British Library Day Four: QuestionPoint, BL Catalogue, and Qatar Project


My first activity this morning was a run through of QuestionPoint with Lynn. QuestionPoint is the system which is supposed to have replaced email for enquiries to reading rooms, yet somehow it’s still mixed. No-one knows where people are getting the email address from as it is no longer on the site etc. but they are willing to answer questions from everywhere. Email queries then have to be transferred to QuestionPoint later for statistic keeping.

Readers can submit their query through a form on the British Library website, and it goes straight into the program, where it adds to the total number of active questions displayed on the system, and importantly adds to the ‘unassigned’ tally where staff members can claim it to answer if they wish.

I was run through how to use the system to answer and track queries and stats and even got to try a sample one of my own. It seems pretty straightforward, however there are a few quirks, such as when a query is referred to another team it cannot be deleted off either team’s account until closed, or resolved, or it will disappear for good.

KnowledgeBase is and offshoot of this program, and allows for both interesting and common queries to be saved for easier reference than going through the QuestionPoint archive (which does keep questions when the client approves the option, stripping all identifying info except who the team member who answered was).

Later in the morning, Paul came to give me a more in depth look at the catalogue. It’s a bit idiosyncratic, but easy enough to get used to after a while. The catalogue contains most of the collection, however not all of the electronic resources are indexed on it. Researchers need to search both database and catalogue to get the full picture unlike many university libraries which have an added software layer on their OPAC to enable federated/integrated searching. This is a step the British Library are working towards, however. It’s also worth noting that with very few exceptions, printing or taking notes are the only options a patron has when an item has been found – there is no downloading or saving.

The collection includes some theses, which I found interesting. They used to be microfilmed but are now going through a system called Ethos which we didn’t discuss in any detail.

Paul had to leave me half-way through the session because a patron had turned up for his appointment – a day early. We continued after lunch, instead of my shadowing in the science reading room – which again was pretty quiet. We talked about findability and lack there-of and there’s one particular tab on the catalogue page that you really need to be a staff member to use, for ordering things which may not be listed on the catalogue (other items). Technically anyone can use that function, but only staff would know what isn’t listed in the main catalogue.

After this I attended a staff tour of the Qatar project, which is under lock and key on level 6. The bulk of the British Library staff don’t have access to this area. The project was set up in partnership with the Qatar Foundation, who paid 8.7 million pounds to fund the project. The project started in July 2012 and is expected to be completed in December 2014, with over 500,00 items digitised and catalogued by the end, creating a collection to increase public awareness of the Arab nation and preserving its history – especially of interest to the British Library is its history as a British protectorate.

Each item in the project is first assessed to determine whether any conservation is needed. Though the process tries to do the bare minimum to increase speed so far 70% of items have needed some level of repair or cleaning.

Images are then digitised. With all the funding, the project has some of the newest and most advanced technology in the library, containing its own imaging lab (which is cold). Loose leaf items are put on the flat scanner, under a Perspex sheet to increase image evenness and quality, whereas tightly bought items, objects and manuscripts are photographed using a highly specialised 60 megapixel camera on a stand with light boxes etc.

So far the project is working on the broader history, and Bahrain records and there was a show and tell of some of the items, including maps, personal correspondence, an education proposal and some shellac records. The team members are all very passionate about their work, so it was difficult to keep moving between them and I didn’t get to two of them (slavery, and something else).

After that I was given time to write up my notes before heading home.

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