Lockdown and Love in the time of Coronavirus COVID-19

Like you, I didn’t realise that our lives and way of living would change so drastically since my last blog post in February. I have been keeping an eye on the developments in China since January and I have mentioned Coronavirus in my last blog post, and social media since February but there was very little to prevent us from what we are now witnessing and experiencing in our own lives.

On 23 February on my drive back from the South East, the radio mentioned draconian measures enforced in Italy to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) – little did we know that this will lead to other lockdowns in the UK and most parts of the world. We are truly in this together and I am covering my experience of this time in quarantine, social distancing and social isolation, as they are now known. We are also going to give this virus a good fight and there are amazing human stories that are a result of this strange and exceptional time in history.

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The Coronavirus (COVID 19) virus is evidently infectious, contagious and dangerous to humans all over this world. It is currently having a devastating impact with a high level of mortality in China, Italy, Spain, Iran, France – with growing numbers in the UK, USA and other countries to follow. This virus has not only affected our working lives but the whole essence of our being and freedom with uncertainty in unprecedented times. We must stay in our homes with our immediate families to prevent the spread of the virus, and to decrease the pressure on health systems. The only places we are allowed to go to are places to get food, necessities and exercise.

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I have read about the history of pandemics but never thought that there will be a time when we will be in the same situation. I was amazed to see that these plagues or pandemics were threats that humans have had to fight off since the beginning of time. The infographic above was shared on social media and is a great eye-opener for previous pandemics, to the modern epidemics like Ebola, SARS etc. I still remember reading as a child that we say ‘Bless You’ after sneezes due to the plague whereby the Pope Gregory encouraged it as a blessing for the ill. Quarantine is also the Italian word for 40 days isolation (Quaranta) from the Middle Ages when merchant ships return to ports to prevent the spread of foreign diseases. It is also interesting to learn that Shakespeare also lived and wrote through the plague with references in some of his major works like ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth’. It was also a terrible time for the theatres and other social gatherings such as theatres, which were closed in that period.

Diptych of a portrait of Shakespeare and an illustration of the plague.
Source: Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/shakespeare-plague-influence-hot-hand-ben-cohen.html

The most intriguing for me is the Spanish Flu 1918. I vaguely heard it mentioned in the past but due to the current coronavirus, there are similar references to it and a reminder that only a few living persons now have memories of it. The National Archives has a letter from 28th October 1918 by E.S. Bennett from Walthamstow with the rate of death is mentioned as Doctors are on ‘constant call’, while undertakers ‘can’t turn the coffins out or bury the people quick enough”. IWM 96/3/1 (28 Oct 1918)

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Spanish Flu Letter – Byron Road, Walthamstow, 28 October 1918

There are some other interesting blogs on this topic if you have the time to read – In 1918, the death rate in Britain exceeded the birth rate for the first year since Government started maintaining records in 1837.  Yet this was not due to the First World War, but to so-called ‘Spanish Flu’’. It is reassuring to see other human experience of this in the past and that it is not going to last forever despite the high level of death. These experiences will hopefully make us more resilient for the future.

Now back to the present time Coronavirus pandemic. When Ebola was getting under control a few years ago, I do remember this video by Bill Gates but it is interesting to hear his prediction on the current pandemic and the state of unpreparedness if this was to be on a larger global scale as it is now compared to the West Coast of Africa. This is now real. Believe me – I have family and friends in lockdown all over this world and we are worried and concerned about their safety and welfare. We have been hearing first hand from relatives from Italy as the scale of the pandemic increased, and they were put into lockdown. We were having first-hand stories on the situation and the changes they have had to make for work (getting permission to move about by Commune in Italy) and remaining at home. This was soon to be our own experiences. I remember seeing the sale of pasta flying off the shelves and the queues outside supermarkets in Italy as the country went into lockdown. However, they have generally been organised and didn’t have the level of panic buying as in the UK for groceries. Their tone has become more and more concerning as the weeks progressed with further bad news with the viruses devastating effect in Italy.

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Italy is by far the hardest-hit country in terms of recorded deaths as I write this blog post – even more than China where it starts perhaps late November 2019. It has been heart-breaking in the last few days seeing the level of deaths and this has to be investigated further for the reasons for the spread of the disease there. There are probably a number of reasons for the spread of the infectious fatal virus – Milan has links to suppliers in China, there was a football match in Milan between Atlanta (from Bergamo) and Valencia, the commutable towns close to Milan which are affected, and the whole social way of life and extended family life in Italy. It also has one of the highest aged populations in the world and other contributions to the spread – from the Italians communal living in flats, church attendance, general close human contact with the extended family and friends. This was sadly breathing grown for the virus and contagions to spread. This is just my personal view and thoughts from what I have read, but hopefully, there will lessons learnt from this devastating impact of Coronavirus in the Lombardy region. Similar stories are also now unfolding to various degrees of death and virus cases in Europe and other parts of the world.

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In the early weeks of lockdown, the Italians in quarantine were able to use their time to spread cheer, joy, happiness from their balconies and neighbourhoods. This has changed in recent days due to the sheer devastating number of death and virus cases coming out of Italy. In Spain, France, Iran and the UK – we have all been cheering on our healthcare workers and key workers through this difficult, anxious and dangerous time on the front line.

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Traveler at St Pancras – February 2020

In hindsight, we could have all been more prepared for the pandemic with critical care information, preventative and preparation for our lives and the health service. There has been a slow build-up of information for us to be more vigilant – with was your hands better, sanitizer and eventually with social distancing and self-isolation. Eventually, the state had to step in due to much movement in our everyday lives to work, school, business and other commitments. Coincidently, I was off from work from the 13th March and only went in for a few hours on 18th March. Since then we have been working form home and adjusting to life.

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At short notice too, I had to drive to Derby to pick up my son from University. My 16 year old had just finished his mock exams but was told that same week will be the last week of his year. This was also an abrupt end to his secondary year with a quick assembly to wish his friends and teachers goodbye…for now. Graduation ceremonies are also postponed. I do agree this had to be done because I think we were not aware of the impact on and the dangers of children spreading the disease further to others in society. Nurseries and other children services are also now closed. For parents with young or special needs children – this will be a challenging time. However, I think in the next 5-10 years, children will understand this shut down was for the greater good and it is to help with the prevention of the spread of the virus and support for our health systems.

Just like my colleagues at work, we were also unprepared and shocked by the lockdown that has been happening in China in the last few weeks. I made the decision to go into work on the 18th March to tie up a few loose ends, and even though I have worked remotely one day of the week when my children were younger, I haven’t done this at all at the British Library as we are very much face-to-face interactions with our customers in the reading room, workshops and in one-to-one advice. In the last ten days or so, we have really had to adjust our offering with continuing some of the digital information services and knowledge that we can share remotely. We have been working swiftly to change our programmes where possible to be delivered from our homes and I think this is going as good as you would expect considering the unexpected and unusual circumstances we find ourselves. Our physical events have moved to online events and we are seeking research resources that are open-sourced on the Internet. However, most of our resources are still unavailable due to the contractual and technical issues and are not available remotely. The library’s rich hard copy collection is also locked up securely until we are able to access them again. Information Professionals in the 21st century are digitally advanced and some of us are able to offer services remotely, and curate content that is available for free.

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Some of the winners in the digital switch in lockdown are systems such as Zoom, Skype, House Party, Whats App and VPN (Virtual Private Network). Also, effective digital communications have been an enabler in this real-life crisis management scenario. I have hosted and attend video conference meetings at home using Go-to-Meeting in the past, and will continue to do so in lockdown. We are also looking to host online learning and workshops with Go-to-Webinar. In both my stay-at-home day job and volunteering with SLA Europe – we are using these technologies. As with human behaviour – there is a lot of humour and reassurance with some technical issues that we are all experiencing. It certainly is a learning curve! However, I have been through the 7/7 London Bombings, the London Riots 2011 and other causes for working from home in a crisis.

It is also great to see that people are looking after their wellbeing, mindfulness, kindness and exercise routine despite being stuck at home. We have also hosted webinars for working remotely and doing research from home. Some of the best tips are to make sure you have a routine, a positive mindset, exercise, be realistic on what you can do from work, and also use your time wisely. This is where our home lives merge with work life and you have to understand your own boundaries.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of the pandemic was access to food and essential supplies. As I was off work on the 13th March – I noticed that there was panic buying and the supply chain was disrupted to a very severe level. These carried on for about two full weeks until my supermarket was able to introduce social distancing and more sanitised procedures for their customers and staff. Local shops have also been useful to supplement some of the supply issues the UK was experiencing. The whole joke about toilet rolls selling out was amusing…but seriously, it was also the same for fruit, vegetables, rice, bread, pasta etc. Online deliveries were also most affected and I was unable to get my normal slots. Even if I do online food shopping now, I am not sure if I can get everything I ordered with the disruptions in supply. The use of bidets in Italian homes may be one of the reasons there wasn’t the toilet paper panic buying there. In the UK since lockdown, there are also cases of people breaking the stay-at-home rules by having parties or going to beauty tourist spots when they should really stay in their vicinity.

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One to the biggest impact is that we are not allowed to travel and fly as freely as some may like, but seriously it is also one of the components for the escalation of the infections of the virus spreading so easily in the age of globalisation. It is also great that we may have some light relieve on our CO2 emissions in this quiet travel time. Airlines and travel agencies are obviously struggling due to travel restrictions but it may be a good time for us to reflect and change our behaviour with regards to unnecessary flying.

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The virus has no boundaries and affects all of us. It really brings to mind the way civilisations are organised, governed and the role of citizens. Businesses have had to shut down and are only able to open in cases of necessity. There are still some businesses that are still open like take-away food services, pharmacies and pet shops.  The others are closed due to public health orders to protect staff and the public from gathering. This fatal disease has not discriminated and so, big as well as small businesses are affected. The self-employed, charities and other voluntary organisations are also affected. Even if you are retired – you are still affected, as you do not have your freedom to roam. The pressure is building on businesses to adapt and implement their business continuity and crisis management plans. There are some positive aspects and re-purposing such as companies that are helping with changing their models – such as producing sanitizers, ventilators, Personal Preventive Equipment (PPE), food supply rather than restaurants, etc. However, it must be clear that the global economy will be affected and there are hard days ahead with a recession predicted. There are some companies that are stepping up to the challenges, collaborating and also protecting their staff and clients. The trade unions are also busy looking after workers and making sure that workers are protected in this very difficult time. We will also see that the use of goodwill and kindness will be essential when we press the reset button when this is over.

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Local community groups were foreseeing these changes before workplaces and government. One of my neighbours quickly organised community leaflets for older or non-digital neighbours to contact us should they need help with shopping or anything in the imminent lockdown. Thankfully we are able to coordinate and support each other on various local services and also cheer each other on in these difficult times. It is strange going around with shops and businesses closed. As we are allowed an hour of exercise, I have tried to go out every day for a walk locally to get some fresh air. It is difficult in an urban setting to practice social distancing but most of us are trying to keep our distance. In the run-up to lockdown, I had to cancel three social events with friends, and even birthdays and Mother’s Day are celebrated apart. We have been in touch with friends and family by Whats App, Facebook Messenger and Zoom – just imagine if we didn’t have these technologies and only had to rely on letters.

People are also using this time to catch up on all the leisure and homebound tasks that they do not have had time. This is one of the best aspects for using our time in lockdown to do the things we never really had time for – film, music, reading, gardening, talking more and spending time with dear ones in our homes. I do recognise that not all of us have families and there is a lot of loneliness, anxiety, depression and mental illness that will be exasperated by being confined. I dread to think of the homeless, people with mental illness and in the community who are less fortunate and how they are coping with this. I do believe that they are being cared for by social care and local government agencies.

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As the pandemic has spread across the globe, concern for the wellbeing and safety for family, friends and communities near and far has become an obsession. This is a global issue for human life where ever we are. It really is unique in our living collective experience. We are facing the same issues from within our homes and we are reliant on the same care systems to get us through it. Unfortunately, this is still on-going and we are still to know the devastation that the virus will have on less prepared and poorer countries. Italy, Spain, China, France Iran and USA are leading the death barometer, and they are struggling – we can only hope that the impact will not be as devastating in less developed countries. The assistance offered from Cuba and Russia and other countries to Italy has been good to see online and restores your faith in humanity. This story from the New York Times is a must-read on the situation for families in Italy during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Since January, there has been news coming from China but the number of deaths at first is alarming and the lockdown was weirdly fascinating to see in the news. However, since the virus’s exponential spread to Western Europe and the Middle East, this has been one situation where you can look at the news on social media and get information, news coverage and datagraphics that is supplementary from the normal broadcasting agencies. I am also able to keep abreast of the developments in the Caribbean and North America from social media and website feeds. I have been looking at facts and figures at BNO Newsroom, World in Data and the Financial Times (who has loosened their usual pay-wall). There are also the usual suspects – fake news, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, fraud, cybercrime and scams by rogues. This is also a gentle reminder that the NHS has a great number of information centres and libraries with professionals who are providing library and knowledge services.

With the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelming healthcare systems and some level of lockdown in all corners of the world, we find ourselves in an unprecedented era of information demand. At the same time, the pace of discovery and dissemination of information is faster than ever before, creating uncertainty and stress about where to find reliable answers. …While these initiatives have not been associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency of our current situation has shifted the focus to developing solutions to improve the knowledge ecosystem today.

– Dr Brian Alper EBSCO The Development of a Covid-19 Information Portal

https://health.ebsco.com/blog/article/the-development-of-a-covid-19-information-portal

 

The most important lesson to learn about Coronavirus Covid-19 is that we are fragile as humans. Good health and access to healthcare are the most important factors in our lives. This is something some of us have known for a long time and it is with utter respect and understanding that we should invest, support, provide and reward our health services in this country and around the world. Public services and local government services are also in need of our support to keep the engines of society and humanity at an equilibrium. Outside hospitals, good hygiene and sanitation are getting attention now but there is still a lot to be desired. Low paid ‘key workers’ have been providing us with our essential foods in the urban environments but we should be grateful to everyone – from the rural farmers, delivery drivers, the rubbish collector, postal services, local shop keepers, emergency services, police, firemen, park keepers, pharmacists etc. Those who do not use these now vital services, or any public services should go live in their own isolated country! Whilst we are inside our homes, the key workers are out in the front line fight overtime in the good fight for us.

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We still are in the heart of the Coronavirus pandemic and I am not sure how this will turn out for all of us. The cost of human life is enormous. And the impact in the economy is also bad. However, we need to support our health care systems and services. We also need to support everyone whilst we stay at home, follow instructions to avoid social gathering and practise social distancing. The human stories that find their way to the media are exceptional and very heart-breaking such as the medical staff who lost their lives, to the thousands who have died or been affected by the virus. One thing about past plagues in previous centuries is that life carried on to a certain extent and humanity was not totally wiped-out. Obviously, it is very sad for the millions of lives lost such as in the Spanish Flu 1918. I am not sure what the situation will be with Coronavirus by the end of April (or in future months) but we will come out of this hopefully together.

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Everything and everyone has become a player in this real-life apocalyptic movie with this deadliest disease in our modern memory. As we spend time with our families and dear ones, we must cherish and care for each other. We are discovering things about ourselves, and hopefully using this strange and quiet time in quarantine to do some fun and creative things we didn’t have the time to do. Love sustains. We will also be better resilient persons for understanding life and love in this time of coronavirus.

You just have to walk around in the quiet streets to realise that our human life is on pause until we beat this virus – country by country, community by community, and human by human.

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A healthy Information Ecosystem for all

This year I have to up my game with various new challenges in my professional roles. At the same time, we are all living and breathing news, information, knowledge and insight that are shared or published on a daily basis in our leisure, social, cultural and business activities. I am now SLA Europe President for 2020 and in practice, this means that I use, disseminate and think about information and knowledge as a professional for about 10-12 hours on most days. It doesn’t stop there – I have a family and various other commitments but if you know me, you will be aware I also consume information in my downtime via social media and news channels. There is a lot to notice in the information ecosystem I am going to talk about on here. However, all is not perfect in this complex and interconnected information ecosystem and there is always so much work to do to maintain the nutrients and care to make sure that information does not become disinformation, misinformation or event a parasite. Information professionals act as gatekeepers, angels, knights and custodians of best practice, and when it comes to information should be recognised for our passion, integrity and commitment to the cause and purpose.

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Information is like the glue that holds together many aspects of life – it is energy and a kinetic flow for all human interactions. Thus understanding information ecosystems and how it is manifested in humanity, processes and communities is important for the healthy state on any of these levels and forms. We must acknowledge that information is power, and we must guard and protect it from being compromised, corrupt or worst – extinct!

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It is not difficult to define the information society (as I have done on my blog before) when we are consuming information and sublime messages in various tradition media, and now the ubiquitous digital landscape with the proliferation of technology and social media. I chose the word ‘ecosystem’ to relay the interconnectivity of information and knowledge but also because it was used frequently for the 15 years in the arrival of Web 2.0 and the digital revolution. However, in my recent research on the topic, it seems that a lot has been written about the ‘information ecosystem’ that is definitely having an impact on all of us – from farmers in a rural part of the world to a busy city dweller in an urban environment. We all become part of this ecosystem, and so it needs to be healthy and maintained for the benefit of the good fight.

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There are a few definitions I found on ‘information ecosystem’, but the most comprehensive is for a study from Internews – Centre for Innovation and Learning: “the term “information ecosystem” is used to describe how local communities exist and evolve within particular information and communication systems. Within these systems, different types of news and information may be received from outside then passed on to others— through word of mouth, key community members, phone, the Internet, and the like. An examination of an information ecosystem looks at the flow, trust, use and impact of news and information. An information ecosystem is not a static entity; it is by nature constantly evolving and changing. Nor is it a discrete form; it can be defined at many levels, from global to national to community to interest-based groupings within communities”.

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This encapsulates my thoughts on information being almost 24/7 on our conscious and unconscious lives. From word of mouth, key discussions, smartphones, the internet, traditional media and content (in whatever format). There are many sources of valuable content for information professionals but is also consumed in our private time. It is also adopted in most people of the world and in all forms of life. The digital revolution has had the same impact on society that the industrial revolution had on mankind.

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In this Guardian article, the writer Lydia Polgreen critiques the current wellbeing of this information system with issues such as fake news, consumerism, manipulation and other ills: ‘the creation of tools that allow anyone to be their own publisher has made it possible for new voices to reach large audiences around the world … The collapse of the information ecosystem has already wreaked havoc on our political systems. It has undermined democratic elections. It has shaken basic trust in institutions”. This is the situation when information is an asset and information is power – information is used to push us in detrimental directions that are not objective or beneficial for our own wellbeing or that of the wider society. Trust and integrity are some of the practices that need to be maintained and injected when this ecosystem breaks down. This is when information professionals and experts who have an interesting in keeping high standards are essential for up-keeping the status quo in the industry and for all purposes.

The Web consists of numerous Web communities, news sources, and services, which are often exploited by various entities for the dissemination of false or otherwise malevolent information. Yet, we lack tools and techniques to effectively track the propagation of information across the multiple diverse communities, and to model the interplay and influence between them. Also, we lack an understanding of how Web communities are exploited by bad actors (e.g., state-sponsored trolls) that spread false and weaponized information.

Being an ‘information ecosystem’, one media is reliant on another for this to function correctly. I read an article that the loss of a good information ecosystem may also affect journalists, advertising and other media-related industries. There are issues such as Bots and ad-blockers that will deter true digital advertising and therefore endanger roles within the industry, but also decrease advertising revenue. It is argued that we get less foreign news as news organisation close down, whereby thousand of journalists have lost their jobs, and few new agencies that remain may have their own agendas. We may have to rely on news from social media sites and our own networks. However this network information is not varied, consistent, may lack credibility and analytical qualities that journalistic training may provide. It is not all doom and gloom – there are challenges but Deloitte writes that new digital landscape gives companies more opportunities to harness data-driven and analytics with can then be used for better strategies and performance.

If I could, I would add an eleventh commandment to the first ten: Thou Shalt Not Distort, Delay, or Withhold Information. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.

– Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

As a librarian and information professional, we are reliant on research using information systems, books and content in all formats. Hey, we got to do, what we got to do to get that information! Obviously, we need good sources and relationships with researchers, writers, publishers and information providers. It is also an opportunity and necessity for us to share information face to face.

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Recently, I was invited to a Breakfast Briefing hosted by The Economist Intelligence Unit at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. It was mind-blowing, insightful and enlightening to hear the global risk impact by an expert Economist on the topical issues that will be affecting us. With the growth in numbers affected by the Coronavirus Covid-19 in the last month, it has been a true demonstration of globalisation with the virus affecting persons from different territories who were resident or travelling to these areas. This is a classic ‘spiral and escalation’ example of the information ecosystem that we rely on for our news and current awareness. So here is a perfect example for us as we listen to a world-class economist talking about the top five global risks in person, but also launching a well-researched report, later providing customers with a webinar…and anyone can keep abreast of their analysis from their social media feeds. Being a client of the EIU gives us value-added content and services, but as information professionals, we also use their sources for reliable and evidence-based information and insights to pass on to our own customers. This to me is a perfect example of an information ecosystem in my role.

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In the Spring I am also planning a Knowledge Café with David Gurteen and Dominic Kelleher, Knowledge Management Guru. This will highlight the need for face-to-face conversations and the techniques by business leaders in resolving issues and relaying tacit knowledge and insight to other individuals. The best aspect of the Knowledge Café is that is non-hierarchical and information can flow freely and without barriers especially away from technologies in an informal environment. This is another healthy form of the information ecosystem.

So how beneficial is your information strategies, governance and work plan?

In the workplace, an information ecosystem with information professionals at the helm is a value-added asset and gives companies the competitive edge. I write this from my own professional experiences and recollection, but I am only just reading in ‘Business Information Review’ that a Reuters’ report in 1995 entitled Information as an Asset’ concludes that ‘The digital revolution is here – few assets are as critical as accurate and timely information. In tomorrow’s information society information is the dominant commodity’. Rosemary Nunn also points out in the article the innovation ecosystem and knowledge management: A practitioner’s viewpoint’: Leveraging the knowledge of the human capital in your organisation is one of the best ways to drive innovation’. There is a real benefit to ensure a health airway of knowledge and innovation and she suggests that you ‘Don’t leave innovation to chance, develop an innovation strategy and define your innovation ecosystem. If you don’t know what you know, how do you know you are being innovative – define your knowledge map and engage in activities to curate knowledge across your organisation’.

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Information professionals work hard massaging and alleviating knowledge across organisations as well as other similar functional roles like communications teams. Information as an asset has to be managed with flair but practical such as this advice for leaders on Brexit …‘make sure your business is as strong and organized as it can be from within. Get on top of your information. Ensure you have a clear, current and accurate understanding of your market, customers and competitors. Develop the skills of your staff at all levels. Senior management that feels in control of the nuts and bolts of the business will be in the best position to enter into new enterprises with confidence.

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In the digital age of social media, professional motivations and intentions require an effective information strategy that is based on integrity and standards to nourish, build and maintain an ecosystem of trust and reliability within the landscape. It is great that there have been concerns and conversation about fake news, online abuse, cyberbullying, Bots, et cetera in some of the literature I have read and noticed. There is evidence of the negative aspects such as fallouts and untruths within the ecosystem that we will continue to have, even before the digital age. It is just more intense now! And like some contagious disease or natural disaster – we must remain vigilant of the danger and consequences for all of us.

In wrapping up, the information ecosystem is a truly living organism that reaches inside all of us in one way or another. It is essential for our own wellbeing, though it may be vulnerable to risks and damage, it should be cared and nurtured so that it benefits us all throughout its flows and life span.

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A Christmas Carol – Dickens’ Classic December story

‘I wish to be left alone’ said Scrooge. Since you ask me what I wish, gentleman that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry’. – A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scoorge is a miser and Christmas-hating protagonist in the Victorian book by Charles Dickens called ‘A Christmas Carol’. If you don’t already know the story, we have a classic tale of someone lacking in kindness, which is even harsher when it is told to us during the festive season of goodwill and good tidings to all men. Dickens created a character of pity, scorn and loneliness, but also one where he is able to tease out compassion and redemption by the end of the story on Christmas Eve. The themes of this story are in the forefront of my thoughts this festive season, but also due to my participation in a local pantomime run by local people for the community in early December.

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Charles Dickens wrote the book in under six weeks in 1843, which was then published in time for Christmas. The novel gives us an insight into the poverty and urban living conditions in the Victorian ages. It is reported that Dickens was horrified after reading the government report: The Parliamentary Commission on the Employment of Women and Children which showed the horrific conditions in factories. Dickens was moved after reading the report and visited similar poor conditions in Manchester. The result was the idea to write ‘A Christmas Carol’, and the most he felt he could do was to make the horror of the report more known by writing a story… “Something that would strike the heaviest blow in my power”. This was the conception of his now renowned timeless social and moral human story of ‘A Christmas Carol’.

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“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” – A Christmas Carol

I remember seeing on television the story in a film of Scrooge as a child in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970/80s. I even remembered miserly persons called a “Scrooge”, and so the story has a wider readership and context than a Christmas story. However, the book was suggested a couple of years ago for our book club and therefore I was happy to finally read this classic story. I didn’t realise the meaning of the simple anti-Christmas term “Bah Humbug!” until I read ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The other characters in the book are interesting and add the element of wonder and awe to what is essentially a ghost story – the business partner Jacob Marley, the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future, the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim are like a conscience for the mean, bitter and solitary Scrooge. The spirits take Scrooge on a journey through his sad life and display his obsession with money and callousness, but also with some remedial twists like Bob Cratchit still toasting to Scrooge although he is a mean and demanding employer. The spirits are there to have Scrooge’s life flash by him highlighting his wrongdoings, but also the spirit of the future brings the perceived truth of this own demise…and death should he not change his wicked ways. This is just my short synopsis but ‘A Christmas Carol’ has the recurring theme of compassion and redemption that can help us to lead better lives, especially in a Christmas story during the wintery December month.

 

This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!” – A Christmas Carol

There is a lot written about the book and I am lucky to stumble upon a whole page dedicated to it on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website here. There is much to learn from the book about the historic Victorian way of life, the issues faced with publishing the first copy, and the importance of the book in cultural terms. It is just as popular as it was then as it is now!

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Dickens apparently was not protected by copyright laws, as there was no copyright legislation at the time to protect creative works. His novel was copied and performed by theatres within weeks, and there were various versions of the story being circulated at the time. It is mentioned in this Osgoode Law School blog post that he was annoyed but also one of the first advocating for copyright laws to protect creative works. You can also see how profitable the show was for its’ time by the Theatre playbills, which are available to view digitally. What is remarkable to this day is the beautiful illustration that were commissioned and created by John Leech in the first version of the book. They are still splendid and are able to light up social media to this day. Like Dickens’ story itself, these playbills and illustrations are available for reuse without fear of copyright infringement. I do hope he was able to get some financial benefits at the time for his work.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!” He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew.  “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”

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It has been an extra special experience this month to be involved in a pantomime of ‘A Christmas Carol’ with a local volunteer group, Panda Pantomime Productions. Pantomime has a long history of fun and informal theatre. This year we aimed to have four performances on the streets and in local venues – I only took part initially as a payback to Tom, who had helped me with fundraising musical entertainment in the past. I was happy for him to ask me to host the pantomime in my neighbourhood but didn’t expect to actually take part in it!. We started rehearsing about eight weeks ago to a very uninspiring ready-made script but thanks to the creative writing skills of Theresa – she was able to adapt the story to our times, local area and topical issues that we can all relate to. Luckily there are no copyright issues too! In the end, I am really proud of being able to participate in one of the highlights of my year.

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We had brilliantly engaged audiences, both children and adults, and lots of great feedback and fundraising at the performances. Local businesses donated raffle prizes, the council gave us a little support, venues opened their doors to us, and a big thanks to Audi Car Showroom in Chingford for their donations and time given by dedicated staff in the pantomime. It was a great way to challenge my non-existent acting experience and also to get to know a whole new group of lovely people. I was able to live, breathe and absorb the true story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a contemporary setting.

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‘The Christmas Carol’ is one of the stories that were being shown as Pantomime across the country when I checked on Twitter. Pantomime is a great way to experience theatre in the colder months of the year and is great to keep the venues profitable – it is reported that 2.7 million tickets were sold annually (BBC Source). I also still have much admiration for the team at PwC who started their corporate pantomime in the 1980s and still put it on annually by their staff, for their staff and communities. Over the years, I have also attended a few excellent Pantomimes at the Hackney Empire, where you are able to get value for money with great actors in a fabulous historic East End theatre.

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This December, in classic coincidence, the BBC aired on the run-up to Christmas the screening of a three-part episode of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was great to compare it to the books, and also our low-budget version in pantomime. I liked it all the same and it was extra interesting to see all the characters played in different ways by professional actors, but also to a bigger budget with special effects, elaborate costumes, makeup and in Dickensian architectural scenes in London. The use of a mixed-race family for the Cratchits, contemporary issues and dark atmosphere created a lot of conversation on social media. I only recently realised that there is apparently a good version of this classic story by the makers of the Muppet Show. Perhaps I can look at that version another time.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” – A Christmas Carol

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And so with this moral tale, there is a spiritual conversion in the ending with Scrooge finding a second chance having examined ‘an intimate inspection of his soul’…bringing about regret and redemption for his past misdemeanours and miserliness. In the month of December, this Dickensian story will be around for a long time yet to entertain and warn us of the human condition. It is a great reminder that it is best to live in the present with goodwill, compassion and good cheer to others. This is a festive happy ending that will guide us in whatever time lies ahead.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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2020 Vision – looking at the past, present and future

As we get closer to the year 2020 and the closing of the last decade, I have been looking back but also thinking of the years ahead. It has been a decade of great change on the political, social, technological and human landscape reflecting on what is going on in the world. There have been numerous highs and lows as expected in such a long period. The present is grounding us to what is happening now but there is bound to be a wonder with what is ahead when we look at New Year’s number ‘Twenty Twenty’ – 2020. We even have to get used to saying, writing, hearing and seeing it. This blog post gives me the opportunity to reflect, adapt and anticipate what trends may be coming our way.

Past, present and future: it makes it easier for me to look at this in these three categories to clarify what this means, mostly for my own self-awareness. However when I started researching this topic, I quickly learnt that it is an analytical and forecasting technique that is also being using to show how quickly the world is moving on major issues for example sustainability, climate change and technology due to changes, innovation and higher levels of disruptions. In my busy personal and professional life – there are great experiences and photos for me to share these three timeframes with you here.

 

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The Past

“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step,

they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.”
― William Golding

The last decade has seen a lot of changes for me professionally.   I was working at City Hall in 2010 with changes already happening with the arrival of the dire austerity plans hitting libraries and other public services across the United Kingdom. I hung on with our team to our jobs until early 2012 right on the cusp of the start of the Olympics. There was so much anticipation and preparation on the one hand with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but then we were dropped like hot potatoes to be made redundant and disbanding of services. The heartache of seeing colleagues lose their job in the heart of London with the Olympics which was in our breath and bloodstream was very hard to get over but we survived.

We were able to experience sadly one of the defining moments of the austerity decade that thousands of people have to endure. Some of us are not better off financially and thankfully for the support of family – we are able to manage. This first-hand experience is only the tip of the iceberg of what austerity really meant for basic infrastructure to people’s health, well-being, opportunities, education, public provision (no police station with the increased crime) and degeneration of libraries in the UK. I know some of the stronger survived but it certainly wasn’t fair for many people and this is with the benefit of hindsight. I also had people cut me off on social media when I left City Hall but most importantly the ones who mattered…stayed with me. I knew this would happen from my experience in the 2000s. I was just waiting for it to happen as an ever-present information professional.

 

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Eventually I was employed again at the British Library and this has been one of the highlights of the early 2010s. I have grown and developed in many new areas but I was also able to use the experience I have built up over many years. I don’t feel so odd when I have to use old and new information and library skills. It also helps when I see the past brought to the present in exhibitions, collections and digitally in the libraries and museums world. This month I visited the London Metropolitan Archives and the British Library’s exhibition on Buddhism – and you will get this point.

 

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We have also seen a lot of changes on the regeneration of my local area in the last ten years and it was one of the defining eras of new volunteering and community activism for the neighbourhood and me. Due to having free time due to redundancy, I was able to take part in the Street Party to celebrate the London Olympics in 2012…but then I never stopped!!! Due to my amazing neighbours and community spirit, we have been able to put on 8 fabulous street parties, poetry events, book clubs, Christmas parties, use social media, promote civic activism for local issues, and look after our community with great camaraderie. We literally look out for our neighbours and neighbourhood, such as creating What’s App groups and social media accounts for all of this!

 

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My neighbourhood has changed from a sleepy suburban town to a buzz hive of activity. There are negatives for this – such as Anti-Social Behaviour (ASBOs), drug dealing, professional beggars and high levels of litter. However, I was able to push myself to new activities such as writing basic poetry, organising Spring-cleaning, starting guerrilla gardening and this winter I am participating in my first pantomime in ‘A Christmas Carole’ by Charles Dickens. This was also my inspiration for writing this blog post looking at the past, present and future!

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A Christmas Carol

I was also able to do a lot more volunteering for my profession with SLA Europe and stopped being Fundraising Chair for The Lloyd Park Children’s Charity in 2016 after 12 years. I will look back at the last decade with fondness for the new and exciting things I learnt, the new experiences I gained and also the fabulous time I spent with great people and loved ones. The holidays and travels are always a great highlight in this enormous world and are entrenched in my memories of the past.

 

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The Present

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”
― George Harrison

As in LIVE in the moment of now, it is both exhilarating as well as concerning. All the big topics I can honestly think about presently are Brexit, Climate Change and much progress already made is being damaged! Most things in my life are stable but there are still everyday worries and stresses that make me wonder what the hell is going on. Just look at some of our media and politicians! Politics is affecting all of us at present but they are very disruptive and move swifter than the previous decade. This could be a result of social media, but also the volume increase, manipulation and incensed use of mainstream media that is used to polarise us. It seems to be an on-going battle with new life and professional challenges such as data protection, fake news, privacy, racism, bullying, and various negative broadcasting. Information certainly is more intense with some people probably rightfully switching off from all forms of media. I do think that presently social media is still a very good facility for communication, and the world is generally a better place for it. Politics will affect us all and is currently in an awful state but we are more engaged regardless with an opportunity to share our views, voice our concerns and opinions with the people we want too online and offline.

 

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Climate change and sustaining our planet are hot topics that are right up the agenda in the last years and especially the last few months. We have seen young Greta Thunberg mobilise children and adults across this great big old world for environmental concerns and activism. We also all know about Extinction Rebellion. Food, travel, air quality, poverty, homelessness, diversity and inclusion etc are all various topics where work is still in progress. There are good days and bad days for all of these issues, and like so, we have to live in the moment but also find ways to make good choices that will sustain us as well as our fragile planet and environment. It’s only a few years ago we implemented the plastic bags ban, saw more of the reusable cup and ‘single use plastic’ become a no-go. Positive policy and behaviour change are possible and we should not give up!

 

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It is not all depressing in the present, I still find ways to keep my positivity flowing by exploring the new, interesting events and shows in the city. I love that you also see all the ‘live’ moments people are having around you on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Yes, the present is not perfect but somewhere in this world, the sun is shining and a new day is dawning. I am also very grateful for every new day that I am alive to be with my family and friends in the present.

 

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The Future

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.”
― Zadie Smith

As we creep into 2020, it is great to know that some things will always remain the same but it is obvious that there will be new developments and ways of living that we will adopt and adapt in our lives. After all, 2020 is just a number created to represent time.

I am certainly not a clairvoyant with a crystal ball and will not predict the next day, much less the next decade. However, this is what scientific, evidence-based and good research is able to do for us. Trends and forecasting are used all the time to help us plan and prepare what may or may not become a reality. I have the privilege and access to authoritative published research in my role as an information professional, and therefore I am able to research very serious topics that will have an impact on all of us.

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I recently popped into the busy technology department of Selfridges when I went to collect an online order that I couldn’t find in local shops. Seeing all the smart technology is a great eye-opener (pardon the pun!). There are innovations and inventions that are here already and there are more to come on the horizon. Wearable technology is here and according to Mintel market research on “Wearable Technology 2019” – “There has been an increase in ownership of all wearable devices, with the most significant jump being in the adoption of smart ear-buds. As a result of the increasing popularity of these products, more and more manufacturers are offering their versions. Meanwhile, fitness bands/sports watches continue to be the wearable that consumers are most likely to own”. Consumers are also using it for controlling smart home devices, making contactless payments, monitoring security, social media, fitness etc. The smart glasses were certainly a new way to see and interact with things.

 

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One of the burning issues is consumption of natural resources and the environment. There are questions on how can we make this world more sustainable and ethical in our policies, businesses and our own personal responsibility. GlobalDataOnline has their great Trendsight predictions and analysis to tell us about the MegaTrends that will affect us all regardless if we are generations from: Baby boomers to iGeneration. In the report ‘Trendsight overview: Sustainability and Ethics – Meeting social and environmental challenges amid growing populations and energy brands’, these megatrends highlighted are: Social Responsibility, Ethical Wellbeing, Fairly Traded, Created Fairly, Ethical Luxury, Localism, Trust and Transparency, Resource Scarcity and Environmental Responsibility. These are all great topics that make my heart sing! The same report looks in great detail at the past, present and future trends. One of the great sector examples with the changes we have seen in the last few years is plastic pollution and recycling which concludes that: “in the past five years, recycling schemes were being used by several types of retail outlets, and will remain a crucial consideration for retailers in future. Retailers at present are more prominently shifting away from the use of plastic, while innovative recycling schemes will propel into the mainstream five years or so in the future”. Do make some time to look at these reports and you will be inspired or in-the-know on what is in store for the future.

 

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My own personal view, simply and most importantly, of the future is that I want my loved ones to be happy and healthy. I also want this clarity and vision for humanity and the Earth. I know there will be developments in technology and gains in progress with living standards but there is so much work still to collaborate and work on together as so many people are outside of these acceptable levels, struggling with being happy and healthy. I am not able to control this but in my own way, step by step, little by little, I can only hope that we keep this beautiful planet and its’ people safe and well for years to come…and certainly to 2030. Ask yourself too what you want for the future.

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Information Professionals get Future Ready – Proofed and Prepared

For an Information Professional, it essential that we understand so many aspects of the customers we serve, technology, infrastructure, resources and society in general. It is hard to isolate all of the threads that make a good information service. In the last few months, I have been keeping a close eye on the role and conversations of information professionals in relation to the term ‘Future Ready’. It is a term that has been used by schools in the USA to prepare their librarians and information services for the “leading edge of digital transformation of learning”.   It also seems to have been used by other companies to signify preparedness, trends, adaptability, continuous change and innovation as shown in Accenture’s view on it.

My first recollection was in 2011, when Future Ready was launched as in initiative by SLA to prepare members for the concept with a dedicated 365 blog posts. The term was used then to motivate professionals to harness the following Future Ready ideas:

  • Collaboration to accelerate the availability of useful information
  • An adaptable skill set that anticipates and responds to the evolving marketplace
  • Alignment with the language and values of the community you serve
  • Building a community that connects stakeholders in mutually beneficial relationships

Currently, there is more information on the web on what it means to be ‘Future Ready’ for information professionals, with the most apt piece mentioned in the American Libraries Magazine stating that expecting and preparing for change is one way of being ready, but also digging deeper to find ‘change is useless without considering values’. The article elaborates: “we need to look at trends and changes with consideration of our own professional values (confidentiality and privacy, diversity, equitable access, intellectual freedom and expression, preservation) and the values that we seek to provide to our communities (a civic commons, democracy, discovery, education, literacy, public discourse). And so looking at changes, we need to ask ourselves what they might mean for intellectual freedom, for education, for equitable access, or for any of the other values that drive our work”.

 

 

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Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, has presented on what is ‘A future ready information profession’, which also aligns all the guidance I have mentioned above and the link has some great slides too. This was interesting to read as another CILIP article on the British Library leadership reiterated that our values are at the core of what we do. It is on this basis I was able to prepare for my talk on the theme ‘Future Ready’ entitled ‘Promoting and Celebrating Diversity in Delivering and Managing a 21st Century Information Service’ at the inaugural SLA Europe conference held on 5-6th September 2019 at Newnham College, the University of Cambridge. I felt I had to cover this topic in my blog this month as the conference left an imprint on me, and having researched my own speaker topic on ‘Future Ready’, I wanted to highlight this here with you. I am unable to cover the whole conference programme but there are some key points below for future proofing as an information professional.

 

 

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The conference was my first full attendance at a UK conference. I reminded myself that it was extra special for me as President-Elect of SLA Europe, organised by great people who I know well, and also not far for me to travel. Newnham College was a great venue choice and the whole inclusive programming and organisation was an excellent and thoughtful experience for me, and hopefully other attendees. The setting and history of the college at this recess time was peaceful, invigorating and ideal for a conference. I particularly liked the garden tour and hearing from the head gardener about the plants, the layout of the garden, and the past and present women and men who developed the college. The college library tour was also interesting and gave us a practical insight into the working of a historic and functional library. The venue is inspirational now by past and present famous and influential women, and some men, who gave the college its’ great reputation. The college is bound to create future influential and great leaders.

 

 

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To set the tone it was interesting to have Dr Jessica Gardner, the University Librarian and Director of Library Services welcome and opened the conference on our role in organisations and society as information professionals. She reminded us of our strengths in building networks, learning together, collaborative working, our deep knowledge of resources that is transferable to other settings, and that we should aim to work well in partnerships.  I also loved the slide with the words – Integrity, Diligence, Honesty. There was a call for us to not be neutral when there are obvious levels of inequality, and the important role that information professionals have in their organisations and communities for the future of research and information services.

 

 

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The Opening Key Note on ‘A practical model for distributed digital leadership’ by Cerys Hearsey of POST*SHIFT was great for demonstrating digital leadership where it is not only top management’s responsibility but also everybody’s responsibility. I liked the example of some of the effective and open digital leaders being the ones who listened to staff that were closest to their customers, for example the leadership at the company Haier. It was also a different perspective from the digital giants we know and a very non-hierarchical approach to digital transformation.

 

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There was also a common theme of the digital archive, information services and the future of these services. I am familiar with the The Guardian’s Archive, and so it was interesting hearing Richard Nelsson on the selection of stories, the use of data mining for analytics for gauging popular keywords and how a simple historical newspaper article could lead to a more creative outcome such ’12 Years of a Slave’ film. Apparently anything on The Beatles always draw in a popular readership. It was interesting to hear about uses in past content to create new media stories.

Maria De La Pena from the IE Business School Library in Spain also spoke about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and libraries. AI is becoming more prevalent in various walks of life and so Maria spoke about the ways it can improve and free up time for library and information staff, who may be under pressure with budget cuts, and have to use AI so that they can carry out more value-added work. Obviously there are pros and cons of more AI in the sector, but it was good to hear with some excitement on what opportunities it will bring to the services we provide.

The theme of collaboration, project management and cross-cultural services were put across by two talks by the multi-site Judicial Office of Scotland and Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs.   The speakers have all had experience in challenging projects of change, influencing stakeholders and creating efficiencies. In the library world – they are working with people, physical library spaces and also content that is paper and digital. This all requires a vast array of skill sets and competencies to offer cutting edge services.

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Chatham Library, Royal Institute of International Affairs

I love learning new topics and one of the newest I learnt was ‘Nudge in Libraries’. It is the subtle use and awareness of ‘human behavioural economics and psychology can, if channelled ethically and effectively, lead to the development and implementation of behavioural nudges which collectively enhance well-being’. I loved the Nudge techniques introduced at Coventry University to create a better UX (user experience).   I can see this being adopted with colleagues in the workplace, or even in the home, as we all need a little coercing sometimes.

The first day ended with Xuemai Li from York University in Canada sharing her experience on mindful transitioning under library structuring. She shared tips for undergoing change in roles, departments, the ever-present restructuring, budget constraints and how to still provide the same level of service and developments. I personally understand this pressure and the impact it can have your health and well-being, therefore this was a useful reminder and inspiration for me to think of mindfulness exercises that has worked for Xuemai. I had the practical session on Mindfulness first thing the next morning, and I really have to include the exercise in my busy diary daily for my own good!

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Workshop on International Standards in Cataloguing

I also attended a fab workshop facilitated by Anne Welsh of Beginning Cataloguing (@beginningcat) on cataloguing and the metadata practices. It was a fun experience to demonstrate international standards in cataloguing, and how specialised information adjust to these confines. During lunch and dinner, it was nice to get to know other delegates better in a more informal and social way. Being a member for SLA Europe for a number of years, I was able to meet old and new counterparts.

 

 

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Day two presentations started with the brilliant Dr Katherine Schopflin on the use of Knowledge Management as an asset for organisations and the value that has created when this is part imbedded in the culture of an organisation. It was interesting to hear about the individuals who are the ‘aristocrats’ and the role they play in the knowledge gathering and harvesting process. It is also a valuable lesson on losing knowledge of staff when they depart an organisation, and therefore some on the advantages of capturing and re-using knowledge.  Katherine has co-written the book ‘Practical Knowledge and Information Management’.

 

 

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Good information governance, record keeping, ethics and data integrity were covered in the three morning talks. The Qatar Foundation had implemented a high tech enterprise-wide information management change management process with high levels of information governance and records management. Matthew Platt spoke about the cultural importance, significant differences and languages in the Middle East,+ but also the values of religion and family that were most important to the people in the region.

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Matthew Platt, The Qatar Foundation

Predatory Publishing presented by Simon Linacre of Cabells is also a new topic for me on scholarly communications. It is like a form of cyber-crime for academics where online publishers are abusing and presenting journal articles that are of poor quality and research. This is interesting as it showed that some rogues will cut corners in whatever field you may be in. I haven’t thought of this before and being aware of the issue will help if I need to help customers find information in future.

Presentations on Fair Data Principles (Finable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable), Competitive Intelligence and Business Insight presentations also highlighted that information, data, analytics and intelligence are some of the core activities and skillsets naturally attuned to information professionals. It was interesting to see the use of metadata that is searchable but findable for the present, and also in the future. The competitive intelligence and business insights talks mentioned the use of good ethical practices although we live in the present in a mainly open source digital world. Information and Intelligence are value assets that can give you a competitive advantage and should be integral to your strategy. I also like that Lara Lopez Boronat (from Spain) mentioned that Bain & Company are using social media for corporate analysis as a lot of information is available in ‘hidden messages’. If like me, you have been working in business information for a long time – you are sure to be excited by the current practices, but also the talks and the future potential of data and intelligence mentioned.

 

 

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The final topic presentations were to highlight the diversity and inclusion agenda of the conference with a presentation on ‘The Future of Female? Exploring Patterns of Gender (im)balance in UK business, pharmaceutical and electric vehicle research practices’ and my own talk mentioned above. It was interesting to hear the call for balance in research by female – where the perspectives are not one-sided, and there is more inclusion for groups that a particular subject research may directly impact. We were both advocating for greater representation by gender, race, ability, sex orientation, well-being, minority groups…and for everyone. I wanted to cover everything that we have achieved in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace and profession, but also to acknowledge that there is still a lot of work in progress. Hopefully I was able to put across my main points in 15-20 minutes and going by the feedback received, I think my talk was punchy as I intended it to be.

 

 

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The conference closing keynote was by Simon Chalpin, Director of Culture & Society at The Wellcome Trust highlighting our role in preservation, storytelling and also the importance of people in everything that we do. Simon brought all of the elements of the physical with the digital, the scientific with the cultural and the past with future.

 

 

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We ended the session with a Questions and Answer session on the Future of SLA Europe by SLA President Hal Kirkwood, SLA Europe President Simon Burton and myself as the forthcoming President in 2020. There are lots to be proud in what we have achieved with this first SLA Europe conference, our annual early and new professional awards, excellent events programme, engagement and other great volunteers who help and make things happen in our groups and board here in Europe. There is still continuous work in retaining more members and attendees, advocating and attracting hard to find persons in the profession, and also collaborations with other professional bodies such as CILIP, IFLA and other geographical chapters of SLA in the Arab and Asian regions. I already have a whole list of things to do for 2020!

 

 

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At the end of the conference, I had many take-away and learning points which will help guide and inform my work in this field. It also makes me more confident in my understanding of the issues, challenges and opportunities in this sector. Attending the conference has also made me aware of key contacts in their subject fields and I know I can draw on this network should I need their expertise in future. I am also looking forward to assisting SLA Europe at the Internet Librarian International conference in October 2019, and also picking up other new, innovative and thought-provoking topics. I do truly feel equipped and ‘Future Ready’. However in the information field, there is always a mixture of experience and knowledge but we also have an adaptability for what is new and around the corner. And so with every turn, I hope and will prepare to embrace and tackle future changes head on as they come my way.

 

 

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Sicily – a Spectacular place in the Summer Sun

Finally the summer holidays are here!  Italy is one of my favourite places on Earth, and there are so many beautiful parts to see. I can’t get bored of ever going there on holiday and I was super excited to finally go again to Sicily in Italy. I have been to Palermo for the day as part of a cruise a few years ago, but it was a real delight to plan this year’s summer holidays in the spectacular east coast of Sicily.  A few years ago some friends visited the beautiful resort of Taormina for their honeymoon, and their photos were so amazing that I thought I would love to visit there one day. I have been looking at the hashtag #Taormina on Instagram prior to going on holiday this year as it seems just the ideal place to relax and enjoy ‘La Dolce Vita’ …the Sicilian way. After an early morning flight, it was phenomenal to see Mount Etna just before landing in Catania. Mount Etna is an active volcano and dominates the skyline from miles away along the east coast of Sicily. Like Vesuvius in Napoli, it is amazing to see people living in the path of the volcano and accepting the natural beauty as well as the potential risks as part of their lives. I didn’t have time for a Mount Etna trip, but may do so another time as I was so charmed by Sicily, I hope to visit the region one day in the future.

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Sicily as an island is also shaped with three-points and therefore is known by the symbol Trinacria, which is also on the Sicilian flag. First stop and our based was the beautiful hill top resort of Taormina, which was an hour’s bus drive from Catania. Taormina has been attracting and welcoming a lot of people from the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Phoenicians, Normans, British on the ‘Grand Tour’, Hollywood figures, to current tourist ranging from Italian-Americans, Russians and other international tourists. The buildings and the architecture have stories to tell from the ancient to the modern and still is a magnet for worldly glamour, natural beauty, culture, holidaymakers and sun seekers.

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One of the main highlights of Taormina was seeing the Greek Ancient Theatre, which was built in the 3rd century. It is constructed on the hill in a natural setting with views of the Ionian Sea, the beaches, towns and Mount Etna. It is still a functional theatre and concert venue to the present day. I was in the adjacent garden when I heard the crowd singing along, and also saw fabulous laser light emanating from the theatre at night. The sun was striking at that height when I visited during the day aand great for lighting and the views.  I understand why it is on top of everyone’s list to visit, and a must to share photos on Instagram.

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Isola Bella, when translated means ‘Beautiful Island’, is a little island in Taormina. It was bought in 1890 by English noblewoman Florence Trevelyn and remained in her family until 1990. It had since been turned into a natural reserve, has a few buildings and museum. Florence Treveylan eventually married a Sicilian Mayor of Taormina and lived there until the end of her life. Florence was from Hallington, near Newcastle and a keen gardener before living in Sicily.   She was instrumental in creating the beautiful public pleasure garden ‘Hallington Siculo’ or Sicilian Hallington. The municipal garden is still beautiful today which is situated just under the Greek theatre and with breath-taking views of the sea and Mount Etna. Her contribution to the life and economy of Taormina has been recognised in books, film and there are tributes to her in Isola Bella and the public garden today. Isola Bella is a fabulous beach, and the walk down to beach and the cable car up is a must-do experience.

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The rail service from along the coast of Sicily is reasonably priced and the trains ran regularly. The local bus service was also well serviced to nearby towns and villages. It was nice to use these modes of public transport, as I didn’t want to drive in Italy this time. We decided to go north to Messina for the day and left early for the hour-long train journey along the beautiful coastline. I knew that we will be able to see the coast in most parts of this holiday but I didn’t realise that you can also see Reggio Calabria on the Italian mainland with your naked eye. Messina is less of a tourist destination than Taormina and seemed more relaxed with normal activity of life. I had my first Granita (which is a little bit like Trinidad snow cone) from a mobile vendor on the street, and also a fabulous lunch inside, especially as the weather was very hot outside. The views are great again over the city and across the strait of Messina to the mainland. After seeing my photos, our relatives on holiday in Calabria three hours away said that they felt that we close to them in Messina! Messina is an important gateway and port and the Piazza de Duomo, War Memorial and Church were all very impressive buildings to see.

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A few days later we also went south to the historic city of Siracusa, which is Syracuse in English. The have seen many television documentaries on Syracuse as it was an important place and played a key role in ancient times, when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean. The Greeks inhibited this part of Sicily and it is famous for the culture, architectural ruins, ancient history, and for the important mathematician and engineer Archimedes who invented the theory of Pi. The city is proud of this heritage and there are monuments to celebrate Archimedes. I loved the architecture, marble piazza, quaint streets leading to the sea, art shops, market and excellent restaurants. There was a nice buzz and bohemian feel about Syracuse with a modern vibe to it, although it is now a Unesco World Heritage site. I hope to visit Siracusa one day again.

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When I decided to go to Taormina for a holiday, I didn’t realise that it was also the setting for the Italian scenes of the well acclaimed The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola. The book is based in Corleone, on the other side of the island but I had always wondered where in Italy the film was based – it was great that I actually visited the setting for real!  I eventually found out via the Internet that you could visit the villages of Savoca and Forza D’Argo on a coach tour known as ‘The Godfather Tour’. The coach drive to these towns where very very steep… hand in heart and acute corners for passengers but the drivers all seem very able and used to the landscape. Our Dutch tour guide was also excellent at telling us various anecdotes and stories about the local people, the film and region. The two villages were both very charming and medieval in their layout. It was also nice to see people who lived in these villages getting on with their daily normal chores. Savoca still has the famous Bar Vitelli where the young Michael asked for Apollonia’s hand in marriage, and the church where the got married. The main piazza where they danced at the wedding reception is still the hub of the village.

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I was also in Taormina to relax and enjoy the summer holidays, and to mix the cultural as well as the fun things you can do in Italy. The Italians do know how to enjoy life and also the weather makes a big difference. We spent a few days at the beaches in Taormina, the next village and a day at the pool. I could easily spend more days lazing around on the beach but would need more vacation time to do this.

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Sicily is also amazing for its food, restaurants, markets, ice cream, sweets such as Cassata and Cannolis. The food was just divine to taste fresh in Sicily – it is are a million times better there!

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It was also a pleasure to spend some evenings going for a meal in the many restaurants, even though meals seems a lot more expensive in Taormina…and with the Pound Sterling performing so badly. However, everything was sooo delicious and the Sicilian arancinis and local delicacies you must try! I could believe that a simple almond granita could be sooo delicious and I can’t wait to try an authentic one again. The Italian evening habit of going for a pre or after dinner walk know as the verb ‘Fare una Passeggiatta’ is a highlight of the evening where you can look at the stylish people of all ages, browse the shops and enjoy some fabulous sweets or their world famous ice cream.

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The last few times I went to Italian were to visit relatives and so there is no need to check where you are going or to research places as we rely on local and family knowledge. This was the first time I was able to fully use my smartphone to find restaurants, read reviews and also for using Google Maps for navigating the streets as pedestrians in the cities. It was great to use a smartphone to check for bus and train times too. I know we are able to do this with smartphones but it is still brilliant that we can access these features on the go. It might be another story in another remote place with no network signal.

To end the trip, we spent a day in Catania. The city was very cosmopolitan and exciting to walk along the long promenades, though it was extremely hot during the day for a walk although we saw the bustling market and piazzas. However after a rest, we went out in the evening when the locals and tourists in Catania were walking around and going out for the evening. There are many parts of the city still to see, and Sicily as a whole has been really captivating to me. It is great to see spectacular seas, hills, Mount Etna, the towns along the hills, coast and most people enjoying life in the Sicilian sunshine. There is a lot to do and quite a bit to keep it exciting. I truly hope that I will be able to visit Sicily again, and I will hold that dream of a place and life in the sun until then.

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Volunteer your time – it is all worthwhile

Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves – Horace Mann

In the last few weeks I have been busy supporting volunteers in my local community, neighbourhood and profession. I am what is termed ‘a frequent volunteer’ and actively volunteer in various roles and diverse causes. I also do this unpaid and in my own time. According to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2019: …“there are 20.1 million people who volunteered through a group, club or organisation during 2017/2018” with £17.1 Billion the total contribution to the voluntary sector to the UK economy. I have been fortunate to also be able to have an impact locally, as on my doorstep, but also internationally across the world as a Board Member to SLA Europe. The research by NCVO in their report ‘Time Well Spent’ quotes …“81% do their volunteering in and for their local communities” and volunteers get involved in different ways, reflecting their lifestyles, values and priorities. Volunteering is quite common now with a large number of us giving our time freely, and the benefits are not just for the causes we support but also for our own happiness, wellbeing, achievement, fulfilment and self-satisfaction.

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Two years ago, when NHS hospitals – among other organisations around the world – were attacked by ransomware hackers, one of the first to have their computers back up and running was the Lister Hospital in Stevenage. It did not pay the hackers a penny. Instead, Hertfordshire police provided a team of young techies from their squad of volunteers, whose employers encouraged their staff to support local charities and public services. Welcome to 21st century volunteering.

CEO Peter Keller in ‘Time well Spent’ NCVO

Volunteering is really important for the success of various causes, organisations and society as a whole. We sometimes volunteer in informal ways and do not necessarily recognise this. Most of us also volunteer to causes that we care about that are nearby but a very small percentage (3%) volunteer outside the UK. Overall we are providing unpaid help to groups, organisations and individuals that matter to us. Volunteering is one of the best ways we can help others in society.

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It has been an extra special time this month to be able to spend time briefly with past and fellow volunteers in my various roles. They were moments of celebration, an opportunity to meet old and make new contacts in the nice summer months. I will mention some of the events I have attended below. And in true connecting the dots style I will be thinking of the greater impact volunteering has in the short-term…and as well as the long term for me and hopefully for these communities.

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Plant from seeds for my guerilla gardening volunteering

I volunteer throughout the year regardless of the weather, indoors and outdoors, virtually, in groups, individually and tirelessly. I have been a frequent and addictive formal volunteer for the last 15 years, and prior to this in my childhood.

The first set of volunteering this summer was for my local neighbourhood which usually entails gardening, picking up rubbish (constantly!), sending out local notices and information, sharing news and relevant stories on social media feeds and giving a helping hand or moral support for local arts and community events. The best photos here are from local guerrilla gardens, our street party and poetry competitions. I am certainly not the only person to volunteer but there are a few hard-core dedicated people who have been doing fab things year on year since 2012. I am not sure how long all of this will last but I live here, and our neighbourhood is fully engaged in the whole process of looking out for each other and our patch. We have also missed having a local police station after cuts to public budgets, and sometimes have to literally clean up mess, anti-social behaviour and watch out for drug pushing in our neighbourhood. There are lots of families in this area yet there is a lot of worrying anti-social activity. Recently it is the worst it has been, but hopefully our community action will help us all to keep our neighbourhood happy…but also safe.

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It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference – Tom Brokaw

In early July, I was invited to attend the celebration and retirement party for the CEO of the local charity, The Lloyd Park Children’s Charity, where I volunteered for 12 years. Pauline Thomas MBE has dedicated the last 35+ years for developing, championing and actively campaigning local authorities and local government for the provision of services for children, their families and the wider community. She is an amazing person and has a real, authentic and kind portfolio of all the work that she has fought for, won and established. She is the first one to make it clear that she has not achieved it all by herself and constantly depends on her brilliant staff, dedicated volunteers and supporters. Her leadership and committment will always be an inspiration. In this organisation, I was happy to learn so much, develop new skills, challenge myself and offer whatever time I had to assist over those years. There was also a great community affairs programme at the time at the company I worked for whereby they supported staff that were volunteering in their local community with a financial award. I was able to get some recognition and the financial reward, which went to the charity. There are several companies who do support charitable causes and communities – this is reported that there are 8000 funders giving to £8 Million in The Guide to UK Company Giving by the Directory of Social Change.

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A tip to share with you is to give incentive, encourage and display value to volunteers and paid staff. One such way is to hold fun award ceremonies for staff and volunteers. You can reward with a certificate, and those events that were held at this charity were great fun and motivating. I still have my certificates for volunteering and fundraising as they are great merits for community and charitable work. Volunteering is worthwhile not because of awards – but for the intangible skills, experience, talent, understanding and networking you gain working outside your day job. This is beneficial for my own personal development, and I gain experience in tasks and roles that I may not do in my day job. I still refer and draw on volunteering time spent with the charity. There are some good award examples for recognising volunteers on The Third Sector website.

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With Pauline at ex-employers Volunteering Award 2007

I currently volunteer mainly for SLA Europe, an international and professional organisation which the motto – ‘Connecting Information Professionals’. It is an organisation this is based on volunteer support. Events and my activities with them helps me to keep my skills and experience fresh, broad, at the cutting edge of technology…and thought leadership. I host meetings monthly, help in various tasks and activity that may arise – gaining valuable ‘hands on’ experience in the process. It is also great for my strategic thinking and professional leadership experience exposing me to experience that I may not have in my day job. Over the years, I have also grown in confidence in the roles that I have conducted in the Digital Communications Group and as Membership Chair. It has also been excellent for me to also gain regular training and Continued Professional Development (CPD) from physical and virtually events (e.g. webinars). SLA Europe and my self-development are so inter-link in my mind that I sometimes don’t see my volunteering as separate to my day job. It has a direct impact on my abilities, experience, exposure, competency and personal development. To be honest in this profession, we have to be constantly moving with the times, and in this professional volunteering capacity…I am the one who is benefiting from the time that I give freely. It was especially nice to celebrate with other members at the recent Summer Drinks and to feel rejuvenated.

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Unselfish and noble actions are the most radiant pages in the biography of souls – David Thomas

I am really lucky to see the holistic way that volunteering can regenerate and also create new business and artistic benefits for the local community and the wider society. The borough I live in is celebrating this year with the Borough of Culture, and there are a great bunch of volunteers over the years that initially helped the borough to achieve this accolade, funding and attention. There are many activities for this year and the volunteers were in full mode ‘Getting Involved’ at the Walthamstow Garden Party as shown in my photos.

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I still too have a lot of respect and admiration for voluntary organisations that are tackling poverty, homelessness, abuse, or the general well being of other citizens and community members. I sometimes wish I could do more but there just isn’t enough time for me to fit in more. I do like that I work full-time in a profession which helps and empower people to get on with their own objectives. You are never too young or too old to volunteer, and so I will always look to volunteer in the causes and communities throughout my life hopefully.

Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.  – H Jackson Browne Jr.

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Ten Years on Twitter – Highlights and Reflection of my Decade on Twitter

“…We came up with the word Twitter, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’, and ‘chirps from birds’.

And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Jack Dorsey –Co-Founder of Twitter

I am celebrating ten years of actively using Twitter this month and there is much to reflect, think about and hope for with this brilliant platform. There are many fabulous benefits as in individual, as well as in a professional capacity, for using Twitter over the years. You may have been on another planet if you haven’t heard of or used Twitter. Twitter is best described as a micro-blogging platform where you can share a lot in ‘Tweets’ that are messages in limited characters, photos and other multi-media. I have seen multiple definitions of tweets in the last few weeks but as a reminder – a Tweet is “an expression of a moment or idea. It can contain text, photos, and videos.” A tweet, in essence, is a ‘nugget of information and by extension, Twitter a tool for the sharing and dissemination of information’. In the wider world context in politics, social interaction and humanity – there have been great impact, both negative and positive. We should not let negative human behaviour stop us from using this tool to communicate and connect with people who we may or may not agree with. Since the early days, there has been much development of the platform, some regulations and several business, as well as social networking benefits.

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Humans have been using texts and symbols to communicate for over century. I have just been to see the ‘Writing: Making You Mark’ exhibition at the British Library where I witnessed human’s great achievement of writing, carving and printing notes, letters and symbols to create our own mark in this beautiful world. The exhibition gave me a chance to “reflect on works of genius that wouldn’t exist without the writing traditions of civilisations past”. In the bigger picture perspectives, Twitter is powerful but also a humble experience to all that was written, craved, printed and typed in the past. We should remember this. The time has past for you to think about using social media – it is a necessity in the Web 2.0 world of social media and interactions.

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The best way to remember my Twitter anniversary here is to jot down some of the ten top tips I have experienced in the last 10 years:

1. Good Business Communications – I currently run workshops and webinars on social media to highlight some of the business benefits of using Twitter, which usually include strategy and ideas for good customer services, brand awareness, communication, brand credibility, building relationships, etc. In ‘Get rich with Twitter: Welcome to the World of Microblogging’, there is a fabulous quote on Twitter which states that it is a standout name in micro-blogging. The site has cut a ‘new path right through the overgrowth of information excess, showing all a new way to speak and heard’. As a communication tool, “Twitter makes it possible to get to the point and get down to the real business of communicating in a real and meaningful way. To the business person, Twitter enables a message that values the customer’s time, offers immediacy of product or service availability and helps establish a brand identity via brief but easy to remember messaging’. There are several opportunities to go viral and reach millions of customer or alternatively grow your following organically and develop meaningful business relationships. It is also where people will be talking about your business, and a lot of other fun things. There have been several examples of negative public relations on Twitter and the quick fire responses that are needed to mitigate and control further damage. You can also be liable to libel if you are not careful on Twitter.

2. Library and Information Community – I started using Twitter in a professional capacity whilst working in an information centre. There are several reasons to do so for we must harness and appreciate new technology to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. There are honestly too many excellent uses for Twitter, as I have elaborated here. There are also several concerns in the negative and dangerous misuse of this platform, such as with Fake News, Bullying, Racism, Trolling, etc.

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I am hoping to use this blog post to clear some of the headspace I have after many years of using Twitter (almost) daily, heavily and full-heartedly. As information professionals, we must be at the forefront of using collaborative technologies and social media to reach out to our customers, community, other professionals and keep abreast of topics of interests.

3. Live Tweeting – To this day, I find Live Tweeting and Real Live Tweets the most refreshing feature of Twitter. This works hand in hand with hashtags (#). Searching for trending hashtags topics daily, and creating your own is one of the most exciting functionality of the platform. In the heat of the moment and mood, you can also ‘develop your own rhythm and reason for how and when you’ll launch a hashtag’. Live tweeting is also great for letting you know what people are talking about and is a powerful source for news breaking and hard to find information from traditional media. There is the major issue of fake news but hopefully as a professional, you may be able to spot the differences and champion good information ethics and best practice. I also have a lot of fun in my social life and share some of that by live tweeting ( #youdoneknow).

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4. Trends – Twitter is great for finding out the hot topics over the last few hours, days and even as a database for old stories. I honestly use it as a database and use it frequently for searching for odd or obscure topics of interest or discussion (conversations in my head anyway!). It is great to use it as a knowledge management tool for finding expertise in person, places of interest and specialisms and good old-fashioned knowledge. This can be global as well as local. If the information is not there – you can even start the conversation with a question. Easy as that.

It is also great to see trends on topics of discussion on the system called Trendmap. Trend jacking is also good fun and I love finding hashtags on popular culture to see what other people are saying on a point or subject. It is also a great source for research or to scope for knowledge on a hot topic.

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5. News and Citizen Journalism – Social Media has changed the way we can share, create and find out news. Journalism has also been turned upside down and inside out. Twitter is an important source and facilitator for generating news stories and citizen journalism. Twitter is sometimes my first port of call for news and even traditional media uses it for groundbreaking and live tweeting stories. It is also an excellence source of information on international affairs, culture and local information. It is even better when you find information from someone with local knowledge and kudos. Obviously there are issues on fake news, misinformation, manipulation and post-truth if you get your information from unreliable and distrusting sources.

It was reported that ‘in the case of the 2015 Paris terror attacks, those reporting on the destruction were generally ordinary Parisians’. In the 2011 London Riots, I do remember being one of the first tweeters as I had just come from picking up relatives from the Tottenham versus Atletico Madrid football game in Tottenham where the initial riots started and saw some of the tensions arising. This riot was known for the spread of misinformation, which was unhelpful at the time.

We still need professional journalists for newsgathering, creation, analysis and presenting. The evolution and balance are that there are now tweets that are mentioned in the broadcast news, some news organisations live-tweeting, and embracing collaborative practices with these newer forms of media and content sharing. The main aim should remain at sharing the truth of the matter. However, there is a lot more noise from the crowd that there ever was before!

“It’s Just Like Passing Notes in class…”

It’s just like passing notes in class” (Content Analysis of the Use of Twitter at #asl2015)

6. Events Conferences and Engagement – Twitter is great for live tweeting and generating active engagement for event organisers, presenters, and attendees alike. Over the years, I have taken part in small and large-scale events with great levels of engagement, interactions and impact. Events hashtags are one of the best uses – do create and use hashtags to see what is being shared on a particular event.

“By using an agreed hashtag (#), a dynamic real time virtual conversation space is creating. Dialogue from beyond the conference centre can also be included simply by following the relevant hashtag. Twitter has also been the fore winner of the hashtag (#) and it has changed the way we communicate with each other”. (Source: It’s just like passing notes in class” Content Analysis of the Use of Twitter at #asl2015).

Yes, you may seem a bit distracted and absorbed in your tweet, but the levels of participation at events are a greatly enriched in physical presence as well as virtual meet-ups with the use of conference hashtags.

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7. Collaborative Business – In the early days of Twitter, I tried to encourage my colleagues to use it, and also attended a SLA Europe talk on ‘Tweeting whilst you work’. I NEVER STOPPED Tweeting! I have said that I am in it for the long haul and there is an interpersonal tone on Twitter. I sometimes see tweets with no interactions and wonder why? (Ha! There is a funny Twitter parody of God where he/she follows no one).

As you may have noticed – I live tweet to this day and although it may seem obsessive, I am actually checking in to see what people are discussing etc. I do like to interact too and there is a brilliant quote in ‘Get Rich with Twitter’: …”you can provide deeper access to who you are (or who your brand or company is) while learning more about who your follower are.” It really is an opportunity to build a better collaborative relationship, trust and engagement. I have also had people un-follow me, it had upset me but generally – I get on with it.

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8. Community Building – Twitter is great for tapping in to the wisdom of the crowd, caring for people, keeping informed on a topic, and for creating a community – be it for profitable business or your local neighbourhood for community spirit. I have used these to much effective at work with sharing at our live events, and in my local community for various activities over the years. You can use Twitter to share news and items of mutual interests, to explore and develop ideas, ask opinions and raise issues of concerns, such as local crime, events and Brexit. I look after a community neighbourly Twitter feed – it is lovely and reassuring to see and share on the issues that are shared by people in my neighbourhood. Social media helps and strong communities make stronger societies.

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9. Political and Social Justice – Twitter has also been an enabler and game changer with some of the political movements of our time such as with social activism such as the examples as: #BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie, #MeToo etc. It is also an opportunity to seek and tell tweets on a diverse and inclusive world.

For the #BlackLivesMatter – new Pew Research Centre analysis of public tweets finds the hashtag has been used nearly 30 million times on Twitter – an average of 17,002 times per day – as of May 1, 2018.

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10. Authenticity – Being this long on Twitter, it is very hard to be a fake. I personally feel that I have come to the point in life that Twitter seems a part of me.   I have shared the joys, lows, highs, support, anger, dislikes (I try to repress this emotion) and love.

Twitter started in July 2006, and Twitter was a full-fledged company by May 2007. When I worked at the Greater London Authority – I discussed, used and saw this as an opportunity to share our knowledge and insights with my colleagues, as well as offered training to other staff. I also took part in Social Media Week 2012 on ‘Collaborating on Cancer’ at City Hall, London. The whole team was made redundant the same month, I was unemployed and then carried on knowing all along that this platform is too good to give up. I ended up at the British Library, where there are phenomenal and knowledgeable staff with unique subject knowledge. There is a constant flow of ideas, thoughts, content and topics of conversation. Brexit and the current political climate have not been ideal and sooooooo different to the early days of ‘happy’, collaborative and responsible social media. Let’s hope it gets better but it seems unlikely, as there is real power in words!

I am not sure how long Twitter will last but I think I have seen so much in life from my local community to big picture content on Twitter – I have also tried to maintain a neutral tone and be conscious of others around me. It is very hard to pretend for this long and therefore, I am still here with hopefully an authentic voice and with greater resilience.

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Theatreland – cue the lights, start the music and let the show begin!

As you go out and about in town, you frequently encounter posters and adverts for performances and musicals in the theatres. Social media algorithmic adverts also tend to push theatre adverts to me. It may be overwhelming to take it all in but generally they are great reminders of the spectacular array of performing arts and talent that are available to see with family and friends. You can actually make an evening and night out with the number of shows available. However it is not usually cheap to see all these shows regularly unless you look out for discounts and special reductions for last minute bookings. I always try to see shows with friends or family whenever I can.

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The performance arts industry is very important to the revenue it generates in the global economy from Broadway in New York, The West End in London and the other regions of the world. According to theatre associations and brilliant industry resources, UK Theatres and Society of London Theatres (SOLT), there are 14 million theatre attendances per annum. Their latest figures state: …“the figures reveal a combined audience of over 34m and ticket revenue of nearly £1.28bn, from a total of 62,945 performances over the course of the year in the West End and across the UK”. So it is a thriving industry with natural show closures, but with a lot of long running shows too.

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I would like to think that theatre and drama have been around for as long as humans have tried to keep themselves entertained. This is reflected in the piece I read online by London Theatre Direct: …“Arguably, theatre can be dated back all the way to 8500 B.C. considering tribal dance and religious rituals. Theatre, depending on how you define it, goes hand in hand with society as it has always been a part of life to express and perform in some way or other”.

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Undoubtedly Europe has a long tradition and rich culture of theatre. The Ancient Greeks are credited for developing the Western art form, and also theatre as a place for world historic buildings and architecture. The word theatre and thespian are both derived from the Greek language, culture and mythology. The Romans are also renown for the love of theatre and built 125 theatres at their height of power. The oldest theatre ruins I have been to visit, as yet, are in Pompeii, Italy. I hope to visit other ancient relics in other continents one day. I also was told by Italian relatives that Pulcinella is actual the source of inspiration for Punch – one of the earlier forms of puppet or street theatre in the United Kingdom.

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The United Kingdom records of it’s own heritage seems to start during the Elizabethan age with various influences from other close traditions. The most pivotal for this period would have been the plays, playwrights, theatre companies and the buildings like The Globe at the time. Elizabethan theatre also is world-famous, and has the lasting legacy of the works of William Shakespeare. As an English-speaking country in Trinidad, we were taught Shakespeare for secondary level English (I also studied Shakespeare for A’Levels).

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Shakespeare statue at the British Library

The V&A Museum has a great page for resources in the period and stated at Shakespeare: “Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and numerous sonnets. It is not just the breadth of his work that makes Shakespeare the greatest British dramatist, but the beauty and inventiveness of his language and the universal nature of his writing. Shakespeare is performed today because his writing still speaks to audiences all over the world”. Ironically, the first show I saw in London was the musical ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ on roller-skates (yeah, I know!), which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. I also saw recently ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ at the Barbican Theatre – it quite nice when you can recognise the lines from a school lesson, or phrases that are well known in their own right. I still have to attend a performance at the modern Globe Theatre along The Thames and hope to do so in the near future. Working at the British Library, I frequently come across Shakespearean references, objects and had seen the brilliant exhibition on William Shakespeare a few years ago.

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The history of theatre has developed since to various degrees such as Renaissance Theatre, Victorian Pantomime, during the World Wars, musicals, other 20th Century innovations and even digital drama. The Germans and the British theatre-lands are documented in the book ‘Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin 1890 to 1939’ as well as the growth of Broadway in the USA. The book states: “In the USA, traditionally more accepting of popular culture than Europe, the musical has a high cultural status, often closely connected to the formation of national identities. More than just a simple celebration, it has embodied America’s mastery over modernity in particularly amiable ways, as entertainment”.

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Musicals are good fun and there are a myriad of shows to see at any given time in London. It is great to see, hear and tap along to a good musical show. I recently went to see Motown the Musical before it closed in London. I loved the story of the entrepreneurial record company, the real life characters, the political and social historical undertones, the costumes, make-up and the music obviously. The crowd was up on their feet at the end for a sing-a-long and this show in particular was inter-generational for its’ classic soul music and relevance to musical history.

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There are large production teams required for each show and I imagine it can literally be high-pressured and intense at times. Over the years, there have been various technical developments in lights and sound – with the theatre being a precursor to film-making (which I blog about earlier this year). We tend to forget all the make-belief or pretence, and literally are transported to another world by the stories being told and the drama on stage.

 

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The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan of Miami Sound Machine

Miami Sound Machine’s musical show poster was another surprise encounter on a Tube poster a few weeks ago. I obviously loved the band and leader singer Gloria Estefan in the 1980s, and whilst sharing the photo I took of the poster on social media I accidentally found out that the band recently had been awarded and recognised at the Library of Congress for its’ contribution to Latin American heritage, culture and music. The song ‘Rhythm is Going to Get You’ in particular will be treasured and showcased for it’s cultural value and worth. Apart from listening to their music again, I also want to see the Miami Sound Machine show too!

I do like dramas too, but it requires more time to find good shows. There is also a point to stress that most plays and novels are literature, which eventually becomes plays or shows at the theatre. The two art forms feed each other with creativity. I am looking forward to seeing the play ‘Small Island’ in May and will read the book by the Andrea Levy to make sure that I have a deep understanding of the story at the live performance. I am also looking forward to the set, costumes and seeing the diverse actors.

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The industry has looked at itself for the Diversity and Inclusion litmus test, and I recently saw that exclusive research by The Stage looked at how gender and ethnicity affects the types of roles cast. The research states: “the 2019 results reveal that black, Asian, and minority ethnic performers make up 38% of cast members in the 19 commercial West End musicals counted. This figure means West End musicals are more ethnically diverse than their counterparts on Broadway, were 34% of musical casts are from BAME backgrounds, and considerably more diverse than programming on UK television, where BAME actors make up 18% of performers’. Also, I was sad when I read an article recently about La Tanya Richardson Samuel (actress wife to Samuel L Jackson) saying that she was happy to play the maid in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but it was a melancholy reflection of the little progress in racial tensions made in the fictional times as well as in real life. Samuel L Jackson reportedly said: ‘in entertainment, there is a responsibility somewhere in us to reflect the times we’re in. You can do that in the theatre…

The male character seems to get the ‘named role’ (leads) and therefore gender equality also needs to be improved. The industry has been getting better with more women writers and a better representation of the society we live in today. There is some progress but always more work needs to be done, and continuous developments in a diverse workforce in any industry. Apparently the musical ‘Aladdin’ is one of the “most widely diverse musicals”, and I am looking forward to attending the musical next month with a visiting Trinidadian friend.

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I also went to the Young Vic last year in a programme where they invited local school children to meet some of their production staff – this too is a great initiative for young persons.

Whilst I was doing my brief research for this blog post, it was apparent that theatre research has many layers to it – from the point of view in acting,  play writing, creative, production, technical to multiple art forms. It is pure and real entertainment that we still love seeing live in venues across the world. It is also has value in the cultural identity, assets and people who work in this field. And as I close the curtains… I have never seriously acted in a play but I will continue to look out for a show that I can see and enjoy with good company.

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Holi – a Springtime festival of Colour

The clocks may have gone forward to signify the beginning of Summertime, but there are other colourful signs of Spring and Summertime that are bursting from nature in this part of the northern hemisphere. It is also festival time for Holi – the ancient Hindu festival celebrated to mark the coming of spring as a time of renewal, regeneration and reconciliation.  It is celebrated with colour to represent vibrancy, fertility and togetherness associated with family and friends who have gathered to have fun. There are other significant stories of the festival such as the story of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, as well as the story of Holika and Prahlad. It is a time of vibrant celebration when people run around covering each other with the rainbow of Gulal powders or coloured liquid, the latter known as abeer. Drums known as dhol and other musical instruments are played whilst people laugh, sing and dance in the streets or fields. The festival is celebrated in India and various parts of Asia – including the Indian diaspora in the West Indies, North America and even the UK. All in all, the festival represents love and the victory of good over evil.

 

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I was happy to see and learn more about the spring celebrations from past centuries in the Mughal Empire Exhibition at the British Library. The manuscripts and paintings were brilliant and capture the period in time by recording images of people, music, fashion, Holi-playing equipment, the entertainment and fun they obviously had during the celebrations. It was heart-warming to see the extravagance, elegance and details of the Mughal celebrations in the past in their regal settings. I am sure they got dirty too! I was compelled to buy a Holi celebration post card as a souvenir as the festival will always be special to me.

 

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These are some well-documented past celebrations in books with beautiful illustrations and online that show how it was celebrated by all classes in a society – from the Mughals to the people in the streets.

 

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Playing Holi / Phagwa in my village in Trinidad late 1980s.

 

Celebrating the festival of Holi is one of my best childhood memories, and it still makes me happy to see it celebrated from afar. It is a time for peaceful fun with the family, neighbours, friends and other villagers. It certainly is still very much a festival of togetherness which showcases the physical activity like a special rainbow – full of vibrant colour, music, dance and love.

 

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Phagwa, as we call it in the West Indies, is an integral part of the cultural calendar and is still very much alive considering it was brought from India to the West Indies by the indentured labourers in the 1840’s. Holi goes according to the lunar calendar which means it is usually celebrated in March. It is a national holiday in India but in Trinidad it is celebrated on the closest Sunday to the Indian date. Our local temple (mandir) is still the hub for organising and congregating for the celebration in the village, with persons wearing mainly white clothes prior to the start of the coloured festivities. With dholak drums carried around the neck and other musical instruments – the procession starts at the temple and goes along street after street, where people are invited in homes for some drinks, sweets or refreshments. This can last a few hours.

 

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It is exciting, thrilling and fun to play Holi. According to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s website – ‘A Carnival-like atmosphere pervades as willing participants are sprayed with a variety of coloured dyes.  You can hear the strains of special folk songs called Chowtal being sung, accompanied by two instruments – the Dholak, a small hand drum and Majeera, percussive instruments.  The music is fast-paced and extremely infectious, making you want to take part in the joy-filled revelry’.

It has gained popularity over the years by other non-Hindus and ethnicities. In the chapter ‘A rich blend of cultural influences’ in the book ‘Trinidad and Tobago: Terrific and Tranquil’, the island is described: “…but then in Trinidad and Tobago, always expect the unexpected, for this is a nation of two separate territories, many different ethnic groups and religions, and discrete and common cultures. You’d be hard pressed to find a population as ethically or culturally mixed as Trinidad’s, in such a small place, anywhere in the world”. The chapter also goes on to say: “Holi is an integral part of the cultural calendar”. Phagwa, March’s Hindu spring festival is celebrated on savannahs throughout the island to the singing of chowtal or pichakaaree songs and the drenching of all with colourful abeer”.

 

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Abeer is the purple liquid that my father would make in a bucket early on the Sunday morning of Holi. It used to be still warm from the water used to infuse the dye when we used to fill our saved and recycle bottles for the purple liquid. The buzz of getting that first spray with colour is truly joyous, fun and bonding! You certainly would not wear your ‘Sunday best clothes’ because by the end of the day your clothes will be soaked, and even ruined. In the 1980’s the coloured Gulal powder was introduced but prior to that we would use mainly the abeer liquid for spraying or drenching each other. My father would try to find some of the elders, such as Mama and Argee, in the neighbourhood to spray with abeer as a sign of respect, and to join in the fun. Throughout the day, we would look to spray our neighbours, family and the temple group as we go street to street through our special village. Phagwa is still celebrated with much fervour through Trinidad – now in schools and has been adopted by some as a national celebration and part of our identity.

 

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My Roman Catholic School – Holi Greetings on Facebook

 

My mother, family and villagers still welcome the local temple groups to our home for Holi, as do many homes along the parade in the village. I am grateful for the persons who are committed and still carry on these traditions after many years. It will always be our heritage and a true celebration of our past journeys across the seas. The message of good over evil, and the joy of life are always relevant. I am thankful to feel part of the great festivities, and the contagious happiness when I witnessed them on social media.

 

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Holi has influenced our multi-cultural society, such as when carnival band designer Peter Minshall used the spraying off colour on his masqueraders for his band Callaloo in 1984. Chutney music, which is the fusion of Caribbean and Asian beats and melodies, has been successful in creating mixed and modern music for the festivities. There is still a religious festival so there is no alcohol consumed on the day. So it is pure fun and happiness with the colours, music, dance and interaction with people.

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Callaloo – Carnival Band by designer Peter Minshall.   Source: Tumblr – http://carnival2014-blog.tumblr.com/post/46371316750/peter-minshall-callaloo-1984-photo-roy-boyke

I also can’t help thinking of Holi when I see the music video for the calypso by Machel Montano, better known as the Soca king, called ‘Fog up de Place’ with the lyrics: ‘you can’t play mas if you fraid powder’. J’ouvert and the Carnival sailor masqueraders share powder for different reasons (US sailors stationed in Trinidad used talc powder to cool themselves from the tropical heat), but the visual effects of the powder in the air is still amazing and similar. We have these festive traits in common.

 

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A few years ago, I saw that there was a globetrotting event based on Holi called Holi One Festival at Battersea Power Station in London. I also recall seeing some people on the London Underground with the powder on their once white clothes. There is a brilliant article ‘Holi One Colour Festival – Battersea Unites in an Explosion of Colour’ which explained the festival’s aimed to bring together people from all walks of life to share music, arts, fun and vitality. It was reported that: “14000 expectant revellers dressed from head to toe in white – three quarters of them women – streamed along the pavements like angelic ants, moving collectively towards one of London’s most recognised landmarks. They would leave an entirely different colour!” At the end of the event – the organisers found it promoted the ideas of togetherness and vitality that did not disappoint – “they were multi-coloured and it’s fair to say – unrecognisable mess”. A jet-wash was used for the clean up the next day. I can relate to this, as it is absolutely true too that you can still see some of the colour stains and evidence of Holi for a few days after the event. Your hair and fingernails will also bear the colours of Holi as a gentle…and sweet reminder afterwards. I don’t mind that.

 

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The Indian Bollywood film industry has helped us to appreciate the festival for its connection with the East Indies and West Indies. In the 1980s, we had neither Internet nor social media, so film such as Silsila was brilliant for us to see the visual expression and art of Holi as it is celebrated in India. We also know some of the songs, and they remain classics to this day.

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Film – Silsila 1981. Source: Wikipedia.

Holi is celebrated and popular throughout other West Indian countries such as Guyana and Suriname, where there are large Indo-Caribbean communities. I have also seen celebrations on social media in New York, Houston, Paris, Canada etc. The event in Queens, New York seems to be a merger of West Indians and East Indians, and there are Tassa drums used in the parade. The New York Police Department also participated in one of the Holi celebrations and used the opportunity to showcase their LGBT+ community. The rainbow symbol is very apt. It is a festival of time for everyone regardless of religion, colour, class, gender and age from my personal experience.

 

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A few years ago I went to the Caribbean Hindu Temple in North London to celebrate the festival and it was nice to be welcomed by the community and to play Holi again after so many years. I was going to play it this year but was busy on the day. I saw on social media that Indian students were also celebrating Holi at Middlesex University recently, and a couple of primary schools in the UK.   It was nice to see the celebrations in secular environments for the happiness and fun that playing Holi brings.

 

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Holi has been given a lot of exposure (rightly so!) by Google. Google’s logo is colourful and has evolved over the years.  In the last few years they have commissioned colourful and animated ‘Goggle Doodles’ for Holi with clearly explanatory details of the festival. In 2018, it depicted the traditional dhol drummers amongst a cloud of colour, who move from house to house, adding a musical touch to the day’s festivities. In 2019, it states that the visual excitement marks the start of spring but also offers: “a time for renewal, and a reversal of the social hierarchies among ages, classes, and castes. Holi’s also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love because it marks a time for coming together and releasing old grudges”. 

At Holi, the story of Holika is depicted with bonfires.  The bonfire signifies the demoness Holika, who tried to destroy her nephew Prahlad in a fire, but burnt herself to death in the end. Its’ meaning at springtime reminds us about the true victory of good over evil.

 

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The colourful festival of Holi is a diverse and inclusive celebration of dance, music and other rituals, which is a common thread amongst most cultures. The vibrancy, warmth and togetherness by people taking to the streets or in their community spaces, is something we all should try to experience at least once. The rainbow colours of the festival are played to the beating of songs of joy and happiness. It heralds a warm welcome to the new spring season with its’ stories, merriment, song and dance. In some form or another in human life, we can learn and admire this rich ancient celebration as we dance along to the beat of drums.

 

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