Making foolish assumptions

There’s a saying about making foolish assumptions, and it certainly applies in this situation. CILIP, a leading professional body for the library sector has recently launched a new Virtual Learning Environment for members, which will provide an online method of tracking and submitting the evidence of members professional registration activities (e.g. Certification, Chartership etc). It should hold all the information we need to do those things, and the My Portfolio area is an add-on to the VLE, a virtual portfolio which allows logging and submission of evidence of your professional activities directly. It should be better than the old, paper based, “oh god, I think I just destroyed half the Amazon, and now I have to index tab it…in triplicate!” option, and simplify and speed up what had become rather time consuming, mainly because of the admin. However..it doesn’t appear that the changes, at this present moment, are much of an improvement. I initially went on yesterday to look for information about how my mentee should be tracking their professional activity using it. First though, I thought I should learn more about the VLE, so I went to the section “Getting started on the VLE”. There were two options available – one on getting started, and one on editing your profile. I went to read the getting started section…only to find it was a screencast. On YouTube. With audio. With no subtitling. There are a number of issues associated with the assumptions used with this approach to providing information. The assumption that everyone will have a learning style which works well with videos and audio. The assumption that everyone can access YouTube (one of the most popular sites for work filtering software to block). The assumption that everyone can see visuals when they access the site. The assumption that everyone can listen to audio when they access the site. The assumption that no subtitling is needed with an audio visual resource. And finally, and most importantly, the assumption that no users have visual or hearing impairments, which would mean that a video with no subtitling is completely inaccessible to them. I naturally thought that there would be a text based alternative. After all, given the issues listed above, you would expect there to be some alternative method for accessing these instructions available. However, surprisingly, this was not the case. There is virtually no text of any depth on the site: every section where you expect guidance and information has…a screencast. I cannot understand why anyone thought this was an appropriate or inclusive approach. Many people will be unwilling to sit in their lunch break at work and view time-consuming screencasts, when they could have read the same information in a fraction of the time if it was available as text. Even if they did want to learn in that way, many users couldn’t, and I am one of those people, with a workplace which blocks YouTube. Why is there no text-based guidance for anything? So, frustrated and dispirited, I left the VLE for the day. Then today, I thought I’d try to start logging my professional activities for Revalidation. I tried to look at the criteria for the Evaluative Statement for Revalidation – apparently it should be the same as the Chartership criteria, and can be found in the Chartership Handbook. However, it appears that you can’t see the Chartership Handbook, as clicking on the link to it within the Evaluative Statement tab in the Revalidation section, takes you to a page that requires entry of the enrolment key. However, I do not have an enrolment key as I’m not registered for Chartership. So I decided to put that on hold, and start logging my professional activities. 
My professional activities are meant to be tracked in the My Portfolio area but I’ve never used the My Portfolio area before. When I followed the link within the VLE to My Portfolio, and saw that I needed to log in, I assumed it was a new registration that I needed to do with My Portfolio, so I tried to register myself with my email address. It appears though that this email address is already registered with My Portfolio. So if my email address was already registered, then I assumed it must require my CILIP website password (as I entered via the CILIP VLE, which I had logged in to via the website) to let me log in, but it wasn’t accepting that password.

I reset my CILIP website password, just to be sure I was putting in the right password, and tried again: still no access.
Then, I used the button to ask for a password reset, since nothing else so far had worked. I know the email address I asked for the reminder to be sent to is correct, since it’s already told me I’m registered.
Bad idea – I get this nonsense in response: 


The user you requested uses an external authentication method. Ask your administrator for help with changing your password. Or provide another username or email address.


Finally though, I have accidentally found out how to access My Portfolio! 

Attempting access through the link within the Revalidation “course” page doesn’t work (the route I was trying above): the only way I have found to access it is through the Home page of the VLE (but not the “My Home” page, which is a sub-page of the home page, confusingly). In the top right corner is a reference to Network Servers, and CILIP Portfolio sits within that area. Clicking on that link will take you straight into the My Portfolio. But only that link, on that specific page, because as soon as you move into any of the VLE areas to actually use them, that area disappears. This whole process has been extremely dispiriting. I’m not sure if any user testing was done before its launch or whether it was rushed out for a deadline. Either way, it would have been better to delay the launch, than to release something that is far from user-friendly. Like others I was enthusiastic about its launch and was eager to engage with it and document my professional activities. Unfortunately, my experience has been less than positive and all that initial enthusiasm has ebbed away. And I’m not alone – other people are encountering the same issues and frustrations with the site. What concerns me is that somebody was paid to do this, and my membership fees contributed towards it. Myself and other CILIP members partly funded it. Yet it’s currently in a state where it is of limited practical use to myself and other members and, as a result, I am unlikely to use it again until these issues have been ironed out. I hope CILIP resolve these issues as soon as possible. The development of the VLE has been one that has been broadly welcomed and greeted with enthusiasm. It will be a shame for this initial enthusiasm to turn to widespread disillusionment with something that could be a useful and valuable tool.

Is it time for a new space for information professionals?

This post is a collaboration between @ijclark and myself, and is essentially a very rough outline of something that has been variously discussed between Ian, @ellyob and me. It is rough but we think it might be worth taking forward as an idea and we were hoping others could pitch in and help develop it, potentially bringing it to fruition. Ultimately, we need your input to help refine this idea and, perhaps, to help us get it off the ground. This information is also cross posted on Ian’s Infoism blog.


The Why


As a librarian who worked in a commercial law firm, I was very sensitive to the fact that any public statements of opinion made by me, on any topic, could be interpreted by my employer or clients as a breach of my employment contract. This was especially true if they could be seen to contradicted my firm’s stance on certain sectors or were overtly political. This meant that I had to be careful not to involve myself online with any contentious issues, and had to restrict myself to commenting only on library sector issues which couldn’t possibly reflect badly on the aims of, or be misinterpreted by my employer or their clients. I also couldn’t comment on the working practices I personally experienced, or any challenges I felt I was encountering in my career, as again this could be seen to reflect on my employer negatively, and could threaten my continued employment with them.

Unsurprisingly enough though, I did actually have opinions, on all sorts of things! Things I wanted to talk about, processes and systems I encountered that were not working well, or in areas where I felt there were developments that would have an impact on my work and approach to it.

To tackle this desire to speak when I had no place to put my words safely, I have previously blogged anonymously. I have done this as a representative of my local professional group, the Scottish Law Librarians Group, on an international legal information professional group blog (On Firmer Ground) and as a guest on Ian Clark’s Infoism blog. I found the opportunity to be able to speak about professional issues “safely” liberating, and allowed me to speak more freely without fear of repercussions from my employers. I believe I’ll also continue to need a “safe place” for me to discuss issues in, as my own blog is linked to my LinkedIn profile, and thus my workplace (and any discussion of it) is identifiable.

However, as far as I know, there isn’t really a “neutral” space available to me. When I say neutral, I mean somewhere that isn’t controlled by a specific body (e.g. CILIP, SLA or any other information professional group in the UK), somewhere that it would be possible to discuss any professional issues, without feeling that it had implications relating to membership of professional bodies. I feel that there is a need for a place to speak freely, one not controlled by any specific interests, or with a feeling that it could only be used by people to say the profession is perfect!

I initially suggested Ian’s Infoism blog, as I had previously been allowed to post material there, and Ian was interested in the idea of creating a forum, and was happy to give up his blog for the benefit of the profession. However, it’s been mentioned that as a long-standing blog with a defined purpose, it could be seen as not fulfilling the neutral element, which is understandable: it was initially proposed as a shortcut, a way to get a platform that was already established and had a large number of readers, but for the purposes of transparency and neutrality, it’s clear that a new site would be more appropriate.

Below, Ian explains his perspective on this and we have both outlined roughly what we think this could look like. We hope this kicks off some discussion and we’d certainly love to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is an idea worth pursuing and, if so, how we go about pursuing it.

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In the past year I have twice been approached to host guest blogs on my site about generally information based issues that touch on our professional expertise.  Whilst I am obviously quite chuffed that my site is seen as a suitable place to post such content, it has prompted me to wonder if perhaps this suggests the need for a place to host such content.  There seem to be very few websites out there where librarians and information professionals can share their thoughts on such issues where perhaps their blog isn’t an appropriate place, or doesn’t afford them the protections they perhaps require to enable public comment on particular areas.


I’ve recently got to talking about this idea with both @jaffne and @ellyob, who have both suggested an interest in something along these lines (although in what form we are not really sure at present!). I know others have also discussed this with me and think this might be something of possible interest across the profession and beyond, I guess the question is what would this look like and how do we go from here? I am particularly keen on something that is outward looking and expansive, that would tackle issues that are of interest to non-librarians. I feel strongly about this because I think reaching out in this way can go some way to addressing concerns about the profession being considered unnecessary and obsolete. And if not, well, maybe it’s worth a try?


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The How (by @ijclark and @jaffne)


So, how should a proposed UK information professionals blog or website be structured, and run?


Name


If this is to be run as a group site, then a name should be decided among the group. This would be something to be decided on as a first step, as it would allow the creation of all associated materials. A decision on a name could be made by first canvassing suggestions from interested parties, via publicity on blog posts and Twitter, and then running a poll to choose the most popular option.



Aim


Then the site needs an aim. So often, it seems that information professional blogs end up navel gazing and focussing only on insular issues, complaining to librarians about librarians, or people not understanding librarians, so that’s something we’d like to avoid if possible. Where possible, content should be written keeping in mind an audience beyond libraries and the profession. Of course, we want to be able to write about the profession and its issues, but it would be a far more useful blog if it focussed on how the skills of the information profession impact more widely on society, and issues arising around that topic. So, posts could cover everything from how we can aid information gathering, in all its guises, to our understanding of a range of concerns about the information society. However, rather than just focusing on instructional, ‘how to’ type posts, we’d rather focus on outward looking content that demonstrates relevance, how skills and knowledge can support other professions and/or sectors and the broader impact our profession has, or can have, on society in general.



Structure


For our purposes, the format of a group blog with editors managing the upload of materials would be sensible. It would allow contributors who wished to remain anonymous to send materials to the editors to be posted on their behalf (as long as the material was within certain guidelines, as listed below), or materials could be posted by the editors with an introductory block of text, crediting the author. It would also allow an element of risk management, as allowing materials to be posted without some measure of vetting could open the group to the risk of being held liable for the comments and activities of users. Content should be tagged consistently by subject area, and relevant content tags could be agreed upon by crowdsourcing suggestions.



Acceptable Use policy and post management


The site would need acceptable content guidelines for materials to be posted, the core probable guidelines are listed below, although as with most other management of the site, they would need to be decided and agreed upon by the editors prior to the blog launching.


Core acceptable content guidelines:


  • Nothing libelous
  • Nothing slanderous
  • Anonymity does not allow ad hominem attacks   


Materials submitted for publication on the blog which did not meet the requirements of these basic guidelines would be rejected: either entirely, or returned to the author for amendment before resubmission.


Rules would also apply for those commenting on posts, in order to maintain a professional and respectful atmosphere on the site. Those breaching the principles outlined above for content would be deleted, and/or blocked from further comment if they were seen to be deliberately inflammatory without foundation. It would need to be decided whether comments would require approval before publication, or whether they could be posted without checking.


Editors would need to understand that some of the posts they would be responsible for managing may propose viewpoints which they personally do not agree with. However, the editors must remain neutral, and maintain the blog as a place to share ALL viewpoints, within the guidelines outlined above.


Management of the blog


If the above approach to the site structure is used, it would need a team of editors to manage the site. Despite the use of the word “editors”, they would not be responsible for actual editing of the submitted content. The editors would upload the posts/content, monitor the comments to ensure they were not breaching any of the stated guidelines, and possibly write content, if they felt they had relevant material to contribute. It would be best if the editorial team came from as varied backgrounds as possible, in order to be able to give input and the benefit of experience from a variety of working situations. A team of at least 6 voluntary editors would provide a balance of workload, and the required spread of experience to effectively oversee the site. Core site management reference materials would need to be hosted centrally in a space where all editors could access them, most likely in cloud storage such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or if the materials are more extensive, on a wiki. This would need to be decided based on the needs of the initial editorial team.


A public call would be needed for volunteers in the information profession to become editors, with @ijclark and @jaffne as a core team initially.The timescale of commitment to the editorial role would be flexible, dependent on the editors personal needs.



Hosting


It would be preferable to host the site on a named domain, this would ensure it has a more professional appearance than ‘just another blog’. A WordPress.org installation would be preferable as it is easy to manage and maintain. However, hosting fees would also need to be taken into consideration. How would this be accounted for? It is not a substantial sum of money that needs to be paid on a monthly basis, but it will need to be paid nonetheless. Would this be covered by the editors, donations…how would we approach this? Again, this is something that can be decided once we have a group of volunteers in place to take this forwards. And obviously the URL would be determined by whatever name was given to the website, so that would need to be established first before proceeding.



Conclusion

So what do you think? Is this something that would be of interest? Would you be interested in getting involved? Where do we go from here? Add your comments below and let us know what you think! You can also contact us via email (ukinfoprofs@gmail.com) or tweet at @ijclark.

From a conference to an unconference

So, between Thursday 13th June and Saturday 15th June, I attended the annual BIALL conference in Glasgow, thanks to the help of a generous bursary from BIALL. Now, due to funding restrictions with my previous employer, I’d not been able to attend this event since 2008. As this is the main professional event for the UK legal information sector, I always felt frustrated that I was missing out on being somewhere where important developments were being discussed, and that I wasn’t getting to make the connections with people that I should.

However, since 2008, lots of things have changed, especially in the way people who are effectively strangers to each other can communicate. Basically: Twitter happened.

Now, through Twitter, I feel like I have an excellent network of contacts both within my sector and outside it, and as I restrict the amount of people I follow/allow to follow me, I feel I really know them quite well. So when I need help with anything, I can ask my contacts, and get a good range of trustworthy responses. This has also meant that, when I got to the conference this year, I already “knew” (from Twitter interactions) a large number of people. Of course, meeting in person is great to allow the cementing and further development of these online relationships, but the ice was already broken on these relationships by initial online contact.

So, what was the conference useful for, beyond the development of professional relationships? It was a chance to attend talks and sessions on areas of legal activity that were of interest to me. The only problem with this was, although the talks were often good in content, the format of a conference means that you just don’t get the time to discuss topics in details. You have a speaker, who speaks, and then answers a few questions from the audience. It’s a discussion, but it’s only with one person. There’s a certain amount you can learn, but it’s only from one person, and anything that others in the audience may have to contribute is filtered out by time and format restrictions. Also, it’s a discussion being held solely with legal information professionals: a subset of a profession only talking to itself about itself isn’t particularly healthy!

Therefore, after discussions with some other attendees, I had an idea, and made a suggestion to some of the Committee members of the Scottish Law Librarians Group. I suggested that we try and create a Scots Law Unconference, to enable professionals working in Scots law to interact with each other, across all sectors, not just those working as information professionals, but academics, government staff, and legal practitioners. It’s just the beginnings of an idea at the moment, but I think that there’s a real lack of a space for people working in Scots law to have contact with people in other areas of the law, which means you can become very blinkered about what factors are impacting on not only your own work, but that of others working in law too. There’s also the problem with the standard conference format, in that it’s set up to enable one person to teach a group about their topic/experiences, rather than allow a group to discuss and learn from each other around a theme. I know there was some frustration at BIALL at the lack of an opportunity to do just that (although in one case, discussing Open Access in academia, a lunchtime discussion meeting was set up informally), so an Unconference format, with a body/group guiding the discussions themes would be more conducive to this type of sharing. As the main body for legal information professionals in Scotland, with members in various workplaces and sectors, the SLLG would be well placed to investigate the possibilities of an event like this and host it, welcoming any participants with an interest in Scots law.

It might take a bit of effort to get it off the ground, and the format might not suit everybody, but if it doesn’t work out…well, at least we tried, right? And if nobody ever tries, nothing every changes.

Now….anyone out there want to volunteer a lovely venue to the SLLG, and perhaps some nice sponsorship 😉

Let’s fix it, by breaking it!

Last week was a very trying week for me, website wise. One of those weeks when you just want to scream, because you can’t believe people would do such frustrating things.

I monitor a lot of web sources for news that’s relevant to my employers business, and to do that, I rely heavily on RSS feeds. They allow me to see the output of sites quickly, and mean that I don’t have to visit those sites repeatedly each day to be able to track their content. So, RSS feeds are VERY important to me. And in the context of Government sites, they’re important for the general public too, helping to enable them to see what’s happening in various departments, e.g. if consultations have been published that they might want to respond to, or if new regulations have been issued that may affect their business.

Meanwhile…the Government has stated that it’s consolidating websites into the http://www.gov.uk address, and 24 departments will be moving to that address over the next 18 months. The first two moved last week, and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was one of them. Of course, this move to a new web address broke all the RSS feeds. Since I’m monitoring hundreds of sites at once, it was only a few days later, when I saw a Cabinet Office press release about the move, that I realised that the RSS feeds were dead.

Not a great start for a new site – the feeds had been killed, with no warning, and no message to say “As of X date, these RSS feeds will no longer be active. Please go to X address to find the new feeds.” Not even a temporary redirect to the new site – just dead, and gone, without notice. Thanks for that – I missed 2/3 days of press releases due to that.

So, off I go to the new .gov.uk version of the site, to try and find where the RSS feeds are now. The DCLG page looks nice: it has a “Latest” section, “Our Publications”, and “Our Announcements” sections, all relevant to me.

However…the Latest section is just that  -3 stories, no archive of them is accessible that way. The Policies and Announcements sections do allow you to “see all of our publications” or “see all of our announcements”, but clicking through to these, it’s obvious that this is merely the results of a search being run on the site when you click through, not an actual archive. And there’s no RSS feed from it. There’s no RSS feed anywhere to be found.

Now, I have raised this issue via the feedback form, and have (quickly – top marks for a fast response at least) been told:

There is a feed for publications at http://www.gov.uk/government/publications
There are also feeds for each topic at http://www.gov.uk/government/topics
Feeds for orgs and announcements are coming soon. 

This is ok (ish) as a temporary fix, but it still has issues: the feeds are for ALL Government publications, and ALL Topics. You can go into topics, and take the RSS feeds for each of the various Topics, but it’s not topics I want, it’s specific departments. I may want to know about how a roads development may impact on certain areas, but I want the planning elements of it, so taking the feed for Transport means I’d be getting (and have been getting) large amounts of irrelevant information (Channel Tunnel safety, bus statistics, Concessionary Travel notes…).

So, until there’s a specific Departmental feed, I just have to wade through everything coming in on those feeds. Joy!

To add to the fun, The Scottish Court Service also redesigned its website last week.To continue the popular theme of “not telling users in advance”, it too broke its RSS feeds, without any notification. So the feeds that I subscribed to, to keep an eye on cases being issued from the Court of Session and Sheriff Court are no longer work. And there isn’t even the slightest hint of an RSS feed on the new Judgments pages. So that’s another site redesign successfully removing a way of monitoring the output of the site, and multiple cases that were issued that I’ve missed, because I didn’t know the feed was dead.

Also, to see the cases involves going to the Search Judgments page, and clicking a radio button. This then causes the page to reload. Once it’s reloaded (in the case of the “50 most recent cases”), there is now another button to click…which causes the page to reload again. Surely there must be a simpler way of displaying content that to have to go through all these clicks and reloads?

And the Infuriating Dropdown Menus (as demonstrated painfully for quite some time now by The Scotsman website) have made an unwelcome appearance. These dropdowns frantically appear if you accidentally stray too close with the cursor, and overlay the actual text you want to read: “The Courts” page in particular sits and overlays the page text for quite some time, and does not pop back up out of the way if the mouse is moved off it.

I don’t understand how these things happen – yes, there has obviously been massive amounts of work done to redesign these sites, and move them. For example, all the old DCLG links to documents I have in our Current Awareness service still work, as there’s a redirect in place for them (unlike when DTI/DBERR/BIS changed themselves every few years – that in itself almost gave me a nervous breakdown, hundred of dead links!). But at no point does anybody think “I know, lets ask the users of the site about how they use it, and what the most important elements of it are for them, so we can make sure we retain them.” They could have asked for input via, oh, I dunno, a release sent out on the RSS feed? I’m no web designer, but this move towards removing methods that allow users to monitor Government output is frustrating, to say the least!

And do you know the best bit? Only 2 of the 24 migrating sites have moved so far, DCLG being one of the first. Even contemplating the chaos that could result from this move is making me whimper….

Potay-to, potah-to, librarian, lawyer

Recently, for the first time, I’m involved in a stressy legal transaction. I’ve sold one property, and I’m buying another – when I bought the first property, I was a first time buyer: no chain, no issues, just finances to get sorted, and conveyancing fees to pay. This time around, I have the finances of the property I’m leaving (along with any final bill from the Totally Incompetent and Deeply Hated Factoring Company) to deal with, a new mortgage to apply for, the transfer of the old mortgage from the old mortgage company to the new mortgage company, the transfer of mortgage cash and deposit to the owner of the property I’m buying, and legal/conveyancing fees for buying and selling to cover. So, while one property’s definitely sold, I’m still waiting for confirmation of the one that I’ve bought is officially bought.

Now, as a librarian, I deal with information. My users ask me for information all the time, and I try and get it for them. Sometimes, this information can take longer to get, or is trickier to source than expected. I know my users have various others depending on them, so they need to know when they’ll get that information, or at least be able to tell interested parties that they are working on the issue, and hope to give them a response in X hours/days. So I try and ensure that my users know how long something might take, or if something’s taking longer than expected, I’ll call/email to let them know I’m working on it. It’s important to pass on that sort of thing, as, even if your update is “I’ve been busy, I’ve not started this yet, but expect to be able to get to it this afternoon/tomorrow morning” etc, then everyone’s kept informed, and able to explain to others what’s going on.
My lawyer (and, it appears, most lawyers involved in conveyancing transactions) do not share this approach. 
Today I emailed after 8 days without contact (and I move out/in in 14-16 days), to be told, effectively “things are happening, but nothing worth telling you about yet”. Which is fine – things are moving along as they should. But as a user, I would prefer to have been given an occasional contact which said something along those lines, to reassure me that there was progress. Instead, I have been gradually fretting more and more that I am going to be homeless/the sale will fall through/I’ll need to find temporary accommodation and storage for my belongings/where will everything go/how will I continue to get to work/I don’t have enough holidays to cover 2 moving dates, until I finally contacted my solicitor for an update.
Is it a cultural thing? Are librarians trained to make information sharing easier, and are therefore more open about the information they have, and when it will be available to their users, while lawyers focus on commercial secrets, and making sure their profession has some sort of air of mystery? One where solicitors are beavering away in darkened offices, doing arcane Legal Things that us plebs just wouldn’t be able to understand, so there’s no point telling us about them?