Monday, 6 October 2014

How To ... Write a Book Review

Learning to communicate effectively is very important for those in the information profession. Despite the stereotype it's likely that you will spend much of your day interacting with people, either in person or online. Most library and information professionals I know are very good at talking to people and helping them to find what they need but many seem to panic a little at the thought of written communication. This might be down to the fact that writing things down means that people are actually going to read it! or it might be that it gives them flashbacks to library school essays.

Aside from being a good skill to learn for your job, written communication skills can really enhance your 'brand' as a professional. Whatever your feelings about the terminology I don't think it gets hurt to get your name out there. Writing a blog is one way to do this but there is also the option of writing for publication. If there is a burning professional topic that you want to write about or a project that you want to share then you already have something great to write about and you can probably stop reading here. If not then read on...

Writing book reviews is a great way to dip your toe into the waters of writing for professional publication. Reviews generally follow a set structure and plenty of advice is given by the publication requesting the review. I've written quite a few book reviews over the last few years, both for actual publications and online programmes and I've encouraged others to do the same. I get asked a lot of questions about exactly how to go about producing a review so I thought I would share my process.

What do I have to do?
Book reviews are basically just short pieces which help the reader to decide if they want to buy (or borrow) the book in question. Basically is it worth their time? If you want to buy a new laptop there is a good chance that you will have a look at some online reviews of the one you want to buy to see what others think of it. Book reviews are exactly the same and therefore nothing to be scared of.

Basic structure of the review
As I said, most publishers provide detailed outlines of exactly what they expect the review to contain and you should always follow these as they may be different for different publications. Below is the basic structure that I tend to follow which might help you get started:
  • Introduction: talk a little bit about the book, what is it about?, who is the intended audience? Does the book tell you what it's aim is (this will help you later on)? Most of the answers to these questions are found in the books introduction or somewhere on the cover.
  • Content: perhaps the most important part of a book review. Does the content meet the expectations you had from reading the title and description or has the writer gone off topic? Who are the authors, practitioners or researchers? If there are a number of academic contributors but no practitioners would you have preferred more application than theory? Consider the subject content of the book and ask yourself if it covers enough of the subject and in enough depth for the intended audience. If the book is aimed at students and contains a lot of obscure terminology then is this explained somewhere or will they be left scratching their heads? It's also important to consider any potential bias here. If the book is written from one particular perspective (eg. a specific country) is this acknowledged anywhere and what implication could it have for readers? 
  • Structure: taking a step back from the content for a moment think of the book as a physical object. How is the text laid out and is it easy to read? Are the chapter headings clear and do they reflect what the chapter is about? Think about navigating the book - a clear contents page and a complete index make it really easy to find what you're looking for and save the reader time.  
  • Main takeaways: if anything really stood out it would be good to mention it as it helps to personalize things and make the review more interesting to read (in my opinion). If there was one top tip that you learnt from the book or something that you want to take forward in the future then mention it here.
  • Recommended to ...?: I always finish a review by making it clear who I would recommend the book to. Is it good for beginners or is it for a more advanced audience? This is also where finding out the aims of the book is helpful as you can determine if the book has actually fulfilled it's aim.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list and nor will the points apply to every book. They're just points to think through and get you started.

It's important not to just describe the things in your review but reflect as well. Go through the what, so what process and really think about things. The chapters are nice and short. Great, but is that a good thing for those in a hurry or would you have liked more depth? To get some idea I would recommend just having a look at reviews on the Internet or in any publications you can get your hands on. Why not check out Amazon and look at some of the most popular book reviews on there? I'm sure they say more than just "this book was good".

How to get started
Watch out for calls for reviewers - these are frequently sent out via email lists and Twitter from various publications. You could also write directly to the publication and express your interest in reviewing. You might not always get an answer but it's worth a try. Speaking from a CILIP committee member perspective it can sometimes be quite hard to get people willing to review! There are also online review programs which you can take part in such as the O'Reilly Reader Review Program. This is the one I take part in but I'm sure there are many others.

I hope that this short guide helps some of you realize that book reviews are not scary and can actually be quite a fun way to add to your skill set. If all else fails and you hate the experience then at least you have something different to put on your CV!

photo credit: Olivander via photopin cc

Friday, 26 September 2014

#Chartership Chat - 25/9/14

It's been a crazy few months but I finally found time to schedule another Chartership chat. For those that don't know, a bunch of get together on Twitter every so often to support each other through the CILIP qualifications process. We only use the hashtag #chartership for convenience - anyone taking any of the qualifications is welcome.

Below is a Storify of the latest chat:

Monday, 22 September 2014

Recent Presentations

I've done quite a bit of public speaking in the last couple of weeks so I've been able to add some more presentations to my resume.

A couple of weeks ago I delivered my first official conference presentation at CILIP's Cataloguing and Indexing Group Conference. The theme was the Impact of Metadata and I chose to speak about Making an Impact with your Metadata on Social Media. This presentation looked at how I use Pinterest to promote metadata of the Library Science Collection at Cambridge.

A full write-up of this presentation will be written for the next issue of the CIG journal and I hope to post it here in due course.

Having completed my Chartership earlier in the year I was asked to talk about my experiences at a Chartership and Certification Event for CILIP East members. I had a really engaged audience who seemed keen to start the professional registration process. I've included the presentation below but if anyone wants further information then they can either read this post (on which the presentation was based) or contact me directly.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Powerful Phrases for Successful Interviews / Tony Beshara, AMACOM

In this book, professional recruiter Tony Beshara sets out to give job applicants an insider's advice on how to answer those tricky interview questions. The book mainly contains example questions with suggested answers as well as an introduction to each chapter offering some insight into the recruitment process.

Covering the whole of the application process from responding to the initial advertisement to how to negotiate terms once offered the job, the book contains something for every hopeful candidate. Beshara gives examples of words and phrases that will make you stand out from the crowd and stay in the mind of the interviewer long after you have left the room. Although set answers to the questions are provided I would use these more as a guideline to adapt rather than repeating them word for word. The context behind many of the questions is explained which helps to put the applicant in the shoes of the interviewer to uncover what the real meaning of the question is.

Advice is also given on how to construct your own answers. Readers are encouraged to answer interview questions in a clear and simple and provide examples wherever possible. Making these examples quantifiable can help to give you the edge over the competition. I was also pleased to see a chapter on covering letters and how to construct them as this is something that people, including myself, often struggle with.

I found some of the example phrases given a little forced and some of the techniques used a little aggressive. The book is written mainly for the business sector where tactics such as cold calling about jobs are part of the culture but I'm not sure this would transfer to all sectors. It would take a certain degree of confidence to follow some of the examples in this book, but if you can pull it off it might work for you.

Overall I think that the book has some useful general advice for job applicants and provides many examples of possible questions you could face. I would recommend it to confident people who have read all the usual 'how to ace the interview' books and are looking for something a bit different to add to their repertoire. 

For more information on this title please visit the O'Reilly product page.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Confidence in Conference Posters

A few weeks ago I tweeted asking for tips and advice on designing conference posters. My request got lots of retweets but not many answers which tells me that people are eager to find out about poster design. 

I've presented a conference poster before and it can be quite tricky to know where to start. For the past couple of weeks I've been collecting links from around the web and I've created a Pinterest board for easy reference:

Some of the sites refer to creating posters for specific disciplines such as science but I think there is something to take away from all of them. The board is still a work in progress at the moment so if anyone has any more links or some tips then please feel free to share them in the comments section below and I'll try to add them.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Let Them Eat CaKE..... And Learn Something!

Librarians are a very active bunch, especially when it comes to attending conferences and events. As much as we would like to it's impossible to attend everything we would wish to for reasons of money, time and sanity! Thanks to social media conference reports from a range of sources appear straight after, and often during, an event to enable us to catch up. However nothing beats in person feedback from attendees with the opportunity to ask questions and really explore the themes of the conference. 

In response to this need my colleague Celine Carty and I arranged what we hope will be the first of many feedback events. CaKE - the Cambridge Knowledge Exchange - provides  a way for Cambridge library staff to share their event experiences with colleagues. We tried to make the event as informal as possible by offering presenters a choice of formats from a formal presentation to a short discussion of their main conference take-aways.

As you might predict from the name we managed to generate a lot of interest (and yes, there was actual cake; with this gin and tonic cake proving very popular!). We're vey grateful to all our participants who took a chance on an unknown format and turned up to listen, tweet and speak.

We had a few teething problems but this was only the first event. We also had lots of positive feedback and suggestions for future improvements. I take this as a good sign as it shows that people want a repeat. We also hope that the informal format will help to attract less experienced presenters who want to develop their skills.

One of my main take-aways from CaKE was that you shouldn't be afraid of attending events that are outside your comfort zone. Try something new and you might be surprised at what you learn! This is also true of setting up CaKE itself in that we saw a need and tried to think of a way to fill it. We could either wait for someone else to set up an event or we could do it ourselves. I'm very glad we chose the second option and look forward to a few months from now when we get to try it again. The moral of this tale is that you shouldn't let the fact that something doesn't exist stop you!

CaKE has its own blog which can be found by clicking the image above. The blog features links to write-ups of presentations along with  a Storify of tweets. If you're interested in learning more about future CaKE events then please keep an eye on our Twitter hashtag #camcake.

Monday, 21 July 2014

#Chartership Reflections

I promised that I would post some final thoughts about the Chartership process. The following is an article that I wrote for CILIP CIG's Catalogue and Index Journal. They have kindly agreed that I can reproduce it here.

Entering UnChartered Territory – Chartership for Cataloguers

The word Chartership often strikes unnecessary fear into the hearts of librarians. The whole process seems to have acquired a kind of mythical status which is completely unjustified. You don’t have to be some sort of CPD-wonderkid to complete Chartership, you just have to have an interest in developing yourself professionally. Many of the cataloguers I’ve met over the years do this as a matter of routine, for example if you’re reading this edition of C&I it means that you’re interested in learning more about the cataloguing world which counts as CPD! There’s nothing to be afraid of with the Chartership process and it can have many benefits, both expected and unexpected.

Ringing the changes

Although the Chartership regulations have changed it’s important to remember that the overall aim of the process remains the same – to demonstrate your continued professional development. The changes have been made in response to feedback from candidates and are designed to make the whole process more straight forward.

One of the most important changes is that Chartership is now open to all, rather than just following the traditional path of a library degree. For more detailed information about the changes contact your local candidate support officer or consult the CILIP website (

So, what do you actually have to do?

Whilst it’s true that the Chartership process involves hard work it’s important to remember that it’s as hard as you make it. Working on Chartership doesn’t have to involve a massive lifestyle change but rather a chance to formalise the CPD you already do. As mentioned at the start of this article professional reading such as C&I counts as CPD, as does following blogs or professional discussions on Twitter. This all shows engagement with the profession and a willingness to learn about new developments. Workplace training can also be considered as CPD since it addresses a training need. Beyond this, Chartership involves a chance to develop some new skills that might be out of the scope of your current role. This can be particularly useful if you work in a traditionally back office role such as cataloguing. I certainly viewed the process as a chance to explore other areas of information work that interested me at the same time as gaining concrete skills that I could demonstrate to both my current and future employers. 

Even though I submitted under the old regulations I did make use of the new PKSB document. The PKSB (Professional Knowledge and Skills Base) allows candidates to conduct a skills gap analysis by scoring themselves on a scale of one to four. Completing this analysis showed me where I had a good understanding of the required skills and where I needed to develop. I used this analysis as the basis of my Chartership portfolio and focused on a mixture of skills relevant to my current role and those that I wanted to develop.

The introduction of RDA was timely for me. I was able to use Chartership to solidify my knowledge of the new standard, something obviously important to my current role. In addition to helping me develop a greater knowledge about RDA this aspect helped me to justify the Chartership process to my employers. I was able to incorporate my workplace RDA training into my portfolio at the same time as using the introduction of RDA to develop unexpected new skills. I was made responsible for creating and updating my department intranet pages on RDA which meant that I had to learn about HTML and I helped to help create the Cambridge RDA blog as a way of sharing our training with the cataloguing community, again a useful piece of evidence for the portfolio. Beginning to catalogue in RDA also gave me a valuable chance to develop my teaching and training skills. Being one of the first in my institution to have access to comprehensive training meant that I was in an ideal position to pass on my knowledge to others and I was able to use this to my advantage. Teaching and training skills are highly prized by many library employers but are not always easy to develop in a cataloguing role so this is one area where the Chartership process has impacted positively on my career.

I also developed other skills outside the scope of my current role. Most people understand the importance of networking but many also fear it. Some people think that cataloguers are stuck in a back office all day and whilst this is far from the case anymore it can be hard to make an impact with people beyond the cataloguing department. Talking to people from other departments or sectors about what they do is an important part of advocating for cataloguing as a profession so I made it my goal to get out of the cataloguing echo chamber. I have to say that developing my networking skills wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be. I did some background reading and then put things into practice. I then blogged about my experiences which turned into an article for C&I, helping to develop my written skills in the process. 

Another area that I wanted to work on was my reader service skills. I’m sure that many people undertake reader services work as part of their role but even if this is the case it might not be as extensive as they would like. Employers often look for demonstrable experience in this area so it’s an important skill to have. In my current role I’m very much a cataloguer which means that in practice I spend a lot of time in my own department. I used Chartership to shadow colleagues in other departments and even visited other libraries to see how they did things. This experience taught me a lot about reader services work and not only do I feel more confident now when working on an enquiry desk but I am also able to help out reader services staff when they have cataloguing queries which makes for a better service for the end user.

Chartership encourages you to explore the wider professional context in which you work. As I’ve mentioned I visited other libraries to get some experience and this has made a real difference to the way I work. Cambridge has a complex system with many libraries and through Chartership I gained a new appreciation for how all the services they offer work together. I also visited some libraries outside the academic sector and looked at cataloguing in a number of different environments. This really helped me to get an understanding of the challenges and opportunities in cataloguing and has definitely given me some ideas for the future.

Do I really need to Charter? What’s in it for me?

Whilst at the time of writing this I’m still waiting to hear if my submission was successful, I’m already starting to see the benefits. (Edited to add that I've since found out that my Chartership submission was successful)

There may be increased job prospects as a result of completing Chartership. Not all employers or roles ask for Chartered status but it does show that you’re committed to CPD and take your future development seriously. Even if it’s not a formal requirement for a role it provides another way to set you apart from the other applicants. It’s also worth investigating if it’s a known requirement for your future dream job. There’s no time like the present to get a jump start!

Even if it’s not something your employer asks for don’t underestimate the achievement that Chartership shows. There has been a lot of talk recently about the value of the traditional library degree and although this is really something for a separate discussion it is relevant to Chartership. Whatever you think about the value of the degree no one can deny the value of experience and this is where Chartership can help. Whilst the library degree concentrates very much on the theoretical side of things, Chartership is your chance to put this into practice, even outside the remit of your current role. As I’ve discussed I used it to develop skills that have nothing to do with cataloguing and this has led to many opportunities as well as helping to make me better at my current job.

The Chartership process provides you with a chance to challenge yourself, both personally and professionally. If you want to get involved with an area of librarianship but don’t know how to begin then Chartership can provide you with a framework to do this. These challenges can also lead to an increase in professional confidence, as it has done for me with public speaking. I seriously lacked confidence about speaking in any sort of public situation and this was impacting negatively on my future job prospects. I’m not just talking about presenting at a formal event but things such as speaking up in meetings or giving training to users. Thanks to Chartership I had a reason to push myself to develop these skills and I’m very glad I did. Now teaching and training are a regular part of my role and I enjoy them so much that I am thinking of taking an introductory teaching qualification. I have also become an orientation tour leader at work and I’ve just submitted my first conference proposal! Undertaking Chartership gave me the push I needed to work on my public speaking and I’ve acquired a valuable transferable skill because of it. 

The final benefit of Chartership that I want to highlight is how it can help you with your professional development beyond your registration period. Chartership itself helps you to get your professional development efforts recognised in a formal way which you can then show to potential employers. Completing the portfolio also taught me the importance of undertaking structured CPD rather than just attending everything on offer. It may sound like common sense but I think sometimes library professionals can be overwhelmed by the amount of CPD opportunities out there. The Chartership process helps you to learn to about setting goals for your professional development which in turn makes you more selective about what you do in terms of CPD. Of course you can update your goals as your professional needs and interests change but Chartership certainly helps you to focus. It also teaches you the importance of recording your achievements, something which can come in handy at job interviews or during a work review.


Whilst Chartership has many benefits I won’t deny that it is hard work. There will times when you have a crisis of confidence and wonder why you ever started this in the first place! This happens to everyone who goes through the process but remember that if you do decide to take the plunge then you’re not alone. You will have a mentor and it’s important to make use of them as a sounding board, especially when things get tough. The new CILIP VLE has facilities for you to talk to others doing Chartership or any of the other qualifications or you could even find others in your local area who are in the same position as you and arrange a meet up. Never underestimate the power of morale support! There are also the regular Chartership chats on Twitter (watch out for the #Chartership tag) to help with questions and keep your motivation going and a dedicated mailing list for candidates.

It’s important to remember that you don’t stop developing when once you’ve Chartered. CILIP are looking at making yearly revalidation compulsory for all Chartered members but it’s a good idea to keep your skills up to date regardless. Chartership and the PKSB give you a solid range of tools and a meaningful place to log your CPD so use them.

Remember that the new Chartership regulations are designed to make the process simpler and more inclusive so now really is the time to give it a go. I promise that you will get so much more out of it than a piece of paper!


Originally published in Catalogue and Index, Issue 175, June 2014