discovering facility’. If imagination then, is still to be the ‘discovering facility’ for our computer science today, do we support and encourage this enough?

Ada’s ideas were taken up by Alan Turing, from a distance of 100 years, when he read the notes she made to Menabrea’s paper, following her translation of the latter’s account of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Although Ada predicted that the Analytical Engine might one day write music, and saw that it could weave algebraic patterns, Turing took issue with Ada’s statement that: “this engine does not originate anything, it only knows what we know how to order it to perform” – this is known as the ‘Lovelace Objection’, which is, somehow unsurprisingly, far less well known than the Turing Test.

Toole further referred to one of the most important letters written by Ada to Babbage, in which she accuses him of acting for ‘fame and glory’, in contrast, she continues, to her own actions which are for ‘the benefit of mankind’. This theme kept reoccurring throughout the symposium, raising the uncomfortable question of whether we use developments in computer science for the benefit of humankind, and if we think so, do all of humankind benefit or just some? Toole ended by suggesting a ‘Lovelace Test’ to ensure this.

British Academician, Richard Holmes, spoke about the evidence we have for Ada’s understanding of broader scientific matters, and contrasted this with her ideas about the nature of discovery and imagination. He described Ada as ‘bringing all the disciplines together, around her’, and noted that her connections to many of the leading intellectuals of the Victorian era were likely underpinnings for this status. That it is often not just what you know, but also who, has important implications for teaching and learning. Although this is not an original observation, LIS should consider how to encourage networking, social skills and the search for inspiration, alongside the current obsession with gaining ‘job skills’.

Ada contrast

Photo of  slide from Richard Holmes presentation on 9/12/15: @lynrobinson cc-by

Holmes visualised his contrast with two images of Ada, which he felt portrayed the opposition of the ‘cool mathematician’, with the wild poetical Ada, the point being he emphasised, echoing Toole, that Ada combined these characteristics into a whole, magnetic persona. He showed that as a child, Ada wrote on an astonishing range of subjects, including: riding, waltzing, skating, harp playing, the piano, billiards and sea bathing. In later life, she married and had three children, yet also engaged in a series of ‘flirtatious’ relationships, demonstrating her ability to attract what Ada herself referred to as her ‘colony’ of people. She enjoyed opera, riding, gambling and literature. She had a good relationship with Dickens and was perhaps also known to Tennyson. On the scientific and technical side she displayed an enviably wide knowledge and awareness. In her letters she wrote about railway times and construction, bridges, airplanes and air balloons. She refers to photography and daguerreotype, and even evolution, being familiar with the work of Lamarck. Ada was interested in animal intelligence, mesmerism and how it could be assessed scientifically, steam boats, electrical induction and Faraday’s early field theory. Ada not only encountered many sources of information and inspiration, but possessed from an early age the ability to synthesise these eclectic engagements into new ideas.

Holmes offered us three close case studies of Ada, to illustrate more definitively her extraordinary, imaginative personality.

The Lovely Puff

Photo of slide from Richard Holmes presentation on 9/12/15: @lynrobinson cc-by

Firstly ‘The lovely Puff’ – Ada’s cat, drawn by her mother. Ada understood the complexity of animals, in addition to, and in contrast to, understanding the logical rigour of machines. Evidence shows that she talked and wrote about her cat with great imagination.

Secondly, Ada’s ‘Flyology’ (aged around 12, 1828), whereupon being in bed with the measles, Ada turned her thoughts to flight. She wrote to her mother about her proposed book, ‘Flyology’, and her hopes of inventing a method of flying. She imagined herself flying. She imagined flying horses.

Thirdly, in the 1840s, she further wrote on the power of the imagination for those inclined to intellectual thought, and imagined, in poetic form, what life on the moon might be like.

Holmes concluded by offering us a glimpse beyond Ada herself, into the lives and work of some of the outstanding people whom there is reason to believe influenced her thinking and understanding. The lesson here might be to surround ourselves with those who inspire us!

Firstly, Holmes mentioned Mary Somerville, a friend of Ada’s mother, who knew Charles Babbage, and who made it possible for Ada and Babbage to meet. Somerville was the celebrated author of “The Connection of the Physical Sciences”, which was published in 1834. At Babbage’s parties, Ada was able to meet other writers and thinkers, but she was undoubtedly influenced by Somerville’s writing and conversation.

Secondly, William Whewell, author of the ‘Bridgewater Treatise III’, and later the ‘History of the Inductive Sciences’ and the ‘Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences’. Babbage, taking issue with some of Whewell’s claims that science allowed for the existence of god, wrote in reply the un-commissioned 9th Bridgewater Treatise, in which he suggested that god had a giant calculating machine, wherein the extinction of species were a result of ‘conditional branches’. This shows us he had a sense of Darwinian evolution, but yet expressed god as a computer programmer. Ada had read both of these texts.

‘History of the Inductive Sciences’ sparked Ada’s ideas on the nature of discovery, and in particular, the sort of imagination that could allow discovery. She thought about writing a book similar to Whewell’s on how several specific discoveries were made, but this was never written. Based partly on her reading of the Treatise and then the History of the Inductive Sciences, and partly from what Coleridge wrote on the nature of imagination, Ada concluded that imagination was 3 things: the combining faculty, the conceiving faculty, and finally the discovering faculty.

From her dialogue/letters with Michel Faraday, on his Electrical Researches 1842-45,. We can see Ada’s understanding of the need to popularise science, in the same way in which she added notes to the Menabrea paper on the Analytical Engine.

Holmes also mentioned that Ada was familiar with Harriet Martineau’s work on Mesmerism, 1845, and with Alexander Humbolt’, Cosmos, 1846. He speculated that Ada may have read, and been known to Tennyson, as in his somewhat lesser known poem, The Princess, 1848, the heroine of Tennyson’s all female university is called ‘Princess Ida”.

Whilst there were also papers on how Difference Engine 1 worked, the meaning of Ada’s notation, and her novel insight that the Analytical Engine could not only process numbers, but could also use numbers to represent other symbols or musical notes, the question of whether or not Ada wrote the world’s first computer programme seemed to me to remain ambiguous.

In attempting to answer the question of ‘why do we care?’ posed in the title to this text, I would suggest that the conundrum of whether Ada’s notes and correspondence prove whether she was or was not, the world’s first computer programmer, will run for some time. The academic understanding needed to answer this question is significant, and undoubtedly grappling with the exact interpretation of her thinking is a valuable exercise for the mind. This is not why we should care however. Nor should we care too much about her indisputable value in emphasising the obvious; that women can possess exactly the same analytical and mathematical minds as men.

We care about Ada Lovelace because her story tells us about ourselves. In our detailed analysis of Ada’s life and thinking, we can see that imagination, a willingness to struggle with difficult concepts, and a prescient intuition of the value of both art and science culminated in her legacy of not just the computer, but of the need to be constantly watchful of how we use the technology she spearheaded.

Ada lived for only 36 years. Her most enduring gift to us seems to be the rationale that life is not about the technology, but that the technology is about life; what matters most is who we are for ourselves, and who we are for others. We all need Ada’s imagination, discovery and understanding.

Further Information:

Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Exhibition at the Science Museum in London

Ada Lovelace Symposium on Livestream

Menabrae, LF, 1842. Notes from the translator Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelance. Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage.




Don’t go to Library School: you won’t learn anything useful

empty lecture theatre

photo by @lynrobinson cc-by


I keep hearing this, in a variety of guises. The dismissive certainty that library schools are out-dated in their understanding of how digital information has changed the modern world and its management of humanity’s record beyond recognition, and that LIS masters programmes produce graduates who are unemployable.

Having directed masters programmes in LIS for nearly a decade, I take a different view, and offer my firm belief that our library school, #citylis, delivers a sound contemporary understanding of today’s information landscape, and fosters a wide range of highly desirable professional and personal skills in our students. I doubt I am the only library school advocate, I know several colleagues from other schools who are equally passionate about their curriculum. At #citylis, we enjoy a constant dialogue with practitioner colleagues, our professional body (CILIP), employment agencies (Sue Hill, TFPL), alumni and current students, which allows us to elicit trends in technology, services, economics, user needs and other aspects of current practice. We are also avid horizon scanners, keeping an eye on the literature beyond the boundaries of our LIS discipline, to ensure we understand the wider context of what library and information science is trying to say. These combined activities result in a constant need to update our classes and materials, but we think our relevant, contemporary syllabus is worth it.

That is not to say that we offer everything to everybody. In the first instance, we work from a UK perspective, although within an international context, and secondly, our content is driven by the interests and backgrounds of our staff, and available resources, together with the primarily London-based collection institutions to which we defer for practitioner context. I don’t think any library school does, can, or even needs to offer an exhaustively comprehensive curriculum. Some variation between specializations of individual courses is perfectly acceptable, and even advantageous.

Our #citylis students are enthused, engaged and positive about their chosen discipline and profession, and the majority readily find employment, not only in the traditional areas of librarianship and information work, but across a wider range of information centred activities, such as publishing, information policy and governance, data management, information architecture, web-design, customer relations, training, user-support, and educational technology to mention just a few. All businesses rely on sound information management, so the future should be bright for well qualified graduates from LIS schools.

And yet, there are still doubters in the back channels. I recently read Deanna Marcum’s clearheaded report “Educating the Research Librarian: are we falling short?” Within the scope of research libraries, and with a US focus, this well written report of a conference aiming to use design techniques to map the future of library education, suggests that the problems stem from the broad scope of LIS itself:

“Perhaps the diverse backgrounds of the participants guaranteed the utter impossibility of developing a general curriculum that will meet all needs. For many of the younger representatives, technology was the main concern. How do we prepare new professionals to take full advantage of social media and emerging technologies to deliver information services to all who need them? Library buildings, legacy collections, and preservation— these were all topics that hardly registered on their list of interests. Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab argued passionately that the purpose of a library and information school is to produce a cadre of individuals devoted to the universal right to access to information. Public librarians at the conference believe that new librarians must be trained as community activists focused on civic discourse. With no common vision for the library’s role, there could be no agreement on how library schools should prepare the next generation of students.”

I have also read posts from library school curriculum dissenters on Twitter, in blog posts, and have verbally heard discontent from potential employers working in the sector. In response, I have informally attempted a wider conversation to solicit the actual knowledge, skills, understanding or abilities that library schools fail to provide. Responses to my question “what knowledge and skills do LIS graduates need that they don’t get from library school?”, are often vague, but some are highly sensible and relevant, including: a clearer focus on the implications of the transformation of information communication pathways brought about by digital, the subsequent changing expectations of users of library services, designing systems and processes for information management, information architecture and research data management.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these specific suggestions have a technological focus, and I am in complete agreement with the necessity for LIS courses to acknowledge the significant changes affected by digital advancement. Indeed, over the last two years, colleagues and I have already gone a long way to enhance our library technology focus, via curriculum design and out-of-hours workshops and seminars.

A significant number of dissenters cite a lack of emphasis on more generic skills such as how to use a spreadsheet, marketing and promotion, design of promotional material, and communication skills. Communication skills covers many areas; ability to write well, ability to make a convincing case/argument (advocacy), ability to lead, to work in a team, ability to analyse, interpret, present and communicate data, ability to teach, ability to attract funding, and all-round social know-how. Knowledge of the company and its ways of working, was a favourite request, but here there was agreement that this could only be attained once a graduate was employed by the specific company. The generic skills outlined above, are all valid and important. The question here is which of them should be included in the LIS curriculum. Most (UK) masters programmes are a year long, and the schedules are already tight. Inclusion of more generic skills invariably means something else must be excluded. And, of course, there are other aspects of LIS to be fitted in, in addition to the purely technical aspects, and the generic.

At #citylis, we are keen to get this right, and would be willing to host a forum/meet-up where employers, professional bodies, students and programme directors can meet to discuss the role of LIS courses in preparing new professionals for work in our sector. Students, I am sure, would welcome this dialogue. Such a discussion is likely to stir up the longstanding tension between the demands of an academic masters course to cover theory and concepts, research methods and ideas found at the edge of our literature, versus the demands of employers for graduates who are ready to go from day one. But, a debate could surely only aid the smoothing of joins between the two halves of the whole. If anything it would allow us to re-examine ‘essential’ knowledge and skills, which need to be explored in the masters programme, alongside areas which could be covered by continual professional development, or in-house training.

To conclude, here are a few of the areas we feel are presing at #citylis. Some of them are newish, some of them of longstanding centrality to our work:

  • communication – traditiona/social media
  • research skills
  • information literacy
  • digital culture
  • scholarly communication
  • data analysis and presentation
  • digital curation and research data management
  • information resources – documentation
  • information organisaton – metadata
  • human information behaviour
  • information law, policy and management
  • information and communication technologies
  • role of library and information services in the 21st century

#citylis logo

Thanks to Dave Thompson (@d_n_t) for ideas.