Refer Autumn 2016


Table of Contents

 Information Services Group Forges Ahead into a New Phase of its Existence

David Smith, Chair, Knowledge and Information  Management Group

Information Services Group Reference Awards 2016

Amanda Duffy, Chair, Awards Panel, ISG

 Walford Award 2016

 A Love-Letter to Reference Books: Review of You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

Ralph Adam

The Diary of the Human Race: 150 Years of Birmingham Reference Libraries

Rachel MacGregor, Lancaster University

My Library School Experience: What a Journey! Part 2

Simone Charles, M.A. Library and Information Studies, University College London 2015

CILIP Conference 2016

Mark Sutcliffe, Oxfordshire County Libraries

Refer: the journal of the Information Services Group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), is published three times a year and distributed free to members of the Group.

 Editor: Helen Edwards

Editorial team: Lynsey Blandford, Ruth Hayes

Cover Design: Jonas Herriot

Contact: Helen Edwards 07989 565739;

Copyright © The contributors and the ISG 2016

Online edition

 ISG Regional Groups hold a number of events. Details can be found at:




Information Services Group Forges Ahead into a New Phase of its Existence

David Smith, Chair, Knowledge and Information Management Group

Following on from my proposal laid down within the last edition of Refer, ISG is to transform into part of CILIP’s new Knowledge & Information Management (K&IM) Group. Following the consultation, all feedback received was positive regarding the changes, with many emphasising that the information skills used by many of our members were key to being an effective knowledge and information management professional. In fact, it is recognised that the needs of users and the utilisation of the information and resources that we manage is crucial to providing a good service to our users. CILIP has also congratulated ISG on its innovative approach to not only be present at the K&IM table, but to embrace change and to be subsumed into it.

So what does this mean for ISG? The National Committee had its last meeting as ISG on 9th November and as part of its AGM, the motion that ISG be transformed into being part of the K&IM Group was carried unanimously. As of 1st January 2017, ISG will no longer exist in its current format and the new K&IM Group will formally commence.

I have been appointed by CILIP to chair the new Knowledge & Information Management Group National Committee through its initial stages, and several members of the existing ISG Committee are also joining me. The new K&IM has now had its first couple of meetings, and its first business plan has been drafted. Our Treasurer, Andrew Hutchinson, has also been appointed as Treasurer to the new K&IM Group. Andrew is reasonably new to the role, but his input has been invaluable to date since he took over from our previous long standing and valued Treasurer, Gary Archer.

At its first meeting, the K&IM Committee was keen that the existing ISG work being continued under the new structure be well co-ordinated, and a sub group of K&IM is to be created called “Information Services”. The Reference Awards and SCOOP will report under this banner. Until the final structure of the new Committee is agreed, the two regional groups (London/South East and East of England) will also report here, in order to provide continuity until they are equipped to take on the role of full K&IM regional groups. The Chair of the Information Services Sub Group will be Amanda Duffy, who many of you will know as one of our longest standing and hard working members as our Minutes Secretary / Chair of the Reference Awards Panel. The other main objectives for 2017 will be based around establishing the identity of the Group, Communication, Events and identification of training needs for members.

The K&IM Committee has agreed that they would like to continue to publish a journal, and Helen Edwards, our Editor who has provided quite a visionary focus to Refer over the last few years has agreed to continue to be involved in this and be our fourth national K&IM Committee member from ISG. The next edition of Refer will be dedicated to K&IM issues, and then after that the future direction will hopefully have been decided – including any name change.

As of January 2017, all CILIP members will be automatically offered free membership of K&IM for the first two years to help get it established. Thank you for your membership of ISG over the years. Your support has been appreciated, and it is hoped that you will all continue to join us as existing and valued ISG members, to see this area establish and develop; both within CILIP and more importantly in the wider workplace.

As of 1st January 2017, the new K&IM Committee will consist of the following people:

Name Role e-mail
David Smith Chair
Stephen Phillips Vice-Chair
Andrew Hutchinson Treasurer
Mairead Smith Honorary Secretary (joint)
Denise Carter Honorary Secretary (joint)
Amanda Duffy Minutes Secretary / Chair of the Information Services sub-group
Sandra Ward Member
Helen Edwards Member / Editor
Sue Silcocks Representing UKeIG
Ruth Carlyle Representing HLG
Francesca Emmett Representing GIG
Kim Austin Representing CSLIG
Karen McFarlane CILIP Trustee – advisory role

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016


Information Services Group Reference Awards 2016

Amanda Duffy, Chair, Awards Panel, ISG

 Some people believe that reference today is dead. It isn’t dead, just different. The print collections may shrink and the online resources may be more carefully chosen, but our job remains the same – to help people with their information needs. Reference will always be there in libraries, because someone will always have a question, and we will do our utmost to answer because that is what we librarians do!

What is happening is that the quality of information resources available to librarians and information workers is getting better. This year, we had an exciting batch of nominations for the awards. There were new subjects and new formats but also familiar subjects presented in new and different ways; ways that were much easier to use and would appeal to both established users and newcomers.

As usual, I would like to thank all those people who did send in nominations – please keep them coming. And thank you to the judging panel who worked hard on judging day, but also did quite a bit of research on the titles prior to our meeting.

The call for nominations for the ISG Reference Award asks for titles that are available and relevant to the library and information sector in the UK and are accessible, original, provide current and accurate information, and give value for money.

To be eligible for the 2016 Awards, works had to be made available between 1st January and 31st December 2015, and they could be in print or electronic format.

We have three categories in the awards – Commended, Highly Commended and the Winner, and I’ll take the results in ascending order.

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016


Electronic Awards 2016

For several years, we have had to combine the print and electronic awards into one award, for the simple reason that we have received an insufficient number of nominations for electronic resources. For example, last year of our three finalists, two were printed books and a third a website (Darwin Online).   Fortunately, this year we received nearly as many electronic nominations as we did print, so a separate set of awards.

A major issue with electronic resources is the question of how they are funded.   Some are available only through a subscription, others rely on income from adverts, and a third sort are supported by government, charitable bodies, private benefactors or public donations.       All three have their particular problems. The subscription resource often incurs too high a cost for something that may get little use.   We all know the problem with those funded by adverts; however good the information contained on the site may be, you often can’t see the wood for the trees through the adverts that pop up, flash out and generally distract you.   As for the third kind, policies may change, funds dry up or the individuals who dedicated themselves to the resource, move on.

We cannot say for sure that this or that site was first made available in a particular year. What we can say is that looking at the resources at a specific time, in this case September 2016, these are sites we recognise as good and would recommend to librarians and information workers.


DrugWise promotes evidence-based information on drugs, alcohol and tobacco; the information is both topical and non-judgemental. The name may be a little confusing to start with, but once you realise that the focus is with drugs as in drug misuse, the purpose of the site becomes obvious.

The layout of the site is clear and easy to use. The two main sections are the Drug Search and the I-Know Hub. This latter contains the text of important international reports on drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Within each of the three main topics, there are sub-divisions making searching very straightforward. For example, within the alcohol section the sub-divisions include prevalence, treatment and criminal justice.

Drug Search covers over 150 drugs and drug-related terms.   Here you can find out about legal highs, magic mushrooms or chasing the dragon.   When describing a specific drug, the entry gives a description of the drug, the law, history, effects and risks, and finally links to related sites for further information. The information is given very clearly and precisely, and the style is informal and personal. The site also has a comments section, book reviews and Find a Service which gives links to treatment services.

This is the third incarnation of this website, and there is a fully-indexed archive of articles back to the beginnings in 1986.

In an area where there are numerous sites all claiming to do the same thing, DrugWise stands out as a good central resource for obtaining balanced and scholarly information.   Therefore, DrugWise at is COMMENDED in the 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards for Electronic Resources.


FullFact is a UK-based charity that fact-checks current issues relating to the UK both internally and on the international scene. It says it is independent of government, political parties and the media.

The range of topics covered is impressive; the major subject divisions are the economy, Europe, health, crime, education, immigration and law. Within each of these there are cross references to the other subjects.   There are always links to the original sources and these can include newspapers, House of Commons Library briefings, government reports and journal articles. For example, in answer to the question ‘what is so great about the Great Repeal Bill?’, there are links to over 18 other sites or documents – Acts of Parliament, law reports and opinions, Conservative Party manifesto, etc. etc.   Other entries will state whether the fact is true or not, for example it does cost over £200,000 to train a doctor as Jeremy Hunt claimed on 4th October this year.

The site is amazingly up-to-date. I was writing the item on Saturday 22nd October, the questions asked and answered on the BBC Question Time the previous evening had been fact checked.   Another regular questions and answer event fact checked is Prime Minister’s Question time.

All of this is extremely easy to access and navigate. By concentrating on major political, social and economic issues, it makes itself the website to check quickly and effectively for the full facts behind what we are hearing from politicians and the media.

FullFact at is HIGHLY COMMENDED in the 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards for Electronic Resources.


Both the previous websites are independently funded through donations, both large and small and supported by many volunteer workers.   NHS Choices is, as its name suggests, run and funded by the NHS.   Over the years, ISG has had a lot of involvement with government websites through the work of the Standing Committee on Official Publications, and the experiences have not always been very good.   Even as trained information professionals, we have found some of the sites to be real quagmires for trying to find anything out. So heaven help the layperson!

That is of course all changing, and there are many attempts to make access easy and intuitive with information that is understandable and helpful.   The judging panel felt that NHS Choices, the official NHS site, was an outstanding example.

It offers a comprehensive information service with articles, videos, tools to help you make decisions plus lots of illustrations. The main topic areas are medical conditions, healthy living, care and support, health news and services near you. As one panel member commented ‘this site tells you everything you want to know, plus some things you’d rather not know’.

The site is attractive, easy to use and clear, the articles are well written and fully comprehensible to a lay person, policies are explained and there are numerous links to other parts of the site and to external sources.   Entries show when the pages were last updated and when the next update is due. There is a good search engine and there is also the ability to tailor your searches by creating a Your Pages account.

There are plenty of medical sites online, but NHS Choices scores because it has so much information concentrated in one place, and because it carries the authority of the NHS.

NHS Choices – your health, your choices at is the WINNER in 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards for Electronic Resources.

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016


Print Awards 2016

 The judging panel couldn’t decide between two titles for the Commended award in the print section, so we have given the Commended award to both titles.


A search on Amazon reveals a very large number of railway atlases for all or parts of the UK. So how do we judge a new one? What makes one atlas different, more informative, useful and approachable than others?   We felt that the Railway Atlas Then and Now achieved what it set out to do in a clear, straightforward and very informative way.

Basically, the atlas consists of double age spreads with on the left-hand side a map of the railway groupings in 1923, and on the right-hand side the situation in 2012. It is the clarity of presentation that is most impressive; the maps themselves are very clear, as is the legend for each pair of maps.   The 2012 maps identify current lines, closed or dismantled lines, roads, walkways, stations on closed lines that are now museums, shops or bed and breakfasts. Web addresses are included where appropriate, and two gazetteers make locating specific lines and stations very easy.

Because there is such large quantity of information included, this sometimes results in the print being too small. Occasionally, more detailed inserts must be placed on nearby, instead of adjacent pages. But these are minor criticisms. For anyone intrigued by the history and development of the railway infrastructure of the country, this work is an excellent and essential addition to their collection.

Railway Atlas Then and Now, 2nd edition by Paul Smith and Keith Turner, published by Ian Allen at £20 is COMMENDED in the 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards.


2016 being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we might have expected some nominations, given the number of books being published in 2015 and 2016 – and we weren’t disappointed when four titles came up. In the area of Shakespeare studies, a lot of work has gone into making the Bard more accessible and understandable to a wider audience, and we felt that The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary did just that.

Compiled by a renowned expert in the English language and a Shakespearean actor, the Dictionary brings together over 4,000 difficult words used in the twelve most performed and studied plays. The definitions are clear and show where words are now out of use, whose meaning has been changed, ones that Shakespeare made up, and names of antiquated or fictional people and places. The plays, acts and lines where the words can be found are given. Usage notes and theatre notes provide the background information.

The overall arrangement of the work is alphabetical. There is a very clear and comprehensive introduction, making use of the dictionary very easy. There are also short sections on Shakespearean grammar and pronunciation, and his use of French and Latin. But perhaps the most unusual and entertaining part of the book are the illustrations. They are fun, almost comic-like but each with very clearly defined focus – the subjects range from swords and daggers, ships, music and hats, and they tell you what you want to know.

This book is for students studying the plays, and for adults who want to understand more of what they are hearing and seeing. It is easy to use and handle and has an attractive cover. It is unusual and fun and can be used as a straight reference work or, as one of the panel commented, ‘a good browse’.

The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary by David and Ben Crystal, published by OUP at £12.99 is COMMENDED in the 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards.


We come across many beautiful books whilst judging these awards but few go beyond the coffee-table type to be considered good, solid reference works. A Historical Atlas of Tibet is one such work. It is the work of one man who put in 12 years of research and 8 years of mapmaking into the process. What we have is an atlas covering the cultural and religious sites across the Tibetan plateau, from Palaeolithic time to the fall of the Qing Empire in 1911. The 49 double page maps are superb, clear and colourful. Each map is complemented by a succinct essay, as well as old photographs, tables, graphs, plans and modern photographs. Throughout, information is expertly distilled and delivered with impressive scholarship. With each map, the sources, both western and Chinese, consulted, are listed. There is a good index, a clear contents page and a helpful how to use section.

This is a pioneering work, the first comprehensive work focusing on Tibet as a cultural and linguistic realm. A book students and scholars have been waiting for and an absorbing work for anyone interested in the highest places in the world.   The quality of the book production is high and it is excellent value for money.   Looking at the work from a purely historical atlas-based perspective, this must be one of the best examples produced so far this century.

A Historical Atlas of Tibet by Karl E. Ryavec, published by University of Chicago Press at £34 is HIGHLY COMMENDED in the 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards.


And now we return to Shakespeare.   When it was first published in 2001, The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare was considered an accessible, authoritative and comprehensive work for the research student, general reader and playgoer.   The second edition builds on this, to become an even more thorough and indispensable reference work. The arrangement is a basic A to Z, with a central section featuring detailed studies of each of the plays.

Entries in the alphabetical section range from the very short and informative to longer, in-depth coverage.   The book covers all Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with their associated history and geographical and cultural references.   Shakespeare’s family, acquaintances and people and places in his life are included.   There is material on the Shakespeare legend and Bardology, the theatrical and literary context of all his works, theatrical history of the plays, editors and editions and Shakespearean performance and influence around the world.

But of course, the main focus is on the works. Each play is outlined act by act and scene by scene, plus details on the principal characters, places and songs.   Related ballet, music, opera, film and fiction adaptations are detailed. All in all there is an impressive range of topics for understanding the plays, performance history and the place of Shakespeare today.

There are over 100 illustrations, a chronology and comprehensive bibliographies which include forthcoming items. The editorial team comprises many very well-known academics from the world of Shakespearean studies.   The whole book is beautifully designed and laid out with high quality production. A handsome book with a long shelf life – both physically and intellectually.

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edition, edited by Michael Dobson, Stanley Wells, Will Sharpe and Erin Sullivan, and published by Oxford University Press at £40 is the WINNER in the 2016 Information Services Group Reference Awards.

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016

Walford Award 2016



The Walford Award is made to someone who has made a significant contribution to the reference and information world in the United Kingdom.

Dr Lewis Foreman not only has had a distinguished career in libraries, but also he has contributed enormously to the literature of music, and it is for that reason he is being presented with the Walford Award.

He is a renowned and established authority on British classical music of the 20th century, with an impressive portfolio of books, articles, record notes and musical obituaries as well as regular appearances on BBC Radio 3.

Lewis has authored or edited several essential reference works on music including Information sources in music and London: a musical gazetteer. The latter, written in collaboration with his wife Susan, is a fascinating book for anyone interested in London and/or music. The five musical walks sound very interesting and, of course, there is an extensive bibliography.

Earlier in his career, Lewis published Discographies: a bibliography and Systematic discography. These were followed by books on Havergal Brian and the performance of his orchestral work, The music of Frank Bridge, a complete catalogue of the works of Arthur Bliss, The church music of Walford Davis, and From Parry to Britten: British Music in Letters 1900-1945.

Lewis is the authority on the works of Arnold Bax, and in 2007 published Bax: a composer and his times, which has been described as a classic biography. He seems tireless, in the last few years contributing to The Cambridge companion to recorded music, as well as producing works on Percy Grainger, John Ireland and Herbert Howells.

He was awarded a PhD from Cardiff University in 2005, and is a research fellow in the Music Department at Birmingham University.

For his contribution to music information, the Information Services Group is delighted to present Lewis Foreman with the Walford Award for 2016.

walford2 walford1

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016

A Love-Letter to Reference Books: Review of You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

Ralph Adam


Our heads buzz with questions. But where to go to find those elusive answers? Jack Lynch, a man who is fascinated by reference books, thinks he knows and shares his experience in his new book You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia. Lynch is in his element seeking answers to those buzzing questions. For him, the number of reference books is infinite: he imagines calculating the worldwide total to be rather like counting the stars in the sky! He’s a reference anorak!

For Lynch the meaning of ‘reference book’ is broad, encompassing virtually all types of publication from ancient pillars and scrolls via TV programme guides, multi-volume encyclopaedias and statistical databases to Google and Wikipedia. He even refers to the Human Genome Project as a book! Lynch gives 1771 for the first use of the term (etymology: OED), pointing out that, while most books have ‘readers’, reference works have ‘users’.

This book is intended as a history of reference books, a love-letter to them, and, perhaps, (considering the way things are going) a eulogy to printed ones. It is a reminder of the sheer variety (and formats) of information sources, as well as the need for a healthy scepticism about their reliability. Lynch considers logarithm tables to be as near as you can get to ‘real’ reference books.

The author, an English specialist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, has written widely on British literature and on fakery. He sees Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary as the key to the English language (he has published a compendium of Johnson’s insults and sneers); we are given examples of the Dictionary’s appearances in US courts of law from 1785 to the present. The blurb quotes Johnson’s over-used dictum: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it”, though, surprisingly, it gives neither the next sentence (on the importance of catalogues and books), nor Johnson’s reasons for making the statement: he was asked why he had lingered in a library!

I was intrigued by this volume: a weighty tome aimed, not just at infojunkies, but at anyone who is fascinated by the stories behind great reference works and how they have influenced one another. It is dedicated to a rare books librarian, Dan Traister (”Prince of Librarians”).

Each of the twenty-five chapters is devoted to a specific subject area, with two reference works that have made important contributions to knowledge management pitted against one another. Their approaches may or may not be similar and they may have been compiled millennia apart. Each work has its own detailed ‘catalogue card’. Examples of Lynch’s pairings include: Harris’s List of Covent Garden ladies coupled with Aristotle’s Master-piece, Bald’s Leechbook and Avicenna’s Kitab al-Qanun fi al-tibb, Merck’s Index and the CRC handbook of chemistry and physics, Bartlett’s A collection of familiar quotations and Brewer’s Dictionary of phrase & fable, the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal with the Oxford English dictionary. Chapter 21 (a history of library catalogues) compares Panizzi’s General catalogue of printed books with the National union catalog, pre-1956 imprints. Also included are brief excursions to related resources, while chapters are followed by ½-chapter interludes exploring fascinating stories and issues (examples: alphabetisation, indexing, plagiarism, ceased and abandoned publications, professional societies, editions, errors and blunders and missed deadlines).

Lynch looks at each title, asking why it was created, by whom, for which purpose and how the compiler(s) worked, as well as considering how their successors coped. The middle pages contain a beautiful section with photos of ancient books, manuscripts and authors.

The final chapter explores the never-ending, impossible, ‘encyclopaedic dream”: it attempts to encompass all the world’s knowledge in one resource from Descartes’ work to search engines and Wikipedia: (surprisingly, H.G. Wells’s World brain is not mentioned, although Vannevar Bush’s Memex is).

The book concludes with a brief etymological glossary of terms such as ‘abecedarium’ ‘union catalog’ (sic) and ‘folio’ as well as a substantial index which, nevertheless, failed me on proper-name searches. There is also an extensive bibliography.

Lynch looks through old reference books at their creators and the worlds they inhabited: “When we turn an ancient dictionary’s pages”, he says, “we read something never meant for our eyes, and we hear the dead talking amongst themselves”. He illustrates this with such enticing reference books as The dictionary of dainty breakfasts and the Dutch/Chinese encyclopaedia of stupidity. Reference books shape our environments: while an old encyclopaedia tells us nothing about neuroscience, it is culture’s way of describing its era’s physical, intellectual and spiritual worlds.

Past trivia provides interesting insights. For example, the well-known definition of ‘horse’ from the first edition of the Polish encyclopaedia Nowe Ateny: “Everyone can see what a horse is” or its definition of ‘goat’: “an animal that stinks”; the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica divided ’homo sapiens’ into five types: American, European, Asiatic, African and Monstrous, and described California as ‘a large country of the West Indies. Unknown whether it is an island or a peninsula’. We are introduced to dictionary definitions for the likes of ‘ghost words’, ‘mountweazel’ and ‘unperson’ with snippets telling us, for instance, that many reference books, such as Brockhaus, follow the ‘tradition’ of including a fake entry in every edition. We learn of other reference enthusiasts: Walt Whitman was an avid dictionary reader (he considered them “the compost heap of all English literature”), while Tolstoy avidly consumed encyclopaedias, and Malcolm X acquired a dictionary in prison, copying the book out, word for word.

Lynch emphasises how innovations have ‘shaken up’ information management: he claims classification schemes, cataloguing standards, alphabetical order, page numbers, contents tables and indexes have all allowed old information to be organised in new ways, creating new forms of cultural history.

Despite his enthusiasm for printed reference books, Lynch fails to provide a sustained defence of them, assuming that the end of their world is nigh. Digital resources are discussed at length: the book begat the web which, in turn, threatens the reference book’s obsolescence. But not quite yet. Each format has its own functions. Books have literary value, are concise and reliable and make both browsing and serendipitous discovery easy. An online encyclopaedia can show links to related articles, but what about all the unrelated ones? The printed codex, Lynch suggests, allows its user to gain an impressionistic overview of the whole, and to skim through at high speed until something intriguing catches the eye: no online resource can replicate that. Our continuing hunger to be fed what we weren’t asking for lies behind the success of books such as Schott’s original miscellany: in a world where we can search for anything, it is getting harder to happen across what we never knew we wanted to know.

Unfortunately, the illusion of cutting costs encourages publishers to believe that anything printed will be improved by digitisation; they are increasingly sending key titles to that great reference library in the sky often before carrying out effective research. Examples are not hard to find.

One excellent information source was the Quid, France’s best-selling reference book (but costing rather more than its title suggests!). The Quid contained a vast amount of condensed information: a combination of the Statesman’s yearbook, Whitaker’s almanack and Pears cyclopaedia. The first edition, in 1963, sold 20,000 copies. In 2000 sales exceeded 450,000. Yet, in 2007, the publisher decided that the market for printed reference books was finished; the future lay with the web, where he imagined his publication would be even more profitable on a subscription basis. The final printed edition sold over 100,000 copies (not bad, at any time, for a reference book). By 2010 the online version had disappeared.

Some whole areas of knowledge have lost major resources. For example, information on Britain’s rail industry has become poor. The main ‘who’s who’ and guide to franchises, the ATOC directory, went digital in March 2016 and has already disappeared, while the National fares manual also became an online-only service before fading away. Other resources, such as the LENNON fares data base, are on restricted access. In some countries, timetables (printed and digital) have disappeared completely.

We appear to have access to almost unlimited information, yet our horizons have narrowed. Lynch says “Google has become the first and, for many, only stop for seeking information on everything ….. We are increasingly dependent on a single source, not a library, not a set of books, but a computer connected to other computers around the world.” We know, too, that reliance on these sources blinds scientists to relevant work that is more than a couple of years old. Nevertheless, Lynch says he wrote “hardly a page” without turning to Google, Wikipedia, or both, warning that “we run the risk of living in an information monoculture.”

He claims Wikipedia, by its nature, “favours the fashionable”: the notorious and infamous. Others, who may be more important, get less space (O. J. Simpson occupies 21,000 words, more than Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa combined). It is a paradox that “everybody distrusts Wikipedia, yet everyone uses it.” Some online resources are as thoroughly vetted as print versions, but many aren’t.

I found this book intriguing and much fun. A minor irritation is the format, taken directly from the US edition, with a very American fount and paper cut: it is printed on 50lb Bulky News Cream, using a (for me) annoying deckle-edge trim. Nevertheless, it’s a great Christmas read for any reference librarian. Enjoy it (and learn a bit, too!).

Jack Lynch. You could look it up: the reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia.

Bloomsbury, 2016. 414pp. £25 (£22.50 online orders).

ISBN:   978-0-8027-7752-2;   E-pub:   978-0-8027-7794-2

Sample content is available at:

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016

The Diary of the Human Race: 150 Years of Birmingham Reference Libraries

Rachel MacGregor, Lancaster University

 On 26th October 2016, Birmingham Reference Library celebrated its 150th birthday, and its story reflects the story of public libraries from across the country which, since then, has been about providing free access to information to everyone, regardless of their age, gender or background.  It was not the first public library in England – that honour went to Salford Royal Library and Art Gallery – but it was from the same imperative which followed the Free Libraries Act of 1849. This allowed local authorities to raise a tax to build public libraries. Where Salford was swift to act on this, Birmingham delayed. After a strong campaign on both sides, the first attempt to raise a tax to fund a library for Birmingham failed; and it took a further ten years for those in favour to convince the electorate to vote for the tax and bring libraries to Birmingham. One of the most prominent proponents of the public libraries movement was George Dawson, preacher, reformer and radical, who preached a “civic gospel” from the pulpit of the Church of the Saviour.  In his congregation was the young industrialist and soon to be politician Joseph Chamberlain, later mayor of Birmingham and later still, one of the leading figures in British politics.  From Dawson he learnt and then promoted the values of using the gains of industry to invest in the local infrastructure to provide water, gas, art and culture for the ordinary man, woman and child.

Ahead of completion of the first purpose-built library, the Free Libraries Committee found a warehouse to use for this purpose on Constitution Hill, close to the centre of Birmingham and at the heart of its manufacturing district, the Jewellery Quarter. Around 300 people met for celebrations in the city centre and then processed to Constitution Hill – led by the mayor Arthur Ryland – where addresses were given by Ryland, George Dawson and others.[1]  Dawson’s presence lent weight to the occasion:  as a leading intellectual and cultural commentator, this imbued the moment with a great significance:  Birmingham as a cultural centre, as a place of both art and industry, had arrived quite literally in this converted warehouse alongside the railway line in an industrial quarter of town.  The first book was issued on 22nd April 1861 and in the first year 5,422 borrowers enrolled, who could choose from just 6,288 books.[2]

Of the 300 or so borrowers who joined in March 1862, the biggest single occupation given was jeweller; there was also a large number of clerks, schoolboys and schoolgirls.  We know the name of the first library borrower: William Craddock.  He was 32 years old and worked as a gun stocker.[3] He was exactly the sort of person who the library was designed for – a working man, engaged in one of the city’s 1000 trades, keen to improve his lot through education and learning.

The warehouse was replaced by a purpose-built library opened in 1865 in advance of the eagerly anticipated new Central Reference and Lending Libraries.  The Lending Library opened its doors on 6th September 1865, followed a year later by the eagerly anticipated Central Reference Library on 26th October 1866.  The Chief Librarian appointed was Mr J D Mullins, and yet again George Dawson was present at the opening.  His inaugural speech survives: “A great library contains the diary of the human race… there are few places I would rather haunt after my death than this room and there are few things I would rather have my children remember more than this.”[4]

Disaster struck the Library only a few years later. On Saturday, 11th January 1879, a fire broke out during building operations. It spread rapidly and only 1,000 of the Reference Library’s stock of 50,000 were saved.  The fire services were in attendance, but were too late to save the Reference Library although about 10,000 books from the lending library were rescued.[5]  The Lord Mayor , who was dining nearby at the Town Hall, apparently personally helped with rescue work, but most of the library’s collections were utterly destroyed.

John Langford, editor of the Birmingham Gazette, local historian and sometime poet wrote:

Oh Vulcan! ruthless fierce destroying god

Not e’en the homes of learning wilt thou spare

But on the immortal essences of men

Thy sacrilegious hand to lay wilt dare”[6]

The effect on the townsfolk was devastating, but they were not without a fighting spirit.  A mere three years later on the 1st June 1882, the second Central Library was opened with an inaugural ceremony in the Town Hall; an opening address was delivered by the Rt.Hon. John Bright, MP.  In sharp contrast to the earlier reluctant efforts to establish a library for the town, a huge fundraising campaign was mounted to replace the books lost – including another Shakespeare First Folio to replace that lost in the fire.

The Library was a great success and it served its town (later a city) and country well. At the outbreak of the First World War thirty-six men from the library service signed up to fight, of whom 6 were killed in or just afterwards.[7]  Percy Garner (24) and Thomas Riley (25) were both killed on 22nd July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme at Delville Wood.  They and Henry Checketts (30) were serving in the 14th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (1st Birmingham City Battalion – “Birmingham Pals”).  He survived the battle in which his comrades Garner and Riley were killed, but died on 3rd September 1916 during the attack on Falfemont Farm, along with 800 other Birmingham Pals. Frank Izard (27) worked at the Central, Birchfield and Handsworth Libraries.  He was also in the Birmingham Pals and died at the Battle of Passchendaele on 4th October 1917.  Two members of staff died after the conflict as a result of the injuries they sustained:  William Reeves (Army Service Corps) and Charles Wells (Worcestershire Regiment).[8] [9]

The war brought changes for the female staff in the library.  In July 1914 there were 95 male clerical staff and 13 women, but by 1916 there were 38 male clerical staff and 37 women. The library was keen to stress that the men’s jobs were to be kept open for them, but the library as a workplace for women was well and truly established.  The first female member of the library staff was Mrs Mary Elizabeth Comber, employed at Adderley Park Branch Library in 1883.  She earned £1 a week, wheras her male equivalent at Deritend Library was getting 42/- a week.

From the late nineteenth century, more women appear on the staff with Miss L M Welch in 1899 employed as an assistant at the Reference Library at 15/- a week (less than her male counterparts), followed swiftly by Miss Ada Death, Miss Emma Cousins, Miss Clara Taylor and a number of others.  The employment of women was not met without criticism. A correspondent in the local press wrote:

“Sir – I wonder if any of your readers ever find cause to complain of the attention they receive from the girl assistants at the Central Library? It is quite a usual thing to see five or six people waiting to be served while two or three of the girls are having a gossip, or otherwise wasting time.  If they are summoned by one of the male assistants to attend to the counter they pay not the slightest heed until their gossip is over.  They go for the books as if time were of no consequence…”

The chief librarian responded that Alderman Fallows had visited the United States and had seen the example of employing “girls”. Manchester library, ever the rival, had also been employing women.  So, not to be outdone, Birmingham engaged young women as assistants.  The librarian explains that “there is much to be said for the innovation” because there are not enough senior positions for the number of junior positions which exist – he suggests that many boy assistants find themselves out of work when they reach the age of 21.  This practice of laying off boys either at 16 or at 21 was commonplace – this is because juniors could expect to be paid about 5s a week, whereas more senior members of staff maybe 15 or 20s a week.  The librarian goes on to say that for girls, the situation is quite different as girls are not looking forward to a permanent career – “they are quite content with their positions at the library, and there is always the thought of orange blossom… then of course when the girl gets married there is another vacancy.  On the other hand when a man gets married he is doubly anxious to get a more secure and remunerative position.”[10]

In the early twentieth century there was a campaign by both male and female staff members to admit women to membership of the local Library Association branch, which was women’s route to more senior roles.  By the 1960’s there are references to women from ethnic communities being employed by the library[11] although the first female head of the library services was not until 1989 with the appointment of Patricia Coleman OBE.

As the century progressed new ideas developed, such as “open access” whereby users helped themselves to the books from the bookshelves.  The old building became increasingly unsuited to modern library services and the campaign to build a new library began to take shape in the 1920s.  By 1938 the Council had approved a plan to build a new library for the city, but war broke out, followed by further delays, meaning building work did not begin until the 1960s.  By this time, the accommodation was cramped and storage woefully inadequate.  The new Central Library was scheduled to open in September 1973, but a strike delayed the opening, which finally took place on 12th January 1974. The Rt Hon Harold Wilson, then Leader of the Opposition, officiated.  At the time of its opening, this building was reputed to have been the largest non-national public library in Europe.  During the following decades improvements were made, especially following a (smaller) fire in the early 1990s, and in 1998 public internet access was established.

By this time, again changes in library service provision led to calls for a new library for the 21st Century.  Various options were explored, but the eventual design was awarded to the Dutch architects Mecanoo, and built on a site adjoining the Birmingham Rep. The Library of Birmingham was opened on 3rd September 2013 by human rights campaigner and adopted Brummie Malala Yousafzai.   The Library remains a symbol of the proud 150 year heritage of public library provision in the city of Birmingham. At a time when public library services are more under threat than at any time in their history, we remember and celebrate the traditions of free education and learning provision for everyone which public libraries provide.

[1] Birmingham Daily Post 5 April 1861

[2] Annual Report of the Birmingham Free Libraries Committee 1861-2

[3] 1861 Census

[4] Inaugural Address by George Dawson MA, Borough of Birmingham Opening of the Free Reference Library, 26 October 1866 (Birmingham, EC Osborne 1866)

[5] Birmingham Daily Post 14 January 1879

[6] ibid

[7] for images see

[8] Birmingham Library Staff Memorial Album: War Service (Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)

[9] Birmingham Free Library Committee Minutes 1916 (BCC/1/AT/1/1/11 Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)

[10] Birmingham Daily Post 23 March 1906

[11] Birmingham Mail 1960 (from Library Cuttings Album 4, Birmingham Archives and Collections)

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016

My Library School Experience: What a Journey! Part 2

Simone Charles, M.A. Library and Information Studies, University College London 2015


Arranging to leave Trinidad to live abroad for the third time was hectic. I had not yet resigned from my job, nor had I acquired the necessary student visa or completed the banking transactions that I had to undertake. I eventually arrived to begin my programme in Library and Information Studies at UCL, two weeks late on a Friday afternoon in October, on a day in which I experienced the opposite of the lovely autumnal weather I expected. Fortunately for me, I already knew my way around London, and as I stayed with my sister for the duration of the course, I just had to arrive and get down to business.

UCL seemed a bit confusing at first. Surely I had been there during the open day event the year before; but the campus was now teeming with hundreds of students and it looked slightly different. I arrived to my first class which was cataloguing; and after being greeted by my classmate George who somehow knew me before I entered the room, I met Anne, the programme’s director, in person for the first time. In that moment, I realized the necessity of the department’s suggestion for me to gain more practical library experience before my arrival. Had it not been for this, I would have been absolutely clueless about the meaning of simple terms such as Subject Headings, MARC 21, AACR2 and RDA, to name a few. With this knowledge, even though I felt I had a foot-in-the door, the course was not only challenging, but due to my late arrival, I had plenty catching up to do.

Before I started, I was not aware that libraries were run by collection management policies and that they had user centric designs, or that the information seeking behaviour of patrons was integral to accessing information. I was also oblivious of the intricate process that books had to go through before being placed on a shelf, and I never heard of Historical Bibliography. The trip to St Bride Foundation for that particular module was quite engaging, educational and enjoyable. Historical Bibliography instigated my interest in the early Trinidadian printing press, and I eventually chose this topic for my dissertation under the supervision of Professor Vanda Broughton. I thoroughly enjoyed researching this little-known topic about my nation’s history, and I completed the write-up before the stipulated deadline.

For the duration of the programme, I realized that libraries were not just libraries any more, and I noted that librarians can be subject specialists in a particular field. I also noted the difference between the various types of libraries, and with this in mind, I began to think about which type of library I should seek employment with upon completion. It was of no consequence to me that people outside the library field would often express surprise that librarians had degrees. On the other hand, other people were intrigued by my choice of study, including strangely enough, one neuroscientist that I met on campus.

After settling in, life got busier with library talks, visits and events. The fact that the programme only had one written examination was also a deciding factor for me. The assignments came one after the other, and in addition to these, in order to keep abreast, it was necessary to read the recommended course readings. Suffice it to say, I largely read on the bus to and from class. I took the bus everywhere as it was far cheaper than the train with my non-existent student income. On some mornings, I slept and other mornings I read amidst the loud school children, crying babies and quarrelsome adults on buses which were either extremely cold in the winter or too hot in the summer. I eventually got a part-time job as a Library Assistant in Greenwich, and this too added to my busy schedule. Apart from the occasional respite at Caribbean social events in London, I was either always in my secret workspace in the library at UCL as I did not own a laptop, at work, or of course, on a bus. If library school did not teach me anything else, it surely taught me punctuality and how to manage my time in a big fast-paced city.

Three years after I first thought of becoming a librarian, I have worked at the Maughan Library of King’s College in London, the National Library in my home country, and the libraries of the United Nations Secretariat and United Nations Commission on International Trade Law in Vienna, Austria. I am currently a librarian trainee at the Historical Library of the European Parliament in Luxembourg, and I still feel very new to the field of librarianship. As a minority, I have not yet grown accustomed to the looks and stares of people whenever I attend library events or when I visit public libraries in countries wherever I go. Despite these challenges, I am proud of my librarian journey, and I have aspirations of becoming an international librarian in a reputable organization in the not too distant future.

My library school experience has certainly opened up a world of opportunities. I have made lifelong friends, met and worked with a variety of librarians in different settings, touched 15th century books, learned the importance of scrutinizing citations (courtesy Charles Inskip, my personal tutor) and even built a website! Librarians are integral to society and without a doubt, I am sure that my late father would have been happy to see the career path I have chosen. Most importantly, had it not been for my mother, I would not have been able to complete the programme. I am certainly looking forward to what the future in libraries will bring; and I hope to represent well for my family, my country, and without a doubt, for my alma mater, University College London.

Refer 32 (3) Autumn 2016

CILIP Conference 2016

Mark Sutcliffe, Oxfordshire County Council

In July, I was lucky enough to be given a bursary by the Information Services Group to attend the 2016 CILIP Conference in Brighton. As I travelled to the Conference, and public figures in the media were declaring that ‘people have had enough of experts’, I wondered where the information professional finds him or herself. Thankfully, the Conference suggested that the information professional is one expert the public still needs, and I returned inspired and enthused by the discussions, networking, and sessions I attended.

The Conference opened with an inspiring opening speech from Ferguson Library’s Scott Bonner, who kept his library open during the unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. He showed that in times of crisis, communities turn to libraries as trusted, safe places, providing access to traditional, and non-traditional needs as other institutions such as schools closed. This concept of a safe place was further demonstrated by poet and educator Becci Louise, who talked and performed poetry on how libraries and poetry are important places to help those with mental illness.

Professor Nigel Shadbolt’s keynote speech on Open Data and his work at the Open Data Institute, demonstrated that Open Data leads to great economic and cultural benefits, and that institutions should not guard their data, but instead share it with society. As an example, transport data in London has led to an emerging economy in apps for helping citizens navigate the city. Sharing information and making sense of big data is a key role that professionals can play.

The trust that people put in libraries as places to access information has been well-earned, but Alison Macrina (Library Freedom Project) argued that we must help our communities defend their digital rights in a new era of surveillance. She provided guides to technologies that libraries can adopt to assist communities and ways we can help users become more aware of the issues.

Brian Ashley (Arts Council England) and Ben Lee (Shared Intelligence) discussed the implementation of Wi-Fi in every public library in the UK. They showed how professionals across the country are helping give access to skills the public needs and innovating to provide information to new library users. Innovations included Manchester Library’s LibraryBox, providing digital content for customers to access in environments outside the library, and Rotherham Libraries bringing in groups of blind or partially sighted users for targeted computer help. The message was that it is not enough to simply make Wi-Fi available – professionals must add value for their customers. Elsewhere, talks on Fab Labs (Charlotte Collyer – Devon Libraries)  and Maker Spaces (Kate Lomax – Artefacto, and Carlos Izsak – Makercart) showed how libraries are providing opportunities for users and staff to try out Maker technology and gain new skill sets.

The conference ended with an impassioned keynote address from Lauren Smith (University of Strathclyde, Voices for the Library) who reminded us how the fight for our libraries continues, and the importance of speaking out about the challenges they face. As demonstrated throughout the Conference, libraries and information professionals are crucial in this post-truth era.

Refer 32 (3)  Autumn 2016