UN declares: “Internet access is a human right”

Access to the flow of online information is a right say the UN (image c/o Nrbelex)

Just over a week ago the United Nations underlined the right for everyone to have access to a resource that many take for granted: the internet.  As I have often commented on this blog over the years, lack of Internet access is not simply restricted to those that live in developing countries.  Nine million people in this country have never even accessed the internet, either at home or elsewhere.  From the Los Angeles Times:

“Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states,” said the report from Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations, who wrote the document “on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Obviously, putting access to information on the same footing as water is a significant and welcome move.  Access to information is absolutely vital for the wellbeing and prosperity of all individuals.  One wonders, however, what councils across the UK make of this development.

For many across the UK, a public library is the only place they can connect to the internet.  In the North East alone, connectivity stands at only 59% of households.  Closing libraries in areas such as the North East will surely result in access to the internet being cut off for many.  In essence, by closing public libraries, councils across the country will be violating tax payers’ human rights, according to the United Nations at least.  Is this likely to force them to change their minds about the extent of the closures?  Probably not.  Having said that, it may well be worth writing to your councillor and including a link to the text of the report.  You never know, it might just prick their conscience.

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!

Should public libraries charge for ebooks?

After a thread appeared on one of the mailing lists about ebooks in public libraries, I thought I’d see what people’s view are regarding whether libraries should charge library users for borrowing them.  Here is the result:

Should public libraries charge for ebooks?

Ok, the result is probably unsurprising for many (and of course this was hardly scientific) but was surprising was that 7 people felt that libraries should charge for ebooks.  No reasons were provided in the comments, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to learn why those who voted in favour of charging took that view.

Me?  I think libraries should offer ebooks free of charge as they would do with print books, for a number of reasons:

  • Has the potential to attract those who do not use the library service.
  • When those people start borrowing ebooks from the library, there is the potential to introduce them to other services that the library may offer.
  • Libraries should, as many critics have noted, take the lead on the provision of information, no matter what form it comes in.
  • If libraries do not offer free ebooks, users will just obtain them from elsewhere for free – meaning the service is unlikely to generate much in the way of added income.
  • Ebooks are books and, as such, should be subject to the same rules as for print books.

I’ll be interested to hear what your thoughts are.  Particularly if you are of the belief that public libraries should charge for ebooks.  There must be some good reasons that I am overlooking.

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.