The Danger of the Kindle Lending Library

Will Kindle lending create a monopoly?

A few days back, Amazon announced that it would allow its ebooks to be available for lending via Overdrive and, consequently, Kindle owners would be able to borrow ebooks from their local library’s ebook service.  Of course, for those of us that have been keen to support ebook availability in public libraries, this was good news.  Kindles are the most popular ereader on the market, mainly because they are cheap and have an appealing user-friendly purchasing system.  Much as I like my Sony Reader, it is not the easiest for purchasing books (although it sure looks a damn sight more attractive than the Kindle).  However, it is not all good news, and some aspects of the announcement should cause alarm amongst information professionals.

A number of concerns have been raised by librarians, particularly in terms of the addition of an extra format to the Overdrive catalogue set against a backdrop of budget cuts.  Would libraries have to purchase another file format?  Apparently not.  A whole host of other questions have been raised too:

  • Will this represent a change in pricing and licensing models for titles?
  • Will self-published authors on Amazon’s platform have a chance of being on library “shelves” now?
  • Can library patrons opt out of linking their Amazon accounts to their library account?
  • How much check out information will Amazon have access to? How will that change if someone purchases a title they’ve borrowed?

But a far more important question is raised as Kindle becomes ever more dominant.  As Mike Cane (a fellow Kindle hater) put it last year:

How many Kindles are now out there vs ePub devices? If there are MORE K, then isn’t *K* the goddammed “standard” for eBooks now!?

He went on to add in the comments:

How long will it be until Amazon wakes up to public libraries offering Kindle eBooks — as they have with Adobe DRMed ePub? Will we soon see an agreement between Amazon and OverDrive? Or will Amazon snub OverDrive and directly woo public libraries?

The iPad cannot borrow eBooks from public libraries. They use Adobe DRM.

If Amazon gets public libraries on board, it would be the death of ePub. [my emphasis]

This is the really big question behind Amazon’s announcement.  The fact that Amazon does not support the open standard has always been a fundamental objection of mine.  The fact that this deal could effectively end the attempts to establish an accepted open standard is a very worrying development indeed.  Amazon already have close to a monopoly of the ebook market.  The death of ePub would effectively rubber stamp Amazon’s monopoly.

It goes without saying that a monopoly is a very bad thing for consumers in any market.  A monopoly in the provision of information could be a very dangerous thing indeed.  We have already seen Amazon remove books and journals from people’s devices without warning, can they really be trusted to act responsibly with such a monopoly?  I’m not sure we can.  A monopoly in the provision of access to information is a very dangerous thing.  Unless Amazon decide that the Kindle should support ePub, I see no reason to end my personal boycott of the device.  In fact, as futile as I know this is, I would encourage others to do the same until such time that Amazon supports ePub and encourages an ebook market that truly benefits the consumer.  As Mike Cane writes on his blog:

Amazon now has more power than any other book company on earth. And yes, you damn well better be afraid of this.

I am. Are you?

No Furniture So Charming – The Future for Libraries

Bethnal Green Library - home to the evening's discussion

Yes, it may be a nice day outside but what better way to pass the time than to write-up yesterday’s library debate at Bethnal Green library?  Let’s face it, sunshine is overrated.  Mind you, that may have something to do with being fair-skinned and prone to burning.  Anyway, I’m not here to share my dermatological issues, this post is supposed to be all about last night’s fascinating discussion about the future for public libraries as part of the London Word Festival.  An interesting and, dare I say, lively event which gave me much to ponder and left me trying to work out how on earth I was going to put it all together into a coherent blog post – you may have guessed already I was struggling to think of how to open this post.  And now I have drawn attention to it I have only made things worse. Damn.  So, where to start?  How about the beginning?  Or maybe some Tarantino-esque narrative messing?  No, let’s go conventional.

It was with a certain amount of fortune that I was able to attend last night’s discussion.  A few days back, the author Alex Butterworth (he of the excellent The World That Never Was – read it!) tweeted that he had a ticket available as he was no longer able to attend.  Seeing as I was off on Thursday afternoon I decided I should definitely make the most of the opportunity and asked if I could have the ticket.  DMs were exchanged and, although I had no official confirmation, I was assured that my name was down on the list and surly bouncers would not turn me away.  Pleased that I had managed to secure tickets for the event, I then moved onto stage two of my cunning plan: get some fellow Tweeters to come so I have company and get the chance to meet people that I have only ever encountered virtually.  Lucky for me, Sphericalfruit, usernametaken10 and the more conventionally named PhilBradley, were all also intending on going to the conference.  This meant only one thing: a touch of pubbage beforehand (well, a pint anyway) – a fine way to start the proceedings.

We’ll skip the pubbage bit, not that anything untoward occurred of course…suffice it to say, however, that the Salmon and Ball pub makes an interesting contrast to Bethnal Green library…

So, on to the event itself – which is, after all, the reason why I am writing this post.  The event was hosted by Travis Elborough, writer and occasional reviewer for The Guardian.  The panel consisted of:

In terms of the format, the presentations were split into groups of three with a break between each session to enable the panel and the audience to reflect on the ideas that the presenters had each put forward.  There was also a short interval after the second group of sessions to enable people to get a drink and talk to other attendees (and, in my case, do a little Voices for the Library promotion).  So, on to the presentations…

…but before we move onto that, there were a couple of annoyances that kicked the evening off.  First, the event started with Travis ‘shushing’ and then we were told that the presenters’ would be informed that they had reached their five minute time limit by the sound of a book being stamped.  If they proceeded for a further thirty seconds then the audience were to collectively ‘shhh’ until they stop.  I’m sure this was all meant as an amusing way to manage the presentations, but it did strike me as ill-advised.  At an event such as this it is not advisable to alienate a proportion of the audience so early in the proceedings.  As we all know, there’s nothing librarians hate more than the stereotypical book-stamping, shushing, over zealous librarian.  Well, apart from those that perpetuate that stereotype perhaps.  So, next time, skip the shushing please :)

Taken shortly before the shushing announced the start of the discussion.

The first session of the evening included presentations by Tom Armitage (game designer and technologist), Kirsten Campbell (writer and educational games designer) and Rachel Coldicutt (creative producer).  There seemed to be a running theme through these opening presentations: libraries as places to explore and transform.  Tom had an interesting idea about using the date label as a space to provide intriguing information about the book in question.  He argued that ‘books are their own souvenirs’ and should include information about the book’s own story (is it new, well travelled, always out on loan?) to intrigue people into exploring the book itself.  Kirsten referred to her love of her mobile library (her father was a mobile library driver) and how libraries should be a space to inspire children and act as transformative spaces.  She also shared her illustrated version of the mobile library – complete with cocktail bar (!).  Thankfully, it also included a computer and underlined the importance of the library as a vital resource for those without Internet connections (not all presentations reflected this need).  I’m not sure if her vision of a mobile library complete with cocktail bar would get off the ground, but I’d certainly use it!  Finally, Rachel argued that the kind of library we know now is probably coming to an end.  And, luckily, she has now posted her presentation online so, instead of making sense of my notes, I can simply quote her:

In my experience, all the best libraries make it as hard as possible to find things. They disguise them with esoteric filing systems, hide them in book stacks, or behind book request form, or they just don’t have the books you want.

I’m a big fan of limited choice. When there aren’t many things to choose from, the difficult choice is a lot easier. And when you don’t have the luxury of “people who liked this also liked”, you have to find your own way.

So I would ask that the library of the future is a place that enables limited, arbitrary choice. A place that makes you concentrate. And a place that makes you improve yourself, because you don’t have any other choice.

An interesting, slightly quirky presentation: libraries as places where you can’t find what you want.  Would that work?

After Rachel’s presentation we moved onto the panel’s reflections on what had been discussed.  Before we moved onto the next round of presentations by Ruth Beale (artist and ‘pamphlet librarian’), Nicky Kirk (architect at Amenity Space Architects) and Peter Law (digital producer for Hide and Seek).  Ruth argued that libraries do not have a clear identity compared to books.  She suggested that libraries represent:

  • A classic hallowed place
  • Communal space
  • Something personal
  • Something digital

She shared images of the book block at the recent protests in London and the mass book withdrawal at Stony Stratford library, as well as noting the many cultural references to libraries in film, such as Ghostbusters, The Day After Tomorrow etc.  It was interesting to note that books do have a clearer sense of identity than libraries.  Perhaps that is because libraries represent abstract ideas and notions that cannot easily be symbolised.

The next presentation by Nicky Kirk unfortunately referred to libraries as ‘monastic spaces’.  Yes, you can guess where this is leading.  Libraries should be a place for peaceful study and should be a reaction against the digital world.  They should be filled with intimate private spaces, sound-proofed to ensure quiet reflection and study can take place.  Quite where children (who make up a massive proportion of library users) would fit into this I am not really sure, let alone those without Internet connections at home.

The final presentation in this session was delivered by Peter Law and argued that libraries should have revamped tech, better websites and should be a playful space for things beyond books (although, as Peter kept reminding us, libraries should be about books too).  Also suggested that libraries should be a space to use for theatre productions (like that idea) as well as for bands to perform (which some libraries have already taken advantage of).  I think out of all the presentations I liked this one the most.  Peter acknowledged that books are central to the library, but that they could and should offer so much more.  Surely this is what the future library should look like?

The London Word Festival - including a lovely badge!

We then had another break for a discussion amongst the panel and points from the audience.  It was at this point that a couple of us (one more forcefully than the other!) raised the issue of the strong book bias in a lot of the presentations as well as the event in general.  The shushing and book stamping were raised as issues of concern in terms of stereotyping and there was a certain disappointment with the lack of really innovative thinking in terms of what the future library would actually look like.  I added that I felt access to information was a crucial component of the library service, and that the format in which it comes in is not important, whether it be ebooks or the Internet, libraries should provide a space for free access to information in all its forms.  To be fair, I think some of the panelists and presenters did reflect this, but there had been a high number of depressing ‘books and silence’ type presentations.  Certainly few of the presentations reflected my vision of the library of the future.

After a heated exchange and short break we moved onto the final round of presentations (and consequently the end of this long post!).  The final presentations were delivered by Dan Thompson (Empty Shops Network), Trenton Oldfield (This Is Not A Gateway) and finally Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving (Sidekick Books/Fuselit).  Dan started off with the controversial statement that he ‘doesn’t like libraries’ and finds them ‘dull and uninspiring’ – good start!  What followed, however, was an interesting presentation on creating portable book cases containing your favourite books which can be shared with people to inspire them.  Dan argued that we all have books that we would happily pass onto others (I’m a bit of a hoarder so not sure I would!), and this would be a great way of sharing the books that inspired you with the people you know (or even those you don’t).  He also argued that councils are not the best institutions to provide a library service and, instead, people should take over empty shops and convert them into library spaces.  I kinda liked the idea of having one less commercial outfit on the high street and replacing it with a space for books and information – although I am not sure how this would work practically.  I think it is fair to say Dan was a little concerned about how his presentation would come across after earlier criticisms, but it was well received by the audience, even the loud ones at the back ;).

Next up was Trenton Oldfield who opened by talking about his romantic connection to libraries before expressing his view on the politics of the future library.  He argued that they should be held onto no matter what, even if underused by the local community.  Trenton very much appeared to believe in the importance of libraries as social spaces which was an nice change from some of the ‘bookish’ presentations that had gone before (not that there was anything wrong with those).  To finish he put forward six propositions:

  1. Defend the exisiting library
  2. Make the houses of the wealthy the library…open up the places where people have a wide collection of materials
  3. Split the coalition (!)
  4. Create a rite of passage whereby everyone can publish a book (aided by the library?)
  5. Encourage serendipity
  6. Promote libraries as a 21st century social space.

I may have paraphrased those slightly as I was rather focused on listening as opposed to note taking at this stage!

Finally came Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving who came up with an interesting comparison of libraries as being like old computer games that should evolve in the same way.  Their piece was amusingly illustrated by playing an old RPG text based game with a library as the setpiece.  Ultimately they argued that the future of the library is virtual rather than the traditional form that we are used to.

Wow, that was a long blog post!  In summary, it was a very interesting event with some innovative (as well as traditional) visions of the future of libraries.  I’m not sure if a fully formed vision emerged from it (if that was even the ultimate goal) but there were certainly plenty of ideas thrown around and lots to think about.  Above all, it was great to see so many people discuss libraries so passionately and argue in defence of such a great and vital institution.  People actually care about libraries and care enough to present a vision for the future, that alone was an encouraging sign.  No defeatism here, just more food for thought for those that wish to see them destroyed (if they are even prepared to taste what is on offer).  Yes, there was a little shoutiness and a little disagreement and debate, but that is a good thing.  Without debate and discussion there is no drive to defend libraries.  By arguing and debating we can come to a much stronger vision for the future of libraries, one that is shared by a wide-range of people.  I sincerely hope there will be many other such debates in the future.  My favourite line from the evening?  ‘Libraries should cost more and be paid for through an increase in general taxation’.  Amen to that.

As for the company I kept, it was great to finally meet up with some people I have been following on Twitter for some time.  Special thanks must go to both Sphericalfruit and usernametaken10 for distributing Voices for the Library flyers whilst I was trying to pluck up the courage to do so.  Many thanks :)   It was also good to hear positive feedback about Voices from members of the audience – things like that keep you going!

Chris Meade has also written a blog post on the future for libraries and a collection of photos from the event have also been posted on Flickr.  Thanks to the London Word Festival for putting on an interesting and lively debate, I hope that similar debates will be planned for next year.

Now, let’s see if I can go and enjoy the sun a little before it gets dark…

Library advocacy toons

I was watching Click on the BBC this morning and was particularly interested in a cartoon strip creator called ToonDoo.  Always looking for a new avenue to promote libraries (really must get out more…or at least work on my dissertation), I thought I’d knock something up. This is what I came up with (yeah, I know, it’s not exactly funny):

Public library closures

So here’s my challenge to you…have a crack at putting something together (the site is really easy to use), something that promotes libraries.  Maybe even something funny.  The strip I came up with took no more than half an hour (yeah, it shows), so there’s no reason why you can’t do better.  In fact, knowing what I know, everyone is bound to do better.

If you do have a crack (I’m sure one of you will), post a link in the comments and (depending on the content) I’ll make sure it gets posted via the various Voices for the Library channels to reach a wide (and very discerning) audience.  Go on, have a go.

How to improve your library’s statistics…

The problem with the justification for library closures is that it relies heavily on two statistics:

1) library usage – the number of visits to the library
2) number of issues.

Most heavily relied upon are the usage statistics as everyone knows that people don’t just use the library for books. Of course, these statistics are misleading as many of the services that once required a visit are now available online. Take for example book renewals or reservations. Every year, more and more people use the library website to renew items or reserve books. It is therefore natural that there should be a slight decline. Why visit the library to renew or reserve when you can do it online?

Visits also don’t take into account reduced hours. If the library’s hours are cut, there will obviously be less visits. Which would then lead to the council suggesting the library is underused and should be closed.

So visiting statistics are misleading and inaccurate. They also, however, have a weak spot and one which can be exploited in some cases. For example, many libraries have an automatic counter near the front entrance. This counts each time someone walks in and out. These figures are collected at the end of the day and used to signify total visits. Now, some people (not me I might add) would suggest it may be a good idea to look out for these machines and wave your hand past them a few times upon entering. This would obviously increase the total visits at the library in a misleading way (much like the way the current figures are misleading) and should not be condoned in any way. Obviously.

Another thing worth considering is taking back the books in phases rather than all in one go. Return them in two trips rather than one doubles your visits and if everyone did this there would be a marked rise in visits.

Also, when taking out books at the library, why not take out an extra one or two? It doesn’t matter if you read them, it just helps boost the figures. Take out any old book, doesn’t matter what, and you will be helping to strengthen the case against future closure.

These are just a couple of things worth trying. Who knows, if everyone did these things maybe we’d make it harder for councils to justify closing public libraries across the country.

The Taking Part Survey – usage down again, but why?

Will the DCMS ever get its library survey right?

Yes, it’s time to collectively bang your heads on your desks, the DCMS has published the latest Taking Part survey.  As with last year, the statistics appear to show a further decline in usage amongst adults.  However, as with last year, the survey has been conducted in a rather shoddy fashion resulting in statistics that are barely worth drawing conclusions from (although that won’t stop some people from doing so of course).  The reason why the results are so unreliable?  Well, a major factor in this is simply the question that was asked.

Following on from last year’s survey, the question that was asked was as follows:

During the last 12 months, have you used a public library service at least once?

INTERVIEWER:  IF NECESSARY USE ‘DEFINITIONS CARD’ FOR DEFINITION OF PUBLIC LIBRARY

There are many problems with this question, chief amongst them is people’s understanding of what ‘using a library’ constitutes.  Not unreasonably, most people would assume that this meant visits to the actual library.  Only if they query what the question actually means are they then provided with an explanation of what this includes (via the ‘definition card’).  So, what would it include?

Having had a bit of a think (and asking Twitter library types for some help!), here is a list of things that do not involve visiting the library (or, in some cases, not even require library membership):

  • Emailing/phoning a query to the library.
  • Using a library’s online resources.
  • Using the remote ‘Ask a librarian’ service.
  • Downloading an ebook.
  • Downloading an e-audiobook.
  • ‘Tweeting’ a question to a library’s Twitter account.
  • Asking a question on a library’s Facebook Page.
  • Following a link that you obtained via either a library’s Twitter or Facebook accounts (you may not have been aware of that link without the library service pointing you to it).
  • Accessing a library’s Flickr account.
  • A library visit to a school or community centre.
  • Using a library’s smartphone application.
  • Attending an event organised by the library.
  • Accessing community information on the library website.
  • Receiving a box of library books at a care home.
  • Receiving books as a result of a housebound service.
  • Viewing the library catalogue.

These are just a few examples of things that could reasonable be considered as ‘using a library’ without it being immediately apparent that the member of the public could accurately say ‘yes’ in answer to the question.  I would argue that if a member of the public engaged in most of these activities just once over the course of a year, they would not consider that they had ‘used a public library service at least once’.  Furthermore, one-off visits to the library may include:

  • Collecting Bookstart packs
  • Asking directions
  • Collecting a bus timetable or other publication
  • Using the library fax machine

To name just a small handful (I don’t want to make this post a series of long lists!).  Who would honestly be able to recall in December that they once visited a library in January to make use of these services?  It does not matter if they are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, they count as at least one library visit which is what the survey is seeking to discover.

Now, of course the question attempts to cover this by using the phrase ‘library service’, implying any service that the library provides, but is it a satisfactory question without providing the definition of what this includes as part of the process rather than as an optional addition?  I don’t believe that it is.  With a wealth of library services being provided outside the traditional library space, it is clear that this question is not really satisfactory.

I have also been in conversation with someone who has taken part in one of these surveys.  Apparently the library question was left until last and, unlike other questions, was a standalone without an opportunity to explore further.  It seems obvious to me that this question needs more exploration than a simple ‘did you use the library last year?’ affair. Surely if we want a proper exploration with a meaningful result we would want it to explore the area more thoroughly?

But it is not only the lack of clarity over the definition that is an issue.  Every year there are fewer service points.  Research in the past has demonstrated that people who see their local library closed do not necessarily use the next nearest library, they just stop using the library altogether.  Therefore it is natural that library usage would decline if library closures are increasing.  Let’s make a crazy prediction.   Would argue that next year, once library closures have hit, we will see a big drop in the library usage figure this report seeks to uncover.  It’s not even worth debating, it will happen, even if there is investment in the remaining libraries.

Finally, another point to keep in mind.  Book issues are higher than two years ago and actual library usage as a whole increases year on year.  Despite this, library usage amongst adults as defined by the DCMS is apparently declining (according to this survey).  This suggests (if the figures are to believed) something interesting.  Those who are using the library service are using it more than ever.  It suggests that the library service is providing exactly what their regular users require.  If users are down but usage is up, it rather indicates to me that there is a core group that is using the service regularly and to an increasing degree.  It would seem that libraries are meeting the needs of existing users, they are just failing to attract new ones.  That’s not to say there aren’t problems, it is just that the solutions aren’t as simple as they may first appear.  But hey, that’s statistics for you.

Thank you to the following on Twitter for helping to create those lists:

@the_librain, @girlinthe, @nunuthunder, @annie_bob, @LFairie, @philippaprice, @michaelstead, @chrishall62, @ricaird, @grahamdash, @robertsdj, @booksurfer, @calire, @libraryweb, @toonsarah, @thomasconnelly

When I’m less lazy I’ll hyperlink each and everyone one of those!  Thanks all for your help!

A grand day out….

 

The Coach and Horse pub, London

Regular readers of my blog and my tweets will know that I headed up to London yesterday to attend a lunch hosted by Private Eye.  It’s probably not the done thing to talk about who else attended so I won’t (I’m good like that!).  I will say however that there were a couple of broadsheet columnists, a well-known former MP, a sitting MP and the head of news at one of the main TV channels all in attendance.  Oh, and of course Ian Hislop was there (sat practically opposite me which was pretty cool!).

 

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the invitation came courtesy of the Library News editor who I have recently been in contact with as a result of my involvement in the Voices for the Library campaign.  It was great to chat about things face to face about the issues facing not only public libraries but also school libraries and to have the opportunity to talk a little about our campaign and how we came about.  It’s at times like this that you realise that although email, Twitter etc are wonderful in many ways, nothing quite beats an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.

I have to say it was a fantastic opportunity to attend a lunch with people who work on a magazine I regularly read and enjoy so I am very grateful for the invitation and the opportunity to network a little.  One thing is for certain, it’s not a day I’m going to forget in a hurry!  I only wish I could talk more about it, but I’m afraid that’s your lot!

Privatisation and the Failure Narrative

Last year I wrote about some of the dangers in talking up the negatives for public libraries and ignoring the positives.  As has been seen many, many times in the past, the supposed ‘failure’ of public services is used as an excuse to call in the private sector to rectify these ‘failures’ and deliver a more effective and efficient service (to use the terminology of the privatisation lobby).  It is the danger of the Failure Narrative that dominates the media.  Talk up the failure and you provide opportunities for those to claim that they have the solution.  It matters not whether the failure is real or imaginary, it simply matters that people believe it.

We’ve seen this before.  Before the Royal Mail was identified as the next public service to be sold off to the private sector, there was a great deal of talk about its failings.  Exposes were featured on flagship documentaries such as Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, which opened with the line:

“Once Royal Mail was your friend, not any more.”

It then proceeded to expose the supposed failings of the Royal Mail, wheeling out a number of pro-privatisation voices to stick the boot in and drive forward the Failure Narrative.  Of course, the programme did not reflect the experience of many who utilise the service.  For example, I have never either experienced a parcel or letter go missing once.  I have never received a package late or damaged.  Maybe I am in a minority, I doubt it.  I’m sure people have experienced problems, but it is in no way systemic.  Ironically, the only time I have had a problem with a delivery, it was via a private delivery firm who failed to deliver on time and, upon appearing at the depot to collect the item (a netbook since you asked), was told it might take “a couple of hours to find it”. Hmm.  And what of the performance of the Royal Mail?  Well, in May 2010 it reported a 26% rise in profits, coming on the back of growth in 2009 that saw all four parts of its business in the black for the first time in 20 years.

Of course, such growth is overlooked in order to preserve the Failure Narrative and present an opportunity for those that have the solution.  Which is why we are seeing private companies looking to take over library authorities despite the fact that library usage is at record levels and borrowing is actually higher than it was two years ago (despite increasing competition).  Those promoting the Failure Narrative are either to naive to understand what their words and actions will lead to, or else they are deliberately attempting to dismantle the library service as we know it, handing it over to profit-making enterprises.  We can excuse the former, it is an easy trap to fall into.  Those that do know what they are doing should, however, hang their heads in shame.  It is they who are destroying a great institution.  It is they who are ensuring the death of the public library service.

And what of these private companies?  Well, LSSI certainly do not seem to be the librarian’s (or even the user’s) friend:

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

The company, known as L.S.S.I., runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — more often than not by cleaning house.

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

Fairly disturbing stuff.   Of course, we could dismiss this as being an isolated tactic by LSSI in the United States, surely this kind of approach would not be replicated over here?  Well…

The revenue model will differ for each council, although LSSI claims it can run public libraries at a fraction of the cost of local authorities.

The “slacks and trainers mentality” among librarians will be abolished, Mr Lynch says. In its place will be “a rigorous service culture”.

There is a link there between de-unionisation, cutting costs and “the slacks and trainers mentality”.  The implication being that staff are the cause of the inefficiencies and if only the unions were removed from the equation, the future of the library service would be assured. For companies like LSSI, it appears to be the staff that are the problem, at least that is what their solution seems to suggest.

But it is not even as if private contractors can ensure the long terms prosperity of the library service.  Hounslow, for example, were facing up to the potential loss of up to eight of their libraries.  They are not run by the local council though, they are operated by John Laing, a private contractor likely to be bidding against LSSI should any ‘opportunities’ emerge.  And like LSSI, Laing see staff as the cause of the problems.  Alan Gibbons writes on his blog:

“I don’t have first hand experience of Hounslow’s library service, but a recent letter from a library user who would prefer to remain anonymous does raise concerns. The letter describes recent refits as ‘appalling’ and reports that staff morale is ‘low’ with job cuts and forced retirements leading to great uncertainty about the future and the impending strategic review. The company running the libraries, John Laing, apparently has a fifteen year contract.

“The library user reports that staff have to dress in black because the company considers that they don’t look smart enough and will be sent home if they don’t comply.

“It does seem difficult to square these practices with the most cursory reading of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act whose founders surely did not anticipate that a statutory service would be hived off in this way.”

Again, clearly the staff are the target.  This is a familiar tactic across the private sector – break the unions, reduce investment in the staff, lower staffing levels to the absolute minimum required.  This is not the way to a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’.  Although who is to say that a private contractor will be held to that standard anyway?

But Laing also make their money in a rather peculiar way.  Part of the deal that they struck with Hounslow meant that library closures would actually benefit the company.  In response to a Freedom of Information request, Hounslow council responded:

In answer to your question yes we would be required to compensate John Laing under the contract. This may include loss of profit and redundancy costs.

Which puts the potential closure of eight libraries into context.  Presumably these eight are the least profitable to run and, given that the needs of the community are secondary to the profit-making capability of the company concerned, the decision was taken to close them and collect the payout from the council.  A council that, one would imagine, is already strapped for cash due to the government’s spending cuts.  Is this sensible?  Is it wise for an authority to contract out the library service and then compensate the contractor if the libraries are closed?  Are Laing, a company contracted to run the library service and ensure its long term survival, effectively making money from libraries closing?  And who decides whether a library should be closed?  Is it the council or is pressure applied by Laing?

Clearly there is a lot to concern both workers and users of public libraries.  Unfortunately, those that wish to talk up the negatives are simply providing covering fire for the private contractors who will launch an astonishing attack on the “extremely nice friendly people who work behind the front desk of the library”.  So long as the Failure Narrative persists, the private contractors will be rubbing their hands together with glee – this is their opportunity to provide the solution.  They may not be bonkers, but those adopting the Failure Narrative are doing a great deal of very serious long-term damage.

If you want to find out more about the damage that private sector companies do to the library service, it might be worth checking out Stop the Privatisation of UK Public Libraries – which has a few links to news about LSSI’s activities over in the United States.

Kent County Council – embarking on an #epicfail?

Is KCC making a big (and costly) mistake?

As I noted in an earlier blog post, Kent County Council are about to install RFID self-service units in libraries across the county.  The first batch of installations are due to take place in April with Dover, Deal and Sandwich first in line for the technology.  The council claims that introducing this technology will save money in the long run.  Of course, the system itself won’t save the council any money at all.  It will, in fact, cost more.  The only savings that Kent will make from installing this system is through the redundancies they will be making in the mistaken belief that they will need less staff to ensure that the roll-out of the equipment is successful.  Although, one suspects that part of their consideration is the future closure of a number of libraries across the county (more on that later).

Kent County Council seem to be banking on the fact that the equipment they are buying in will be cheaper, more efficient and relieve the pressure on staff (this ensuring they can offload a few without having an impact).  However, a recent survey should give them cause for alarm.  Conducted by Mick Fortune, the annual survey (see here for more details about the survey) into the current status of RFID in the UK library market produced some interesting (and disturbing results).  Feedback from the 2011 survey included the following remarks:

“2nd year of debate with our supplier re handhelds. No connectivity to LMS although we were sold product on understanding that LMS and handheld units were compatible.  Also some software doesn’t work on Windows 7 PCs – we have just upgraded our equipment to Win 7 so software unusable.”

“Have been very unimpressed by the equipment and the support offered. The machines look good but are very prone to failure.”

“We had very high demands on a rapid installation which all attempts were made to carry out. However we received little training at the time of various installs, and support since the installation has been extremely poor, in terms of speed of response, adequacy of response, communication, reference numbers, engineer visits (timing, lack of communication or notification), software upgrade/update information, …”

“Too early to give a definite response, and very difficult to measure because so many other variables have also changed, but there are indications that we overestimated the savings to be made on circulation functions.”

“Cause reliability issues with LMS.  High ongoing running costs”

“I wasn’t involved in the selection but there seems to have been unrealistic expectations of staff headcount reductions to offset against the capital expenditure”

“staff time not reduced”

“Only semi-functional system has not bred confidence amongst staff or public, take up low and slow, unable to deliver maximum / intended benefits.”

I think the most pertinent comments from Kent’s perspective are those suggesting that the cost reductions anticipated by the introduction of the system were exaggerated and the fact that staff time has been greatly impacted by their introduction (not a good sign if you are using the equipment as an excuse to get rid of staff).

Now, the council may well argue that I am being opposed to technology and opposed to developing a 21st century library service.  This is, of course, nonsense.  By all means the council should be looking at how to bring the service up to date.  However, this does not mean that the council should make decisions based on short term outcomes.  As I have argued before, now is not the right time for self-service in public libraries.  The technology simply isn’t ready yet (although it is getting there).  Decision making like this will have costly implications for the library service and for tax payers in the county.  Not wise in the current climate.  The best thing the council could have done was wait another year and then introduce the equipment, when the standards are all in place and the equipment is more efficient (and more cost effective).

But then there is the suspicion that this is all immaterial as the council will undoubtedly be closing libraries across the county sometime in 2012.  There are already rumours at County Hall of a list of libraries that are earmarked for closure.  It would certainly appear that the most likely candidates for closure will be those libraries that will not be receiving self-service equipment, and those that are only staffed by one assistant.

I have raised my concerns with Councillor Mike Hill about the introduction of these units at this time and the decision to make staff redundant to enable their introduction, but as yet I have had no response.  I sincerely hope that Kent have carefully considered all the implications of introducing RFID and have not simply seen it as a cheaper alternative than employing staff (which it appears that they have done).  If they have not, it will very likely result in poor customer satisfaction and, as with all services whether private or public, poor customer satisfaction is likely to lead to a decline in usage of the service.  And we know what a decline in usage will lead to.  Watch this space for 2012.  Library closures are coming to Kent.

Which side is living in the past in the great library debate?

“….this is very obvious from the debate which took place in the Leeds Town Council when a memorial in favour of a public library was brought forward in 1861.  Councillor Newton, for example, complained that those who voted for the library would not be those who would pay for it, and that the additional tax would fall very heavily on the middle-class ratepayer.  He went on to argue that the libraries already existing were decaying for lack of support, and that “the working classes should be taught to rely a little on themselves.”  Alderman Wilson was opposed to a compulsory contribution for educational purposes, and believe that “the working classes already had the opportunity of obtaining all the knowledge that was necessary to them.” Mr Yewdall said a 1d. rate would cost hom 50s. a year, and he was not prepared to pay it.  Councillor Stead added his impression that a public library was “merely a shelter for a lot of idle fellows to spend their time in.” [my emphasis]

(History of Public Libraries in Great Britain 1845-1975 by Thomas Kelly)

150 years later and the same arguments are being used.  It seems like the opponents of free libraries are the ones stuck in the past.

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.