Women’s Institute say ‘Save our libraries!’

Annie Mauger's address in Wordle form (c/o wordle.net)

I’m a little late to the party, but there was some very welcome good news this week for supporters of public libraries.  And also, I might add, if you have been keen to see CILIP become more vocal in advocating for public libraries.  Yes, the WI voted at their recent AGM to throw their very considerable weight behind the campaign to save libraries.  What a fantastic organisation to have on your side in a scrap.  If anything should put the fear of whatever into Vaizey and co it should be the sight of the WI joining the fight against a policy of library closures that the DCMS is stealthily supporting (maybe not so stealthily).  And as for the level of support from the WI, well:

That says it all really doesn’t it?  Local campaigns across the country deserve a huge amount of credit for working with the WI and raising awareness of this issue.  Without them, this resolution would never have passed.

As you can see above, I created a little Wordle using the text of Annie Mauger’s address in support of the resolution.  My favourite thing about the Wordle?  The fact that across the middle are the words ‘library’, ‘help’ and ‘people’.  Sure, it’s not entirely grammatically correct, but it is a nice little reminder.

In terms of the role of CILIP, I am pleased that Annie presented the case at the AGM.  One of the reasons I was reluctant to join the organisation was its lack of visibility and failure to really make themselves heard in the media.  Whilst we are still some way off CILIP dominating the media coverage of libraries (a recent edition of Newsnight again looked outside the profession for a defence of libraries), there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of coverage CILIP has received.  This has got to be a good thing.

So, having decided to give CILIP membership a trial run, what is my initial assessment on the direction in which it is heading?  Well, I am very encouraged.  Continue to engage at all times with the media and national organisations such as the WI, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t continue to pay my sub come next April.  Although April is a long way off so let’s not jump to any conclusions just yet!

Net neutrality and public libraries

Information is Free. But for how long?

Towards the end of last year, Ed Vaizey addressed a telecommunications conference in London organised by the Financial Times.   In his address, he pointedly failed to give his support for ‘net neutrality’.  In fact, although he has denied it, it would appear that he supports scrapping it altogether.  In a section of the speech on ‘net neutrality’, Vaizey commented:

“Consumers should always have the ability to access any legal content or service. Content and service providers should have the ability to innovate and, most importantly, to reach end users … This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”

The Guardian goes on to state:

The comments sparked a furore as his words were seen as allowing a two-tier internet in which companies would have to pay to get their content to arrive in timely fashion – a complaint that Erik Huggers of the BBC made last month over the corporation’s iPlayer catchup service.

There’s a phrase that should strike fear in any information professional: “two-tier internet”.  ‘Two-tier’ inevitably means unequal and, consequently, entrenching a divide those that can access the top tier and those that can’t.  But before going any further, what is ‘net neutrality’?

Tim Berners-Lee describes ‘net neutrality’ as follows:

Net neutrality is this:

If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.That’s all. Its up to the ISPs to make sure they interoperate so that that happens.

Net Neutrality is NOT asking for the internet for free.

Net Neutrality is NOT saying that one shouldn’t pay more money for high quality of service. We always have, and we always will.

Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.) There is a very strong short-term incentive for a company to grab control of TV distribution over the Internet even though it is against the long-term interests of the industry.

Let’s see whether the United States is capable as acting according to its important values, or whether it is, as so many people are saying, run by the misguided short-term interested of large corporations.

As Berners-Lee suggests, abandoning ‘net neutrality’ could lead to very real dangers in terms of the control of information.  At present the flow of information is neither controlled by the state (as it is in China) or by corporate interests.  The removal of ‘net neutrality’ would change this, leading to corporations controlling access to information – a worrying prospect.

Over in the US, the debate over net neutrality has been waging for some time. Democratic Senator Al Franken has been particularly vocal in defending the principles of neutrality.  As one US blogger puts it:

Net neutrality is, of course, the exact opposite of the freedom-trampling “government takeover” as it is tarred by opponents in the capital. Net neutrality is internet freedom, not its adversary. The doctrine is designed to protect consumers’ rights to access information that is unfiltered and unrestricted by telecommunications companies that stand to profit from what could constitute, come to think of it, a “corporate takeover of the internet”.

“The only freedom they are providing for,” Democratic Senator Al Franken and several colleagues snapped back at Republicans in a recent letter, “is the freedom of telephone and cable companies to determine the future of the internet, where you can go on it, what you can attach to it, and which services will win or lose on it.”

The removal of ‘net neutrality’ could do very real damage to both the Internet as we know it today and seriously impact on the consumer’s ability to access information.  If ISPs are able to discriminate the flow of content there could be very serious consequences and it would undoubtedly be, as the ALA recently put it, ‘a severe violation of intellectual freedom’. Take these examples from The Nation:

Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if major political advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so that ads from Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible and user-friendly than ads of third-party candidates with less funds. Consider what would happen if an online advertisement promoting nuclear power prominently popped up on a cable broadband page, while a competing message from an environmental group was relegated to the margins. It is possible that all forms of civic and noncommercial online programming would be pushed to the end of a commercial digital queue.

This is an even greater consideration in the UK where there are three main political parties and a number of smaller parties that are growing in popularity.  How would the Greens and UKIP, for example, be able to compete if ISPs discriminate against them and in favour of the main political parties?  And if they are able to discriminate, how will we be able to ensure that the consumer receives a range of information rather than just that which is ‘approved’ by the ISP?

As I mentioned above, the effect of a ‘two-tier’ Internet should have very real concerns for all information professionals.  The ALA made their concerns clear in 2006:

First, Network Neutrality is an intellectual freedom issue. The ALA defines intellectual freedom as the right of all people to seek and receive information from all points of view, without restriction. Unfortunately, there is no law that protects intellectual freedom on the Internet today. Internet service providers (such as the cable and telephone companies) have the ability to block or degrade information or services travelling over their networks. If these companies discriminate against certain kinds of information based on the content of the message being delivered, this would represent a severe violation of intellectual freedom.

Second, Network Neutrality is a competition issue. Libraries in the digital age are providers of online information of all kinds. Among hundreds of examples, public libraries are developing online local history resources, and academic libraries allow the online public to explore some of their rarest treasures. Libraries, as trusted providers of free public access to information, should not compete for priority with for-profit history or literature Web sites that might be able to afford to strike deals with service providers. This makes the Network Neutrality debate not only a matter of philosophy and values for librarians, but also of livelihood.

Couple this with some local authorities’ eagerness to close public libraries, and it is clear there are problems ahead.  One of the arguments against the need for a network of public libraries is that we ‘all’ have access to the Internet (of course we don’t but that doesn’t fit the narrative).  This is all well and good at present, but with ‘net neutrality’ under attack and an increasing amount of content being locked behind paywalls, it won’t be long before we find that the Internet as we know it is but a distant memory.

This is, again, yet another reason why libraries and information professionals are so important.  Librarians do not (or at least should not) discriminate on the information they provide their users.  If, for example, a customer visited the library and requested a book on ‘Islamic terrorism’ a librarian would (provided both texts are available of course!) lead you to a copy of both ‘Al Qaeda‘ by Jason Burke and ‘Londonistan‘ by Melanie Phillips and allow the user to decide which one is appropriate for them (the former hopefully!).  It may seem insignificant, but if the information professional was to behave as an ISP ‘unburdened’ by ‘net neutrality’, you would be presented with one or the other, potentially without even being aware that the other was available.  Imagine an information space where access to information was subject to vested interests.  Librarians do not have vested interests, they simply point you to a range of information resources and allow you to decide which is suitable.

Imagine, for a moment, that there are no public libraries and net neutrality is a thing of the past.  Imagine what the implications are for access to information.  Imagine the impact that this would have on our democracy.  Imagine the impact that this would have on society and how it would reinforce the gap between the richest and the poorest.  Sure, you may not think libraries are that important when you have the whole of the world-wide web at your finger tips.  But once paywalls are common place and ISPs are able to discriminate content, you may just realise what you’ve lost.  And don’t be fooled into thinking this is a far-fetched fantasy.  We are only a short step away from this eventuality.  Information has been commodified, once there is money to be made it won’t remain free and open for long.

KPMG – The driving force behind library closures?

Last June, a report by the accountancy firm KPMG was published on public sector reform.  That report caused uproar amongst librarians and library staff across the country as it claimed that:

“…giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock”.

Since then, perhaps unsurprisingly, talk has grown of so-called ‘community libraries’ or ‘unfunded libraries’ if you prefer.  It is fairly clear that the report has been wholeheartedly embraced by the current government.  In fact, it is hard to see the difference between the policies being adopted in authorities across the country and the paragraph above from their report.  It is certainly not difficult to imagine that central government is advising local authorities to take heed of this report and implement its recommendations. Particularly given the links between this government and KPMG.

A report back in July 2009 in The Independent claimed that:

KPMG, which also holds many public sector contracts, gave the [Conservatives] donations-in-kind worth more than £100,000 since the start of last year. A single KPMG consultant working in the Department for Children, Schools and Families costs the taxpayer £1.35m over three years, a parliamentary inquiry found. The company said it donated to all three main parties and had done so for many years. However, its gifts to the Tories were up in value from £17,200 in 2007 to £74,500 last year.

Furthermore, The Times reported that:

The Conservatives have received hundreds of thousands of pounds of free accounting advice as they prepare for government, raising accusations that they are too close to contacts in the City of London.

Britain’s biggest consultancy firms — which include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG — have seconded some of their staff to Tory MPs as the Conservatives attempt to work out how to cut Britain’s £178 billion budget deficit and decide on a new tax framework.

They certainly appear to be quite close (although it is worth pointing out that KPMG had close ties with the previous government too).  Indeed a recent meeting at the Houses of Parliament suggest that KPMG’s recommendations are being taken very  seriously by this government.

On January 25th this year, a round-table discussion was held in a private room hosted by Ed Vaizey. The discussion (entitled “Libraries and the Big Society”) had the following items on the agenda:

  • Models for community libraries
  • Volunteering
  • Asset transfer
  • Philanthropy
  • Libraries role in empowering communities
  • Alternative suppliers for delivery including Mutuals and Outsourcing
  • Future Libraries Programme

You can actually read the full agenda here.  I recently submitted a Freedom of Information request for the minutes for this meeting which was rejected by the DCMS.  They weighed up the pros and cons as follows:

Public interest considerations in favour of disclosure

  • Public Libraries have potential impact on everyone and the greater the public interest may be in the decision-making process being transparent
  • Greater transparency makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust
  • As knowledge of the way government works increases, the public contribution to the policy making process could become more effective and broadly-based, particularly in this area where communities are being encourage to be involved in local services such as this
  • The public interest in being able to assess the quality of advice being given to ministers and subsequent decision making

Public interest considerations in favour of non-disclosure

  • The withheld information relates to the future guidance relating to libraries, which is not yet complete and subject to change.  Releasing may misinform public debate because we have not finalized our proposals.  The evolving nature of the information means that incorrect conclusions may be drawn, and undermine the policy formulation process. 
  • Ministers and officials need to be able to conduct rigorous and candid risk assessments of their policies, including considerations of the pros and cons without there being premature disclosure, particularly regarding contentious issues, which might close off better options
  • Good government depends on good decision making and this needs to be based on the best advice available and a full consideration of all the options without fear of premature disclosure
  • The impartiality of the civil service might be undermined if advice was routinely made public as there is a risk that officials could come under political pressure not to challenge ideas in the formulation of policy, thus leading to poorer decision-making
  • Advice should be broad based and there may be a deterrent effect on external experts or stakeholders who might be reluctant to provide advice because it might be disclosed
  • There needs to be a free space in which it is possible to ‘think the unthinkable’ and use imagination, without the fear that policy proposals will be held up to ridicule
  • Disclosure of interdepartmental consideration and communications between ministers may undermine the collective responsibility of the government.  Unless these considerations are protected there is likely to be a negative effect on the conduct of good government. If the public interests outlined above cannot be protected, there is a risk that decision making will become poorer and will be recorded inadequately.

Quite why public interest doesn’t trump the concerns of the DCMS in this case I am not really sure.  I shall, of course, be appealing this decision.

It seems fairly evident where this policy of unfunded libraries originates.  Whilst the government refuse to step in when local authorities engage in disproportionate cuts (unless it is in the Prime Minister’s backyard of course), it is also seemingly advising councils to make libraries a central part of the “Big Society” experiment.  This certainly seems to be reinforced by the appointment of Paul Kirby as No. 10’s new head of policy development.  According to The Guardian:

Kirby, who was appointed by Cameron on Friday, is one of the main minds behind a public service reform white paper due in the next fortnight, which the prime minister has hailed as the biggest revolution in the public sector since the 1940s.

He claims it will end a “state monopoly” of public sector services by opening contracts to outside providers.

Kirby set out his blueprint for reform in Payment for success, a paper written last year while he was at professional services company KPMG. He claims an aggressive programme of liberalisation is necessary and shares Cameron’s view that payment by results should be introduced right across the public sector “even if there is likely to be a bleeding edge in getting it right”.

Kirby proposes “the boundaries between public, private and third sector provision should melt away” and suggests “this empowerment agenda will have to be forced on to public sector organisations in the early stages to break the tendency to structural inertia”.

With one of the masterminds behind the ill-thought through KPMG report now directing policy development, it seems obvious that not only will the government not step in to halt authorities disproportionately cutting libraries, they will most likely be encouraging it and, even more worryingly, quite possibly seeking to overturn the Public Libraries Act.  They should know that librarians, library staff and library users will not allow this to happen without a fight.