Friday, 27 February 2009

John Dove talk

SINTO has had coverage in national professional journals this month with pieces (and photographs of yours truely) in both Library & Information Update March 2009 and Public Library Journal Spring 2009.

PLJ features an editorial by Liz Chapman about our equity and excellence debate with Bob Usherwood and John Pateman. It also contains an article that I co-wrote with Liz Chapman on overdue fines in public libraries which is based on the annual Fines & Charges in England and Wales survey carried out by Gilly Pearce and published by SINTO.

Update has an article by Jodie Walker and Ute Manecke from the Department of Information Studies, University of Sheffield, who attended the debate. Thanks to everyone who helped publicise our events. Its good to remind the profession at large that our region is a centre for professional debate.

But we have not been resting on our laurels. Yesterday SINTO hosted a talk by John Dove, President of Credo Reference. He began by stating his belief that his company was engaged in an enquiry involving three elements: librarians/libraries, users and content/technology. His talk was a part of this enquiry and he presented a list of topics and invited the audience to pick topics from the list for him to talk about.

Surprise me!
The first topic was "Surprise me!" and for this John mentioned a book he had been reading Reference services administration and management 1982. He explained that it was useful to go back to a book about reference services from a time before computers were used to extract some of the fundamental themes of providing a service.

Social media
Wikipedia could be seen as an example of the concept of the wisdom of crowds - the idea that a group of people working together can produce a better result than any one individual in that group can produce, as long as the group is organised by two principles: there should be an independence of diverse inputs and the summing up mechanism should be completely fair. Social media sites can work if there is a community of knowledgeable people (Condorcet's jury theorem) which is active in updating information. How does Wikipedia measure up to this? Many of the articles are good quality but there is a systematic anti-expert bias. Sometimes the expert contributers to Wikipedia give up in the face of opposition from others with fixed views. The summing up process is "last in, first out" which is horrible. Students at a certain level today are caught in an abyss between Wikipedia and the professional literature i.e the professional literature is too advanced but Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. Subject encyclopedia were used as an alternative in the past and on-line services such as Credo Reference are trying to fill that gap.

John played a clip of Terry Winograd who is on the Credo Advisory Board to the effect that the holy grail of search engines is a machine that doesn't just search but answers questions. To do this the engine needs to collect information about you. he then played a clip by a librarian pointing out that they can do this more effectively. Google says it want to remove the intermediary between the data and the user but this is a false ideal. Google is an intermediary but the librarian can be a better intermediary of more value to the user. When a students comes up to a librarian at the enquiry desk or via a library chat room, the librarian has a huge amount of context which search engines lack.

User behaviour
John mentioned the recent British Library research into the Google generation. Credo has a model of user behaviour around reference with four areas: fact finding, exploration, deep bibliographical research and games & diversions. Users like websites that send them items of information of general interest that draws them in to deeper study. A study got people to record any questions that occurred to them as they went about their business and estimate how much they would be prepared to pay to get an answer. Each person had on average four questions a day and it was estimated that in the US this could generate $7 trillion of research per year. Another study showed that people wanted information so that they would not look stupid in public and could get one over on other people. With fact finding behaviour people want to get back to what they were doing as soon as possible

This is just a taster of John's wide ranging talk. Not only did John provide us with an feast of ideas but he also sponsored the refreshments and provided a packet of Hershey's Bliss chocolates!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Equity and excellence

In my last post I summarised John Pateman's arguments in the SINTO debate. Here is a summary of Bob Usherwood's presentation.

Bob began by denying that in his book he was suggesting that some people did not deserve a library service. Not only do all people deserve a library service but they deserve one that does not underestimate their abilities. providing access to learning and combating ignorance was one of the greatest contributions that the library can make. For a library to provide an inferior produce is to exclude people from high quality material that they may not be able to obtain elsewhere. Bob drew a distinction between being populist - providing what people say they want - and being democratic - providing what people need.

Bob criticised the trend for other cultural service organizations to adopt a populist approach in order to attract larger audiences and suggested that once again it was time to see public libraries as places for education, self-improvement, learning and creativity. People who are are not afforded the opportunity to experience great literature or the work of great artists, writers and thinkers, are in danger of being deprived of the basic knowledge that will enable them to function in contemporary society. High quality materials were seen by an earlier generation of professional librarians as a self-evident good thing but today many librarians regard the quality of library materials as an not integral to library management. To counter this trend, libraries need to employ staff who are able to "discriminate between the the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral". Bob suggested that if, as some predict, libraries fade away in the next twenty years, it will be as a result of this kind of anti-intellectualism that argues that all things are to be judged equal in the library world.

The justification for public libraries being considered a public good deserving of public funding depends on their willingness to provide an intelligent and diverse alternative to the products of the mass media. To advocate social inclusion without being concerned about the quality and standards of the inclusive experience is dishonest. Excellence is not about elitism, nor is it restricted to high culture. It can be found in a popular novel and in the services of a small community library. However, it is important to be able to recognise the difference between excellence and the populist appeal of mass produced pap. This is a judgement that public librarians must be prepared to make.

Bob's presentation can be found here.

Following the presentation by each speaker their was a face-to-face discussion chaired by Sylvia Dunkley which explored some of the issues in more depth. At one point John challenged Bob's use of the term "good books", saying that good and bad were too subjective. Bob argued that most people are happy to make quality judgements about a range of products, services, television programmes etc and that when working within limited budgets librarians had to decide between populist books such as Jeremy Clarkson's latest and intellectual items such as Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. Bob agreed that the former might attract more library users and higher issue figures but said that it was patronising to believe that people would not read an intellectual book. Such books contribute to the public good and add value to the community even if they are only read by a small number of people. John responded that the purpose of libraries should be to promote social change through sharing the power of knowledge but this was not the same as social control through limiting people to "good" books.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Public Libraries: equity & excellence

On Thursday SINTO hosted a debate between Bob Usherwood and John Pateman on the theme of equity and excellence in public libraries. In 2007 Bob published his book Equity and Excellence in Public Libraries: why ignorance is not our heritage in which he argued that librarians had an obligation to ensure excellence in stock by applying value judgements in selection. John responded to this in the pages of the professional press by insisting that equity with regards to social inclusion should be our primary concern.
The SINTO debate was the first opportunity for Bob and John to share a platform and argue their case. The debate was chaired by Councillor Sylvia Dunkley, the Sheffield City Council cabinet member for Culture and Leisure.

In this blog I will summarise John's arguments and I will follow this up with Bob's.

John began by saying that Bob had always been a guru and hero for him as a champion of public library values. he felt that the differences between them were a matter of journey rather than destination. He outlined a number of themes:

Boom & bust. There have been waves of progressive librarianship with a strong community focus in the past but these have not been sustained. Adherence to high professional standards did not prevent this failure and may have contributed to it. "Excellence" in the form of outdated professional practice and attitudes has contributed to the decline in use of public libraries. Being excellent for a dwindling number of users will not safeguard our future. We need to develop new audiences and become more relevant to the lives of local communities.

The right "man" for the job. A research report The right 'man' for the job: the role of empathy in community librarianship showed that library staff are a homogeneous group that can be summed up as older, female, white and middle class, while the communities they seek to serve are diverse. Librarians need a skill set that differs from that provided by library qualifications. This includes communication, listening, influencing relationships, reflective practice, negotiation, dealing with conflict, confidence and assertiveness. Librarians tend to lack empathy with their communities.

Developing a needs based library service. John's book of this title, published in 2003 by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, showed how a library service could identify, prioritize and meet community needs. Libraries needs less hierarchical and less professional staffing structures so that they could engage with all stakeholders. John suggested that systems and procedures which should be abolished as barriers to use includes: proof of address & ID; charges; overdue notices; fixed issue periods; limits on number of items that can be borrowed and library desks and counters.

Co-production. John argued that local communities should have a greater role in running their libraries including the planning, design, running and assessment of the service. He said there was a need to shift power from libraries to the communities and referred to the work of the New Economics Foundation.

John ended with a suggested dictionary definition of excellence as "cleverness" and "superiority". Equity in contrast meant "acting fairly" and "justice" and he called for an era of equity.

A copy of John Pateman's paper can be found on the SINTO website here.