Kent refuse to reveal rejected proposals…

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County Hall, Maidstone (image c/o John47kent on Flickr)

During a meeting earlier this year, proposals were put before the 73 Conservative members of Kent County Council regarding the future of libraries across the county.  It is alleged that these proposals included the potential closure of a substantial number of libraries across the county.  The Kent Messenger’s political editor, Paul Francis, wrote at the time:

 

“Precise figures are hard to come by but at least one source has mentioned over 40.”

There are presently over 100 libraries across the county, meaning that the proposals suggested the closure of nearly half of all the libraries in Kent.

Interestingly, not all the councillors were enthusiastic about the proposals:

“Sources say that many county councillors were aghast at the proposals, not least because some of those identified for closure were in Kent’s Conservative heartlands. Others pointed out that they had made various election commitments that local libraries in their areas would be safeguarded.”

Perhaps recognising the strength of many campaigns across the country, one councillor allegedly remarked:

“You can do more or less what you like to any other service and not many will care, but not to libraries.”

Read more at Voices for the Library.

Voices for the Library and National Save Our Libraries Day

Save our Libraries (c/o CILIP).

Yesterday was quite a crazy day to say the least! Who would have thought back in December when Alan Gibbons first proposed a day of coordinated protest that there would be quite so much coverage of the day in the national media. It was really quite moving and I was really blown away by the huge numbers of people who came out in support of their local library. It reinforced for me, once more, just how important libraries are to their local communities. After reading so many anti-library comments on various online articles, one begins to imagine that library support had ebbed away to virtually nil. In fact, it appears the very opposite was true. There’s so much to say about the day and the events leading up to it, but you’ll have to excuse me if I focus on my own story leading up to yesterday’s events.

Voices for the Library - Speaking up for librarians, library staff and library users.

First, a little bit about Voices for the Library. I got involved in this organisation because I wanted to see a group out there presenting libraries and librarians in a new light. Not the sterile old-fashioned image of libraries that so many people fall for and perpetuate. No, I wanted to help show what librarians and libraries contribute to their local communities and the range of services they offer beyond the world of book issues. Books are, and always will be, central to libraries. Despite the growth of the Internet they are the primary information source for the majority of people in this country. But that word ‘information’ is key. Libraries were initially only about books because they were the only form of information delivery. There was a need to ensure that the working classes had the same access to information as the richest in society. Things haven’t changed. 9 million households do not have Internet connections, many due to the expense of the equipment. Libraries now ensure information via books and the Internet to ensure that everyone has equal access to information. This is the reason libraries exist and why they must continue to prosper. The irony is that it is the ‘traditionalists’ who seem to lack the understanding of the true library tradition.

Back to this week and a course of events that will live long in the memory. Whilst Kent is not currently facing library closures (at least not publicly), there will be a consultation launched later this year (possibly late February, early March). Consequently, there were no protests or ‘Read-ins’ planned for the county. Despite this, and because of the national picture, my details were passed onto BBC Radio Kent who wanted to interview someone about the situation in Kent and across the UK. As I am the Kent based representative for Voices, I was happy to oblige so agreed to talk to them and explain the concerns that I have about the situation in the county.

The discussion with Radio Kent took two forms. The first was a chat on the telephone with someone at the station asking me a series of questions. At a certain point she informed me that they would be recording my contribution and playing it throughout the day on the news bulletins! I had no idea this would happen until the phone conversation and, as I had no time to prepare, it was a little tricky to get the right message out there. I do writing and stuff not media and talking…I leave that to the awesome Lauren Smith (who, by the way, is an absolute media legend now!). Anyway, come the day , they played numerous extracts from my conversation, including this one:

BBC Radio Kent soundbite

Let’s not dwell on that for too long eh!?

Canterbury Library - currently undergoing refurbishment. Library is currently housed in Pound Lane.

Part II involved a live interview on Pat Marsh’s show at 7am (!) on Saturday. I have to admit to being nervous beforehand but, thanks to a conversation with the aforementioned Ms Smith, I was fairly confident I could get the message out there in my first ever broadcast interview. It was, however, kinda weird to be sitting at the dining table at 7am with a cup of tea and a stack of notes ready to deal with any question is thrown at me. I was amazed at how long the interview seemed to go on for. I thought it was going to be a very short piece but it last around 5 minutes. Sure, that doesn’t sound long, but it is a long time when you are being interviewed for live radio!

I tried very hard not to say ‘um’ and ‘er’ too much and I think I did reasonably ok. There were a few hesitations during the interview, but remember it was 7am! I won’t be challenging my colleagues at VftL for media attention, but it was good to get it under my belt and know that I can (just about) manage again if it’s thrown at me! You can hear the full interview here (recorded for posterity!):

Full Interview on BBC Radio Kent

Once I had done my bit on radio it was simply left for me to go out and visit my local library and take out a whole bunch of books (twelve in actual fact!). I had seen The Guardian’s protest map earlier in the day and seen that Canterbury library scored 5/5 for the strength of the protest and my understanding was that it was absolutely packed. Great news for everyone, and I am sure the councillor responsible for libraries was thrilled that the library service is so popular in Kent as well (even without an ‘official’ event taking place).

However, my job wasn’t quite done there. Earlier in the day I had come across Dr David Kuo who argued, quite seriously, on BBC Breakfast that if Internet provision is such a crucial aspect of the library service then everyone should be given an Internet connection and then we can close the libraries (presumably this idea would be paid for by the government). Thinking I needed to act quickly to put a message out there about how this is pie in the sky, I decided to do some research and produced a statement on behalf of Voices for the Library on this barmy scheme. You can read the full statement here and, if you ever come across Dr David Kuo, maybe throw this in his general direction. Although not literally of course…that might hurt.

A big old stack of library books!

So that pretty much summed up my day. I’m not ashamed to admit that I came close to tears when I saw the strength of support for libraries across the UK (hey, I’m a ‘new man’ type person ok?!). It really was very moving and will live long in my memory. All that is left for me to say is how much I admire and respect not only those who did go out and do something, I am also very proud to be working alongside a great bunch of people at Voices for the Library. Their dedication, hard-work, cheeriness in the face of adversity, integrity and all-round awesomeness make every day working with them an absolute pleasure. I feel so lucky to be associated with such people, each and every one of them are absolutely phenomenal – Bethan, Simon, Tom, Mick, Lauren, Gary, Alice and Ian (Version 2.0). I’m so glad I got involved in Voices for the Library when I did and I look forward to seeing it continue to prosper and grow over the coming years, getting the message out there about why libraries and librarians are so important.

Actually, what am I saying, that isn’t all I have left to say! I would also like to add that if you live in Kent and are concerned about what the future holds for libraries in the county, please get in touch (see the contact tab at the top of this page). If you want to set up a campaign, do get in touch and I will help you set up a blog, Facebook Page and Twitter account to get things started. I will also act as a link between a local campaign and Voices for the Library to help promote the campaign and link up with others around the country. If that interests you, do make sure you drop me a line. Thanks.

Free library books on your iPhone

Free ebooks on your iPhone from your library!

Oh yes, you read that right my friends!  As well as being able to download ebooks for free from your local library, you can now download them directly onto your iPhone or other mobile device.  No syncing, no transferring from your PC, just download Overdrive’s latest application and you can search your library’s catalogue for ebooks and download them directly to your phone via the app.  Up until now you were only able to do this with e-audiobooks from the library catalogue, the addition of ebooks is a real bonus for those who want free ebooks to read on the go (particularly good for commuters).

There is an added bonus too.  If you own a reader device compatible with library ebooks (the Sony Reader for example), by downloading from the library you can have a copy on your phone and on your reader.  Although the two won’t sync like Amazon’s ebooks, at least you will be able to keep a copy with you for the odd dip in and out, and a copy on your reading device for a more prolonged read (I still don’t like smartphones for prolonged reading I’m afraid!).

If your library service provides ebooks via the Overdrive service then you should be able to take advantage of this development, although I don’t think many services are making their users aware of it at the moment.

Not just ebooks but eAudiobooks too……

iPhone loaded with audiobooks from Kent libraries.

eAudiobooks are beneficial for the housebound....and the middle class office worker ;).

Well, what a weekend of ebook related revelations that was.  Despite campaigning tirelessly for libraries against ebooks, it became clear over the weekend that ‘Perkins’ doesn’t really understand the subscription model that is most often employed by public libraries.  The cat commented on the weekend about his (its?) major concern regarding the provision of ebooks – the need to continually re-assess every year whether you want to continue to offer a particular ebook and, if so, the need to pay for it again.  Yes, that’s right ‘again’.  Obviously such a model would be cause for concern.  Why should a service effectively pay for a new copy of a book every year?  And why are librarians championing something that will cause them more work?  Well, the truth is they are not.

The model most often used by libraries is that of a one user-one title service (most frequently through Overdrive who are the market leader at present).  Libraries pay a one-off fee for the service, followed by a regular maintenance fee.  Once this is set up, libraries populate their online library with whatever stock they see fit (with very little difference in cost from a print edition).  And, this is the crucial point, once bought that is it.  It will remain there forever, theoretically as it would if it were a print edition.  Although, as we all know, what with publishers cutting costs there has been a marked decrease in the quality of print editions of late.  It was not unknown for me to come across books that virtually crumbled in your hand after only one loan when working in public libraries.  Ebooks never crumble.  Once they are in your catalogue you never have to worry about buying replacements – unless, of course, you wish to purchase a more recent edition of a particular title (or if the supplier goes bust of course).  Genius eh?

However, even this is not enough to put Perkins off his stride.  No, ebooks are underused and only serve a tiny fraction of library users.  That rather sounds like the voice of the private sector does it not?  Public libraries are paid for by everyone and so should try to meet the needs of their users wherever possible, not simply focus on the needs of an elite few.  Without the users libraries wouldn’t exist.  We should, at all costs, try to meet their needs, not tell them what we think is best for them.  Unless we want the library service to hark back to the Victorian era, or maybe Stalin’s Russia – centralised and rigidly sticking to prescribed dogma scribbled on the back of fag packets by our superiors.  Whoops, sorry, diverted into a bit of a rant then.  Back to the plot…..

The truth is that ebooks have been very popular, as my local authority has demonstrated.  When searching for new ebooks to borrow on their system it is quite amazing how many are out on loan (maximum of 6 can be loaned to a borrower at any one time) and how many reservations are in place.  Clearly they are proving popular.  It certainly seems that users are demanding a quality ebook service from their local library service.  The very fact that my local authority (Kent since you are asking!) has had to up the limit from 3 to 6 electronic titles (ebook or eAudiobook) due to public demand rather suggests that it has been very popular.  Which is a very good thing.  If there were only a dribble of loans then I would accept that now is not the time.  However, when you have all six copies of a title on loan and a further 6 reservations, you need to start thinking that maybe there is a demand here.

And herein lies the problem.  Amazon has just announced that ebooks will be able to be loaned between Kindle owners.  This is quite a major development and one that should concern libraries.  There is a very real chance that libraries will miss the boat on this one.  If companies allow their ebooks to be loaned, while libraries are trying to decide whether it is for them or not, they will find it very difficult to successfully launch when Amazon et al have an established service.  Why bother with your local library if you can just exchange books via Amazon?  The only chance is if libraries can establish their service now, bed it in and make the library the first place to go to borrow ebooks for free.  It should be the first stop for them as much as it should be the first stop for print editions.  If libraries can establish themselves as providers of borrowable ebooks, then it has a chance of surviving the digital age and coming out the other side stronger than before.  If not, well, let’s not kid ourselves that they can just stick with a determined focus on print editions for ever more and survive, let alone prosper.  If that were to be the case, we may have to face the reality that, in the future, people will exchange quaint memories of a free service that once enabled you to borrow things made out of some curious thing called ‘paper’ – replaced by a number of private companies offering digital publications at a price.  Whither equal access for all then?

eAudiobooks

Oscar Wilde mp3 from Kent County Council.

Well, I took a while getting there, but I did promise to talk about eAudiobooks too!  Before I explain my discovery at the week-end, some context.  I have recently moved into my first office based role.  Up until now I have always worked in a customer facing role, first in retail, then in public libraries.  As a result, the office environment was a bit of a new one for me.  Previous to now my only experience had been some work experience at a publishing company in London.  I have learnt, relatively quickly, that my iPhone has become my best friend (as if it wasn’t already!).  The thought of turning up to work and forgetting my headphones fills me with dread.  I wake up in the night in a cold sweat just thinking about it.  Ok, maybe not.  But it is essential.

The only drawback is that, as someone who listens to mainly rock (have I mentioned my love of Pearl Jam?!), it can be a bit heavy going on the ears all day.  Every now and then I like to break it up with a podcast or some radio so that I have something different to entertain me whilst I work (should I be entertained while at work??).  Which is where eAudiobooks come in (capital ‘A’ or small ‘a’??).

Now, my authority offers (as I may have mentioned) ebooks for loan.  They also, however, offer eAudiobooks – audiobooks in a digital format so that they can be played on mp3 players, computers etc etc.  I hadn’t bothered with this too much as I thought that I would need to download them to my PC, sync with my iPhone and transfer them over – far too much hassle.  Besides, I have never really got into the idea of having someone read to me, at least not in my adult years!  However, turns out I was wrong (mark this date in your diary!).  Overdrive offer a free application for your iPhone (and other smartphones too!) so that you can download eAudiobooks direct from your library website onto your phone! No syncing, no connecting to a computer…..awesome!

As a result of this magical discovery, I instantly downloaded the app and hunted around for titles to download on KCC’s library website.  I discovered, as you might expect, that it was a very popular service with Kent’s borrowers.  In fact, out of the first 100 mp3s I looked at on the site (there are 169 in total), only 22 were available.  78% of the county’s eAudiobook stock is out on loan!  Now I don’t know about you but that is what I call a popular service!  I also call it a genius service when you work in an office all day working at a computer – which is possibly why it has proven so popular.

However, this service is not only good for office workers and alike.  It is also a wonder for the most vulnerable in society.  Let’s face it, the ability to access eAudio at home is massive step forward on this level.  Typically libraries keep a fairly small selection of audio titles as they are expensive and take up a large amount of space.  By providing them virtually you are providing a much wider range of stock without taking up any space in the building.  Not only that, but for the housebound it is particularly beneficial.  A whole new world is opened up to them.  And isn’t that something we should strive for?  Shouldn’t we ensure that library users have access to a wide range of resources?  Shouldn’t we ensure that we do what we can to assist those who are least able to use the library service by providing a range of resources online?  Of course we should.  Libraries overriding role in society (in my view anyway) is to ensure equality of access to information for all.  That is why they were established – so that information wasn’t solely in the hands of a privileged elite and that the workers could have a taste of the knowledge that was once solely the preserve of the wealthy.   I for one hope that authorities that do not currently offer ebooks and eAudiobooks look at the example of Kent and others and decide that it most definitely is the time to offer these services to our users, before it is too late.