Weeding vs curation of digital information

In conversation with an academic last week, I learned that solicitors’ informal notes on cases are disappearing from contemporary archives of these materials because of the shift from writing these notes using pen and paper to storing this information electronically.  In this digital age, we are all more aware of the implications of keeping data about other people, and how this could be revealed to them in future.  The consequences of recording unofficial information about a person can be considerable, so those of us involved in recruitment (as well as lawyers), are often careful to make a record only of the final, official decisions on a matter.

Drafts and edits are lost if only the final version of a document is kept.  Does this matter?  In many cases, probably not; but I expect it will make the work of future biographers and memoir-writers more difficult as this informal layer of revision and annotation is removed from the record we leave behind of our work.

The cost of e-storage is now so low, it’s tempting to keep all work-related files in case they come in handy.  However, without a catalogue, controlled vocabulary, and organisation or structure, what use could they be to anyone in the future?  Deciding what to delete is just as important as choosing what to keep.

Michael McIntyre’s “Man Drawer” sketch shows the same problem in a domestic context 😉

Websites and weeding: I’m glad it’s not just me…

Take heart: you’re not the only one trying to make progress and feeling like you’re not getting anywhere fast.

I’ve just seen the following two blog posts that comforted me.

(1) Paul on overcoming library website despair

It ought to be easy for a group of “”information professionals” to keep a small-ish set of web pages up to date and intelligible, but it’s never really been something we’ve been able to do a good job of.

Deep breath; say it with me: “our library website sucks, and it’s our fault”.

Good web design looks simple, but it’s no simple task.  And it can be hard to convince senior colleagues with little experience of web design that (a) it requires time, (b) it often requires money and (c) technical expertise in usability and accessibility (rather than Prof X wants you to do it like this…) matters.  And just because a website was last overhauled in 2007 does not mean it is necessarily still fit for purpose – maintaining a web site is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.

(2) My library hero Jenica on weeding

The question I find far more interesting than “should we keep it or should we discard it”, though, is how to compellingly present my argument about our collections, the idea that relevance and utility to today’s curriculum as demonstrated by active teaching strategies and student assignments is more important than the “classic” status of an unused work, to our faculty.

My library is one of nearly 100 libraries at the University of Oxford, and my aim is to ensure that we target our modest financial and space resources into providing a circulating collection of items on reading lists.  The faculty and departmental libraries are the place to go for more obscure, less well-used and research-related items, and yet I still have a tough time trying to reassure academics that if we weed the item from St Hugh’s College Library, the students will still be able to access it at the Bodleian.

I love the comment on Jenica’s post by Jason

In the case of weeding, our Dean said, very politely, to the faculty: “These books are not being used, and have not been used in 20 years. There are two possibilities… either students can’t find the things they need (in which case weeding makes good content more findable) OR teaching faculty aren’t teaching to a curriculum that includes the books you want to keep. We are dealing with the half of that equation we control.”


Keep fighting the good fight, y’all.

Project Management

This summer, I have four main projects to co-ordinate:

  • Weeding of the collections (as described in my post about Collection Management)
  • Installation of RFID security and stock management system
  • Relocation of the Law Library from its existing home in a separate building to its new location within the main library
  • Refurbishment of the library lobby

Though these projects can run largely independently of one another, there are some points of interaction.  For example, it makes sense to weed the collections before applying RFID tags to all the books.  The refurbishment of the lobby needs to fit around the RFID installation, as the carpet needs to come up and new cabling needs to be laid before the RFID gates can be installed.

A Wordle image created from the text of the list of tasks for the summer's projects

A Wordle image created from the text of the list of tasks for the summer's projects

I started out by listing all the different stages that would be needed for each project, and began talking to other people who would be involved.  This ended up being quite a lot of people: Intellident (our RFID system supplier); the team who support Oxford’s library catalogue (OLIS) regarding the RFID system; the security company who manage our CCTV; the college’s Estates team who will organise the electrician, carpenter, and redecoration aspects;  a crate hire company for moving all the Law books;  the college IT department for all the wiring, moving of computers and WiFi installation; suppliers for new furniture… I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!

I used Microsoft Project to begin weaving all these strands together: identifying predecessors (the order things need to be done), liaison, task durations, start and end dates and costs.

Screenshot of the Gantt chart I made for this summer's projects

Screenshot of the Gantt chart I made for this summer's projects

I liked how Project allowed me to see different layers through the plan, e.g. all the tasks that involved the IT team.  It also created a Gantt chart which helped me visualise the different phases of the work.

The only problem with using Microsoft Project is that very few of my colleagues have the software on their machines, so they would not have been able to access my document.  I worked around this by making an Excel version of the plan, once the details had been figured out.

The work begins in earnest next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing all these changes taking shape.  It will be great to welcome the students back in October with a improved library that offers them a better place to work.

November 2010 update: find out how it turned out!

Collection management

Weeding the library - like thinning out saplings

Weeding the library - like thinning out saplings

This summer, I am working with tutors across all subjects to tackle weeding the library collections.  I began by extracting a huge amount of data from the library catalogue and subdividing it to show which books (by subject) had not been borrowed in the last 5 years or more.  Reference books are excluded because (in theory at least) they can’t be borrowed.  Excel nearly dies every time I open that document, so I’ve since broken it up into smaller reports!

I think it’s useful to see how many books have not been borrowed over a certain period.  Naturally, this won’t give an idea of how many books are used only in the library and then re-shelved, but nonetheless it still gives an impression of the extent to which the stock is circulating.

Weeding the stock in my library is vital because we have virtually no space for new books.  I am looking forward to being able to space the books out more comfortably on the shelves, and it will make the shelving assistants’ jobs much easier when they don’t have to struggle to replace a book.

Once it has been agreed which items will be removed from the library, there begins a labour-intensive phase of collecting up the items, deaccessioning them from the library catalogue and stamping ‘withdrawn’ over their bookplates and other markings identifying them as library property.

Last of all, the books need to leave the library.  Sometimes, it is possible to have a shelf or table for withdrawn stock which library users may take away, free or for a small charge.  This works well if there are tens or a couple of hundred items involved, and if there is a place to display them.  A bookseller may be interested in purchasing some of the stock.

Balancing act: books out as well as books in

Balancing act: books out as well as books in

This summer, there is a large volume of minimal resale value stock to be removed, so I have engaged a company to collect and process the books.  This company aim to resell or give to charity a percentage of the books they handle, and the remainder are recycled.

Managing the collection to ensure it is varied and relevant is quite a challenge; but  it is made easier as people become more familiar with the ongoing balancing act of books in as well as books out.