Thursday, 15 July 2010

Where the debate is

In my last blog I looked at how social networking had the potential of changing the relationship between librarians and their professional body. I will now look at how social networking is affecting the relationship between the public at large and the library profession.

Debates about libraries on social networking sites are quite common and I have mentioned some in the past. Two recent examples are of interest.

The Government launched their Spending Challenge website asking people to post suggestions on "how we can re-think government to deliver more for less" The site was unmoderated and soon attracted some very offensive comments but it also had a number of posts relating to libraries. Many of these suggested getting rid of libraries:
  • Using the Library as a source of knowledge is outdated. The internet has taken over. They are outdated institutions. Why should the state fund peoples reading habits. The usually occupy prime city/town locations and must cost a fortune to run and staff just so that a small minority of die hards can borrow books at the states expense.

Others suggested introducing charges, using volunteers and other cost-saving suggestions. A few argued for expanding the role of libraries.

On 13th July the Guardian published a piece in its Comment is Free column by Ian Clark, a university librarian. "We still need libraries in the digital age" argued that Public libraries have a vital role bridging the digital divide and teaching people how to get reliable information from the internet. The online version of this article had attracted over 100 comments by this morning. These responses were from "typical Guardian readers" and included several from librarians. They too ranged from getting rid of libraries because the Internet has made them obsolete to passionate support.

  • Libraries are a bit like the Gurkhas - the public goes a bit mushy and woolly headed over them. So doubtless we'll continue to see councils blowing our taxes on large buildings full of books that no one reads....
  • Libraries, like post offices, served a valuable function in the past. That past valuable function is fast expiring and the vested interests in both are casting around for new reasons to justify their existence. We should be looking for the most economical ways to phase both out.
  • Free access to information whether it be the net or good old fashioned books is a mark of a civilized nation. Long may libraries continue.
  • Libraries have never been perfect, but there is proportionately more 'wisdom' that can be sourced from within them. Sadly few people ever trouble to seek out 'wisdom' nor even 'knowledge'. However, via the media they are fed a lot of 'information' that contributes to their confusion.
  • So for me, I still use my various laptops, iPad, BB etc to find information and for general reading. Maybe it's time to focus libraries on the young and leave the rest of us to our own devices
  • Perhaps those scoffing at libraries, in their well paid jobs from the comfort of their homes, should consider this. Even if they do not use libraries there are many of us who see them as lifelines and this should be protected.

We shouldn't go overboard in our response to these views, especially the anti-libraries ones, but at the same time we need to be aware that some people hold these views and the profession should be responding. I was alerted to both discussions by posts on Twitter but there is a digital divide in the profession and I wonder how many senior librarians have picked up on these discussions while they are going on. Several librarians did respond in the Guardian thread but from what I saw the only response from a head of service was from Canada. I know many might say that it is not worth getting involved in this type of debate, and it often does descend to the level of trading insults, but I think it is dangerous to turn our back on a discussion like this. A final comment from the Guardian thread shows that even friends of libraries sometimes despair of our response.

  • Fact is, you are doing a very bad job of explaining yourself here. If libraries are set up by people like you as glorified 'information'-harvesting points they will close, pretty swiftly. My advice, for what it is worth, is that you might try focusing on the glories of a free public space - a physical space as opposed to the privatised non-space offered by the web - offering free access to pretty much any book ever published, and a bit of other good stuff on the side - DVDs, CDs, information technology. Hell, you could even try promoting the experience of reading books to a generation increasingly unfamiliar with them. All this, free at the point of use in a public space which is also often a community hub. Sounds pretty good to me. You could also try speaking about this with passion, like a person, rather than a consultant who uses dead and depressing phrases like 'facilitating access to information technology' and 'delivers on aspects of its core services.' It might not work, but I reckon it would be worth a try.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Social networking and CILIP

Biddy Fisher is speaking to SINTO tomorrow on the subject of Our Professional Journey. She will be speaking about CILIP and its future - indeed the future of the profession as a whole - and the Defining our professional future programme.

This will be a traditional face to face meeting. People will take time off, travel to a fixed location, and gather in a room with other librarians to hear directly what Biddy has to say and ask her questions. Such meetings are I believe, of value and enable participants to interact with the speaker in a way no other format can match. However it is for many an old-fashioned format. Why get together in person when you can achieve the same results in a virtual world.

For many people the Defining our professional future debate has been carried on through the medium of social networking.
An interesting example of this is the short podcast on the blog of Nicola McNee in which she gives 5 ideas on the future of CILIP. Now Nicola strikes me as the sort of person who is not seduced by technology for technology's sake. She is not interested in the latest gadget or gimmick just as something new. She uses social networking tools such as blogs and podcasts because she finds them to be useful for professional development and discussion.

What interests me is how CILIP in particular and the profession at large is responding to these new tools. In his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky argues that just as the printing press transformed society, the internet has 'removed the barrier to universal participation and revealed that human beings would rather be creating and sharing than passively consuming what a privileged elite think they should watch. Instead of lamenting the silliness of a lot of social online media, we should be thrilled by the spontaneous collective campaigns and social activism also emerging.'

How does this impact on CILIP? Does the fact that librarians such as Nicola and many others are now comfortable with social media mean that the whole structure and process of CILIP can and should change? Should decisions be made not by a Council but by the direct input of individuals? Can we envisage a Wikiorganisation?

These are not rhetorical questions. Perhaps the answers should be no! What would the profession loose if we moved to a new model? Would the old privileged elite be replaced by a new privileged elite. What about the digital divide in the profession? Will the professional silliness of a lot of professional social media swamp the voices of reason and intelligence? If we replace face-to-face debate with a babble of individual voices speaking in isolation don't we loose something of value?

These issues have to be considered. The recent speech by the Culture Minister Ed Vaisy on Re-modelling public libraries was made available by DCMS on the Write-to-reply website with an invitation for public comments. Is this a forum that CILIP and the profession should be using to get their message across to the Government or is it just for uninformed chit-chat? There may be other and better ways of lobbying the Government that CILIP can use. Could individual comments by librarians on Write-to-reply actually harm our case or is this the model for the future?

I seem to have used a lot of question marks! My point is that social media is not just a new way of communicating. It has the potential to change the way in which organisations operate and we need to be aware of that.