Emerging Research in Libraries and Information Science – Institute of Historical Research

I was recently invited to speak at an event organised by Siobhan Morris, the graduate library trainee at the Institute of Historical Research in London. The workshop was called “Emerging Research in Libraries and Information Science,” and was designed to give LIS masters and PhD students a chance to present their research. You can find tweets from the event at #ihrLIS.


Programme for the day – from cataloguing to robots…

For a start, it was a pleasure for me to be speaking to librarians again. As a PhD student, I’m always sad that I may not really count as a librarian any more, although “Library Twitter” is still welcoming. This year I’ve only really presented my work to Arts and Humanities PhD students, so it was nice to be back in the library world.

Digital Humanities

Kicking off the afternoon was Anne Welsh (@AnneWelsh) from UCL talking about how cataloguers can be seen as distant research collaborators (a tricky role to play  when you don’t know what research you’re collaborating on). Cataloguing is an area of librarianship that I am shamefully ignorant about – I did a little bit in my trainee year at the Bodleian, but it’s not a huge focus for the Sheffield MA course. Anne is working with historic collections – specific collections from the homes of individual writers or historical figures (eg. William Gladstone, whose collection can be searched using GladCat). She talked a little bit about how some of these collections are counted as “high value,” with institutions fighting over them, whereas others struggle to “pay their way” for the space they take up. These historic collections sound particularly fascinating from a cataloguing point of view, as the collectors often added marginal notes to their books which provide historical and social context. Anne’s methodology came from digital humanities and involved analysis of huge amounts of catalogue data – very different to my qualitative, interview-based approach. We ended up with an interesting discussion about the level of technical/computational skill you need to be a digital humanities researcher.

The Evolution of the Librarian

Secondly, was Joanne McPhie (@LifeSciLbrn) from Brunel, whose talk was based on her experience working in an academic library, and developments over the last few years, especially around open access. She told us that in the early days of her job it was a struggle to get deposits into the institutional repository, but times have moved on and she feels now that open access is more successfully embedded. She saw Research Data Management as the new challenge, especially persuading researchers to deposit their research data. She also touched on some other changing and evolving roles that her library was taking on. For example, the library had become more involved with providing careers and employability info to students (in my old job at a university careers service, we didn’t have this kind of strong link with the library). Finally, she brought up the TEF, and what it might mean for libraries… watch this space.

Has the Internet changed the way we think?

After a break, Tom Pink (@pinkthom) from City University presented his masters research on “Has the Internet Changed the way we think?” He began with the caveat that there have always been dire warnings about new technology changing the way we think – including with the advent of the printed book, radio and television. He discussed popular concepts such as whether the internet is causing us to be more distracted and have less empathy. As you can imagine, there’s no consensus among academics on these questions (and discussion around these issues is often prone to unhelpful generalisations about technology and the way we interact with it). However, Tom’s presentation was very thought-through and he finished up by talking about the role of libraries in thinking about how people use the internet (whether it has changed the way we think or not) – drawing on ideas of critical information literacy (he cited Lauren Smith’s blogpost about Brexit).

Open Access outside academia

My presentation was based on my PhD research around open access to scholarly research outside academia. I haven’t started any data collection yet, so my thoughts were based on my literature review and research questions. It was useful for me to pull my research together into a presentation, especially as my first year upgrade is coming up at the end of October, where I have to present to examiners from my department. I talked about how open access is situated in the two disciplinary areas I’m focussing on – medicine and education – and outlined some of the debates that are found within the two disciplines, which could engage more fully with a discussion of open access (for example,the Informed Patient, and “evidence-based practice”).

I also briefly introduced the concept of the commons (something I’m in the early days of reading about) – the idea that research is a shared resource which should be open to the community to use and contribute to. I’m hoping to use theories of the commons to talk about open access in my thesis. I know that the use and usefulness of theory is a contentious topic in LIS right now, but I recommended the book Critical Theory in Library and Information Science for those who were interested in reading some accessible theory, and talked about how helpful I had found our “critical theory reading group” at the Information School (if there’s anyone reading this who is about to start the MA Librarianship at Sheffield University, please do join us!)

Finally I talked through some of the interesting complications that arise when you think about open access for the general public? Namely, What do we mean by access? Who is the public (or who are the publics?) What happens when you stop thinking of research as an “objective truth” which needs to be imparted to an ignorant public, but rather as socially situated and partial? How do we explore the complex relationships that non-academics might have with research? I don’t have answers to any of these questions yet, and perhaps never will… Many thanks to a friendly audience and interesting follow-up questions about Sci-Hub and whether academic libraries have become less inclusive over recent years!


Finally, we heard David Phillips (@dpp202), also a Masters student from City University, talking about robots, which was an excellent way to round off the day. He posed the question, “Will the robots take our jobs?” and then went on to outline some examples of robots being used successfully/unsuccessfully within libraries. There was Bob, the security robot (manufactured by G4S!), which was used in a University Library, and a Chinese chatbot designed to give advice to students which had to be taken off the library website when its chat got a bit risqué.


Bob the Robotic Security Guard

More seriously, there was a discussion of which information work was “safe” from being taken over by robots, and the fact that the more manual work (eg. book sorting) is often taken first, resulting in low paid staff losing out on work. On the other hand, it was suggested that it was a positive step for robots to take on work that was too dangerous for humans to do. Finally, there was a video of two cute child-size robots called Vincent and Nancy that teach kids coding at a public library. Or that’s what they’re pretending to do anyway…


Thanks to Siobhan for organising such an interesting workshop, and good luck to all the researchers, especially those finishing their masters dissertations.





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