Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Battle lines

One of the issues in this debate concerns the quality of information that is available with Web 2.0 in general and Wikipedia in particular. Michael Gorman in a posting titled Jabberwiki, is blunt:
"Let us ... concentrate on the central proposition that one can gain useful knowledge from texts written by any Tom, Dick, or Sally with time on his or her hands. Do we entrust the education of children to self-selected “experts” without any known authority or credentials? Would any sane person pay fees to take university courses that are taught by people who may or may not be qualified to teach such a course? "

Gorman cites Andrew Keen and his new book The Cult of the Amateur which makes similar complaints. Keen claims that "Wikipedia ... is almost single-handedly killing the traditional information business." (p127-8). and "Since Wikipedia's birth, more than fifteen thousand contributors have created nearly three million entries in over a hundred different languages—none of them edited or vetted for accuracy."(p4).

Many people defend Wikipedia. Some claim that unlike Britannica, Wikipedia’s credentials don’t come from its editors but from references and sources cited at the end of articles. However not all articles include citations and citations don't guarantee that the research is comprehensive and balanced.

Others have argued that Wilipedia articles are edited and vetted for accuracy by other Wikipedia contributors. Helen Nicols in her blog The Business of Knowing argues that regulation by a community of on-line users as with Wikipedia is equivalent to the academic peer review process as ways of establishing authority.

Wikipedians like to point out that traditional resources such as Encyclopedia Britannica contain errors which have been corrected by the on-line community.
Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia

Gorman and Keen would argue that the on-line community is just as likely to introduce errors into an authoritative article as it is to correct errors. There have been cases of individuals submitting corrections to their own biography on Wikipedia only to have other contributors deleting these corrections so as to maintain the "authority" of the original article.

Another argument used by defenders of Wikipedia is that traditional resources present a single world view that may be influenced by cultural norms while Wikipedia allows debate and the presentation of alternative views. As an illustration here is an extract from the 11th edition of Encyclopadia Britannica (1911).

For the rest, the mental constitution of the negro is very similar to that of a child, normally good-natured and cheerful, but subject to sudden fits of emotion and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular atrocity, impressionable, vain, but often exhibiting in the capacity of servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test. Given suitable training, the negro is capable of becoming a craftsman of considerable skill, particularly in metal work, carpentry and carving."

With hindsight we now see that Britannica reflected the prevailing social views and prejudices of the time. Is it not likely that today's "authoratitive" works are also biased? On the other hand there is a danger of falling into the trap of relativism - the doctrine that no absolute truth exists, but that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as language or culture. Surely most facts (the date of the battle of Hastings; the atomic weight of Hydrogen) are facts and a reference source can get them either right or wrong

Further discussion can be found in the Wikipedia entry Reliability of Wikipedia and the entry in the LIS Wiki Librarians' claims and opinions regarding Wikipedia.

I think that the TS Eliot quote is relevant:
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

There is a lot of information available from Wikipedia and the like but this is not the same as knowledge. At the very least we need to heed the advice of the Bellman "What I tell you three times is true" - and not take any information on trust until we have checked with several sources. We also need the wisdom to understand that any information can be inaccurate, incomplete or biased in some way and we should make allowances for that fact.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Library design

Oldham Library

The Guardian Weekend magazine recently had a feature where they took architects back to the buildings they had designed to see how well they were working in practice. Colin St John Wilson was taken to the British Library, St Pancras, which is generally regarded as having been a great success. Unfortunately Sir Colin (who died in May this year) was not able to get into the reading rooms as his reader's pass had expired. The person on the desk insisted that he must produce some ID to rejoin. "There's a bust of me downstairs, Will that do?" he replied.

The article also featured Will Alsop returning to the Peckham Library, London which won the Stirling Prize in 2000. This has received some criticism from users and staff - one librarian commented that the light bulbs are difficult to change and that ventilation is poor. If buildings really are machines for living (and working) in, rather than works of art to look at, then this needs to be fixed. Alsop was reported as being unimpressed by what has been done to his building - "It looks a bit municipal now and that's what I didn't want it to be" - but why didn't he produce a machine that worked well in the first place?

Designing a library that looks good, inspires its users and yet works well on a number of different levels is an enormous challenge. In September I have organised a visit to see the new Oldham Public Library. This building attempts to integrate a range of functions while contributing to the regeneration of a neglected part of the town. It is also a "green" building with rainwater collected from the roof being used to flush the toilets. It has been shortlisted for the 2007 Prime Minister's Better Public Building Award.

But does it work? Sign up for the visit and find out for yourself.

Monday, 23 July 2007

CPD events from SINTO

The summer is always a quiet time for SINTO training events and given the weather we have been having that is probably a good thing! However, planning is underway for the autumn season. This kicks off with Financial skills for librarians on the 11th September. The aim of this is to equip delegates with the basic understanding they need to undertake a first line financial management role in their library.
It is a broad generalisation but I suspect that most librarians are literate rather then numerate. When it comes to dealing with a budget for the first time many of us will experience anxiety. In many cases we will be operating within procedures set out by the finance department of our organisations but this course will explain the basic principles and jargon. It will cover payments to suppliers, dealing with income and understanding VAT.
The course is presented by Larraine Cooper, an independent trainer specialising in training and development in business planning, financial awareness, costing and pricing, budgetary control, budget setting techniques and management skills
This course will help anyone new to budget responsibility and will be a refresher and confidence booster for anyone who finds this aspect of their job challenging. For further details see the SINTO web site.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Petitions and school libraries

In November 2006 the web site for 10 Downing Street introduced an e-petitions service. This allowed anyone to create a petition and then invite members of the public to sign it to show their support. It was clearly intended as an exercise in popular democracy enabling people to express their opinion on matters of concern but it has been criticized as at best a token gesture and at worst a way for the government to compile a mailing list that they can use to spread official propaganda!
There have been two petitions recently about libraries. One called on the Prime Minister to keep the British Library Free of charge to users (16,646 signatures) and the other asked him to make the provision of professionally staffed libraries within all schools, both secondary and primary, statutory (1,794 signatures).
The Government's response to the BL petition was
The British Library preserves, promotes and celebrates our language and literature, two of our greatest contributions to the world's cultural heritage. It also underpins research in the higher education and business sectors, playing what is an essential part in a modern knowledge economy. This Government has supported the Library in fulfilling these roles since 1997, and will continue to do so.
It is, however, independent of Government, and makes its own management decisions, including on issues such as admission charges.
On school libraries it said:
The provision of a school library is not a statutory requirement and there are no current plans to alter this situation and change the legislation. It is the Government's policy to put as much money as possible directly into schools' budgets, allowing schools to target resources appropriately and to make their own choices about their school library provision and book resourcing.
At their best school libraries are an invaluable asset to teachers and a source of great enjoyment, and learning, for children. There are various models of library provision in schools. Schools may have an on-site school library managed by a librarian, the collection may be managed by teachers and/or volunteers; or the onsite library may be run with or without the support of a Schools Library Service.
Schools Library Services are optional services run by local authorities. Where there is no school library, book loans and professional advice are usually provided by a Schools Library Service. The Ofsted report 2006 'Good School Libraries' states that "Schools Library Services provided good support for schools, including specialist audits and advice, additional resources, training and opportunities for networking".

The BL statement is supportive but does not commit the Government to any action. The school library statement is dismissive, talking of models which may not feature a librarian or the input of the School Library Service.
It is probably a mistake to believe that the Government would ever want to intervene directly in the running of libraries of any type and we would be naive to believe that a petition would make a difference. The only e-petition to have had an impact was the road charging petition which attracted 1.5 million signatures. Unless we can raise that sort of support for an issue the Government's response will be "bovvered?"

As the response to the school library petition indicates, we need to identify who makes the decisions and who holds the budget. We then have to sell the benefits of our "product" to these people. We can't expect schools to be interested in employing a professional librarian as an end in itself. Rather we have to convince them that a professional librarian will enable them to achieve some goal that is important to them i.e. a better (cheaper) way of educating children. This requires school librarians to demonstrate a high level of professional competence and a broad view of the role of the library in the school. An example of this (and a valuable source for CPD) are the presentations given at the recent School Library Association weekend school in Nottingham. These presentations are available on the SLA website

I suspect that a school would be far more impressed by an individual who has this level of professional expertise than they would by an e-petition to the Prime Minister. The paradox of course is that a school that uses the model of a library run by teachers or volunteers will probably not be expose to this sort of person and will never know what they are missing.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Battle lines 2

In my previous posting on this I drew attention to the debate that has been going on between the Webbed and the Web-sceptics(to use Sheila Webber's terms) . I based this on articles published in CILIP journals because I wanted to provide a link between print-based forums and on-line forums and (as a blog with a regional focus) I wanted to keep things as local as possible. My hope is that this will help to make my comments relevant to the majority of library workers in the SINTO region.

However a feature of the Webbed community is that it is not restricted geographically - it is as easy to debate with someone on the other side of the globe as it is with someone in the same town or even the same building. Also what happens in the blog sphere tends to stay in the blog sphere, so if you are not part of that you can miss out on the debate.

These observations were triggered by my reading of the Encyclopedia Britannica blog. This describes itself as a place for smart, lively conversations about a broad range of topics but its significance is that Britannica represents the scholarly, authoritative and traditional source of information which is often seen as being in opposition to the Internet, Google, Wikipedia and Web 2.0. At one level Britannica Blog represents the "establishment" adopting Web 2.0 tools in order to remain relevant but it is also a platform for the Web-sceptics to hit back.

Britannica Blog recently invited Michael Gorman, past president of the American Library Association, to explore the state of knowledge, learning, and authority in a series of essays. These provide a primer for anyone interested in this topic. To take some quotes at random (and out of context - please read the originals):

"The true challenge for businesses, search engines, schools, and publishers is discovering how to tap into and exploit this source of reputable and reliable information. Until that occurs, we may well be raising a generation of screen potatoes who, blinded by speed and made lazy by convenience, are ignorant of the knowledge they will never acquire and the rich world of learning that search engines cannot currently deliver to them."

"Print does not necessarily bestow authenticity, and an increasing number of digital resources do not, by themselves, reflect an increase in expertise. The task before us is to extend into the digital world the virtues of authenticity, expertise, and scholarly apparatus that have evolved over the 500 years of print, virtues often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print."

"An encyclopedia (literally, the “circle of learning”) is the product of many minds. It is not the product of a collective mind. It is an assemblage of texts that have been written by people with credentials and expertise and that have been edited, verified, and supplied with a scholarly apparatus enabling the user to locate desired knowledge. It differs in almost all relevant particulars from one of the current manifestations of the flight from expertise—Wikipedia, which bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and to which everyone can contribute irrespective of whether they possess, or simply pretend to possess, credentials and expertise. "

The blog also carries posts responding to these essays. I suspect that Britannica has weeded out the more extreme postings but what remains provide a lively and passionate debate from both sides. Some posters have claimed that it is ironic that a critic of Web 2.0 should be contributing to a blog but that misses the point. It is not the technology that is the problem but how it is used. It would be ironic however if the web-sceptics were to miss out on this important debate because they do not read blogs. Perhaps you, dear reader, could ask yourself the question - what do you do to ensure that your colleagues in your workplace are kept in touch with these forum? What policy does your workplace have to ensure that all staff are kept up-to-date with the latest professional debates? Is there an issue of professional ethics involved here? Comments please!

School Librarian

The Library & Information Gazette (29 June - 12 July) features a local librarian Marion Milroy, on its regular People page. Marion works in a secondary school library in Sheffield and the article features the tribulations and achievements that are typical of this sector.

She describes the "long hard slog" in getting the library habit established with pupils and in getting the service back in the minds of staff. She has a "paltry" budget for stock but subscribes to the Schools Library Service so she can borrow up to a thousand books per year.

She involves herself in school life as much as possible, running after school clubs for English and Warhammer (but does she have a battalion of Space Marine Librarians?) She also does things as diverse as overseeing School Council Meetings and selling tickets for the Battle of the Bands competition. She also took part in the school's expedition to Malealea in Lesotho, South Africa where she helped in the High School library. On top of this she suffered a flood in her own library, not as a result of the recent bad weather but because someone stole the copper piping from the water tank above her office!

SINTO is expanding its services to school librarians. We have a special page on the wiki and we are running an event on promoting reading later this year. Marion mentions the problems of being a lone worker and hopefully SINTO can help overcome this.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Battle lines

Is there a battle raging for the hearts and minds of the library profession? I have just been reading the June issue of CILIP Update and the 1 June issue of Library & Information Gazette and was struck by number of items that suggest there is a conflict.

The battle ground is defined by the problems facing libraries of all sorts. Update reported on the Laser Foundation report that claims that England has a failing public library service, and on a conference with the title Do researchers still need libraries?

On one side of the field are the Webbed featuring General Phil Bradley and Karen Blakeman under the slogan "Just do it". They argue that libraries must embrace the new technologies. The Update feature on the Library 2.0 forum has the headline Use the new tool - or be overtaken. This was the theme of my post yesterday.

On the other side are the web sceptics gathered around Field Marshall Tim Coates. Their battle cry is "Libraries are synonymous with books and reading. They always have been and they always will be". Among his supporters in Gazette & Update are John Pateman ("Tim Coates is right"), James Christie ("I have spent 15 years feeling discriminated against for liking books"), C John Hughes ("We don't blog, we lead") and Tom Featherstone ("We were united in the belief of the life-enhancing power of the printed word").

On reflection however, I feel that this image of a direct conflict is misleading. On the whole the webbed are not anti-book. They are driven by two concerns. First libraries need to occupy new territory, the land of the digital natives. Second, libraries can use new technologies to promote their core functions which include the promotion of books and reading.

Similarly the web sceptics are not all anti-computer. Tim Coates is concerned with the wider issue of the efficient management of public libraries and the dilution of their role in promoting books and reading rather than objecting to ICT per se. Similarly John Pateman's support for Tim is based on the need to "... take a long, hard look at ourselves and fundamentally change many of our arcane practices if we are ever to get back to our previous level of use ".
The web sceptics don't always make it clear what they mean by phrases such as "books and reading" or "the printed word". It is trite to say that you need to read to be able to use computers. Reading in this context is not just decoding symbols. It is an involvement with text which expresses ideas in a sophisticated way and can be extended to other media such as film.
"Book" should not just refer to the physical format of the codex i.e. pages gathered together in a binding, although this format still has many advantages over current electronic alternatives. Web sceptics tend to be thinking of a wider concept which embraces "great books" i.e. authoratitive works of fiction and non-fiction. A classic that has been digitalized and downloaded onto a computer is still a book while a compilation of a blog that has been published in print form is probably not a book. This is often attacked as "elitist" but as Tom Featherstone points out about an older generation of librarians "... my recollection of most of my colleagues was of a hard-drinking and argumentative lot, who were nearly all from working-class background. Our bible, if we had one, was Richard Hoggarts's Uses of literacy, in which he foresaw the dangers of education without values".
One of the problems with Wikipedia is that it is education without values in that the contribution of an expert can be afforded the same treatment as the contribution of a non-expert (or practical joker). Before it was signposted as a hoax what was the difference between the Wiki entry for the Upper Peninsula War and that for the Chaco War? To be fair, the same point applies to books such as The Da Vinci Code.

At times the debate is less like a battle between two opposing forces and more like a bar-room brawl with everyone hitting out at whoever is closest. But the outcome is critical for the future of libraries and we should all take part.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Wallflower at the party?

How social are librarians? Are we the life and soul of the party or do we hide in the corner? I am really thinking about our role in social media initiatives. SINTO has recently run events on Social Computing covering wikis and blogs and we will be running a follow up seminar on tagging, social bookmarking and social networking. There is a great deal of interest in these subjects but are there any role models out there?
Information World Review recently featured two bloggers who asked the same question and provide a model. Stephen Dale, a knowledge and information expert at the Improvement & development Agency writes a blog called Dissident. The aim of this is "Introducing Social media tools and 3rd generation knowledge management techniques into local government. Tackling the silo working practices and resistance to change that contribute to inefficiencies in the public sector" In a recent post he asked why librarians weren't taking a higher profile in promoting tagging and social bookmarking?
The Business of Knowing is a blog from Helen Nicol who lives in Sheffield and works in Leeds. Her main area of interest is Enterprise 2.0 - how social computing can help businesses. She recently drew attention to the impact of blogging on offline relationships. "I've noticed recently that my involvement in blogging, particularly internally, is having a real, positive impact on my face to face work relationships... We've connected on a level that has increased the degree to which we share knowledge and experience, the degree to which we collaborate. This isn't necessarily on a blog, it's because of a blog."
Clearly the situation is different in the different sectors. Many academic librarians have embraced blogs and other social network tools and are promoting tagging etc as part of information literacy training. I expect that they are also developing offline relationships with academics in their organisations.
In public libraries the situation is more difficult. Librarians are only just beginning to embrace web 2.0 technologies and local authorities are less eager to embrace or encourage these technologies as Stephen Dale points out. Also there is a different relationship between the librarian and their users and the librarian and their colleagues in the authority. I suspect that there are few local authorities where the library service and library staff are seen as being central to the operation and success of the authority. It is a valuable service to the public and part of cultural services but not always a resource for the organisation. In this context it is hard to think of examples of librarians & information professionals using internal blogs to develop better face to face relationships in the way described by Helen Nicol.
Librarians often complain that their role is not recognised and that they don't have a dynamic image but like the wallflower at the party the answer is to get up and circulate. And perhaps one day local government will have the Enterprise 2.0 tools that businesses are adopting.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Ethics in practice

Barnsley Central Library

  • Should you install a self-issue system that uses fingerprints to check user ID?

  • Is it right to subscribe to a journal as a personal copy and then donate it to your library to avoid a higher institutional subscription?

  • Would you include experience of using an on-line database on your CV if you had just used it once?

  • Is it right to give preferential treatment to the chief executive in your organisation in order to get them to support the library?

    These are the sort of ethical dilemmas that are presented in a new web site from CILIP. Information ethics is a joint initiative of Info Response Associates and Oxford Business Intelligence in collaboration with CILIP. You can explore a series of case studies arranged by ethical principles or by the CILIP code of professional practice. Each case study presents a fictional situation and discusses the issues that it raises.

    I suspect that in most cases we don't spend our working lives debating ethical issues. We just do things in the most practical way or because that is how things have always been done and we seldom step back to consider if we are following ethical principles. This web site is therefore a useful tool to review what we and our library services are doing.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Barnsley Central Library

Music & Video section, Barnsley Library

I visited Barnsley Central Library for the first time since they had a major refurbishment. The initial impression is very smart, open and accessible. Shelving has been kept low to permit clear sight lines. The colour scheme in the adult area is cool, almost cold. Pictures and inspiring quotes are used to decorate shelf ends and walls. The lending library features self-issue terminals which are very sci-fi . Specialist areas such as the music and children's libraries have their own distinct style.

I will be posting more pictures in the new and refurbished libraries section of the wiki.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Wilson Carlile College Library

It is not often that I come across a library on my patch that I was not aware of so it was a pleasent surprise to receive an e-mail from the librarian of the Wilson Carlile College library in Cavendish Street, Sheffield. This library has been here for some time and was a member of SINTO before I started in this post.

Wilson Carlile College of Evangelism is run by the Church Army, a society of evangelists linked to the Anglican Church. The library claims to be the most significant theological library in South Yorkshire, containing over 17,000 volumes. Although it is an excellent resource for the study of evangelism, the scope of the library is wide-ranging. Alongside books on theology and mission are collections relating to world religions, ethics, feminist theology, theology through film, church history, lifelong learning and ministry among children and young people, older people and homeless people.

The library also offers a tranquil place to work away from the distractions of everyday life.

The library is keen to attract new users. All are welcome to use the library free of charge for reference and study purposes and membership with borrowing rights is available for a small fee. The library is applying to join SINTO and SYALL and would be happy to consider requests for loans from other SINTO members. The library catalogue is available on-line.

Are there any other undiscovered libraries in our area I wonder? If you know of any candidates, let me know.