Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
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From Wellington to Whitehall-reflections on 8 years in London

From Wellington to Whitehall – reflections on 8 years in London-by Carole Edwards 

In 2008, a combination of life events gave my husband and me the chance to return to London, where we had both worked previously.  We were ready for a change, so we put our lives into storage, and off we went.  I had the good fortune to be able to return to my former place of employment, a central government department where I had worked as a Senior Librarian during the 1990s.  Inevitably I found that much had changed during my absence.  For a start, the physical library was no more!  It had been decided that such a thing was no longer required in the digital age, and the ongoing curation of the collections – which included some unique and historic items – could no longer be justified.  So they had been rehoused in other, mostly academic, libraries by means of trust deeds.  My former library colleagues had moved on to new roles.  Some were managing the digital library.  I knew that whatever I would end up doing, it would be very different from what I had done before – an exciting prospect.

Offered a stand-alone role as Information Policy Manager, I was to join a small team within a department called the Information Management Group.  Over time, that small team grew, as did my own role, so that I ended up with a team of my own.  Our policy areas included information and records management, information standards, copyright and certain aspects of open government.  I was glad of my New Zealand experience which had introduced me to records management and tertiary library policy within a government context.  It meant that I didn’t feel totally at sea in my new role, which was very much a hybrid of librarianship and records management.  Some of the challenges were familiar, such as dealing with legacy information systems – both paper and digital – while moving to more powerful and efficient new ones.  As always, resources were under pressure from competing priorities.  Every other government department faced similar issues, so networking and knowledge-sharing with colleagues were essential for progress and sanity. 

The policy side was fascinating, and I loved it.  Among other things, I was involved in the early stages of the UK government’s ‘Making public data public’ initiative, briefing the Secretary of State for his meeting with Tim Berners-Lee who was one of the leading lights of the project.  I also provided advice on relevant EU policy proposals, participated in forums and committees, and led on various compliance initiatives such as inspections and audits.

Whitehall can be a challenging place to work, but it’s never dull.  There was a different demonstration outside our offices almost every day, plus we had a birds-eye view of various ceremonial events such as ANZAC Day commemorations and the royal carriages heading for the State Opening of Parliament.  I was privileged to be able to attend talks given by visiting world leaders and notable individuals such as Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Prince William, Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton, former footballer Jackie Charlton, four-minute miler Roger Bannister and actor Henry Winkler.  It was an interesting time to be in London, what with the riots, the royal wedding, the Olympics, the Scottish vote and – just before we left – the Brexit vote.  When it all got a bit much, we had a vast choice of beautiful countries that we could reach within an hour or two.  All in all, we had a fantastic time. 

Here are some of the trends I noted, in no particular order:

·         Information Management is increasing in significance as a discipline.  CILIP, the UK’s professional association, has recognised this, and is taking positive steps to increase its offering to members working in this area.  A new Knowledge and Information Management subject interest group has just been launched.

·         Electronic document and records management systems (EDRMs) are largely being abandoned, at least in government departments, in favour of more affordable alternatives such as SharePoint with add-ons.

·         Despite the initial trend of dispersing physical libraries in favour of digital – something I had already witnessed in New Zealand – I’ve noticed that lately, they seem to be making a bit of a comeback.  And so do books.  Figures released by the UK Publishers’ Association showed a 17 per cent drop in ebook sales, and an 8 per cent rise in physical book sales, in 2016.  In the same year Rohan Silva, an impressive young techpreneur and former adviser to the Prime Minister, launched a new project.  Not some cool digital start-up as might be expected, but a bookshop, called Libreria.  What’s more, it’s a digital-free zone!

·         Public libraries have become increasingly dependent on volunteers, and several hard-pressed authorities have closed branch libraries.  It’s not all negative though – some authorities like Hertfordshire and the London Borough of Southwark have opened new ones. Southwark have partnered with Dolly Parton’s ‘Imagination library’ to offer every child born in the Borough after Jan 2016 a free book every month up to the age of 5.

·         As public libraries reflect on their purpose and future role, a number have followed the US and Canadian trend for incorporating Makerspaces, or Hack Days. These offer members of the public the opportunity to learn coding and how to use 3D printers and Raspberry Pi technology, along with more traditional maker crafts such as knitting.  See some examples at http://commonlibraries.cc/about/ .  The UK government’s recently-published Digital Strategy highlights libraries as a major player in developing digital inclusion throughout communities.

·         Academic library roles are also developing, with an increasing focus on outcomes rather than function.  A London university recently advertised for an ‘Academic achievement librarian’ – I rather liked that.

Now that we’re back in New Zealand, I’m looking forward to catching up on what’s going on in the library and information world here.  Is information management developing in the same way?  Is LIANZA embracing it, or planning to?  Are Makerspaces taking off in our public libraries?  With both New Zealand and the UK facing general elections, how will libraries fare?  Will politicians wave the flag for them?  It should be an interesting year!

 

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