5.7 million households do not have an internet connection

Featured

Libraries can help address digital inequality (image c/o splorp on Flickr)

Yesterday the Office of National Statistics released its latest Internet access – households and individuals report.  Once again it demonstrated something that is often overlooked, there is a sizeable proportion of the population that do not have an internet connection.  According to the statistics, although the percentage of households with an internet connection has grown to 77% (up 4% on last year), there are still an amazing 5.7 million households in the UK without internet access.  Other top line statistics from the report:

  • 45 per cent of Internet users used a mobile phone to connect to the Internet
  • 6 million people accessed the Internet over their mobile phone for the first time in the previous 12 months
  • The use of wireless hotspots almost doubled in the last 12 months to 4.9 million users
  • 21 per cent of Internet users did not believe their skills were sufficient to protect their personal data
  • 77 per cent of households had Internet access
  • 50% of those without internet say they do not need it
  • 40% say that the equipment is too expensive or they do not believe they have the skills required

…many children are being left behind

The last three points are particularly crucial.  Households without internet would mean, in many cases, families without internet connections.  This is particularly concerning as it has been demonstrated that children’s performance at school can be affected by their inability to make use of an internet connection.  Whilst the report doesn’t provide statistics on family households without internet access, it is not beyond reason to conclude that there are a great many families included within that 5.7 million households figure.  And, consequently, a great many children who are potentially being left behind by their ‘connected’ peers.  The consequences of this disparity are fairly clear.

The final two points are also concerning and provide a stark reminder of what damage would be done by large-scale library closures.  Libraries can play a massive role in addressing these issues.  Trained, professional library staff can help to support inexperienced users to find their way around the internet and gain the confidence to take full advantage of what it offers.  It has been demonstrated in repeated studies that people using the internet are economically better off (££) and, at a time of such economic difficulty, this is more important now than ever.

…public libraries are crucial to reducing digital inequality

Furthermore, the provision of free internet access in public libraries is absolutely crucial to reducing digital inequality and ensuring that a sizeable proportion of the population are not left behind.  Close public libraries and remove the only point of free internet access and you create a society of digitally excluded, those left to flounder as they do not have the finances or skills to keep up with the digitally advanced.  It is not enough to simply provide these people with computers and hope that will resolve the inequality.  Who will provide the support and the training?  Public libraries are still the best way to ensure that the digital revolution does not further isolate the disadvantaged from society and ensure that no-one is left behind.

One further point on this issue that perhaps ought to be made, in terms of libraries/librarians themselves rather than the people who use them.  It is worth noting that neither the Guardian or the BBC made any reference to public libraries offering free internet access, nor did they mention the impact library closures could have on those that are digitally excluded.  You may argue that the point isn’t directly relevant to those particular articles.  Maybe not.  However, it is worth remembering that although there have been plenty of positive shifts in the coverage of libraries in the past year, commentators still do not see libraries as a solution to modern-day problems.  For library advocacy to have any real success, this has to change.  Because if people of influence cannot see the role libraries can and should play in addressing contemporary concerns, there is little hope for the future of the library service and the profession.

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.

The many good things about Twitter….

ijclarkI don’t know if it is the fact that some of my recent posts have been reflective (perhaps unsurprisingly for end of year blog posts) or perhaps the events of the past few days (check the Voices for the Library website), but the sheer greatness of Twitter has been playing on my mind.  This post is probably not going to add anything new to previous posts about Twitter, but I am going to plough on regardless because it really has made some quite fundamental changes to my life.

Last year I came to the conclusion that it was time for an alternative campaign for libraries.  Too often library workers had been overlooked as a voice for libraries (no pun intended!), and I felt it was time that an alternative was developed.  At the time I only envisaged something very small-scale.  A simple blog or wiki that would share resources or comment on events.  I was thinking very, very, very, very small-scale.  In hindsight, it never would have achieved anything.

Then I discovered, via Twitter, that some fellow library professionals were also thinking the same as me.  Within weeks we had launched a website and numerous web 2.0 entities.  It was bewildering and impressive and mind-blowing and, most importantly, really satisfying.  Never had been involved in something that made me feel so energised (yuck!) and motivated.  Here were a bunch of people working together to try to achieve something really fantastic.  But the thing that gets me now, looking back, is that without Twitter this would never have happened.  That’s not hyperbole.  It’s pretty much nailed on fact.

I know there is a lot of talk about Twitter leading to real change.  Whether it be in Iran or in the UK, people seem to truly believe that Twitter alone can overturn injustice and heroically right wrongs.  Of course, it is not that simple (it never is).  That said, it can play a big role in engineering change.  In the case of Voices for the Library, it has played a central role in getting a national campaign off the ground and noticed.  For without it, I would not have been in contact with any of the people who ultimately established the campaign.  It is virtually impossible to imagine this campaign getting organised and launched without Twitter.  How else could a bunch of people from across the UK have got together to launch a library campaign?  Not only a bunch of people from across the country, but in many cases a bunch of people who had never even met face to face (I still haven’t met any of my fellow members).  Every time I think about it I am taken aback by what has been achieved.

I know for many people Twitter has that reputation of inane chatter about what people are having for dinner (and sure we all engage in that crap from time to time to lighten the mood) or something that is impenetrable and impossible to get into.  However, the truth is that Twitter can open up so many opportunities.  Yes it may not affect change on its own, but it can certainly help.  And in terms of Voices for the Library, it has definitely played a major role in its genesis.  Without it there would be no campaign.  So you see, Twitter isn’t all inane nothings.  Now, I’m off to eat some cake…..