Kent refuse to reveal rejected proposals…

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at Voices for the Library.

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5.7 million households do not have an internet connection

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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.

Voices for the Library – The Oxford Gathering

The Laurenian

Yep. Yesterday was the second ever Voices for the Library get together. Funnily enough (and purely by accident) the meeting came just one week before our first anniversary on the 28th August (no really, it has nearly been a year…honest!). It is certainly amazing to think how far we have come in such a short space time. Literally from nothing to, er, something? It blows my mind to think how much we have achieved as a team, particularly as none of us really knew each other when we started. Of course, there is still much to be done, but hey, it is a start right? No-one ever said this was going to be easy.

This time around it was my turn to act as ‘chair’ of the meeting. That sounds far more formal than it actually is. There is very little need to actively chair at these meetings as we all seek to accommodate each other’s points of view entirely amicably. I think this is definitely one of our great strengths. No matter how many people come and go, the dynamic barely shifts. Everyone is working towards the same goals and any areas of (very slight) disagreement are hammered out harmoniously. Personally I find it amazing that despite the changes in personnel, the core of VftL pretty much stays the same.

It was also also great to finally meet Abby, Jo and Ian, as well as meeting Adrienne again (we met at the Word Festival earlier in the year). Despite having practically ‘worked’ with Jo for around about a year, we had never actually met face-to-face, so it was really cool to finally put an actual person to the emails/phonecalls/tweets. I have a huge amount of respect for Jo in the way she has been dealing with the Gloucestershire situation. I know it has been exceptionally tough for her, but she has been an inspiration in the way she has kept fighting for the rights of library users across the county. I wish I had 1/10th of the drive and determination that she has. Oh, and by the way, Adrienne is total genius 🙂

Quite possibly the weirdest thing about the meeting and how the team has worked over the past year is how Lauren and I seem to be almost sharing the same brain (or The Laurenian as I have now dubbed it). I know Lauren commented on it recently on her CPD23 blog and it is scarily accurate. We often seem to think, tweet or (on one memorable occasion) email the same thing at the same time. It’s freaky but it’s kinda cool. It’s especially handy in meetings as I know that I can go quiet and be confident that Lauren will express exactly what I am thinking. The only exception being The Thing That Must Not Be Discussed. For if we were to discuss The Thing That Must Not Be Discussed, The Laurenian would surely explode and leave a big, horrible mess everywhere. And I am not sure that is a mess that anyone would be willing to clear up. God only knows (whoops!) what would happen if she gets that thing. I’ll be chuffed but equally a little bit lost.

Anyways, we had a great day and a really productive meeting. My only regret? I should really have booked accommodation in Oxford instead of driving back to Canterbury at 10.15pm. It’s a long drive.

Oh, and by the way, Gary drinks Lambrini and Jo is genuinely lovely (although she does get full on a couple of crisps). That’s two reputations ruined…

The Voices for the Library Team

Libraries must be the future – for the good of democracy

Is two tier information access inevitable? Image c/o Julian Sebastian on Flickr

If there is one thing you can rely on when reading an online article about libraries, it is that someone will suggest that the internet has made libraries and, by extension, librarians, irrelevant.  It is not just amateur commentators though even representatives from established think tanks perpetuate this belief.  The fact that 9 million people have never even accessed the internet is a minor inconvenience.  But still this belief persists.  Ironically (given that librarians are considered ‘past it’) it is those that utilise these arguments who are behind the curve and refuse to recognise the very nature of the internet.

The argument used by the ‘internet trumps libraries’ brigade relies on something that we know full well is not representative of the internet we have all grown to love (and hate?).  Since the mid-90s, the internet has frequently changed.  The internet of today is quite different from that preceding the dotcom crash.   It is not a static medium.  Who would have thought just 5 years ago that a large proportion of the population would be happy to share their personal details freely and openly?

…the internet is not static and is subject to change.

The assumption made by many when discussing library closures is that the internet will remain static, forever acting as a source of free and open information.  But, of course, the internet is not static and is subject to change.  And who is the biggest driver of this change?  Corporations.  Unfortunately for the corporate world the level of competition on the internet is inhibiting their ability to make profit.  However, moves are afoot to change this, shifting the balance of power from the individual to corporations.

Take the issue of net neutrality for example.  Ed Vaizey has been less than enthusiastic in his support of net neutrality.  In a speech delivered towards the end of last year, Vaizey stated that:

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

The implication being that the government envisages a two-tier internet, with all the inequality that goes with it (he later claimed that this wasn’t the case). The implications for the digital divide could not be more stark.  As Tim Berners-Lee has warned:

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

Abandoning net neutrality could lead to a shift in the control of information.  At present the flow of information is neither controlled by the state or by corporate interests – it moves freely enabling equal access for all. The removal of ‘net neutrality’ would change this, leading to corporations controlling access to information.

“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet.”

However, it is not just net neutrality that should concern us.  The Guardian recently reported that the growth of smartphones also poses a danger to the freely accessible internet that we know today.  In an article subtitled ‘The proliferation of powerful mobile phones could see control of the internet pass into the hands of corporations’, John Naughton comments that:

“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet. If these trends continue, then it won’t be all that long before a significant proportion of the world’s internet users will access the network, not via freely programmable PCs connected via landline networks, but through tethered, non-programmable information appliances (smartphones) hooked up to tightly controlled and regulated mobile networks.”

The root cause of this problem is the established belief that information is a commodity that can be bought and sold, a vital cog in the economic machine.  The growth of the internet has provided business with a wealth of opportunities, many of which remain untapped.  For the libertarians, commodities are best placed in the hands of corporations who can utilise them to their advantage and grow the economy, turning a blind eye to its potential impact on society.  As Anne Goulding noted ten years ago (£):

“The danger is that governments, supported by business and industry, will place a higher priority on the development of ICTs to support economic productivity than on assisting social cohesion and progress.”

This leaves us in a perilous state if our public libraries are destroyed.  Libraries do not discriminate when providing access to information.  You do not have to be rich to take advantage of the wealth of information that the library provides.  Likewise, you do not have to be wealthy to consult a librarian and ensure you gain access to the very best information available.  This is the danger in believing the internet will remain static and unchanging forever.  The internet is a mechanism for corporations to make money, whereas for libraries it is a tool to enhance the social, political and cultural life of society.

In 1998, Noam Chomsky, in an interview for CorpWatch on Microsoft and corporate control of the internet, argued:

“If you really know exactly what you want to find, and have enough information and energy, you may be able to find what you want. But they want to make that as difficult as possible. And that’s perfectly natural. If you were on the board of directors of Microsoft, sure, that’s what you’d try to do.”

Libraries and librarians are here to make that process as easy as possible.  When we suddenly find ourselves in a world of paywalls and divided access, will we look back in shame at what we cast aside because of a failure to understand the nature of technology?

The decline of Murdoch – a good thing for the flow of information?

Rupert Murdoch

Will the decline of the Murdoch empire have an impact on paywalls? Image c/o DonkeyHotey on Flickr

The past couple of weeks have been pretty momentous in the worlds of media and politics.  The revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone (falsely raising the hopes of both family and friends) have marked a new low in the history of the British press. Whilst the antics of the tabloid press should surprise no-one, a widespread sense of shock and disbelief at the depths that they would sink has engulfed the general public.  At the heart of this developing scandal lies News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch.  Already withdrawing their attempt to takeover BSkyB, could we be witnessing the slow, public death of one of the largest and most powerful news organisations in the world?  If so, could this have ramifications for accessibility to online information?

“The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

It is widely acknowledged that Murdoch doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet. Over the course of the past year, News Corporation has made moves to place their newspaper websites behind paywalls.  As The Guardian reported back in 2009, Murdoch envisaged a great change in the way information was accessed online:

Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, he replied: “We’re absolutely looking at that.” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin “within the next 12 months‚” adding: “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

Such moves were cause for great concern.  Many libraries provide access to newspapers for free and, with declining budgets, it raised the question: should libraries subscribe to online newspaper content for their users?  But it also raised a greater and more important question.  If information is increasingly to be found behind paywalls in a time when libraries are faced with closure, how will we ensure equal access to information for all?  As we know (and as I repeatedly refer back to on this very blog!), 9 million people in this country have never even used the Internet.  The combination of their library closing and a wealth of information being kept behind paywalls would surely entrench the digital divide yet further – ensuring that a substantial proportion of the population never have access to the amount of information that the rest of us take for granted.

The initial impact of the paywall was stark.  Shortly after The Times paywall went up, The Guardian reported a 90% decline in visits.  People had become used to accessing information freely, without recourse to their debit or credit card.  And where one organisation leads, others follow.  The New York Times has suffered a 15% decline in visits since it also launched a paywall.  Whilst not a substantial decline, it is a decline nonetheless and an indication that people will turn away from paywalled content and access their information from elsewhere (which perhaps explains News Corporation’s repeated attacks on the BBC – the largest provider of free news content in the country).

But, with the foundations of the Murdoch media empire seemingly crumbling before our eyes, could this have implications for paywalled newspaper content?  Should Murdoch give up his stake in his remaining newspapers, would a new owner turn their backs on paywalled content?  Or has News Corporation set the Internet on an irreversible path?  I fear it may be the latter, but I remain hopeful that it is the former.

Gloucestershire’s Mark Hawthorne costing taxpayers thousands

The High Court have issued an injunction against Gloucestershire Council - image c/o Joe Gratz on Flickr

Yep, arguably the most incompetent council leader in the country, Gloucestershire’s Mark Hawthorne, is set to cost taxpayers thousands due to his complete contempt for local library campaigners.  Earlier today, it was revealed that the Hight Court has issued an injunction against Gloucestershire County Council, preventing library closures until the review on the 7th July.  This is great news for local campaigners, and very bad news for Hawthorne, which perhaps explains his weird rant on the BBC website:

“This is very frustrating for council taxpayers and community groups.

“They are being forced into a costly legal process at a time when 20 communities have stepped forward with innovative and exciting business plans to take over their local facility.”

Yes, it is costly and frustrating for taxpayers Mark.  Which begs the question, why did your council embark on a disgraceful consultation that took little notice of the needs and requirements of the local community?  To think, the people of Gloucestershire will suffer purely because of your utter incompetence.  This could have been easily avoided if you had just listened to the people of Gloucestershire.  You chose not to, and these are the consequences.  Why is it Conservatives argue for individual responsibility and yet absolve themselves of all responsibility when their incompetence is found out?  It is a puzzle.

Still, at least we can rely on the local press to really scrutinise Hawthorne and get to the heart of this mess.  But then, the local press do not exactly have a great record for holding Hawthorne or GCC to account.  The Gloucestershire Echo’s ‘outrage’ over the Downfall/public libraries mash-up (the paper claimed that it was comparing library closures to the Holocaust – much to Hawthorne’s delight no doubt) was eventually found to have breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editor’s Code of Practice.  Of course, there is no doubt whatsoever that the same newspaper will take an objective view of recent developments and in no way will act as a mouthpiece for the county council. No wonder the people of Gloucestershire despair.  Let’s hope this leads to some very welcome good news and, just maybe, the resignation of Britain’s most incompetent council leader.

Libraries – a little bit like supermarkets really

A grocery store (in case you forget what they look like) - c/o roadsidepictures on Flickr

There’s a blog title I never thought I’d write.  Stick with me on this one.  I was listening to Eddie Mair in the car on the way home from work this evening (on the radio obviously, he wasn’t actually in my car) and he was running a short segment about the growth of online grocery shopping.  Introduced with a line about how increasing numbers of people no longer actually visit their supermarket, Mair proceeded to introduce two guests (binary alert!), one celebrating online shopping (think it was one of those Trinny/Susannah types – for brevity I’ll refer to her as Trinnyanna) and one celebrating visits to the store.  And this is where it got interesting (I know, not like it wasn’t interesting already, right?).

The arguments put forward by both sides were very…familiar.  The one arguing in favour of visiting the shops (the non-Trinnyanna) talked about how online shopping tended to result in less experimentation when shopping.  Instead of browsing around and picking up something that maybe you hadn’t had before, the tendency would be to just go straight to the items you always buy out of habit.  No browsing.  No checking out something different or unusual.  Just routine shopping.  She also pointed out (and I agree entirely on this point by the way) that by shopping online you are not able to check out the produce that you are intending on purchasing beforehand.  Instead of having the chance to root around the fruit and veg to find a nice firm item, you could end up with something that turns to mush as soon as you pick it up to put in the fridge.  Seriously, this does have a point to it.  I’ve not taken to suddenly blogging about grocery shopping.  Not yet anyway.

The argument in favour of online shopping was also interesting (if a little wishy-washy).  According to Trinnyanna, what makes supermarket shopping so tricky is that it is confusing (seriously) and hard to find the things you want (sound familiar?).  Not only that, but often you end up buying the ‘wrong’ things (again, I am serious here).  Seems to me that rather coincided with what the supporter of ‘real’ grocery shopping was talking about – the random purchase of items you would not necessarily buy.

Basically, strip out the grocery element of the discussion, and they could easily be talking about libraries.  The tendency to experiment, the ability to browse, being able to examine an item before deciding whether to take it home, the confusing layout, the accidental taking home of an item you didn’t really want…  Are supermarkets turning into libraries at a time when libraries are trying to turn into supermarkets (well, bookshops at least)?  In the future, will we see the supermarket threatened in a way that libraries are today?  Will the ability to get everything you want online make the supermarket on the high street (or, more likely, out-of-town development) redundant?  Who knows?  But then, who thought libraries and supermarkets would have so much in common?