From Aberystwyth to ADAM: Using the Skills Acquired on a Library School Course in the Real World
Library school? What library school? Oh yes, I spent four years there, didn't I?
After only eighteen months, I have to confess my memory isn't quite that bad, but immersed in my job with the ADAM Project  , library school certainly does seem an age ago. Everything I learned seems to have merged into one large mass of indefinable matter, and when asked to write about it for Ariadne a little wave of unease stirred within me.
As I took a deep breath and stoked the distinctly cool embers of my memory, I found that the first thought to hit me was one of nostalgia. Students days, what bliss. When faced with the thought of a time when the word bill meant the bloke you met down the pub the night before and having a good time was your sole occupation, even classification seminars are remembered fondly. Well, perhaps that's stretching things just a little far...
Compared to the first years of library training, it really does seem as if I was just dreaming then, and now reality has kicked in. One of my first year projects was an analysis of a bibliography, and anticipating the onset of boredom, I was delighted to find Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a work devoted to pornographic literature of the 19th century. It was certainly more interesting than some of the more turgid tomes that lined the library shelves, but I cannot imagine for the life of me how it could help me in my present job!
As I reflect upon this further, I realise that many things seemed pointless at the time. But then, I never aspired to be a librarian, I did not apply to university to study librarianship, I was cajoled into it by a smooth talking head of department. After four years during which I went one step further and took a Masters in the subject, I have a nasty feeling I might have quite enjoyed it really. Of course, historical pornography aside, there are many things that make no sense until suddenly you have to put them into practice. Now, I always swore to myself that I would never, ever be a (God forbid) traditional librarian. My post at ADAM really isn't what you would call traditional in terms of librarianship, but the world is changing and perhaps there really is no such thing as traditional anymore. ADAM may not be a library as such, but the skills I must call upon to carry out my job are from a breadth of knowledge I did not imagine I would ever need to employ.
I will take a little time here to describe the project further. ADAM is part of the Access to Network Resources area of the Electronic Libraries Programme, and as such is concerned with building an information gateway to resources on the internet in art, design, architecture and media. Essentially what this means is that we provide a service to enable people to search for art and design resources without having to trawl through the vast quantity of extraneous material that exists out there. As part of a UK higher education funded programme we are committed to serving that community. We are also committed to providing access to information that has been quality assured, or in other words evaluated carefully according to our selection criteria before it is included in our database.
The Project is made up of a group of consortium partners, ten institutions spread throughout the UK. Four of those institutions provide project personnel, although the main base is at the lead institution, The Surrey Institute of Art & Design.
My main role for ADAM these days is essentially coordinating the cataloguing and classification activities which go on between four of us in three separate geographic locations. I am also fairly heavily involved in various aspects of service development, and am largely responsible for maintenance of our web site. Library school prepared me to a certain extent for the first of these roles. I was taught religiously about cataloguing and classification, although I maintain it is only when you practice it in a real library environment that you actually understand anything. For me, ADAM has extended this training and experience much further than library school. We catalogue internet resources in much the same way as a library catalogues books and other physical materials. We share many of the problems and issues experienced in the library. However, there are very different problems in describing and organising virtual information. There is no physical manifestation of an internet resource as such, and therefore there is no shelf to put it on. In many ways, the internet seems to be a law unto itself and therefore there are no publishing standards to rely on. As a cataloguer, I cannot turn to the front of my resource and find data about the author, the title, the publisher, the date of publication, etc. I have to dig around for this, hoping that it will be stated clearly and unambiguously, but so often it is not. It is frustrating to always be so unsure of what you are dealing with.
I suspect that library school actually prepared me for this much more than I might have realised. I was taught much more than just the practical method of cataloguing. We were all also primed to face crises and problems outside of the normal procedures. We were endlessly taught how to work in a team and respond to difficult situations. God, those role play seminars were awful. The video replays afterwards were even worse. Fortunately, the real occasions now are not intimidating so I'm thankful I managed to blush my way through.
ADAM has also been embroiled in a long struggle with classification since the beginning of the project. To explain first, we want to classify our resources in order to provide a facility to browse our database. A classification scheme provides a hierarchical structure which can form a base for a browsing tree. From the start we decided that we want to provide a browsing facility that is extensible. It has to be able to work with our current record number, a small 330 odd, but cope with expansion to much larger numbers potentially. We also want to provide multiple access points to our records for the most intuitive browsing facility possible. We have discovered over the course of the past year that this last point is a great ideal, but one we are finding hard to live up to. In order to facilitate multiple access points, we would effectively have to classify each resource many times. For many resources this becomes impractical very quickly. For example, the WebMuseum , ex-Web Louvre, has vast amounts of information about hundreds of artists and many art movements. Ideally, someone searching for, e.g., Matisse, would find the WebMuseum. However, to enable this we would have to classify that resource hundreds of times under each artist's name. And if we do it for the WebMuseum, we must do it for everything. It is easy to see why this level of classification is difficult to maintain. For me, this has tested my training more than anything else so far. It has involved intense intellectual debates and long, hard hours trying to put together proposals that will work. I have to say that eighteen months ago I would not have dreamed I would be involved in such work. Shying away from the traditional, I thought an internet project would be a far cry. How wrong could I be.
As I look back again at my library school days, I can see that I learned much more than the kinds of things most people associate with librarians. Contrary to popular belief, I didn't have a single lesson in stamping books, but there was plenty on cataloguing, enquiry and reference work, thesaurus construction, etc. However, I was also taught a great deal about management, working with people, making presentations and writing reports. Essentially, I was taught how to behave and conduct myself as a professional, and this is something I value very highly now. My first degree was in fact a joint honours split between librarianship and English, and I have to say Chaucer and Austen taught me nothing of the every day working skills I need now.
In conclusion, there are many things I have learned whilst working for ADAM that I wasn't taught at college. But most of these things are skills such as HTML authoring which is not something I would not necessarily expect to find on a library course. More importantly, there are many things I was taught at college that have been built on greatly with ADAM. Endless seminars practicing Dewey classification were meaningless at the time; now they are invaluable.
It does appear that in this reflective frame of mind, library school is not so far away from my working life now. It may seem like decades ago, but the more I learn at work, the more I realise how inadequately I would be prepared for it without my training. I still balk at the idea of working in a traditional library (my smooth talking head of department never cured me of that) but I do concede that my work at ADAM owes a lot more to the traditional than I might first admit.
Response to this article
Francis Devadson firstname.lastname@example.org, replies on 22-May-1997:
It is a wonderful article.
I belong to the Ranganathan school of faceted classification. I used to wonder when they drilled into my memory the Cataloguing Rules of CCC (Classified Catalogue Code) and the principles of faceted classification. It made sense when I became a practicing librarian and more when I meet the challenge of the web.
- ADAM Web Site
- Web Museum Web Site
Tel: 01252 722441 ext. 2427
Address: Library, Surrey Institute of Art and Design, Falkner Road, Farnham, Surrey