Seema Rampersad, Senior Business Researcher and Service Manager at the British Library, kindly tells us about her extraordinary travels, her experience of switching sectors and the British Library’s research on what the research needs landscape will look like in 2023.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you first become involved in the information profession?
By pure chance! The story begins as a Trinidadian teenager I knew that I wanted to see more of the world although I came from a loving and special family, friends, school and community. Initially I wanted to go to New York, but I was inspired by my aunt’s stories of places she had visited in Europe and this side of the world. Later, I changed my mind and decided to come to London instead. It was the 80’s and there was a lot of US and British pop culture that we were certainly aware of in the Caribbean. I gravitated towards languages and Trinidad being an ex-British colony – we were taught in a British based system with some subjects such as English Literature and European History, so as soon as I finished A Levels I came to London –not taking up my Plan B space at the University of the West Indies.
With this mixture of interest, education, pop culture and my love of music, I wanted to study Mass Communications but I couldn’t find a course in London. I eventually signed up for the similar BSc (Applied Social Science) Information and Communication … the information word is crucial here as there were elements of both from the very beginning. I used to prefer with a big P the media and communications modules and even to this day think I did the right course as I still refer to principles and practices such as the Freedom of Expression, Censorship, Online Searching, Database Creation and Design (using DBase!) Social History, Managing Information Services, New Technologies, and General Communication.
I was given a placement at Industrial Relations Services, Eclipse Publishing so this course facilitated me to gain workplace experience too. When my course finished, I waited to get a working permit that gave me permission to stay on to work in communication/media, but it was so difficult to even get an interview in those days. I got one media-related interviewed at a TV company but they wanted me to set up a Video Library. Anyway, I decided not to waste any time and relied on the various vacancies available on the information side of my experience and luckily, and I got my first information professional job 20 years ago in the Business Information Centre in Coopers and Lybrand, which is now known as PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Can you give some examples of where you have worked, and in what sorts of roles?
I started off at Coopers and Lybrand in the Business Information Centre with a great bunch of colleagues who are now lifelong friends. I had direct responsibility for the ‘Books Acquisitions’ section, ordering or borrowing on average 10-20 books a day from HMSO, book suppliers and inter-library loans. I worked closely with graduate trainees who were gaining experience before their Masters in Information and/or Library school. We had a physical library covering very broad business subjects from A-Z which was mainly used across the UK but also to other global regions, and consequently I had a very intimate relationship with the collection – ordering, sourcing, cataloguing, organizing and disseminating information.
Another big part was business information enquiry work on our Centre and there was no way you could bluff with the answers! We had support by more experienced staff in the background and I can honestly say that it took about two years to feel absolutely confident to be on my own entirely. Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, exchange rates, share prices, various financial indices, company and business information were mainly the name of the game then. This was just before the internet so we were evolving then even though we always had Library Management Systems, online databases and CDs. I am forever grateful to PricewaterhouseCoopers for its information rich activities, excellent knowledge management culture and global reach where I have made friends virtually and in person closely. It was an interesting time to work there and their investment in new technology was always quite advanced.
Next I worked for the Greater London Authority for four years and truly liked it for its holistic approach to providing an information service to internal staff, London boroughs, universities, UK and European partners, Urbandata. It was a longstanding library with traditional information services, but we were also creating our own commercial database Urbadoc and IS Portal. It was rewarding to contribute and participate in all the policy and planning making processes by disseminating current awareness documents, information and news on urban and social policy issues relevant to London.
Currently I am working at the Business and IP Centre at the British Library and it truly is an amazing place. There is all of life there! Yes, I work in Business Information but I am interested in all of the other subject areas such as the Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, African and Asian studies, The Newsroom etc. The talks, exhibitions and events have me constantly reminding myself of how grateful I am to be there. Professionally it is fulfilling and exciting – you can have subject and professional development conversations with experts and curators like those put on by the Digital Scholarship team and our own business information and partner providers. In the Business and IP Centre there is no doubt that we are doing great things such as reference and research, face to face advice, workshops and project work (current on an Interreg Open Innovation with North West European partners) in a busy department. I am very lucky!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of switching sectors?
Go for it! I have worked in the private, public and have been a volunteer in the voluntary sector for 10 years. All sectors have positives and negatives for the employee and for the organizations themselves, and they use information in varying levels and ways. A large organization in the private sector can be fast-moving, clued-up and have more freedom in my experience. They are able to invest in technology and have a wider geographical connection and reach – so it is exciting and historically, they pay better! The public and voluntary sectors can be deemed to be purposeful and caring, which are therefore more rewarding to the employee. However all sectors have been hit by cut backs and dare I say – downsizing. There is less choice to move jobs now but it depends on the individual and how well-suited and passionate they are in their role and the organization they choose to work for.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out as an information professional?
For more than 10 years, I had direct responsibility for our Library and Information graduate trainees and I truly miss the enthusiasm and curiosity that some of them displayed in the year they worked with us. I would advise that you remain enthusiastic and engaged with your users and stay in tune with the needs of your stakeholders and organisation to demonstrate your added value. Make sure you network internally in your organisation and externally – a core part of our work is dealing with people in person or virtually, to build your relationships, stay proactive and skilled-up by attending courses and events. SLA Europe have some relevant seminars and David Gurteen’s Knowledge Café is also another great networking event. Use social media to connect and share with other professionals and be proud to be an information professional!
What excites you most about the profession today?
About ten years ago, I remember reading that due to the internet, information professionals had to display intelligence to add value and stay ahead of the game. I would like to think that we do now. There is so much information out there… but is it all free, organized, harvested? We build, create, source, push, leverage, analyse, package and scan the horizon. That to me is intelligence, and not everyone has the skills and access to the resources we would have anyway. Social media, digital formats, blogging, apps, open access are all part of the information evolution or even the revolution as we know it – and that excites me!
What do you enjoy about being an active member of SLA Europe?
I particular like that SLA Europe is firstly quite affordable for the variety of membership benefits received. Membership offers seminars, networking events (some fun-filled!) and online resources – there is so much I have gained professionally in the last 12 years or so since being a member. I remember going to talks on various topics over the years; such as ‘Online Copyright’, ‘The Future of News’, ‘Tweeting while you work’ and many others that I can’t remember. The events committee has held some fabulous social events in amazing venues across London, and I particularly like a bit of networking and a party!
The technology has been changing constantly and it is good to rely on, exchange ideas and to learn from other professionals in the industry. I am on the Digital Communications Committee and have learnt the practicalities of running our website and social media channels, while in my working environments these spaces are controlled by IT departments. I like reading ‘Information Outlook’ over the years for stories from our counterparts in other regions, but I haven’t been to any SLA conference. It is perhaps something to aspire to in the future. I do like giving back to an organization that is guiding and developing me.
What ongoing professional concerns or needs do you have?
Some concerns are that we will be seeing libraries hit by more cutbacks in communities and corporations. Yes it is easy to find information on a computer and smartphone… but it is necessary to keep some physical presence; be it a library or virtual space with content for sharing, learning, meetings, discussion and inspiration as I will mention further on. There is also an ‘elephant in the room’ in terms of content – Where is that going to come from? Who is going to manage it? What quality is it in? And are there any standards? The skills and practice of an information professional and the work presence of a library and information unit still plays a big part.
My needs have always been about learning new technology in an ever-changing landscape. I like to share new techniques and systems with colleagues. I have always been proactive with my own development and frequently attend professional talks and seminars. At the British Library, they have a good internal training programme with talks and courses. I also attended a project related course on Lean Start-up Training the Trainer (which we are adopting in my department). The British Library’s Digital Scholarship Team has an excellent programme for digital media such as crowdsourcing and social media. I think it is always best to keep an eye out for what’s coming around the corner!
What are your plans and predictions for 2014?
I am very happy at the Business and IP Centre at the British Library and I am still finding my feet there. The team has been great at welcoming me and my colleague includes past SLA Europe President Neil Infield, who has been instrumental in getting me more involved with SLA Europe (although I do a lot of volunteering in my personal life too) which has been great for my own professional development.
So my plans are to take each step at a time and to participate in an amazing organisation. I honestly like exploring the various subject collections of the British Library in various formats – from the traditional to the new. The talks and events at the library are just as great for my mind and own understanding of the world. My predictions for 2014 are that the technology will continue to move fast – things like the ‘phablet’ is with us and access to information is at our fingertips. The ever increasing flow of information is available and competing as well as harvesting, organising and re-using the quality and unique pieces will be the challenge. Budgets are still being cut in this sector so the balance is to seek to find value in what we are already doing and build on that. In our department we are hoping to adopt a lean model to our workshops for businesses and we are building a picture frame for what the 2023 research user experience will be. So, I can give you some insights too for 2023!
This recent long term research on what the research needs landscape will look like in 2023 and some predicted technologies and services were: (1) Enable remote access to our users (2) An online research cloud-based space for collaborative research (3) Enhanced research discovery using semantic searching tools but also through full-text searching (4) The important role of expert staff in enhancing the research experience in providing advice and guidance and facilitating access to content. One group described the BL librarians as ‘human search engines’. (5) Using the library to connect with others meeting other people is an important part of the researcher experience. The British Library can create and facilitate social networks and clusters of students and scholars to share and discuss research. (6) The physical space users still see a clear role as a physical space in which they can consult print collection items and engage with other researchers. (7) Social aspect of research there was a strong interest in researchers knowing what other people had previously researched and (8) The international perspective: User groups expressed an interest in being able to access content and information from other libraries, institutions and researchers across the world.
If you want to discuss any of the above with me, I am happy too!
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