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Student Learning Journey project: Diary study in brief…

During Lent Term 2018, as part of our current ‘Student Learning Journey’ project, we conducted a 3-week digital diary study with 36 students at the University of Cambridge. This meant that we could, almost literally, follow students as they went about their studies, a fantastic opportunity which provided an amazing (and slightly intimidatingly large…) amount of data. More on that shortly!

Before starting out on the study the students each attended an in-person briefing session, most often as part of a group. As well as the necessary participation-related admin, the students were given guidance as to when we wanted them to record entries using a mobile app, ‘dScout’, and encouraged to be as reflective as possible over the course of the study. We then conducted a ‘dummy run’ entry with each participant, partly to fully explain and demonstrate the app, partly to make sure the tech was behaving! After this the students were released back into the wilderness of Cambridge academia, and, with very little nudging, set about recording a minimum of 21 diary entries over the next 21 days.


[Above: A slide from the presentation given to participants during the briefing sessions]

Although the initial set up took time, effort and a seemingly unending amount of emails, Doodle polls and meetings, once the study was underway and the data started coming through this all seemed absolutely worthwhile! An *enormous* thank you goes to those of you who went above and beyond in terms of helping with the recruitment. Our participants were undergraduate and taught-postgraduate students from a wide range of programmes of study, with a slant towards the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects. In fact, I’ll list those programmes; please do feel free to skip!:

Chemical Engineering; Clinical Medicine; Computer Science; Conservation Leadership; Education (Undergraduate and PGCE); Energy Technologies; Geography; History; History and Philosophy of Science; Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management; Land Economy; Management Studies; Mathematics; Modern and Medieval Languages; Natural Sciences; Psychology; Public Health and Primary Care; Theology.

So, yes, we had a good mix! And although not all participants were able to complete the study (mainly due to life inevitably getting in the way), 26 of the 36 participants made 21 or more entries and many of the other students also reached 10 or more entries. Again, HUGE amounts of data…

The diary study was constructed so that each entry would take only a couple of minutes for participants to complete. On consecutive screens on a mobile device, students were asked:

– To upload a photo or video of their current study activity (for the first time we actually received a video entry, which was quite exciting!)

– To describe that task in as much detail as possible

– About how that activity was going, or had gone (our guidance during the briefing sessions was very clear that making an entry directly after a supervision, for example, would probably be more sensible than during…) and how the activity was making / had made them feel

– About the areas in which they felt prepared, or less prepared, particularly in terms of the underlying academic skills needed to complete their task

– On a quantitative (unusual for Futurelib, but useful this time around to give each entry context) sliding scale measure, to record how prepared they felt or had felt for the task

– For any other thoughts or reflections (this was, somewhat surprisingly, actually used on quite a few occasions!)

To cut a long story to at least medium-length, this resulted in over 600 individual diary entries, with media content and four or five qualitative (and one quantitative) responses for each… These can handily be (and have been) exported both as PDF documents and as one whopping CSV file. Analysing this data will take a reasonable amount of time, along with the various other forms of data collected via different methods across the course of the project, not least that gathered during the 11 in-depth interviews we conducted with a selected sample of our diary study participants. Although the diary study itself yielded a fantastic amount of data, we wanted to follow up with participants on some of the entries they had made, and were keen to give their entries more context. This was achieved through in-person interviews, each of which lasted for around one hour. This allowed us to find out in much more detail who are participants were. It would take another blog post to summarise the interviews fully, but it’s safe to say that the process was another fascinating dive into the lives of students at the University.

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The findings from the project are yet to take shape, and, as always, will be detailed in a public-facing report which we will promote via this blog in the future. However, it seems appropriate at this stage to mention some of the interesting things we came across during the diary study, so here goes:

– It was highlighted in a way that it hasn’t been before for us that Cambridge students are increasingly mobile, using a wide variety of media and mobile-friendly options to support their studies. This was almost immediately visible through the number of screenshots we received of podcasts, Twitter feeds, videos and apps.

– Many students struggle with a conflict between ‘being a good Cambridge student’ and ‘learning how to be a researcher’. I’m sure there will be more on this one in the final report for the project… During our diary study this phenomenon had a noticeable effect on how students prioritised their time, reading, information, study events and activities.

– Students are often looking for quick, ‘in the moment’ solutions. This was particularly the case for many of our taught-postgraduate student participants, who turned to YouTube and similar sources for help with their current task, for example a specific data modelling process.

– On a lot of occasions students contextualised their study and research skills. These skills were not seen as individual and transferrable but instead as inextricably linked to the student’s current assignment or task. An example would be the difference between ‘getting better at report writing’ and ‘learning how to write *this* report well’.

– Students in the Natural Sciences are often using waterproof field-note books. We found that students were keen to digitise these but struggled to do so, due to the nature of the material. I have since been informed by a member of the project team that some Cambridge libraries have purchased overhead scanners purely for this purpose!

There were far too many interesting things to list in this post, and I look forward to updating you all in much more detail over the coming weeks and months. In order to do the data justice the analysis will take time, but I am confident that the results will be rich and useful.

I’ll be back here with more as soon as possible!



David Marshall

Futurelib Programme


Student Learning Journey project moves forward

Over the past two months the Futurelib Programme has been hard at work conducting the first phase of its Student Learning Journey project, focusing on the experiences of undergraduate and taught-postgraduate students at the University of Cambridge. Intentionally open and exploratory, the initial stages of the project have provided a valuable opportunity to work with students, with no ‘agenda’ or specific research question, besides finding out as much as possible about who our students are, their goals, motivations, lifestyles, attitudes and approaches to studying at the University.

It has been fascinating talking to and working with students at different stages of their studies, exploring how the Cambridge experience changes for people over time, as they develop both academically and personally. We have been working closely with Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), in order to ensure that we are reaching student groups which could otherwise be under-represented. So far this has resulted in a workshop conducted with BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students, and we hope to conduct another workshop with students who have identified as having a disability.

We have learnt a lot about how students study, learn and collaborate, between supervision, lecture, lab and library doors. Working with students during Michaelmas Term has provided a valuable picture of the experiences students have transitioning to degree-level, or masters degree-level study: the areas in which they are confident or feel in need of development; the messages they receive early on; the ways in which they feel they have to adapt in order to succeed at Cambridge and the relationships they establish.

SLJ analysis

[Above: theming the project data and first thoughts around next steps for the project]

An initial analysis of the data gathered so far has highlighted a number of key themes, including: the importance students place on relationships with peers, academic staff, ‘senior’ students and students from other disciplines; an emphasis on planning, time management and maintaining, or trying to maintain, a healthy work-life balance; approaches to and experiences of digital tools and environments; and student impressions of the various ways in which they are taught, and learn, at Cambridge. This has resulted in some (still tentative) ideas, in terms of areas which could be further explored through more in-depth research and areas in which Cambridge libraries could potentially contribute more fully to the student learning experience.

The project team will be meeting over the next few days, putting more shape around how the research work is taken forward next Term; which methods are used and how these are used to further explore student experiences, needs and behaviours. Although plans are already in place to an extent, the data and insights from the first stages of the project will directly inform how we talk to and work with students over the remainder of the project. There will be an emphasis on supplementing the attitudinal data gathered so far with behavioural data; alongside finding out how our students think and feel, it is essential that this is supported by what they actually do.

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A key focus during the second stage of the project will be on student experiences of teaching and training. The findings of this work will feed directly into a longer-term piece of work led by Libby Tilley, School Librarian for Arts and Humanities, which aims to establish a Teaching Framework for Cambridge Libraries.

The project so far has felt incredibly positive and proactive; there is no ‘problem’ to solve here, no specific question to answer, instead, an exciting opportunity to learn more about the people that our services support. Watch this space, we’ll be back with more updates as the project continues!




iDiscover: Examining the user experience

Between June and August 2017, the Futurelib Programme conducted an in-depth user experience study of iDiscover, the University of Cambridge interface for the Ex Libris Primo Discovery and Delivery Service. There was a focus on observing people using iDiscover, as well as talking to students and staff at the University about their experiences using the platform, and the other tools they used to search for information resources.

Research conducted over the course of the project led to valuable insights about the ways in which people understand, interpret and approach online information resource platforms. It provided us with a user-centred evidence base to inform recommendations for improvements to the iDiscover user interface. We believe that our findings will be of interest to institutions considering implementation of Primo and other similar discovery systems.

The report linked below outlines the research, analysis, findings, and outputs of the project:

Download the Futurelib iDiscover project final report

Download the Futurelib iDiscover project executive summary


iDiscover UX: project update

Since the last post here about this project things have moved along significantly, so it seemed like a good time for a quick update on the progress. Over the last six weeks or so, the research has amassed an enormous amount of data which has given us some real insights and opportunities to improve the iDiscover user experience.

As always, the project has taught us much more than just how the platform itself is used. We’ve learnt a lot about the lives of students and staff at the University, including (but by no means limited to) their approach to and use of digital and physical ‘library’ spaces.

iDiscover is undeniably an important tool, which has a significant role to play in the work that members of the University are conducting every day. It is, however, one of many tools that people use. A large focus of the project has been working towards finding out exactly where iDiscover fits in the approaches people have to searching for and interacting with sources of information and data. This knowledge is invaluable as it gives us an opportunity to focus efforts and resources on improving the aspects of the system that people value the most, to hone in on and prioritise what is (forgive the management speak) its USP, or Ps.

Futurelib HQ

[Analysis work (colourful as always) in progress at Futurelib HQ]

To the eagle-eyed amongst you: peeking out from the corner of the photo above are the four personas arrived at based on the project research data. More information about personas can be found at the link below, but to give a brief explanation of how they work: personas are fictional characters who represent people who use a product or service. Created based on evidence gained through work with real users, personas provide an opportunity to focus design and development. They are a constant reminder of who a website or other service is being developed for.

In addition to uncovering these wider insights about our users, a great deal of time has been spent concentrating on the ‘nitty gritty’, i.e. recording in detail which aspects of the iDiscover interface are used, how and when people are using them in their search processes and the extent to which they are, or are not, intuitively understood. Icons and buttons, terminology and links: finding out what does and doesn’t make sense to the people using iDiscover has been a fascinating experience in and of itself. This is the stuff that has the potential to have an influence on the evaluation and re-configuration of the platform; we have the opportunity to tailor aspects of the interface to better suit the preferences and behaviours of our users.

Natalie observation

[Above: Natalie Kent conducts an observation session with a PhD student using iDiscover]

Alongside the Futurelib project, there has been a large amount of effort, by the Digital Services team in the University Library, dedicated to improving the overall iDiscover user experience. The interface is an important part of this, but a lot of what the platform relies on to be successful is the way in which it interacts with and relates to the underlying metadata and its (complicated) retrieval mechanics and algorithms. Serious, concentrated work is being done in these areas and without giving too much away, if you’re working in a Cambridge library you should see real changes to iDiscover in the coming weeks and months, which we hope will result in significant improvements for your users.

Back on the Futurelib side of things, there is still work to do on analysing the data gathered during the project, with the aim of producing a number of outputs:

  • Recommendations to inform re-configuration and development of the iDiscover user interface.
  • Documentation to send to Ex Libris (the supplier of the discovery system Primo, branded iDiscover in the Cambridge instance), i.e. an evidence-based account of current experiences of the underlying Primo platform in Cambridge.
  • Educational tools which can be used when communicating with users of the iDiscover platform.
  • A full public-facing project report, outlining the research methodology and narrative, the analysis process (including the personas mentioned above) and the outcomes and outputs.

Watch this space!









Intraloan: Examining access to printed library resources in Cambridge

Between December 2016 and May 2017 the Futurelib Programme conducted an in-depth user research study looking into current experiences at the University of Cambridge, specifically related to accessing printed, physical library content.

The project started with an initial scoping phase: interviews, workshops with students and short email questionnaires circulated to Cambridge academics provided a qualitative, attitudinal dataset which informed the following stages of the project, as well as the resulting findings and suggestions for service design. Experiences and opinions were varied, but the key realisation at this point was the high level of importance that members of the University at all levels placed on their ability to access printed books and journals.


[Above: A brainstorming session with students during the scoping phase of the project]

This work had given us a lot of data and provided us with some real insights, but it was necessary that this was supplemented with behavioural evidence. This was achieved primarily by piloting services in order to measure their use and value. One service trialled meant that users of three Cambridge libraries could order books from the main University Library (UL) for collection at the issue point of their ‘home’ library. Another pilot service which provided invaluable data for the project was a book drop box on the Sidgwick Site, allowing members of many libraries on the site to return books to one central point.

Although we all understand that the future of libraries in the higher education sector is changing rapidly, this project provided us with a valuable opportunity to focus on an aspect of our services which is still hugely important to a large proportion of our users, namely, how they get hold of their books!

The full project report below covers the research methodologies and narrative, analysis, the project findings and suggestions for service design.

Download the Intraloan project final report

Download the Intraloan project executive summary

iDiscover UX project underway!

Over the last two years the Futurelib Programme has been involved in a number of intensive research projects, many of which have focused on the design of physical library spaces and other related aspects of library services. It seems natural to be returning to the digital side of things, this time round not focusing on designing a new website, but on evaluating and improving an existing platform, ‘iDiscover’, the University of Cambridge’s user interface for the Ex Libris Primo Discovery and Delivery service. iDiscover has now been in use in Cambridge for around a year and this project provides a real opportunity to conduct an in-depth exploration of how people are using the service.

The Futurelib Programme, with the help of a project team made up of library staff from across the University, will be conducting a series of in-depth interview and observation sessions with people using iDiscover. We will be finding out more about who our users are, what they expect from the platform and how they approach and navigate the user interface. This will provide valuable information to inform local design, to feed in to continued user education and to report back to Ex Libris.

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[Above: Beth Sherwood from the English Faculty Library conducting an observation with an academic using iDiscover]

The methodology for the project will be centred around observation and interviews. We will also be conducting workshops with students and gathering feedback in other ways, such as through the use of short questionnaires and comment cards. One thing which is key to the success of the project is working with members of the University at all levels and in both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) and AHSS (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) disciplines. To this end, the project team includes representatives from 3 STEM libraries, 2 AHSS libraries, 2 college libraries and 1 member of staff from the main University Library (UL).

So far observation sessions and interviews have been conducted in various University buildings and departments. A conscious effort has been made to work with users in and outside of library spaces, in order to build as complete as possible a picture of how people are using the iDiscover platform in different situations and to complete different tasks. It is early days for the project but some interesting themes are already emerging; commonalities across users of the platform in terms of approach and interpretation suggest that there may be some real opportunities to improve the overall user experience.

In other news, the project report for the recent Intraloan project (examining current experiences related to the use of printed library resources in Cambridge) will be available soon. I’m also very proud to share that Futurelib was included in the documentation submitted by the University of Cambridge as part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment process. It’s fantastic to get this recognition for the work we continue to do to improve the experience of Cambridge libraries for students and other library users. If interested, the submission itself can be read here, with Futurelib featuring in the section on Cambridge libraries at page 7:

So all in all, exciting things afoot!



Re-imagining library spaces at the University of Cambridge

Starting in September 2016, Futurelib embarked on an intensive period of research into the use of library spaces at the University of Cambridge, with the intention of finding out what might be needed to support current and future user needs and behaviours. This work supplemented the Protolib project (November 2015 to April 2016), which had taught us about different types of library space required by our users and how these could be designed effectively. During our more recent research there were two main goals: to find out what ratios and networks of these spaces might be needed in different areas of the University, and to investigate how to assist users once inside those spaces. Methods included an extensive digital diary study, in-depth interviews, observations conducted in library spaces and digital eyetracking research with users.

Analysis of the data gathered during this research led to fascinating insights about current library user behaviour in Cambridge. The observations and findings from the first Protolib project were an integral part of this and were considered and incorporated throughout the process.

On reflection it became clear that this work consisted of two distinct avenues of research and design, which is demonstrated by the project documentation. Two full reports can be found below; the Protolib II project document focuses on macro-level space design and site level planning, while the Tracker project document concentrates on micro-level issues, specifically the user-centred research and design of signage and other navigational tools.

Download the Protolib II project final report

Download the Tracker project final report

Download the Protolib II project executive summary

Download the Tracker project executive summary

Intraloan project: The story so far…

It seems a long time ago now that we met with Cambridge library staff at Wolfson College to talk about this project, putting heads together to come up with a (incredibly useful) SWOT analysis and discussing what would happen next. Since then we have:

  • Heard from over 50 academics around the University about their experiences of library services related to print material
  • Conducted interviews and workshops with students at Homerton, Girton, Lucy Cavendish and Murray Edwards colleges
  • Witnessed the rise to fame of the Sidgwick book drop (dubbed ‘Sidgbox’ and now with well over 100 followers on Twitter!), collecting usage statistics and feedback and interviewing people about their use of [it/her/him?]
  • Conducted a 4 week pilot book delivery service from the main University Library to the Education and AMES faculty libraries and Pembroke College Library, delivering over 200 volumes and finding out a huge amount about our users in the process
  • Worked with staff from the libraries involved in the pilot, starting to analyse the large amount of data that has been gathered
  • Spent time thinking and talking about which University members might benefit most from any more fully implemented services and also about how these services might operate


[Above: Analysing pilot book delivery service with staff from participating libraries]

So (I hear you asking…) what’s next?

Some very interesting findings have already emerged. We’ve learnt a lot about how print material is currently used at Cambridge; where, when, how and by whom. We’ve also come to realise more and more that there are currently a number of issues around access to this material; this has identified many opportunities for us to better support the needs of our users. In short, it’s a much more complicated picture than the question of  simply whether an item can be delivered to someone or not.

We’re now looking at opportunities for further piloting and scaling up the services which have been successful.

The Sidgwick book drop has been very useful; giving students and other library users new options in terms of when and how they return books. The qualitative and quantitative data gathered is starting to suggest that it may be helping both librarians and library users (win – win!) by helping people to avoid fines and helping material back into circulation more quickly. Very few problems have been encountered along the way. Consideration is being given to whether installing more book drop-off points around the University might be valuable.

sidgbox tweet2

The book delivery pilot service saw very good levels of traffic and raised a lot of important considerations. The service model used for the pilot was labour-intensive and demanded a lot of time from library staff; it is clear that a more fully implemented service offered across more libraries in Cambridge would require a lot of thought in terms of which service aspects could be automated and streamlined. This, however, would have to be weighed up against the value brought by the involvement of professional library staff in the process, in terms of opportunities for collection development and for increased communication and engagement with library users. Other questions were raised around which members of the University would benefit from this type of service the most, with individuals’ existing schedules and commitments playing a large part in how, when, where and to what extent they are currently able to access print resources.

It really has been a fascinating few months! I look forward to keeping you updated with any more developments as they happen.

David Marshall

Futurelib Programme


Header Image: ‘Deliveries’ by Sean T Evans, via Flickr CC –




Intra-library loans pilot service starts today!

The Futurelib programme is currently involved in an exciting new project, ‘Intraloan’, which is looking into the current use of circulating library material at the University of Cambridge. The project is investigating various aspects of the use of printed material, focusing on what is used when, where and by who, and how related library services fit into and affect the wider lives of our users.

So far the project has had a largely attitudinal emphasis and has employed a number of different research methods:

  • Email and face-to-face conversations with Cambridge University academics, leading to a large and varied amount of feedback
  • Activity based workshops conducted with students, at colleges both in and outside of the city centre
  • Interviews with library users about their current use of printed books and journals., and their experiences of related library services
  • Conversations with representatives of other academic institutions, focusing on existing services related to the movement of circulating library material
  • Examination of existing services at the University of Cambridge

As always with Futurelib research it is important that we do not stop at the feedback gathering stage. Although we must always talk to our users about their views on our services and their suggestions for improvement, it is also crucial to gain an understanding of what they actually do, and how library services fit into their working lives. With that in mind we have now started to gather behavioural data to complement the invaluable insights we have gained during the initial stages of the project. This has again involved a number of methods:

  • Capturing data from the trial book drop box on the Sidgwick site (read more here)
  • Increasing the promotion of existing services in order to measure any changes in usage (an example is a service where users of the Engineering Department Library can order material from the Betty and Gordon Moore Library to the Engineering Library, and vice versa)
  • A digital diary study with students from across the University, focusing on their use of services relating to print material and how this fits into their schedules
  • A trial intra-library loans pilot service, which offers members of the Education Faculty and the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, along with academics of Pembroke College the opportunity to order borrowable items from the main University Library to their faculty or College library

This trial, conducted over four weeks during full Lent Term, will hopefully provide some important information about whether similar services may be feasible at the University in the future. We will find out who uses the service, what material they request, when they use the service the most, and so on. Importantly we are not just interested in the numbers, we are also keen to talk to users at every step of the way about their experiences of the pilot service, and how (if at all) it changes their approach to their work or studies.

This is a fascinating project which could have very positive implications in terms of what we can uncover about library user behaviour and need in Cambridge, and also in terms of increased collaboration across Cambridge libraries. I look forward to keeping you updated with how it progresses.

David Marshall

Futurelib Programme

Header image: Jonas Tana – ‘Delivery’ (cropped). Flickr CC –

Through the eyes of our users

Student: “What? So I wear these glasses and just do what I’d usually do?”
Me: “Yes. And remember this is not a test of you but a test of the library you’re in.”
Student: “I think you should have chosen someone else, I’m rubbish at libraries!”

So started the majority of the eyetracking experiments, which took place across Cambridge last week as part of our new ‘Tracker’ project. Interestingly, when library signage or layouts failed them, with very few exceptions most students proceeded to identify themselves as the weak link in the chain, often citing an absence of secret and vital library knowledge.


Languages student James White looking for a book while wearing the eyetrackers. This image sums up the experience of many confused and lost library users.

A selection of representative responses from students:

  • “I don’t understand it. It should be here. Right here!”
  • “Either the book is out, somebody’s using it, or I’m a moron!”
  • “Perhaps if I had a scrap of prior knowledge…”
  • “I should be good at this, my father’s a librarian.”

The libraries we were testing were not ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination, it was simply that we had underestimated just how complicated students found them to be. This was especially true when they were looking for books: we now have strong evidence which proves that classmarks baffle students hugely and are a very real barrier to locating books. One student memorably stated loudly, once he’d retrieved a classmark from the catalogue, “Well that means jack all to me!”  

The catalogue itself – Ex Libris’s Primo (going under the nom de plume of iDiscover in Cambridge), also presented problems; we had to remind ourselves that we were not conducting a usability test on that platform at this time. However the biggest problem with the catalogue was not the interface nor its functionality, but the fact that in some libraries people were just too scared to use it and had to be coaxed into trying it out. When they did, the experience was far less painful than they had feared.


James White finding books in the MML Library using iDiscover. MML students were actually very au fait with the library catalogue and it was their first port of call. Elsewhere students first instinct was to browse the shelves by subject.

At the labyrinthine University Library we were surprised to discover that the layout of the building itself was not actually a problem for users. Although the size of the Library was definitely offputting and we noted more users working in pairs in order to successfully traverse it, in most instances they found their way to the correct rooms without much difficulty. Finding the actual books in said rooms however, was another matter entirely. Here a whole new world of complexity was laid out before them: books shelved by size with letter codes, periodicals located next to books, and parts of classmarks that even I didn’t understand until we had completed the first round of eyetracking.


English student Lucy McGeachin succeeds in finding a book in the University Library. Many of the students who took part in the experiment obviously felt a great sense of achievement when they found the books they were looking for.

At this stage in the process we have not analysed the eyetracking data in detail. Instead we are currently focusing on preliminary findings derived from observing the behaviour and actions of the students at close range while they were wearing the glasses. Already we feel we have learnt a great deal. The next step is to return to the libraries in question, to see if the physical interventions we have designed will make a difference to the search tasks.


Frederik Laurson explains his search process in the UL to Modern Human researcher Jenny Willatt.

The process has been utterly fascinating, especially as it promises to take our observation of user behaviour to a whole new level. Through this project we will not only be observing our users, but actually seeing what they see, where their eyes rest, their means of navigation, and how they make sense of the library environments they use.


The Tracker project is part of Cambridge University Library’s Futurelib Innovation Programme and is run by Andy Priestner. Tracker is a collaboration with design consultancy Modern Human.

Photos: Thanks to Frederik Laurson, Lucy McGeachin and James White for giving permission to use the above photos taken by Andy Priestner
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