Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Centenary of the Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia

David Moon, Anniversary Professor in History, looks back at the career of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia

Nicholas II in custody at a palace outside Petrograd after
his abdication via: Library of Congress Prints

On  15 March 1917 (according to the western calendar) Tsar Nicholas II abdicated from the Russian throne. This brought to an end the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for over three hundred years. The end was sealed in a short document in which Nicholas explained:

"Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war.... We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power."

The ‘internal popular disturbances’ were the events now known as the ‘February Revolution’ (according to the calendar then in use in Russia), in the capital city which at the time was called Petrograd (formerly and once again since 1992 St. Petersburg). Strikes by the city’s workers, protests by women over bread shortages, wider discontent among the population escalated into revolution when some army units in Petrograd mutinied and went over the side of the protesters.

Demonstration in Petrograd during the February Revolution
via: State Museum of Political History in Russia 

The situation was especially serious since Russia was fighting, and losing, ‘this persistent war’ with Germany on the Eastern Front of the First World War. Since 1915, Nicholas had been the Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s armed forces and thus the continuing defeats reflected on him personally. Nicholas was persuaded to abdicate by the army high command, conservative members of the Duma (parliament), as well as some of his own relatives. They thought that if they removed the tsar, who had become unpopular among large sections of the population, they could put down the revolution on the streets of the capital and then focus their efforts on fighting the war.

They were proved badly wrong. Several months uncertainty followed under a ‘provisional’ government, which lacked the authority and power to address the serious problems facing Russia, and culminated in the seizure of power by the extreme left-wing Bolsheviks under Lenin in October 1917. This ushered in 74 years of Communist rule in what became the Soviet Union.

Historians have long debated the causes of the two revolutions in Russia in 1917. Were they the consequence largely of the crisis created by the First World War? Or were they the culmination of longer-term tensions resulting from several decades of social and economic modernisation, while the tsars tried to cling onto their power?

In this centenary year historians around the world are continuing to debate the causes and significance of the Russian Revolutions. In the post-Soviet Russian Federation, however, commemorations are muted since the Russian government, perhaps understandably, has mixed attitudes to the events of 1917. (See ‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later’, The New York Times, 10 March 2017, by Neil MacFarquhar).

Nevertheless, the head of the Russian TV channel ‘Rain’ has set up the Project 1917 website that uses contemporary letters, diaries, memoirs and other sources to give us an immediate sense of the unfolding drama of the revolutions.

In Britain the Royal Academy of Arts in London is hosting a major exhibition that ‘explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of [Russia’s] groundbreaking art.’

Russia’s revolutionary history can be explored through the resources held in the University Library.  You can find books on the revolution and the Tsar, as well as a collection covering art in the early years of the Soviet Union. Many of the artists featured in the Royal Academy’s exhibition are well represented in the Library’s holdings.

Along with books on the history of the Russian Revolution, the University Library also has a range of DVDs and books on the celebrated Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein.  Eisenstein directed the 1928 silent film October, a dramatisation of the 1917 October revolution.

An original film poster that was released in 1928 and designed
by V. Stenberg, G. Stenberg, Y. Ruklevsky via: Wikipedia

To find material on any of the subjects mentioned, search YorSearch, our Library catalogue.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Velocity Conference Amsterdam

John Cooper reviews the Velocity conference

At the end of last year I attended the Velocity conference in Amsterdam. It was paid for by UCISA as part of their bursary scheme. So, many thanks to them for having the foresight to see the benefit of these types of events.

Velocity is a conference focused around Web Application development and performance. It deals with all aspects of producing fast and efficient web applications. It has a wide audience (in a narrow field if that makes sense). I talked to front end web developers, business app producers and traditional operations folks, from companies large and small.

There seemed to be three main threads to the talks. Technical operations performance, such as server setups, monitoring and configuration. Application level changes, such as progressive web apps and image optimisation. And finally, the softer side of being part of one of those teams, such as diversity in your team, project based teamwork or team motivation. A lot of the talks crossed some of these areas but it felt to me they were the broad sections.

I'm not going to talk much about specific talks here but will try and summarise what I thought where the sub topics.

Progressive web apps

They are everywhere. Nearly all the talks mentioned them in some fashion. It seems these are going to become more and more important over the coming years. While at their most basic they let you scale your website to fit on many device types they are starting to add a lot more to apps in general. There is support for notifications and adding the "app" to the desktop or application menus in the browsers. This means that you can create what feels like a native application using web technologies. We are already seeing people ship applications that are nothing more than a thin wrapper around a web rendering engine. You should be looking at these now. Even if you are not using all the features that they suggest you can already be taking advantage of the boost in performance you get and helping future proof you a bit.


There where a few talks about http/2 the new version of the standard that drives the web. http/2 is out there and supported by all modern browsers now. Talks varied from the W3C proposing new additions to improve performance to people writing servers and studying how browsers interact with http/2. While some of the newer and deeper technical details where overkill for general use it's still good to know how these things work under the hood. Like how a web browser will load as far as the end of the head section in a web page and then build a download map for what to do next. It might switch to download the images and stylesheets first then the rest of the page. You page, site and server can help the browser with these decisions by providing maps and hints. Push is a part of http/2. The server can push some things that it thinks the browser might need next. This leads to servers pushing things that the browser already has cached. So now there is a cache digest that the client can send with the first request so the server knows what the client has cached. While browser support is patchy there is a cacher-digest.js script to fall back on. The upcoming QUIC protocol based on UDP seems interesting as it cuts out a lot of the round trip time (RTT) for a packet to get to a client. These can all add up so by doing more things asynchronously the overall speed can be improved. There are lots of changes in http/2 some of which are easy to get the benefit from and others will only become obvious as app frameworks adapt to these new paradigms. In the meantime it looks like it's about time to turn it on.

Team diversity and development

There where quite a lot of talks about the soft side of the craft. One of the keynotes was themed on how a diverse team is a more productive team and hiring in your own image ends up creating a team that is fixed in its ways. Other talks where about how teams have scaled, switching to smaller mixed teams with cross group knowledge sharing. I think my favourite one though came from a member of the wellness team (what your enterprise might call HR) for the German company who talked about their review process and how that works when you don't have any managers. They essentially get people to volunteer to be reviewers, select the good ones, and then everybody gets to pick who does their review. The opening talk, Word Done vs Work as Imagined, touched on many things but a couple that stood out where about setting metrics and automated alerts vs an human skill and experience. On the first point they used the fact that too many alarms went off on a flight and the pilots had to ignore them and fly using experience. This maybe true to some extent in this instance but it also might point to bad alerting interface. I would recommend that you read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande at some point though for an interesting looks at how sometimes human instincts need some backup. Next up was the measurement, reward and punishment of workers using metrics a firm favourite of the UK Government. I think it still bears repeating that you get out only what the metrics are requiring of people so be careful. If you set a four hour minimum to be seen in A&E then staff, even good ones like doctors and nurses, will bend and break all the other rules to achieve that. Systems are invented to meet the target even if that is a worse way of doing things.

Containers and system reliability

Containers have moved on and are no longer a big topic at conferences I think. I don't know where they are on the hype curve but it seems that the assumption with a lot of the talks was that you where already running them. Topics like Immutable Infrastructure and even Serverless did get a mention now and again. It feels like the technology stack has shifted slightly again. People are concerned with Docker Swarm or Kubernetes for managing applications rather than managing servers specifically. It seems assumed that you will be running on some sort of "cloud" where groups of "servers" come and go. Now we are looking at how to make systems tolerate failure rather than be 100% reliable. Gone are the Dual power supplies and redundant networking being replaced with autosizing clouds and redundant cloud suppliers. Fun times.


Metrics are key to any sort of modern development. They give insight into what is working and what is not. They let you test changes and make sure they are not breaking things in subtle ways. Gathering and processing metrics is hard. We can very simply monitor systems and times but figuring out what is important or what an issue looks like is more tricky. It does not seem that long ago that the #monitoringsucks hashtag was all the rage, closely followed by the slightly more positive #monitoringlove one. At the time Nagios and Cacti where the tool and we struggled to make use of them where we could. Now it feels we are spoilt for choice. There seemed to be two main themes to the talks those talking about how to gather the statistics and those dealing with interpreting them. On the gathering side probably the most interesting for me was the description of the close integration of Kubernetes and Prometheus. These two tools seem to be the very hot at the moment and are starting to change the way we think about our infrastructure. Completing the move from snowflake servers that we nurture and run applications on to 'pods' that house applications that we run on clusters. With this shift in complexity we need new tools to manage this. Kubernetes handles the running and scaling of the applications themselves while Prometheus gives us the eyes into the system. The other side of metrics is interpreting them. I think my favourite talk here was 'How the users see the data'. It gave a whistle stop tour of how to display metrics. A lot of it based on the work of William S Cleveland and his Graphical Perception paper Showing how people read graphs and giving advice on how to display data to get the most meaning. Some examples included "Stacked anything is nearly always a mistake as are pie charts. Use two charts or only show the important data". Or that there is a scale on which people are better are interpreting data that goes from Position on a common scale to shading. So we are much better at recognising values and difference on a scale than we are say angles or direction. There is a lot more to it than that but I feel I learned a lot there. Anomaly detection was also a theme that cropped up, people have differing opinions on what works and what does not but when you are starting to gather large groups of statics. I attended the tutorial on the last day about using some basic AI and stats in python to spot anomalies in your data even if its not regular. While it was interesting it did feel like it needed a lot of manual work to get the best results so you might need to focus on just a few important metrics.

Continuous Security

The concept of Continuous Delivery is well established in the DevOps world. Keeping the software always deploy-able at all times. Security on the other hand is much more of a mixed bag. The tag DevOpsSecBiz was proposed and while the name will probably not take off it does point to a different approach. First things first you have to get a commitment from the project sponsor or manager that security is important. Then you can start to apply all the techniques that you learned from DevOps to add in security. Sit your teams together, all working towards the same goal including security. Don't make it a "security team" problem that you tack on at the end. Start the project with threat modelling, get your developers to buy into this. Then automate the tests, add them to the infrastructure. Start adding tests to your code for security, unit tests that reflect your goals. Start running checkers for bad code smells and practices in the builds. Add in automatic scanners in test and production. Code reviews, OWASP ASVS is a good starting point. I think one of the final points of the talks was interesting a focus on the security team not being off somewhere "handling security" and probing and testing but being part of the teams improving process and culture.


The final day was tutorials. This was a mixed bag. I chose to do a mixture of topics so I would get a taster of each. It was great to learn about optimising images for the web lots of good things in that one. Getting to explore the basic data science allowed me to think about some of the talks from the previous couple of days. The first tutorial was a programming one using eBPF, which is a low level kernel task that is really powerful. I could have spent most of the day playing with that but it seems to be at odds with the worlds of containers and disposable infrastructure. It does highlight how the split is forming, there seem to be now companies that provide large infrastructure and have the need to dig that deep and a move for most companies to consume those container or even functions hosting services. I do wonder how long my role as a generic systems administrator will exist. Where should I aim for next?


The conference felt very large and quite anonymous. I managed to speak to quite a few people over lunch and I think things like the birds of a feather (BOF) tables at lunch helped open people up a bit. As ever with techy conferences though I think this can be an awkward time for a lot of people. It felt a shame that there was not something on after the event. People stood around chatting to their peers or the vendors for a while then went off. I have been to other conferences where that time seems better spent in a group. (Having said that by day three I was shattered!) The packed schedule gave little time to thinking, which may seem weird but as I read through the notes I managed to scratch out in between sessions it seems I could have done with some more time to digest some of this. Not sure there is a sensible solution to that one though.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Using Google Q&A in large teaching sessions

Martin Philip, Academic Liaison Librarian, offers tips on using Google Q&A to add interest and interaction to your teaching presentations

Shared from the Lib-Innovation blog.

I've always been a default Microsoft PowerPoint user, however Google's recently added Q&A feature to their Slides product may have persuaded me otherwise.

PowerPoint still seems to be the most ubiquitous piece of presentation software. It's certainly the one programme that I've spent most of my student and professional life using and the one I'm most comfortable creating slides with.

Nowadays, however, there are many presentation programmes to choose from; Google Slides, Apple's Keynote, Prezi, Canva to name a few. They all essentially do the same thing which is to present your topic and/or ideas, using, texts, graphics, photos and video.

Read more of this post at: Lib-Innovation: Using Google Q&A in large teaching sessions

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Box of Broadcasts is here! Three things to try out with our new film, TV and radio resource

Ned Potter suggests a few ways to use an exciting new resource.

We've added a new subscription to our library collections, and we're delighted by it: say hello to Box of Broadcasts. Known as BoB, this is a service which records free-to-air broadcasts from 65 TV and radio channels (see the full list here), and makes the programmes and films discoverable for educational purposes online. You can watch any of the 2 million+ programmes it contains, dating back to the 90s, on any device, anywhere in the UK.

We've put together a Frequently Asked Questions page, which goes into a bit more detail about how to use it and what it does. But for this blogpost we want to explore some amazing things you can do with BoB.

1. Make playlists 

BoB isn't just a giant vat of films and programmes - it allows you to curate the material to your own ends. So for example we've created a playlist to compare great movie trilogies:

You can check out the trilogies playlist here if you like. You can create your own too, perhaps adding in some more trilogies that BoB has on it (Bourne, Jurassic Park, er, Austin Powers, for example...) - just find any broadcast and click 'Add to playlist'. 

If you need to watch a bunch of films or shows for a particular module, just create a playlist to keep them in one easy to find place. Or if you're the academic running the module, create the playlist and just share the URL with your class, or put each programme on your Resource List for the students to find. 

2. Search programme transcripts 

By default, BoB's search will be looking for your keywords not just in programme titles but in their transcripts. (It's worth going into Search Settings and changing it to 'Title Only' for times when you don't want this to happen.) This opens up a whole new way of studying television and radio, allowing you to keyword-search in an amazing way.

So for example if you type in "Werner Herzog" then of course you get the legendary director's films (including Cave of Forgotten Dreams which some have nominated as the greatest documentary of all time) and his TV documentaries, but you also get TV interviews with him and radio interviews with him, you get films he's acted in like Jack Reacher, you get Alan Yentob's Imagine special on him, you get episodes of Mastermind where he's the specialist subject, you get the time on University Challenge where he was the answer to a question that no one got right, you get the episode of The Simpsons in which he guest starred...  

This ability to search programme transcripts is the equivalent of full-text searching but for multimedia, and surely opens up whole new avenues of scholarship. 

3. Create your own clips 

It is ridiculously easy to create a clip - you just press the button and drag sliders into place to cover the part of the programme you want. 

One of the interesting things about watching programmes on BoB is those on commercial channels have adverts on. Of course you can just skip through them, but if part of your dissertation involves studying advertising or brands, you can create clips of period adverts that are no longer shown. Then you can collect them together in one place, and share them with other BoB users if you wish, or embed them in the VLE or even embed then in a PowerPoint presentation. Head to the BUFVC's site for video tutorials on how to do all these things.  

So, what will you do with Box of Broadcasts? How will it change the way you study at York? 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Bringing hygge to the Library

Joanne Casey on the art of staying cosy...

Hygge has been a buzzword in recent months; as you probably already know it's a Danish word that reflects the idea of making everyday life more enjoyable. For me, and many others, that means being cosy.

Over the years, the temperature in the Library has been a common theme in the feedback we receive from you. Particularly on social media, people often tell us that they're too cold in the Library buildings; sometimes on the same day as other people tell us that they're too hot!

What this makes clear to us is two things; everyone feels the temperature differently, and (even with the heating on) there are definite cold spots in the Library that we can't eradicate - desks by the windows in Morrell are a case in point.

We advise people to wear layers when studying in the Library, and you can take hot drinks into Morrell and Fairhurst, but we spotted an opportunity to add something extra. We now have blankets near the Help Desks in both the University Library and the King's Manor Library. If you're feeling cold, just help yourself to a blanket and return it when you leave.

In addition, we've provided temporary heaters in the King's Manor Library to counteract the chill from the thick stone walls. They'll be there until the weather warms up, and we'll continue to monitor the temperature.

These aren't big changes, but we hope they'll make your time in the Library a happier experience. Remember that your feedback matters to us, and we act on it wherever we can. Find out how you can share your thoughts with us:

Monday, 19 December 2016

Telling the Stories of York

Sarah Griffin writes about how we produced a beautiful book featuring some of the treasures of our collections.

This particular story starts when the previous University Librarian, Stephen Town, asked me if I would prepare a short leaflet that would be image heavy and text light, and would be something that could be handed out to visitors and other people interested in the unique and distinctive collections at the University of York and York Minster Library. I worked with Sarah Slinn and Alexandra Medcalf from the Borthwick team, photographer Paul Shields, and designers Karen Smith and Jessica Stephens; we chose a few gorgeous pictures, wrote a few lines and thought we had completed our task. However once Stephen saw the initial idea he knew that we could go bigger and better and produce something much more substantial.

At first the plan was to produce a "Treasures Book", showing the highlights of the collections. It was certainly no hardship selecting stunning and internationally significant items for this. We decided on a telegram from Ghandi, theatre designs for an Alan Ayckbourn play, a hand coloured edition of the first printed atlas, a child's scrapbook from 1819 and many many more diverting and exciting items.

However as we went through the selection process we gradually realised that something else was going on. I know myself that if I go on a visit or a guided tour, it's always the stories that I remember. Sometimes I have no idea of dates or even the context of what I’ve heard, but the stories around an object stay in my mind and encourage me to go and find out more. That is what we decided to try and capture in the book and, from that moment, Stories of York really began to take shape.

York is full of great stories but our starting point obviously had to be the collections at the Borthwick, Special Collections and York Minster Library. There were some easy choices, arsonist Jonathan Martin was an obvious one as the collection is particularly rich down at the Minster, and we also had some fire boxes in the Raymond Burton collection.

York and chocolate cannot be separated and the Terry's and Rowntree's archives at the Borthwick had so much wonderful material that it was a hard job to decide what not to use. Here's a couple of the ones we reluctantly left out! Leaving things out was probably the hardest part, the book is 100 pages long but could easily have been a 1000.

Interestingly there were also things we were determined to include that in the final cut didn't quite fit. We wanted to tell the stories of the Mount School and the York Musical Festivals. There is wonderful material in the Mount archive and in the Raymond Burton Collection but we couldn't pull out that all important story. However we haven't given up so watch this space for a follow up!

Producing the book, discovering more about the stunning collections at the University and York Minster and being able to share some of their stories was a joy for all of us, and I hope that everyone else will get as much pleasure out of the Stories of York.

Interested in reading more? You can buy your copy of our book online or in person:

Friday, 2 December 2016

Getting to know you

Jackie Knowles, Head of Customer Services, explains how we put our customers (that means you!) at the heart of our developments.

Next summer it will be twenty years since I qualified as an 'Information Professional'. Reflecting back on the years since I landed in the world of libraries I personally have changed enormously, just the usual list of becoming older, (a bit) wiser, finding more grey hairs and wrinkles etc. However, more notably the environment I work in, and libraries themselves, have significantly changed around me along the way. There are the obvious changes; computers have replaced typewriters, furniture is no longer uniformly brown and we've got far more sophisticated electronic resources than the CD-ROMS I used in my first job. But alongside the obvious there are also the more subtle changes that have taken place in our attitudes and ways of working. When I first joined the profession there was a strong focus on staff being 'professionally qualified' librarians and a strong theme was that we, as professional staff, knew best about what to provide for our library users. This wasn't incorrect, and I'm sure plenty of good things were going on in libraries at the time, but today the relationship we have with our customers is much more central to our service planning than the use of our own expertise. Asking our customers what they would like to see us provide, and how, is now paramount to our success.

A watershed project

In 2012 we introduced our Flexible Loans here in the Library and for me personally that was a watershed moment when the penny really dropped that we were able to do things differently and with success. At the time we embarked on the project to design a new way of lending books to our users we threw out the rule book and set about the challenge of designing a loans model which actively sought participation in the design process from our user community.

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."
Ernest Hemingway, Author and Journalist

Listening to our users and feeding their ideas and preferences into our resulting service development became our primary aim. This contrasted starkly with the way things had been done previously when loans review projects had usually been structured around library staff locking themselves away in darkened rooms to complete the work required. The end result of those old style reviews was usually a few minor changes on the loans model - 20p on a fine here, a new loan category there - things that really lacked the impact we wanted to see. But it was "job done, see you again in another few years for the next review".

With Flexible Loans we really changed our approach and as a result I believe we really changed the impact we had. The model has resulted in a much more customer focused method of loaning books, and while it isn't perfect, it works well and ensures that our book stock is working hard and getting circulated to those who need it. Our flexible loans work inspired us to think differently about how we work with library users. Since then we've put the customers at the heart of everything we do and we have seen the same principles used in the loans work be adopted, adapted and taken to new heights across all our areas of activity within Information Services.

A credit to the team

Sitting in the background of this change to the way we worked, both driving and guiding our customer engagement, has been our work on implementing the Customer Service Excellence (CSE) framework and accreditation. To find out more read the story of our accreditation in a previous post of mine. CSE is the tool we have embedded across Information Services to support our desire for continuous improvement. We’ve held the standard for over four years now and we use it to monitor how we are doing when it comes to our customer service skills, as well as our customer focus. It has prompted us to ask ourselves what else can we do to further improve our engagement with our customers. As such is providing the context for some work we are doing this year to explore, formalise and expand our customer engagement strategy.

Writing our engagement strategy

During academic year 2016/17 we are writing up our engagement strategy. We're not even sure we want to call it a strategy at this stage, but we know we want to discuss what customer engagement means to us. We are asking ourselves what we do, why we do it, how we do it and how we might want to measure it. We want to understand the skills and techniques our staff need in order to do customer engagement well. And then we plan to write all that down so we can share our thoughts with each other and our customers. It is worth noting that our definition of customer is quite wide ranging, we apply it not only to the people who come through our doors or request our help but also to each other and colleagues we work alongside across the University - those we call our internal customers.

Grab & Go!

As part of background research for working on our engagement strategy we are doing some customer consultation during November and December and will be asking for the opinions and ideas from our users about a range of initiatives we're working on in Information Services. This consultation will take the form of one of our 'Grab & Go' surveys, a technique where we 'grab' someone to ask if they can spare a few moments to answer a few questions, give them a very short questionnaire to fill out and then let them 'go'.

By doing a high number of grabs and keeping the questions tightly focused we can create efficiencies and gather opinions and ideas on a wide range of topics all at the same time. This year along with the question about how important engagement is to customers and how they would like to us to engage with them, we are asking about new user induction, our Digital Skills Guide, our Customer Charter and the Service Standards we set ourselves.

Tell us more

If you see us out and about doing our Grab & Go please do spare us a few minutes to let us know what you think. Alternatively if you'd like to get in touch to comment on our engagement strategy, or any other area of our work, we have our feedback scheme available or you can email me direct, see box below for further information. So go on, do your bit to help shape and build our services in a way that puts you at the heart of what we do.