Interview with a UCL Library & Information studies student - Ben Veasey

 by Martin Belam, 24 August 2009

A little while ago Ben Veasey came into The Guardian to interview me about my views on information architecture and the news industry, and over the last couple of weeks I've been publishing a series of video clips of my answers to his questions. Ben is studying 'Library & Information studies' at UCL, and for his dissertation his chosen topic is British newspaper libraries. I couldn't pass up on the opportunity to ask him some questions back about his studies, and why he had chosen this particular topic...

@currybet: What attracted you into studying your current course?

Following my undergraduate degree in law, I was clear in my mind that it wasn't the path I wanted to pursue in terms of a career. It wasn't until I began to volunteer at my local history centre that librarianship became appealing. I had always enjoyed organising information, such as my own music collection, but it also gave me the opportunity to interact with people and help them locate bits of information important to them. After my year's traineeship I decided that I wanted to learn about the fundamentals of librarianship, particularly cataloguing and classification, of which I had no real experience or knowledge, and this course helped me with that.

@currybet: Of all professions, you'd expect librarians to have stuck to learning from books. What sort of new media or electronic learning tools have you used during your studies?

I think that it is perhaps a common misconception that librarians are stuck in a world of books. I cannot speak for everybody, and I have some friends who specifically entered librarianship due to their love of rare books, but an increasing number of librarians rely on electronic sources for their information. During my studies the majority of my research has begun with a search on Metalib, a portal that allows the user to simultaneously search multiple online databases, library catalogues, and certain other internet sources. In conjunction with this a link resolver called SFX can be used, depending on which databases the library subscribes to, to access full text electronic journal articles. I have also used blogs and RSS feeds to assist my learning on particular topics.

@currybet: Some universities have been experimenting with giving students free eReaders or iPhones as a platform for learning. They have claimed to see a rise in the total usage of combined digital and physical issues. Have you noticed much change in student behaviour in the library during your studies?

Sadly I have not been offered one. It's a shame because I could do with an iPhone! I would say that the computer areas within the library are always very busy but whether students are studying or checking Facebook is hard to say. Certainly from my experience more and more students access library related material remotely now and there is perhaps less use of physical resources within the library than when I studied for my undergraduate degree, generally speaking.

@currybet: To what extent do you think the traditional librarian skills of classification and curation are being replaced by 'semantic' technologies?

Semantic technologies obviously represent a huge development in terms of how information can be processed and retrieved. I think though, that until semantic technologies have been developed enough so as to be effective on their own, traditional librarian skills will continue to be of great benefit. Librarians have the ability to identify words and concepts that are likely to be problematic in terms of retrieval. From this point of view I still see these skills as being relevant in the face of these technologies.

@currybet: You are doing your dissertation on 'British newspaper libraries'. What made you pick that topic?

I did my library traineeship at Guardian News & Media working in the Research & Information department. With the company's move to Kings Cross on the horizon I, along with the rest of the department, was involved in weeding of the cuttings stock. Richard Nelsson, the librarian, had told stories of the changes that online news databases had brought to newspaper libraries and I think when going through the physical cuttings it really struck me as to how much change had occurred. At the same time news came through that News International's library had gone through a major restructure, with huge cuts in staff made. When I came to picking a topic for my dissertation this was still fresh in my mind and so I decided to explore it further.

@currybet: As you've been doing your dissertation research, has what you have found out surprised you?

I think that the biggest surprise that I have noticed is that news cuttings are just as important today to a newspaper as they have ever been. They may be accessed in a different way, i.e. through electronic news databases, to the way they were in the past, but they still act as the core research source for context and background on a particular topic or story. In this sense there has been both change and no change.

@currybet: What are your plans for when you finish your course?

Well I really enjoyed my time at the Guardian and so I will be looking to gain work in a similar environment. I have also found thesauri construction enjoyable this year and so this is an area of work I am interested in exploring when I have completed my studies.


Do you think that changing from law to librarianship was a bit of a risky career move? There'll always be a need for lawyers and judges, but with google doing such a good job as an information finder, will we always need manual information searchers in any capacity? As search engines continue to become more advanced, and the web continues to be filled with yet more information, will there still be a place in the world for libraries, other than for those that function as semi museums displaying books of historical value?

Thanks for your comment James.

I don't see changing from law to librarianship as risky. For one thing, I enjoy librarianship a lot more than I ever did law. Secondly, I still think librarians have an important role to play despite the increasing sophistication of search engines.

I think that Google is great as a starting point for information. It doesn't require a user to have any prior knowledge of a subject to find material and can be searched (to some extent) using natural language.

It is, however, designed for universal information sharing and is not tailored to specific subject areas. Search engines assume that a user has the relevant information literacy skills to not only utilise the search, but to be able to handle and evaluate the results. This is not always the case.

Google ranks information by popularity (the number of links and hits to a particular site). While Google will return content based on a users basic search-string this content is only useful if in the right context. The growing amount of information on the Web means that there is an increased chance that the most popular content may not necessarily be the most relevant, and without suitable information literacy skills, there is a risk that users will assume that popularity is always a validation of quality.

I therefore think that librarians will still be needed to educate users, and provide a trusted searching environment, something that you don't necessarily get with large search-engines. For more in-depth research I think libraries will continue to provide an important function.

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