Ancient Libraries

Libraries have been around for a very long time and somehow it seems to catch the popular imagination, or media imagination, at least, when a new bit of knowledge is revealed about them. There seems to be something about human psychology that life in the “Old Times” was really basic and I think it must come as a shock when evidence is found that humans have been doing the same things for millennia. A piece of news caught my eye. A 2000 year old building has been revealed in Cologne, which puzzled archaeologists for a while.   Comparing it with other buildings, they decided that it was most likely to be a library building, as it had many small compartments just the right size to hold a few scrolls. Around 20,000 of them.

Of course, there is no record of what type of library this was or what sort of documents were held there. for example was it philosophical or religious teachings, legal documents or the mundane bureaucratic records of a governing body. Was it for the use of all, or a select few? Was there a Librarian that looked after these documents? we can only speculate, but what ever they were, the knowledge that they held was considered important enough for them to be neatly housed in a stone building.

Another library doing the rounds on Social Media is the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral. I remember seeing this a long time ago, as a child. Hereford Cathedral was one of the places that I really liked visiting, along with Cyfarthfa Castle and Monmouth Museum. I was an unusual child. The Chained Library is so called because the books are chained to the shelves. Apparently the library was built this way in the 1600’s and the cathedral’s medieval manuscripts were rebound and re-shelved – modernisation at the time, no doubt.

As I recall, the library was situated up a narrow spiral staircase, in a small dark room, with the shelves looking very dark and very, very old (was very, very young). It was unusual to find it open, and there was a guide to take you up there. It certainly added to sense of mystery and uniqueness of the collections. It seems as though they have been cleaned and re-housed. Better for preservation, no doubt and accessible to more people, but rather a shame, I feel, to lose that feeling of something exciting and special.

A third library, I came across last week. This is a tiny library, and it is the space itself that enchanted me, more than the collection of books inside it. It is in a turret of Ferniehirst Castle, designed in the 1600’s and housed the private collection of the laird. Completely circular, with shelves reaching the elaborately carved ceiling, it felt like a little private chapel to knowledge and learning. And the natural habitat of a librarian.
The library in Ferniehurst Castle

By Victuallers [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

Today, in this time of efficiencies and austerity it seems that library buildings are too costly to maintain, or too costly to fill with staff, and some people consider them unnecessary because knowledge is held on the internet. However, our ancestors know that knowledge needed to be put somewhere safe. Safe for the container of the knowledge, scrolls, books, other documents, and safe for the person reading that knowledge. I believe that there will always be place in the world for library buildings. 2000 years of their history shows that humans care about them.


Making a gateway of knowledge for knowledge sorters

It is a recursive idea that people who sort knowledge and information and make it available for other people need knowledge and information themselves. Not only that, but in order to access it quickly and easily, they require someone to sort it and make it available for them saving their time.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, and sometimes people don’t, what I mean is that librarians, library staff and information professionals spend their working time ensuring that other people can access the information that they need. However, they also need support, they need some professional evidence to develop their own knowledge, skills, interests and improve the services that they give to other people.

The Charted Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) is aware of that need and they have been giving support and training opportunities since 1877 as the Library Association and 1958 as  the Institute of Information Scientists. These bodies merged in 2002. CILIP believes that it should be an “authoritative source of data and evidence about information management and libraries” and “an active partner in providing a research and evidence framework for the sector as a whole”. Therefore it commissioned us at Evidence Base in partnership with Education and Social Research Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University to look at the possibility of a portal of information about information, knowledge about knowledge: a place where information professionals can go to get find authoritative evidence to back up practises, procedures and new developments. CILIP also asked if we could make some suggestions of how such an enterprise could be sustainably funded.

Together we examined the online resources that exist for other organisations. The American Library Association’s LARK is a good example. We looked at things that could be of use to information professionals of all fields and had a sneaky peak at what other professional associations were providing. More than that, we actually asked people what they wanted, what would really be useful for them. And the answers were:

Essential Features:
Case studies
Data sets/statistics
Open access search engines and repositories
Research reports
Regular updating
A variety of entry points to evidence e.g. sector, use and topic
Sharing options e.g. Twitter

Recommended Features:

Summaries or structured abstracts of key papers and reports
Sector specific resource
Indicators of rigour
Links to other CILIP resources

They also suggested some Additional Features:
Comments facility
Ability to export references
Briefing documents for different stakeholders
Alerting services

We suggested that the best method of funding such an undertaking would be by a collaborative approach, with funding gathered from a variety of organisations.

We are delighted that CILIP and now considering what can be done to achieve this important resource for librarians, library staff and information professionals. The full report is on the CILIP website.


IRUS-UK Survey 2018

Evidence Base conducted the IRUS-UK Community Survey from January to March this year. The survey is sent to IRUS-UK members for a number of reasons. It is an evaluation of the resource and the team behind it. It a form of communication with the IRUS-UK members and it is a great way to get ideas for the future development of the resource.

IRUS logo

This year we had some particularly interesting results, some of the questions were more open than in previous years, and that meant that IRUS-UK members could express their thoughts about repository usage statistics gathering in a general way, telling us all about the issues that they face.  Some common barriers to collecting repository statistics are:

  • Unreliability of statistics from the repository’s software packages
  • The need to provide and report statistics in greater depth and details to institutions’ management
  • Issues surrounding the use of statistics without context – a lack of understanding from some people reading the statistics

Pleasingly, many of the people who told us about these issues also told us that IRUS-UK is already helping to overcome these barriers.

“Down barriers!” by Oleg Afonin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is doing this because it has:

  • Reliable and authoritative statistics and comparable data
  • High quality support from the IRUS-UK team
  • An easy to use system

Some useful suggestions for the development of IRUS-UK were made, including having more data visualisations with enhanced features and additional reports with increased downloading options.

The boring statistics about IRUS-UK were as follows:

  • 85% of respondents were “very” or “fairly” satisfied with IRUS-UK
  • 79% of respondents felt IRUS-UK has improved their statistical reporting
  • 63% of respondents consider that IRUS-UK has enabled reporting that they could not do previously
  • 60% of respondents use IRUS-UK for identifying trends and patterns

When asked if they would recommend IRUS-UK to a colleague, the majority of respondents said that they would.

The IRUS-UK team are currently working on how and when these things can be added to IRUS UK. For the report, follow this link:

Staffing libraries with librarians

It may seem a little obvious to the general public to say that libraries should be staffed with librarians.
It must appear that one is saying that schools should be staffed with teachers, banks should be staffed with bank clerks or hospitals staffed with Doctors and Nurses. But we know that in today’s complex job market where there are more people than jobs to go around, well in the UK anyway, it is not that simple anymore. Libraries are staffed with library assistants, schools have teaching assistants, banks have Automated Teller Machines (ATMs, or “cash-points to the likes of you and me”). Hospitals have a whole range of specialised technician roles as well various non-health related roles. There are many reasons for this, some to do with the expense of paying staff with higher qualifications and some to do with the changing nature of these establishments.

I also think that the definitions of the job titles have changed over the years. Librarian once really did mean someone who worked in a library and now I think that it means someone who holds the Higher Education Qualification of Librarian.  Looked at in that way it is easy to see how the confusion exists.

However, being highly qualified and knowing all the theory about a subject does not necessarily mean that someone really fits the role. For example, I have observed many a newly trained teacher struggle with controlling their class until they have had a few years experience of discovering the subtle skills of psychological crowd control.  Similarly, W.C. Berwick Sayers wrote about the role of Librarian in the introduction to Ranganathan’s 5 laws. Please forgive the gender bias in this passage, it was written at a time when the pronoun “he” was taken to represent humanity, so in your mind read this as meaning either “he” or “she” depending on your predilection.

“it is the personal element that the librarian brings into the library which gives it its vitality. Many libraries, alas, lack vitality ; they have staff, but no librarians…

…the librarian must be a man of acquisitive mind who closes his mind to no subject of human interest. He is always a learner; he must always be awake to and welcome every development of human thought and every adventure of the human spirit. He must, however, be a man educated not only in the general sense but in every operation and process of libraries. He must be a lover of other men. When young people come to me as aspirants for library work I ask them, “Do you love books?” They invariably reply that they do, but I ask them next, “Do you like people and serving people?”

All this means that to truly be a librarian you must have the social skills to deal with people, the curiosity of pursuing knowledge and the sensitivity to be a natural educator.

JUSP Community Survey 2017

A little over a year ago I blogged the results of the 2016 annual survey that Evidence Base runs for the Jisc resource for academic and research  libraries, reporting their use of e-journals and e-books (JUSP) which they have purchased or to which they subscribe.

We have now completed this year’s survey and the 2017 report, which has been interesting because JUSP has added more reports and other resources to its service since last February. As well as being able to see how many times the library users have downloaded or viewed e-journals or e-books, library e-resource managers can now find out those statistics for a select number of data bases and aggregators. The JUSP team have also developed a set of data visualisations of the statistical reports that can be used by library staff to add to their own reports, or presentations, or as an analytical tool.


These data visualisations have proven popular with the JUSP community and although it is early days since their introduction in November it seems that some institutions are already making good use of them and see potential for these to have a positive impact on their work. We will be monitoring the use of these and are interested in any interesting ways that libraries are using the JUSP visualisations.

Overall, the JUSP community are happy with JUSP, they would find their work much harder without it. Special mention was given about the customer support provided by the JUSP team who tirelessly work in the background ensuring that JUSP users are accessing their e-resource usage figures and develop the online resource in the way that is most useful to the JUSP community.

A bit about Data Visualisation

A few years ago I came across the term “Data Visualisation” which I supposed was something very complex that turned data into those wonderful pictures of aeroplane flight paths in many colours on a map of the world.
Related image

Or, I marvelled at huge pictures of digital art, like the one below, Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

ORNL EVEREST visualization

I longed to be able to learn to do something just as bold and beautiful, and started finding out about the process. I didn’t realise that although these impressive images are data visualisation, there is a much simpler and far more prosaic method of visualisation data.

Quite simply it is charts and graphs – things that I have known how to do since secondary school and actually taught to quite young children in my days of being an infant teacher. This may be simpler than the digital art, but it still takes data (the height of children, for example) and communicates the information of the tallest or shortest person easily to anyone who cannot see the children standing together.


The example above is done in Google Sheets – other tools are available. In my teaching days it would have been made more interesting by doing a pictograph – little pictures of people standing in a line, something like this one:

Historically, information and data that has been communicated through a picture, or visualisation, has changed the world. For example, Florence Nightingale was actually a very astute statistician who gathered data about army deaths and their causes. She compiled the diagram below to show how many of these deaths were preventable. I particularly like the detailed explanation of how to read the visualisation

Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army Wellcome L0041105

I also recently come across a rather wonderful visualisation of Napoleon’s March across Russia which is a very poignant visualisation of the human losses incurred at war. The thick beige line dwindles in size as soldiers die on the journey. The returning troops are shown by the black line which also gets thinner and thinner. In all around 410,000 men were lost. I believe that the visualisation demonstrates the enormity of that loss in a more powerful way that looking at the figures.

Minard's Map (vectorized)

Comparing these simpler pictures with the digital art that I showed at the beginning of this blog, I think that the simplicity tells the story and communicates the meaning of the data in a much better way. So there is really no need to use very complex algorithms or expensive data visualisation tools to produce a picture of your data. Google Sheets and Excel have the wherewithal to produce a clear chart or graph.

At this point, I have to give a plug to JUSP and the technical team behind the resource. They have produced visualisations of JUSP data using “Tableau” so that e-resource librarians can download them and use them for analysis or presentations. So far, these visualisations are proving popular with JUSP users.  We at Evidence Base will be monitoring the use of these visualisations over the forthcoming weeks and will find out how useful and powerful it will be to put journal usage data into a visual form.

Online Resources for Library and Information

I have recently been doing some investigations of online resources that you could describe as portals to Library and Information information. What has surprised me is that although I have been active in this field since 2004 there are some incredibly useful portals out there which had not previously come to my attention. Obviously, some of these are newly devised resources, but others have been around for a long time.

The interpretation of what a “Portal” is, appears to have become a rather slippery concept. In my days as a library assistant, I was taught by a wise and ancient Reference Librarian that a Portal is a website, or a webpage that collects, collates and possibly curates information from other online sources and simply posts the links to those resources. This is the definition of Portal as Gateway – something that allows you to step from your location to many others beyond.


Some of the resources that I have investigating certainly do that. Observatory for a Connected Society is an app that can be downloaded to a smartphone. It contains links to reports, case studies, government papers and comment and review by current Influences. It also includes a calendar of interesting events. The resource has been developed in partnership with RAND Europe and consequently also includes some high level comment about topical issues from their researchers. It has the feature of sending you alerts when they add something new which is either a good thing or bad thing depending on your point of view.

The UK  Government Library Taskforce has been quietly gathering details of research on Library and Information and although they do not have a special website, you could call their “Research Overview” spreadsheet a portal. The link to the spreadsheet is available on and it gives information about many research studies: who they were conducted by; who were the funders; what new research is being done, and so forth. Each entry includes a link to a report on the research itself. I wish this resource had been around when I was doing my PhD.

inward portal

Of course, a gateway can lead you inwards as well as out and a really good resource is the British Library Social Welfare portal. This leads to a multitude of resources from the British Library collections.  It includes working papers, reports, books, briefings, literature reviews and briefings.

Similarly, for any technical information about Library Management Systems, there is a resource called Library Technology Guides.  This is a one man website of comprehensive information and statistics about library systems, the companies that develop them, and the libraries that are using them. The information is collated and data is analysed to provide insight as well a merely linking out to the source of that information.

However, a completely different type of resource caught my attention, and it is something that I would not at all define as a portal. It is more of a Knowledge Hub as it is a place which gathers together knowledge and information on any subject whatsoever and then disseminates it to anyone who may be interested. Like a town square where you arrive for one thing and get tempted by something else through another doorway. In fact it is really a cross between a journal and a magazine.

market place Lisle Sur Tarn

It is called The Conversation, you may have come across it before, I have seen articles from this shared on social media. It works as an online magazine, but the articles are written by academics and researchers about the work in which they are authorities. In that sense, it is a portal to information, but the information is all gathered in one online presence. I believe that this is a resource that is essential for every academic or school librarian to know about, and probably extremely useful to any public librarians who have customers with very enquiring minds.