18 Dec 2019

The Enduring Need for Archives

Joe Peakin is a medical librarian who has worked in a wide range of both public and private libraries, usually involved in cataloguing or acquisitions.

I was recently asked by a friend, who is a lecturer in the School of Law and Government in DCU, about the archiving of a special collection.  He was curious about the cost and time that can go into making a large, diverse collection searchable and presentable to interested parties. Having not worked strictly as an archivist, but having been somewhat of a career cataloguer to this point, I asked for a bit more information on the project.  With a bit more clarity, I was able to clear up (hopefully!) a bit of the mystique behind such a task and the challenges or pitfalls that it would face.  However, what stuck with me about this conversation was the importance of the project itself and, as a result, the vital nature of archives and libraries in the current climate.

He and other academics and survivors of residential institutions have been petitioning the government to immediately withdraw the Retention of Records Bill 2019. The Bill itself sets out to seal for a period of 75 years all records currently contained in the archives of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan commission), and the Residential Institutions Redress Board and Review Committee. They are fighting to have transparency of information for all survivors of abuse and asking the government to pro-actively engage with survivors concerning the information held and the way that the records are treated.  

This issue is obviously a highly sensitive matter, any decision needs to take into account the wishes and feelings of survivors and those whose testimonies are involved, and hopefully this is what the government will decide to do in this matter.  What jumps out as the one inarguable tenet of the whole issue though is the significance of the records themselves and the need to ensure that the archival information is maintained and available if needed.  

Whether the government moves ahead with plans to seal the records for multiple generations or listens to the opposing groups, what does need to happen is in-depth archival work to ensure that the records themselves are not lost forever.  It would be easy to see a 75-year embargo on the records as an excuse to leave the collection unmanned and untouched but this kind ofdocumentation is the exact type of information we need to cling to as a society these days.  A growing flexibility of fact is an issue that has never been more prevalent than it is today, with some of the world’s leading figures resorting to it almost daily. However, one of the main ways that we can engage this denial of absolutes is to attempt to counter it with unquestionable documentation.  

The job of an archivist, cataloguer or librarian in general is that of the retention and presentation of information.  The information itself is what is important.  Librarians can show people how to find what they are looking for but there should be an unbiased approach to both how we catalogue and how we present it.  In a case such as this one, where there seems to be a move towards the suppression of important documentation for whatever reason, we as a community should be moving to oppose it.  Thankfully, I was hugely heartened to see that this was the case as Twenty prominent archivists and information professionals at some of Ireland's main universities have called for “the full and immediate withdrawal” of legislation seeking to seal millions of child abuse records for 75 years.” It is so encouraging to see some of the leading information professionals take on causes such as this and show that the societal need for our profession should be growing in the face of the exponential growth in information sources and the lessening impact of absolute fact.
So, to summarise and indirectly answer my friend’s question, an archival project such as this would be a huge one due to the volume, variety and sensitivity of the information. However, it is also the kind of project that the library and archive community absolutely should be ensuring is undertaken and also given the focus and gravity it is so deserving of.  

29 Nov 2019

IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) 2020 – An Exciting Opportunity to become a Volunteer

 Next August something incredible, amazing and unique will be taking place in Dublin. From August 15-21st 2020 The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the Library Association of Ireland will be hosting the  IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) 2020.

The IFLA World Library and Information Congress is the international flagship professional and trade event for the library and information services sector. It brings together over 4,000 participants from more than 140 countries. It sets the international agenda for the profession and offers opportunities for networking and professional development to all delegates. It is an opportunity for the host country to showcase the status of libraries and information science in their country and region as well as to have their professionals experience international librarianship and international relations in a unique way. The congress also offers an international trade exhibition of approximately 1,000 square metres with over 80 exhibitors. The combined buying power of all delegates can be estimated at more than €1 billion. This event is being hosted by the Library Association of Ireland.

Are you ready to become an international IFLA volunteer?

In order to be a success IFLA needs a team of international volunteers. Volunteers play an integral role in supporting WLIC 2020 and we look forward to welcoming you as part of our Volunteers in WLIC 2020. Volunteers are key in creating a positive and welcoming atmosphere to delegates while assisting the hosts to deliver a professionally run Congress.
A series of upskilling programs and training sessions will be offered to Volunteers and an information kit will be provided regarding specific duties and benefits
Who are we looking for?
We are looking for volunteers who have the time, dedication and enthusiasm to assist us to deliver a successful international event. If you are professional, committed, hardworking, reliable and culturally sensitive, then you are exactly what we are looking for.

What’s in for you?

The  IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) coming to Ireland is a once in a lifetime opportunity- the conference travels to different countries every year- so this is a once in lifetime opportunity.
Volunteers receive free registration for the conference (valued at €800) and they will be given time to combine volunteering with attending talks and events. They will get to meet volunteers and librarians from all over the world. Volunteers need to secure their own accommodation.

Application forms and more detailed information is available here  CLOSING DATE IS DEC 20TH 2019!

Message from Jane Burns, Institute Librarian, Athlone IT.  LAI Executive Council Member

I am the National Co-ordinator for the Volunteer Program.  In order to make this conference a success we are recruiting a team of up to 350 volunteers. These opportunities are ideally suited to students, retired information professionals and individuals who have an interest in this field.
The IFLA conference travels to different countries every year- so for many this will be a once in lifetime opportunity - volunteer and don't miss out!


Jane can be contacted via email janeaburns@gmail.com/ or through her Twitter account @JMBurns99

22 Nov 2019

Artificial Intelligence and Libraries - The 2019 Annual LIR Seminar

By DavidKane, LIR Group Chair

On December 6 we are running a special event. The 2019 LIR seminar takes place in the Curtis Auditorium in the CIT School of Music, Cork. It will feature six carefully chosen speakers that, together, will provide you with a rounded view of what artificial intelligence is and how it will impact the library world.

Why do we believe it is so crucial for you to know about artificial intelligence? We think this because artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation are part of the wave of technological development that is going to profoundly change our society, our economy, and the way we do work.

Now is the right time to hold this event, because we stand at a liminal moment where this technology is becoming pervasive but not yet noticeable. Soon, we will cross that threshold at it will at once become an undeniable part of our daily lives.

What the impact of AI will be like is hard to predict. The best thing we can do is learn about it in a way that relates to what we do in our jobs, in libraries and education.  We have invited Dr Andrew Cox, director of research at the University of Sheffield's Information School.  As the lead of the Digital Societies Research Group at Sheffield, he is interested in what artificial intelligence means for libraries and the broader HE context. His presentation will consider the different roles that libraries might play in applying AI and the knowledge, skills and attitudes that library staff might need to develop.  Andrew's presentation should be of interest to anyone seriously interested in library strategy and development.

Appositely, we follow Andrew's talk with a look at a real example of AI, in Cork Institute of Technology.  Adrian Vaughn and Michael Costello share their experience of deploying an AI-powered virtual library assistant based on IBM's 'Watson' AI.  Michael and Adrian will explain their reasoning for implementing this AI, how it is performing, and the impact on library staff.

Michael Upshall continues the theme of the morning session by comparing AI-powered discovery, which can read and 'understand' scholarly content, with traditional approaches, such as building large-scale classification systems. Michael's presentation will also explore how this kind of technology can enhance the role of the information professional.

We often hear of FAIR data these days, in connection with open science and reusability. The primary way in which FAIR data will be used, and reused, in the future, is through machine learning and AI, which can help researchers make sense of large datasets in a way that the human brain alone could never manage. After lunch, Dr Bernard Butler will cover this topic and will explain where AI and machine learning came from and where they are going. It also outlines some ways in which the world of research, and of knowledge more generally, is undergoing a fundamental change in response to advances in AI and Machine Learning.

Dr Tony Russel-Rose will talk cover A key AI technology, natural language processing (NLP), whose objective is to ‘read’ text and to extract meaning and concepts from it.  Historically, this has been an impossible challenge for computers, due to the ambiguous nature of human language.  AI-powered NLP is a fast-growing field that is defeating these challenges almost as fast as they appear.

The day finishes with Brenda O’Neill presenting a human-centred AI systems architecture that centres around the librarian as curator, valorising their tacit knowledge, augmenting, rather than replacing, the librarian.

This approach is consonant with the philosophy of Mike Cooley, an Irish engineer, and trades union leader, best known for his work on the social effects of technology and human-centred systems. Cooley’s books, papers, correspondence, and other ephemera were donated to the Waterford Institute of Technology Libraries by his family, in 2017.

So far, artificial intelligence has only made a small impact on the library sector, with some niche applications that are now only beginning to take the public stage.

Information and library professionals need to grasp this crucial topic and develop an informed opinion, so they can make the best use of AI and influence its evolution.

Register for the LIR seminar on the 6th of December, and we hope to see you there, in Cork.

Register at: https://lirgroup.heanet.ie/

5 Nov 2019

Casted Librarians: Library Education in Bavaria, Germany

Guest post by Magdalena Rausch, academic librarian in training, Hochschule für den öffentlichen Dienst in Bayern, Munich, Germany, training at University Library of Bayreuth.

Courtesy of Author
(Magdalena recently undertook a three week internship at UCC Libary. She kindly presented to library staff on LIS education in Bavaria, Germany. Since it was such a fascinating eye opener of a talk I asked would she write up a short piece for Libfocus. She kindly did... now over to Magdalena...)

The library education programme of Bavaria is one of a kind – it is a dual system of education and integrated in the civil service system of the state. First of all, there are three levels of librarianship: level 2 (called “FAMI”), level 3 (called “QE3”) which requires you to have graduated from secondary school, level 4 (called “QE4”) which requires you to at least have a master`s degree in a subject of your choice. FAMIs can either train to work in public or academic libraries, as both areas are strictly separated, QE3 is studying to become trained academic librarians and QE4 will become subject librarians.

There are a series of steps you`ll be required to take to start your course of study in level 3 – I like to compare it to a casting: there are a number of jobs available in the state funded libraries of Bavaria, so the state will look for exactly as many people as are needed to fill all vacancies, therefore the number of candidates has to be reduced a couple of times, so you will need to pass a number of tests to advance to the next round of casting and finally be able to study library science.
Courtesy of Author
First, all candidates without A-Levels will not even be able to apply. Secondly, all candidate with A-Levels and German citizenship will need to take the civil servants test – a standardized exam everybody who wants to work for the state of Bavaria will have to take, future policemen and future librarians alike. Pass the test and you will be ranked according to your score and your A-Level grades. In the third round, the best candidates of each department will be invited to a structured interview of two hours where their social competence is put to test. Pass the interview, be ranked high enough and you will be able to study library science at the university of applied science for the Bavarian civil service in Munich.

Of course that seems like a lot of requirements but as soon as you’ve passed those tests and begin your course of study you will be a civil servant of Bavaria and will be paid accordingly even while you`re still studying (this will also result in you having to stay in Bavaria for five years, if you don’t want to have to pay back your debts).

Now this course of study will take you 3 years, 1 of which is spend working at your training library (which you unfortunately might not get to choose) – either one of the University Libraries of Bavaria or the Bavarian State Library – you will be able to learn the theoretical basics of librarianship, make experiences abroad during internships and finally graduate as a trained academic librarian!

Courtesy of Author
More good news: you also will most certainly get a job as an academic librarian because they have only casted as many people as they need to fill the vacancies!

17 Oct 2019

Towards open science - Stockholm University Library (Erasmus Exchange, 23-27 September 2019)

A good few weeks ago I attended and contributed to the Erasmus staff week for librarians at Stockholm University. The full programme is available {here}. See also speaker profiles {here}.

In short, the experience was most rewarding from a professional development but also a personal perspective. I met a bunch of really interesting and like-minded librarians from all over Europe. Many thanks to SU Library for organising and hosting.

Instead of critically expanding on delegates' professional contexts, experiences and  insights around scholarly communications, I thought it would be more productive to let their presentations speak for themselves. Below is an overview of the week's programme with contextual links to (all) presentations embedded in their respective titles.

Separately, I pushed out the below follow-up questions to my colleagues.
  1. What is your professional opinion about Plan S?
  2. Is your institutional repository Plan-S ready?
  3. Can you describe your research-assessment regime at your institution (at researcher and institutional level)?
  4. Do you provide incentives to academics within your institution for publishing research via the open access route (gold/diamond/green etc.)? If so, what are they?
Responses can be viewed {here} - many thanks to everyone who kindly responded.

Towards open science...

Monday 23rd September
  1. {Lecture} Open Science: facts, opportunities and challenges (Wilhelm Widmark, Library Director)
Tuesday 24th September
  1. Vienna Technological University, Austria
  2. University of Cologne, Germany
  3. Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nuernberg, Germany
  4. Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest, Hungary
  5. Kozminski University, Warszaw, Poland
  6. La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy
  7. University of Zagreb, Croatia
  8. Kauna University of Technology, Lituhania
  9. Mimar Sinam Faculty of Fine Arts, Istanbul, Turkey
Workshop 1: Research Data Management services at Stockholm University
Workshop 2: Workflows for OA agreements and APC management at SU University Press (see also notes)

Wednesday 25th September
  1. {Lecture} National Coordination of Licence Negotiations - Advancing the transition to Open Access - A view from Sweden (Kunglia Biblioteket)
Thursday 26th September
  1.  Pablo de Olivade University, Sevilla, Spain
  2. University of Navarra, Spain
  3. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, Portugal
  4. ENSSIB, the French National School of Library and Information Sciences, France
  5. University of Akureyri, Iceland
  6. Rejkjavik University, Iceland
  7. Dublin City University, Ireland (see also Bibs & Refs)
Workshop 1: Stockholm University Press: Starting up a university press
(see also SUP's BPC quote form); (see also Marketing Guidelines for Authors and Editors)
Workshop 2: The consequences of cancelling the agreement with Elsevier

Friday, 27th September
  1. {Lecture} Open Science: a Researcher's perspective

Wilhelm Widmark / Överbibliotekarie

9 Oct 2019

Journals and the quest for a sustainable delivery .

Guest post by Paul Newman. Paul works as a library assistant with TU Dublin Library Service - City Campus. He has travelled extensively and lived to tell the tales. He finds the plastic / environmental situation rather concerning...

In this blog post, I will look at issues of plastic used in the delivery of Academic journals to the library, from the supply side chain to the manufacture of plastic as well as the environmental consequences.  I will also investigate paper, as an alternative to plastic, from a manufacturing and environmental point of view.  Finally I will see if th ere are any solutions to the problem.

Every day in the library, there is a new delivery of journals from various publishers and distributors.

These are often shipped labelled and in a plastic bag/sleeve.  We cut open the plastic and begin processing the journals.  However, the plastic in question is not being recycled and instead is going to landfill/incineration.  As this is just one branch of the TUDublin library system, the total amount arriving in all the libraries is much greater than the example shown in the photo.  In an attempt to rectify the issue and perhaps have paper used instead for shipping purposes, I contacted some of the publishers of the journals and some of the distributors too.

(Fig 1) TU Dublin Aungier Street - one week's plastic from journals (pic: Eaodaoin Ryan)

Both parties expressed sympathy for our plight and offered assistance.  However, both are effectively trapped in the system.  The publishers send the journals/newspapers to large distribution companies who sort and package it.   One publisher who was concerned about the environmental impacts of the plastic was told by the distributor that the plastic used was recyclable.  However, the publishers own city council’s recycling website stated that they don’t accept soft plastic for the recycling bin and that the nearest recycling nearest recycling centre was nearly a kilometre away.  A distribution centre who printed information that the plastic could be recycled on the address sheet was contacted and informed that neither their local recycling collection nor their local recycling centre accepted low density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic for recycling.  Here in Ireland, as it is not possible to recycle this type of plastic, we have to bin it.  One of the direct mail distributors had looked into using potato starch wrapping for the journals but as it was three times the cost of plastic, they kept with plastic.  A journal publisher offered to post them to us outside the normal distribution system, in a paper envelope, but said it would cost £4 minimum per issue to do this.

And that is part of the problem.  Everyone is trapped in the system, chained by the supply chain logistics. The distributors achieve large discounts from the postal/courier service which is why the comparative cost of the publishers mailing it to us in an envelope instead is much higher.  The distributers, competing to offer the best pricing, source the most economic, in the short term, mailing covers.  The manufacturers/wholesalers of LDPE material present their product in the most environmentally friendly way.  For instance, the Weifang Huasheng Plastics Products Company, on their Alibaba page, announce that they are “committed to developing environmentally friendly plastic bags.”  And this is the way plastic is being marketed now, as it has to overcome all the bad press recently.  Now there are biodegradable plastic products.  However, there are a lot of claims and counter claims about how much and how well this type of plastic degrades.  Is it a solution or just a case of putting lipstick on a pig?

As the plastic industry is putting forward an image of itself as environmentally friendly and  our suppliers and their distributors are using this to feel that these products are solutions not problems, we will look at how plastic is created.  Plastic can be transparent, have a nice feel and be hygienic but looks can be deceiving.  While it might seem with all the environmental concerns that plastic may be a thing of the past, in the US, for instance, there is $164 billion being invested in new plastic production facilities[1]Much of the plastic is sourced from fracked shale gas.  As this increase in supply needs to be sold, the US now ships gas to Europe where, for instance in Scotland, there has been a huge increase in plastic production. However, all this fracking is causing environmental and social problems. In, her article, Drilling and Consent, [2] Ellie Bastian notes how in the US, 650,000 school children live within a mile of a fracked well, while the industry itself and a republican majority senate committee in Colorado voted to defeat a motion to widen the required distance.  She writes how problems from fracking wastewater and evaporation pits kill half a million birds a year while also contaminating the land and nearby streams.  This wastewater is also a chemical soup containing heavy metals and radioactive material amongst other chemicals.

(Fig 2) Oklahoma Earthquakes 2018 - Sept 2019
(Fig 3) Oklahoma Earthquakes 1980s

In his article “Oklahoma earthquakes and the price of oil” [3] Travis Roach writes that earthquake activity in Oklahoma is 300 times the historical average and is mainly the result of fracking wastewater injection.  The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland [4] did a report on the effect of earthquakes on house prices in Oklahoma and found that there were increased insurance costs due to homeowners having to cover for earthquakes which were not needed before and that in the worst affected areas there were house price falls of between 3.4% and 9.8%.  In an article on Psychosocial Impact of Fracking [5], Hirch et al note that fracking usually happens in poorer areas, thus worsening the quality of life for those who have a lower quality of life index anyway.  They describe the effects of ‘negative externality”, meaning that those living in fracking areas are paying an additional cost for the activities of others, costs which impact their social life, the community, tourism, conservation and agriculture.  They cite a couple of studies which showed a “collective trauma” and “widespread social stress” as a result of fracking.

Meanwhile, the oil industry news site, oilprice.com, reports that the benefits outweigh the negatives: that gas is clean, with little groundwater contamination and environmental consequences and concludes that shale gas is needed for energy security, economic prosperity and a cleaner environment.  The author wonders why people are not demanding that cars be banned considering the slaughter on the roads instead of protesting about fracking.

The industry is now promoting itself as clean and environmentally caring.  Plastic is recyclable and now there is an increasing amount of biodegradable plastic coming onto the market.  This is quite a controversial issue as there is still a lot of debate about whether the products are actually biodegradable. The Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association [6] acknowledges the existing problems with plastic, such as the 150,000 tons dumped in European seas each year which decompose into microplastics, but claim that the solution is to redesign plastic itself.  This is normal LDPE, which has chemical additives that allow it to be broken down by micro-organisms combined with oxygen.  They will not breakdown, for instance, while buried in a landfill as they need oxygen and the right type of micro-organism or fungus to decompose.  While the plastic industry extolls the virtues of oxy-biodegradable plastic, Recycling Magazine [7] reports that Spain, France and Italy have already banned oxo-degradable plastics.  There is a lot of lobbying going on from the industry who have heavily criticised the EU over the proposed ban as part of the EU single use directive and lobbying by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  We do have a publisher who sends us journals with a message on the address slip informing us that the plastic used is biodegradable. Technically it is, but we are unable to place it in a suitable situation where this will occur.

We did suggest to some of our suppliers that a paper envelope might be a better alternative to plastic, and there was a commitment from one publisher on that, but at quite an additional cost.  Then there is the environmental cost of paper.  Is it as clean as it looks?  It appears not.   In his article The Environmental Sustainability of Paper [8], Smith outlines some of the problems such as the heavy use of chemicals including “chlorine, mercury, absorbable organic halogens, nitrates, ammonia, phosphorus, and caustic soda”, the pesticides used on forests, the wastewater issue, that it takes 17 watts to produce 1 piece of paper. The American Chemical Association in a paper titled Plastics: An Energy-Efficient Choice [9] claimed that in 1990 alone the use of plastics versus alternatives resulted in enough energy savings to provide power for 100,000 homes for 35 years.  However, paper is actually bio-degradable, and is made from renewable resources something the petro-chemical industry cannot say.

So, a journey that started off as a suggestion to use a more sustainable option for the supply of journals turned into an investigation into fracking, earthquakes, oxy-biodegradable plastics, the paper industry and the logistics of journal distribution.  Though the distributors claim to be eco-friendly, they are foregoing other, more environmentally friendly, materials because plastic is cheaper, we have seen that there is are hidden costs.  There is the cost of pollution caused by fracking, the reduced value of a family home in Oklahoma, the social cost paid by low income families, the collective traumas affecting communities, earthquakes, environmental problems.  Paper too has problems but seems to be the lesser of two evils. Could going completely digital be the solution. However there are the associated problems of server farms gobbling up electricity…….

It would ease the problem if our refuse collection service accepted LDPE plastic for recycling but at the moment it is not recycled.  The Irish Independent [10] reported that the government wanted to ban non-recyclable plastic by 2030.  Government targets for 2030 include “ensuring that all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable.”   Can we presume that this means that there will be recycling facilities for LDPE?  Should we be moving away from the petro-chemical industry and forgetting about plastic products regardless of whether it is recyclable or not?  Why should we need to wait until 2030?

While a small library on its own might not be able to have much leverage to achieve this type of change, as we have seen in the case of TUDublin City Campus Aungier Street, perhaps on a higher level, on a consortium level of some sort, it might be possible to pressurize suppliers now.  An additional factor might be to use the greater economies of scale to bring down the additional cost of non-plastic wrapping.

(Fig 4) TU Dublin Compostable packaging screenshot
We can see that TUDublin used compostable wrap, with recycling instructions, for their student welcome pack.  It can be done and, after all, the suppliers and distributors of journals will have to change anyway.  So why not start now?

  1. Centre for Environmental Law: How Fracked Gas, Cheap Oil, And Unburnable Coal are Driving the Plastics Boom.
  2.  Minnesota Law Review (2017) Drilling and Community Consent: How Oil andGas Boards Can Address the Public Health ThreatsPosed by Fracking / Ellie Bastian
  3. Energy Policy(2018) Oklahoma earthquakes and the price of oil/ Travis Roac
  4. Ron Cheung, Daniel Wetherell, and Stephan Whitaker (2016)  Earthquakes and House Prices:Evidence from Oklahoma  [Federal Reserve Bank of Cleaveland Working Paper 16-31]
  5. International Journal of Mental Health Addiction (2018) Psychosocial Impact of Fracking: a Review of the Literature on the Mental Health Consequences of Hydraulic Fracturing / Jameson K. Hirsch & K. Bryant Smalley & Emily M. Selby-Nelson3 & Jane M. Hamel-Lambert  & Michael R. Rosmann5 & Tammy A. Barnes6 & Daniel Abrahamson6 & Scott S. Meit & Iva GreyWolf &Sarah Beckmann9 & Teresa LaFromboise
  6. Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association (2019) Comments on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation 
  7. Recycling Magazine (2019:2) ECHA withdraws its intention to restrict Oxo-degradable plastic under REACH
  8.  Graduate Studies Journal of Organizational Dynamics (2011): The Environmental Sustainability of Paper / Richard Smith
  9. The American Chemical Association: Plastics: An Energy-Efficient Choice [https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastics-An-Energy-Efficient-Choice/]
  10. Irish Independent 16/09/2019 Plastic straws, cups and cutlery to be banned by minister /Caroline O'Doherty.

Fig 1: Eadaoin Ryan, TUDublin, Aungier Street Library.
Fig 2 and 3 : Govt. of Oklahoma, United States.
Fig 4.  Still from video curtesy of Brian Gormley, TUDublin.

30 Sept 2019

Dabbling with the Demonic: Creating Embedded Learning Experiences in the Library

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mutant Enemy, 1997.

The Winning post in the CONUL Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Awards 2019. This post is by Emma Doran working as a library assistant at Maynooth University Library

I’m sure when many of you picture magic, demons and libraries together in the same context, the epic feats of Harry Potter or the acting exploits of Anthony Head in his longstanding role of Giles, on the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer springs to your mind instantaneously. I know I was certainly enchanted by the world of libraries and in particular the special collections department of libraries, mainly as a result of watching these movies and shows where magic imbued the collections and adventure lived a page away if one dared enough to open the book. But imagine if we as librarians could bring this sense of adventure and involvement with our collections to the students we interact with on a daily basis. If we could entice them to actively delve into the usually “restricted section” of our libraries and put these primary sources of information we so lovingly conserve to work. Now that would be magical!

A selection of books from the witchcraft collection laid out for students to explore during the class. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell library

How Can We Do This?

At MU Library we are encouraged as library practitioners to think up ways of integrating and embedding our collections into the learning experiences of our users. This practice not only enables us to meet and contribute to the strategic aims of the institution, but empowers us to develop information-literate graduates and broaden the student experience with hands-on active learning for our users. Very recently I was able to experience my very own “Giles” moment, by utilizing our collection of witchcraft and demonology books when a group of second year undergraduate history students visited our library for an embedded learning experience. By incorporating our special collections early printed books into the module HY283: Witchcraft in Europe c.1450-c.1650, we were not only able to provide the students with access to primary sources they needed to investigate as part of their final assignment. But we were able to use the collection materials to engage with the students and academic staff to provide a ‘hands-on experience, and the act of leaving the classroom to visit a new space.’[1] The module, taught by Professor Marian Lyons, explores the phenomenon of witchcraft in Europe during the era of the Renaissance and the Reformations Scientific Revolution, when thousands were executed for practicing witchcraft and consorting with demons.

De la Demonomanie des Sorciers, by Jean Bodin published in Paris, 1580. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell library

Fortalicium Fidei, by Alphonso de Espina published in Nuremberg, 1485. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell libraryDisquisitionum
During the session students were split into two groups and my colleague Barbara Mc Cormack (Special Collections Librarian) and I were able to speak to students taking the module about the physical makeup of the items in the collection and how they came to be in possession of the library and also the historical context of the items in the collection in relation to their topic of study. Some of the materials we were able to showcase in our class were notable resources such as: The Fortalicium Fidei, known to be the first printed work to contain a description of witchcraft, The Formicarius, by Johannes Nider, the second book ever printed examining topic of witchcraft and a selection by popular authors on the topic such as Jean Bodin and Martin Antoine Del Rio. By teaching the students in this manner and allowing them access to explore the materials, we were able to provide an opportunity for the students to engage with historic primary source materials and contribute to their broader understanding of the history of witchcraft and demonology in Europe, by concentrating on a variety of sources held by the library for consultation.

Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, by Martin Antoine Del Rio published in London, 1608. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell library

In preparation for the class, I also developed a finding aid for the students to help them in terms of navigating the collection, as the books that form the collection are housed in two separate library locations across the campus. In feedback received from the students we learned not only was the experience useful in terms of identifying and consulting sources they needed for assignment work but that engaging with materials such as the early printed books, created an exciting and dynamic learning opportunity that would not be easily forgotten and left the students excited for more.

A section of the finding aid I created for students attending the class

As library professionals we are becoming more progressively aware of the benefits students can reap from the incorporation of our collections into the institutional curriculum and of how doing so can facilitate the development of critical and research skills such as handling, preservation, consultation and the ability to cite accurately.[2] Bringing this class to life with my colleague, Barbara and the lecturer in charge of the module was an extremely satisfying experience both as a library professional, keen on the development of students in my care and as an avid fantasy nut who always dreamed of fighting the forces of evil one book at a time.

De Praestigiis Dæmonvm, by Johann Weyer published in Basel, 1563. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell

[1] Hubbard, M. and Lotts, M. (2013). Special Collections, Primary Resources, and Information Literacy Pedagogy. Communications in Information Literacy, 7:1, p. 34. [online]. [accessed 15 May 2019]

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