Cambridge Libraries Conference 2018 (#camlibs18)

The Cambridge Libraries Conference or, more succinctly CamLibCon or #camlibs, is a fantastic annual event that seeks to inspire, entertain, involve and transform the whole library community and beyond by promoting a raft of concepts and ideas through a series of fascinating talks and demonstrations.


This year, the brilliant organising committee were able to welcome a series of local, national and even international speakers to a new venue – the magical structural wonderland of the Cambridge Judge Institute. As you can see I could not stop photographing the thing!

Housekeeping With Ange

First order of the day was the inaugural Cambridge legendary #HousekeepingWithAnge. In Ange’s own words an instructional guide to “lunch and toilets with added jokes… just your average housekeeping kung fu!” As an example, we were duly warned to resist tweeting photos of the fire until we’d reached the designated safe area. Useful information delivered with a sense of humour – we librarians know how to party!

Opening Address: Jess Gardner (@CamUniLibrarian), Cambridge University Librarian

A motivational address from Jess urging us to transform chaos, to communicate, to collaborate, to “listen deeply”, to “let go”, to “put aside the busyness” and to be “open to change”. She described the present as “exciting times”, referring to the new Vice-Chancellor and the arrival of a new library management system (“dropping the A-bomb” as compere @MrAndrewA merrily pointed out). I’ve only heard her speak on a couple of occasions but I’ve never failed to be impressed by her compassion, and unerring positivism.


Keynote Address: Let the People Speak: Documenting Beyond the Library Norm

Meredith Evans (@mre1920), VP/President Elect, Society of American Archivists and Director of Jimmy Carter Presidential Library




With very little warning, Meredith played us a video documenting the sensational events immediately following the killing of 18-year-old, Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. She spoke of how these events inspired local archivists to create a freely available resource for students, scholars, teachers, and the greater community.

She explained how “Documenting Ferguson” has the ultimate goal of providing diverse perspectives of the events surrounding the conflicts in Ferguson.

What seemed most relevant was the safehouse that the library provided to all-comers during the ongoing protests which clogged the city. It also tackled the problematic suppression of data, biased coverage and ongoing surveillance.

Without live documentation of social media (photos on cameras, videos on tablets, etc.) that valuable data is soon lost.

One example of how the Ferguson archivists operated was to take daily photos of murals painted on the walls before they were covered up. In this manner, timelines were established.


  • Be inclusive
  • Collect objectively
  • Be guided by collective values
  • Use open source
  • Give owners rights over their own metadata (how they title things, their real-time opinions, no secondary decision-making, editing or censorship).

By doing this, you create a “repository of the people, for the people”.

She briefly mentioned Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 as similarly documented events. The challenge isn’t just defined by the major events though. There is plenty going on around us today that needs documenting. Yes, this is our own social timeline and we at Cambridge can create our own archival data, be it of local, national or international importance. Ahem, Brexit, ahem. Hell, we are documenting this very conference, are we not?

As Meredith mentioned: “It’s not always enough to stay behind your desk – you have to get out there and document”.

One key takeaway was the relevant message that “you don’t have to just buy your collections, you can create your own”.

Library Carpentry: software skills workshops for librarians
James Baker (@j_w_baker), Lecturer in Digital History and Archives, University of Sussex


Next up, the founder of Library Carpentry, James opened with a deliberately inflammatory statement: Physical books and journals are “anachronistic (terms for) data”. Certainly an interesting way of viewing the materials we lovingly curate and care for.

Under the tentative banner of “The Carpentries”, James and his colleagues have created a number of computational resources for software and data skills learning:

  • Software Carpentry
  • Data Carpentry
  • Library Carpentry

The reason the latter was created was because one colleague commented that “Librarians keep turning up at our workshops? Perhaps we need to tailor something for them?”

So, they started training them to go on and teach their colleagues, ultimately creating a resource created “by librarians, for librarians”. They teach them to work with data, to live code and to manipulate data.

Lightning Talks 1

A quick-fire series of presentations followed.

Systematic Reviews advent calendar

The first from Veronica Phillips of the Medical Library covered the topic of library promotion via the medium of social media. The concept was to create a “Systematic Reviews” (the gold standard of medical evidence) advent calendar using WordPress scheduled posts which linked back to support. This methodology enabled her to write the content in advance and release the information at set points, thereby creating a ready-to-go calendar! An interesting concept and one I might adopt for my own library’s social media feed in the future.

Jasper, the Marshall Library cat

Clare Trowell spoke briefly on the rise to fame of their adoption of Jasper, colleague Simon Frost’s three-legged cat, as a library promotional tool (Twitter) and student well-being aid (Tea with Jasper sessions). Using slides she was able to show how by taking photos and using witty captions they were able to turn him into an internet sensation via social media. Phone calls were received from local (Cambridge Evening News), national (BBC) and international (Hyderabad Times) press wanting to cover the story.

Laying foundations for a sustainable career

Hannah Smith from Queen’s College Library spoke extremely eloquently on how embracing new technology is important to remain relevant. In her own words “Diversification is the key to future-proofing”. She also provided reassurance by insisting that books will remain as vinyl has remained. See the link above for her own presentation notes. Highly recommended.

Building bridges between libraries and research
Andrew Corrigan (@CamDigLib), Digital Library Coordinator, Cambridge University Library and Amélie Deblauwe (@bird_gerhl), Senior Digitisation Technician, Cambridge University Library

This talk served as a fascinating introduction to the work of the Digital Content Unit in the UL. So much so that my notes became a little ragged so please forgive me.

The DCU handle requests for UL material that is for either personal, research or publication purposes. With millions of digitised images now on file their procedural methods are split between 90% software and 10% manual.

They handle requests for all sizes of material and the equipment they need varies greatly from microscopic analysis machines right up to photographic tables that can safely secure a 2.5 x 4 metre hand-painted map. In fact this “XY table” can hold up to AA0 size volumes. The overhead cameras for this table are on a moving arm and they use a lightbox and soft flash to take the photos. They also have UV boxes and can take negatives. They also use colour charts to strictly cross-check tonal quality and use very little post-processing techniques.

As an example of their work, check this amazing globe imagery they captured out:


The ultimate aim to to produce archival files for later use, thereby preserving the state of the object whilst decay continues on the original.

They can now create reproduction 3D models of some of the objects they have photographed (they passed some examples around) with a view to potentially selling them in-house (a UL gift shop?!). Apparently, an oracle bone scholar was shown one of their 3D models and spotted a line of text he’d never noticed before on the top! Similarly, a recording copy was played to a music archivist who noticed that a note on the original had been misinterpreted and was therefore now being played out of tune. Fascinating anecdotes.

Lightning Talks 2

Digitial Thesis Project

Matthias Ammon of the Scholarly Comms Department at the UL spoke of the history of the missing Stephen Hawking thesis from their archive. In short, known as the “white whale” of the project, Matthias wrote to Hawking’s supervisor (after years of previous custodians trying to contact Hawking without response) to finally try and get the scientist to approve submission and received a letter in return – “Dear Matthias, permission granted”. They decided to digitise it immediately but advertise the fact that they had during #OAWeek. Basically, the second they did this the million-strong download response killed the repository and when Hawking himself promoted it, it crashed the server again. Eventually, the decision was made to place it on a complete separate server to the rest of the repository!

Information literacy for Camlibs

All I’ve written about Libby Tilly’s presentation is “Camlibs is like a “deconstructed recipe” – a burger, if you will. The multiple constituent parts of the processes us librarians go through are first-class, but as a complete model it is flawed. This project needs to bring all those parts together to make the whole palatable.

Journals data analysis

And obviously my attention span was waning because my one take away from Patricia Killiard’s presentation was “Cambridge spends £5.4 million on journals”. It is time to analyse the value of this enormous spend and the possible alternatives.

Parker 2.0

The Parker Library team presented on their development and delivery of their tool for searching their manuscripts on the web. With no paywall and Zotero Bib built in it looked like a thoroughly valuable tool. Follow them on Twitter at @ParkerlibCCCC



All in all, another brilliant conference and, again, congratulations to the organising committee. There are shedloads of follow-up conference materials so please dig in.


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