Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Pembroke in our time

With this final donation, to bring the total up to 50 books, Stephen Town draws his Night shelf series to a close.


Gilbraith, C., Pembroke in our time, in the University Library at K8.4259 (Quarto)

Photo: Pembroke College library, Cambridge by Douglas Pfeiffer Cardoso.
Used under a Creative Commons License.
This final donation comes as new students have arrived in their Colleges here at York. Few Universities now preserve the tradition of a Collegiate system, but York continues to do so, and this model was originally a conscious emulation of the Oxbridge approach within which I studied. This gift is an acknowledgement of the enduring strengths of that system, and a celebration of the accession of a new Master of Pembroke, my near contemporary and friend Chris (Lord) Smith; a most worthy appointee.

It is also, at last, a book in which I get some mention, and leads me to reflect on what success means. I am pleased that another friend and recent Solicitor General, Sir Oliver Heald, recollects that I and my brother had College undergraduate politics ‘well sewn up’; I recall the astonishment of my contemporaries when I opted for a career in libraries. However, educating Yorkshire has been a family occupation now for a century, and I am content to have played a part in that tradition. I hope you have found this series stimulating, and that some may actually read the gifts. I depart sharing Alcuin’s view: “Oh how sweet life was when we sat quietly midst all these books”.

Photo: Stephen Town with some of his Night Shelf donations
Photo credit: Paul Shields, University photographer


Friday, 25 September 2015

Science; what does it all mean?

For the penultimate post in his Night shelf series, Stephen Town revisits his undergraduate studies to find out how much has changed.



As the new academic year approaches, for the first time in forty-two years I will not be an active participant as it unfolds. I find myself in this situation increasingly drawn to recollection of my undergraduate experience, not in sentimental recollection, but through a continuing desire to learn and think within an academic community. Perhaps a retirement activity will be further study, and probably no better field to return to than the philosophy of science, having spent much of my professional life at the junction of science and humanities.

Lewens, T., The Meaning of Science, in the University Library at R 1 LEW

Lewens, T., The meaning of
Science. Pelican, 2015.
Tim Lewens is a professor in my old department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, so I was pleased to pick up this book to read on a long flight. This is a broad-ranging and relatively accessible introduction to the philosophy of science, delivered in the resurrected Pelican format. It covers a range of contemporary topics, including the currently much argued-over field of genetics, sociobiology and altruism in a chapter entitled “Human kindness”. My main interest was to see whether the fundamentals of the discipline had moved on, and I was both relieved and perhaps a touch disappointed to see that Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend still dominate the field and exercise similar fascination they had for us forty years ago. It was, however, quite sad to read that the current view of Kuhn’s paradigms seems so much weaker than in my day. Perhaps this is a reflection of overuse of the term over the intervening period, rather than an accurate reading of this seminal idea.

Feyerabend, P., The Tyranny of Science, in the University Library at R 1 FEY

Feyerabend, P., The tyranny
of Science. Polity, 2011.
Paul Feyerabend was (and perhaps still is, although now deceased) the enfant terrible of the philosophy of science, attacking rationalist views of science, providing critiques of the scientific method, and proposing that science is an anarchic enterprise. These views were attractive (and not just philosophically) to those of us involved in the student politics of the time, and there was great excitement at the publication of Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975) in the course of my studies. We have almost all of Feyerabend’s work in the library, but I am pleased to be able to fill a gap with one of his last works, written in 1993, but not published in English until 2011. I read this alongside Lewen’s book, and there is certainly a contrast in style, but both seek to challenge myths about science, and establish better understanding of its role and conduct in our age.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

What makes a great University Librarian?

As his Night shelf series begins to draw to a close, Stephen Town reflects on the teachings of other University Librarians in our collections.


As I prepare to relinquish the Statute-defined role of Librarian of this University, I offer two books relating to others who have held this position in other institutions.

Booth, J.,Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, in the University Library at MA 191.9 LAR/B

Booth, J., Philip Larkin: Life, Art, Love.
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
Philip Larkin may be best known as one of Britain’s greatest modern poets, but he was a professional librarian for the majority of his life, becoming University Librarian at Hull in 1955 at the early age of 32. At that time the Library had a mere 11 staff; by his death in 1985 this had grown to 80, with a new library building and transformed collections and services. Having had similar scale work experiences of growth and transformation, I would suggest that this part of his life deserves more respect than from the reviewer who described his life outside poetry as “dull”.

We hold a comprehensive collection of Larkin poetry and biography, but this new book seeks to reconcile Larkin’s life and art, and perhaps provide a more balanced perspective than the reputation derived from his own letters and two previous biographies. Booth was a colleague of Larkin’s at Hull, and this is an enthusiast’s readable combination of personal history and literary biography, and may be best read alongside a volume of Larkin’s poems.


Thompson, J., Redirection in academic library management, in the University Library at 023.5 THO

James Thompson was, like Larkin, appointed to the post of University Librarian at a young age, taking the post at Reading in 1967 when he was 35. I started my professional career just down the road from James in 1978, and his writing has been a foundational influence on my own exploration of library management and performance measurement. He wrote the core text of his era on University Library Administration, which went through four editions. And, after moving to Birmingham, he analysed the history of library performance and advocacy there, to inform the idea of what an academic library should be and do. His evaluation and thoughts are presented here in this 1991 work. The idea of a trajectory of academic library development through collections, via service focus, to educational impact (developed from Lancour’s earlier paper) remains very relevant today, and still underpins the search for proof of library contribution to teaching and research. Unsurprisingly, in this modern age many academic libraries have discarded their copies of what should still be a required text for any new information professional. York failed to buy it at the time of publication, so I now donate a priceless copy, obtained for the absurd sum of 1p.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The books behind the successful management of an academic library

Drawing his Nightshelf series to a close, Stephen Town donates a collection of books on management to the University Library


Probably the best gift I can give to this University on retirement, but maybe the least desired by the recipient, is some wisdom on management. As I work towards completing my PhD by publication submission I am obliged to reflect on over thirty years of personal experience as a departmental head in universities, and to think about the personal influences that have shaped my own leadership and management practice and ideas. This also leads to consideration of what seems missing, not just in this University’s library stock on the subject, but also in the overall management appreciation of the organisation.

Just some of the books I've referenced over my years managing university libraries

Maslow, A., A theory of human motivation

It may be a truism, but if you don’t understand people you cannot manage. Motivation may depend on needs, and Maslow’s idea of a hierarchy of human needs makes him one of the most quoted psychologists of all time. The well-known pyramid diagram of need culminating in self-actualisation has been a feature of my own management understanding and teaching, and no doubt of many others. Maslow himself did not create the pyramid, preferring recognition of the more fluid reality we all inhabit. We do not have a separate version of Maslow’s original paper, so this is the first of this set of eight donations.

Tenner, A. and DeToro, I., Total Quality Management

My first management research was generously funded by Cranfield University in the early 1990s, when the quality revolution was in full swing, and those of us working to improve information services were seeking models applicable to public service contexts. The fundamental three step model I found in Tenner & DeToro’s Total Quality Management (Customer Focus/Systematic improvement/Total Involvement) still forms the basis of the conversations I have with all new staff in the Directorate. Of course it is best now not to use the term TQM any longer, as this appears outmoded, but there are some very basic fundamental ideas and methods here of value to anyone seeking to make this a truly world-class institution.

Zairi, M., Practical Benchmarking, Benchmarking for Best Practice and Measuring Performance for Business results

The research I undertook was the first systematic application of benchmarking in academic libraries, and it was very helpful to draw on Mohamed Zairi’s contemporary work for this, and so I offer three of his texts in this donation. The first two concentrate on benchmarking, and the third on performance measurement, which has become my own speciality. Although these are twenty-year-old texts, they include ideas and methods that each generation tends to rediscover when it wishes to learn or ‘steal shamelessly’ from others through benchmarking and comparative measurement. Universities, despite being places of learning, often seem to have a culture where the experience of other leading institutions is regarded as irrelevant; something I still find surprising.

Margretta, J., Understanding Michael Porter: The essential guide to competition and strategy

Benchmarking is about being competitive, and no University can now pretend that it is not in competition in some way with others. Michael Porter is regarded as being a key thinker in this particular area, but perhaps also sometimes either appearing inconsistent or misunderstood. Hence, I offer as my next donation a text explaining his thought, which I found very useful when creating the University’s current Information Strategy. Joan Magretta’s book also has a chapter on continuity as a key strategic test; something to reflect on in relation to retirement and succession.

Cambridge Handbook, Strategy as Practice

The creation and implementation of successive information strategies across the University has been an interesting experience. Universities are not always very corporate, and even when decisions seem to be made about change, there are many ways in which agreements can be subverted, delayed or ignored. These ‘micro-level social features’ as they are sometimes (euphemistically) termed are the subject of the relatively new field of ‘strategy as practice’, and so the new edition of the Cambridge Handbook of Strategy as Practice seems like a relevant donation as the University seeks to implement a raft of new strategies in the coming years.

Mintzberg, H., Managing

Finally, Henry Mintzberg has been one of the leading critics of strategic planning, but in this more recent work, and donation, Mintzberg goes back to the fundamental substance of what management is. Like Rosemary Stewart before him, Mintzberg believes that management is what managers do, and the way to find that out is to observe them. There is great wisdom in this book which has certainly helped me both understand and practice management better in the last few years. The dedication “to all those who manage with wisdom and respect” is one I can share in the making of this gift.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Inequality: what can be done?

In his latest night shelf donation, Stephen Town delves into the world of economics, politics and inequality.


Atkinson, Inequality: what can be done?, in the University Library at G 9.41 ATK

The University of York has a proud record of research into inequality. Professor Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level had a great impact beyond the academic sphere (you can find it in the University Library at DA 2.1 WIL or on Yorsearch). But, despite being quoted by the Prime Minister, the recent election and its aftermath indicate that few lessons have been learnt either by the electorate or by the political classes, and that there is no real plan in the UK for dealing with the problem.

Find Atkinson's work on Floor 1 of
the JB Morrell 
My latest donation, from distinguished economist, Tony Atkinson, does provide such a plan. Atkinson discusses a comprehensive set of fifteen proposals in five areas: technology, employment, social security, capital sharing and taxation. These suggestions are robustly defended against the sceptical and pessimist arguments currently so prevalent, and offer some hope that there is a method for reversing the present trend.

What is lacking at the moment, to reverse inequality, is both the political will and the courage to offer an intellectual challenge to the absurdities of extremist market theories. Atkinson’s book is a potential start to the latter.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Complete World of The Dead Sea Scrolls

The latest installment from Stephen Town, this night shelf read is a must for anyone interested in religious studies.


Davies P., Brooke G. and Callaway P., The Complete World of The Dead Sea Scrolls, in the University Library at C 21.4 DAV

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran in the late 1940s has been described as ‘the greatest manuscript find of all time’. It regrettably also turned into one of the most shameful academic episodes of all time, with controversy, dispute and obstruction leading to almost fifty years of delay in opening up full access to these remarkable survivals.

The finds include over 900 documents of early versions of the Hebrew Bible, other diverse religious works from the Second Jerusalem Temple period not included in the canon, and previously unknown sectarian works possibly arising from a local religious community around the time of Christ.

The Library has a number of works on the texts, which can be found through Yorsearch, but this donation is a well-produced and colourfully illustrated introduction to the scrolls, their discovery and history, and interpretation.

Friday, 4 September 2015

History of Ireland in 100 objects

In this next installment of his Night Shelf blog, Stephen Town takes a look back at how objects can help tell the story of our past.


O'Toole, F., History of Ireland in 100 Objects, in the University Library at Q 41.5 OTO

Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects started as a broadcast and became a very popular book (in the Library at Q09 MACG). It is a true night shelf book, and I have been reading it to my wife in bed for some time now. Unfortunately not even my inventive mimicry of the voices of the experts commenting on the objects can stop her falling asleep after a few sentences, so it has taken several years to get even half way through the chunky tome.

Fintan O'Toole, History of Ireland in 100 objects. Royal Irish Academy, 2013.
My next donation, however, is a more manageable imitator. The National Museums of Ireland are of a more human scale than the British Museum, and spread their wares across a number of locations across the island. The History of Ireland in 100 Objects does not limit itself to items in the museums either but recognises that some objects are best left in situ.

Also, the proportion of documentary history is greater in this work, with the great libraries of Dublin contributing entries. The illustrations are pleasingly larger than in McGregor’s work, with equal prominence to the text, which is less academic in expression, given that the author is a journalist. The book is Irish in the best possible way: it tells the story of people in Ireland reflected in the beauty of their created artefacts, but it also faces the darker moments of their history, especially in the final two entries. You will need to read the book to learn more.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

On Immunity: an inoculation

In the next edition to his Night shelf donations, Stephen Town tackles the issues around immunisation.


Biss, E., On Immunity, in the University Library at Y 6.079 BIS

I bought this book through having an interest in the immune system; having a wife who is deliberately immunosuppressed, following organ transplantation, creates a significant personal dimension to this field of biology.

Eula Biss is however not intent on covering this angle; her personal stake arises from the dilemma of mothers facing the question of childhood vaccination.

Photo: Protection for life via Compfight.
Used under a CreativeCommons licence 
This dilemma exists mainly in the minds of middle-class US mothers, and it is largely from that perspective that the book is written. Biss draws on her own new mother paranoia in a frank and honest way, and ranges widely across language, science and society, with such imagination and obsessive research that one is surprised in equal measure to the irritation one feels about those who ignore the scientific evidence and withdraw from vaccination programmes, putting everyone at new risk from lack of herd immunity.

Biss discusses this boundary between individual and collective interests in what is a classic digressive essay, with some engaging humour and ‘entangled language’.