Category Archives: Opinion

Public Libraries: Opportunity or Obsolescence?

Recently I was very flattered to be asked by BDS Live for an interview. Not about RFID (although RFID featured quite heavily) but about my hopes and fears for the future of libraries.

Inevitably the conversation turned to the fate of public libraries in particular and the role of technology in their future. It’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine, having been nagging away for years about the need to replenish the technological skills that were lost to the sector when the cuts started to bite. I was very encouraged by an announcement from CILIP and SCL that they intend to address this issue with a new initiative that appeared on the very same day as this article.

I was interviewed at home in Edinburgh by John Hudson at the beginning of September. His questions appear in bold throughout.

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Reading your blogs, I am struck by your grasp of the effect of technology on library service development, both at a detailed, granular level and as an overview. Do you see the future of the library inexorably linked with technological development?

To answer that question I would have to separate the future of the public library – and specifically the UK public library – from all others. I’m a big fan of technology and have seen it as being mostly beneficial to the development of library services – or more precisely library functionality – over the past forty years or so. But to gain real benefit from technology you need people who know how to use it. Historically that was the task of the Systems Librarian – a species now virtually extinct in the UK public library market, having been culled by local authorities in the mistaken belief that running a digital, online, web-based library system is similar to managing opening times for council car parks. Which it isn’t. The consequences of this error have been dramatic for the delivery of library services.

In the academic and special library sectors the picture is very different. As systems have become more ‘open’ librarians have learned how to use both web technologies and programming languages to develop the skills needed to be able to manipulate and modify their own systems to deliver bespoke services, exploit new technologies – like mobile ‘apps’, NFC and RFID – and innovate on an almost epic scale.

And yes, I do think the future of the library is inexorably linked with technological development – which makes me ever more fearful for our public libraries.

 What lessons did we learn about libraries and technology from the adoption of Radio Frequency Identification in the UK?

This is a story of huge potential unrealised.

RFID is not an acronym for self-service but an acronym for Radio Frequency Identification, and that’s actually something quite different from self-service. If you look at what you can do with RFID in a library it offers so much, such as, for example, storing significant amounts of data at a quite granular level. Libraries and other services abroad are using this capability but in this country we’re not.

UK libraries have purchased RFID either as a self-service loans solution or for access control and in most cases, these two systems don’t talk to each other. In Scotland librarians sat down and agreed that the RFID based National Entitlement Card should include library data to allow national access to library services. That was ten years before the rest of the UK even started to think about it. I am afraid that at the moment the localism agenda wins out against what the government and most commentators seem to agree we need, a national library service providing an integrated service built on both physical and digital media.

And RFID could be a component to achieving what the government wants?

It could be a significant part of it. The ideal is to establish a single digital presence closely allied to a signal digital sign on, as they have in some other countries, most notably in Denmark. There RFID was implemented in a way that enabled library users to borrow books in one location and return them to any other public library in the country.  Local authorities in the UK have been experimenting with RFID card access to a range of local services but there is no single standard for providing this access nationally and so far, no discussion to include libraries. Many smartphones now use the same technology as cards for the same purpose – another discussion we should already be having.

If this isn’t happening, how would you describe the situation?

In an article I wrote for CILIP about 10 years ago I said that if we didn’t stop the proliferation of proprietary solutions  then interoperability across library systems would be worse than it was before RFID appeared. Competing RFID systems already couldn’t read their competitors’ information and libraries were forced to reprogram or worse retag all their stock if they changed suppliers.

In the end the solution to that problem was to agree on a standard and develop support for that in addition to whatever had been sold in the first place, but this was an initiative promoted by Book Industry Communication (BIC) rather than librarians or local authority ICT.

In Denmark and other primarily European countries they still had expertise in the libraries which foresaw this situation. The Danes even had a National Libraries Agency that acted swiftly to establish a national standard BEFORE a single RFID system was sold.

This comes back to my earlier point about the perils of having stripped out systems expertise from our public libraries. It was an expensive error and the absence of a National Agency – which could have acted as a safety net – has effectively yielded control of technical development to the market. It is corporations that now decide the direction of technical development in our libraries – and some of them have agendas that will fundamentally change the way in which services are provided.

RFID itself is now quite long in the tooth – having been around as long as me, since 1948 – and although it’s been a history of opportunities missed, it’s still not too late to change this state of affairs.

You say RFID is long in the tooth; what are the exciting technological developments that you see coming in the future?

Mobile technologies definitely, virtual reality – perhaps. But it comes down to the question, what do you see as the future of the library? In the past few days I have read three different articles from different parts of the world, each with a completely different view of the future of the library. The technology needed for each varies enormously.

The vision I like best is not so much about a single technology but a single cultural vision – in which technology plays an important role.  A few years ago I went to Bilbao to visit an old wine warehouse –  that had been converted into what is now the cultural centre for Bilbao. In a single building they had a museum, a theatre, a library, an art gallery, play spaces, gaming areas for video games which are open all hours, each area connected to the other not only spatially but also thematically so the art gallery will have an exhibition that relates to the play in production in the theatre while the library will feature books around the playwright and the artists. It was a joined-up cultural experience. It was the busiest space I visited in Bilbao, with cafes and restaurants and space for people to meet talk and play – lots of it.  it had a real buzz and I guess that is my ideal view of the future, not only for libraries but for cultural exchange within a city or a country. There are obvious opportunities for technology savings as well. Shared expertise, hardware, networks… it’s a long list.

Smartphones equipped with Near Field Communication (NFC), a type of RFID that happily can interact directly with library tags could enhance the user’s experience in visiting such spaces – as well as linking to remote resources.

Other examples of how technology is changing libraries and the services can be found around the world. Oslo’s Deichman public library (https://www.deichman.no/hovedbiblioteket) use an RFID smart shelf solution that allows borrowers to take books off of the shelf and place it on a special reading station to discover related content both inside and remote from the library.  More recently they began experimenting with drones.

In Singapore and Japan whole libraries monitor and promote their collections using RFID technology to bring the shelves to life.

It’s quite remarkable what can be achieved when technical expertise is matched with an understanding of library services. Even in Manchester, England it is possible to borrow books from the library by simply waving your mobile phone over the cover. But that’s in the University.

In this view, the library is dynamised, as it were, by the culture around it and forms an integral part of it. In this world do physical books, then, still have a future?

This is where I start to sound like a dinosaur, but I think it is too soon to throw books away. The e-book market seems to have levelled off and the demand for print remains stubbornly strong.

It seems to me that the UK is almost unique in thinking that everything is now digital and that the time of the printed book is over. From what I have seen and heard over the last year or so there doesn’t seem to be much room for anything that isn’t digital in current UK-based thinking around libraries. Most opinion maintains that we are moving rapidly into the glorious sunlit uplands of a digital future where we will all be happy consuming digital content on virtual reality headsets.

This may be true – and I am as eager to explore this future as anybody but I can’t help noticing that other nations haven’t ditched the book with as much enthusiasm as us. What if they’re right?

We are being sold digital solutions, digital tables, digital walls and frequently no-one knows what to do with them. These are impressive pieces of hardware. A digital table I saw recently had an RFID reader attached to it. I asked how were they using it? Answer: It keeps the children quiet playing solitaire. No-one else knew what to do to with it or what potential it might have.

Unless we rediscover our technical skills there will be more and more useless hardware gathering dust in library storerooms in the future.

How different from my Bilbao experience! There it is about working within a creative community. In the UK, libraries try to do it all on their own. They can’t, because they don’t have the necessary combination of skills and understanding. Buying more ‘toys’ may increase footfall in the short term (the UK’s preferred measurement of service success) but too often it is a wasted investment. But an more interconnected, more integrated cultural vision for the library has, I believe, huge potential.

Can we run a library service with technology and volunteers?

Working in and running a library is a big job. The same goes for museums. Volunteers are fantastic but there are recent signs in both sectors that the task is proving more challenging than they expected. A lot of people think that to criticise the use of volunteers is to criticise the volunteers themselves, which is in no way true. However, librarianship and expertise in libraries is a career and it is built over time. Technology can aid volunteers do an otherwise difficult and often difficult-to-grasp job but you cannot base a nation’s library service entirely on voluntary work because librarianship requires trained expertise in many fields and consistency. Including consistency over time in work. In other words it is a vocation and a career. It would be totally unreasonable of library managers to expect that from volunteers.

The picture seems quite bleak?

It seemed clear to me when the MLA published their 2010 report on the public library service that in his valedictory commissioning of Ipsos/MORI to produce their report on public libraries (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/what_public_want_from_libraries_full_research_report_final_081110.pdf) Roy Clare had effectively written its obituary notice. This report – based on a sample of 1102 respondents and an unspecified number of focus group meetings – reported that the library service was in decline, that the time for books was over and that coffee shops were the answer.

These findings were widely interpreted by councillors looking for services to cut as giving them carte blanche to start with the libraries. No lesser authority than the MLA (wound up the following year) appeared to be saying that libraries had no future. This made it possible for councils to stop investing in libraries overnight since the future would be entirely digital and the internet would meet all our information requirements.

Once the investment stopped the buildings started to decay – worse, the collections stagnated. People stopped using the library – if they still had one – and the MLA’s self-fulfilling prophecy came true. Library usage in England remains in free fall. Meanwhile the architect of their downfall headed for a new job in New Zealand.

In those few authorities where funding has continued demand appears to remain relatively buoyant. The long predicted demise of print has failed to materialise and all over Europe, new libraries continue to open to deal with the demand from an increasingly tech-savvy public. Only the UK appears to believe that we don’t need them. A society like ours, that depends so heavily on creative industries, seems to be taking a very dangerous gamble with all our futures. Let’s hope they’re right.

What about the future, what are you doing personally and what can we do collectively to improve the fate of the library in the UK?

Collectively? Other sectors – like health and education – have historically been much more effective at raising awareness of the value of their contribution to society.

So who is going to stand up for libraries? Two very important voices are The Library Task Force (LTF) and CILIP, and both are offering their vision for the future. CILIP is even becoming more political in its pronouncements. Because the government set up the LTF it is regarded with suspicion by many but personally I’m a fan.

It’s very late in the day but librarians are beginning to understand how to fight the political battle. Understandably they have tended to focus on the value of the profession rather than the service – and I have huge sympathy for their plight – but public opinion tends to value the service they receive first and the people that deliver it second and more recent initiatives have recognised this.

I believe we also need some kind of agency – be it cross-cultural or library only – staffed by people with professional skills and experience combined with technical expertise.

We need to be more aware of the commercial interests of companies operating in the sector that are not necessarily focused on libraries. I am not saying these companies are acting immorally or against the ethos of libraries it’s always a good idea to consider for a moment how buying products and services serves the supplier’s agenda, as well as your own. Libraries too often offer an easy route for system suppliers looking to win more lucrative local authority contracts.

Personally? I am trying to help on the technology front. It is a much bigger task than any one person can address but we can each try to make small, incremental steps. One such area I am working in is interoperability – making things work better together.

After we established a common standard for RFID data, which is still not universally requested by librarians, we still had to address the problem of how those RFID systems communicate with, for example, a library management system (LMS). because the LMS is where all the decisions are made and where all the information is stored.

There is a de facto standard called the Standard Interchange Protocol (or SIP) which supports some basic communication between LMS and other third party software (such as RFID) which was developed back in 1990. During the discussions in BIC’s RFID committee, the consensus of opinion was that we needed to replace SIP to be able to do more with information stored in RFID tags.

It was already too late to implement a new protocol as multiple systems had already been developed that used very different system architectures and APIs were being written on an almost daily basis to link system A to system B, but we could develop a data model or framework to identify and codify all the data elements that were exchanged by systems. The way in which these elements would be deployed would be left up to suppliers but so many planned to use XML based solutions that we decided very early on to also write and make feely available the code for implementing REST to anyone who wanted to use it. We called the schema that would support these new interoperability standards the Library Communication Framework (LCF).

We began with SIP and re-engineered the existing protocol it into a set of relationships, entities and actions to simplify encoding to XML. Version 1 was released at the end of 2016 and progress has been accelerating ever since. All the UK’s LMS and RFID suppliers publicly endorsed LCF in a press release in November 2015.

But LCF isn’t just about RFID and LMS communication. It could readily be applied to any exchange of data between library systems. A hierarchy of technical and administrative groups, drawing their members from the profession and the trade and which I chair, oversees the development of the framework on a day-to-day basis. Our deliberations and decisions are available to anyone – as is the process of adding new values and data elements as required.

So there is some good news! What we need now is for the profession to support our efforts. To that end I shall be pitching for its inclusion on CILIP’s conference agenda for the third time in 2017!

Perhaps then, the bigger picture for libraries is not so bleak?

Citizenship is enshrined in the constitutions of many western countries and libraries play an important part in fulfilling and developing citizenship. People within the library are a resource in many countries; in one Dutch library you can voluntarily register your interest and expertise to become part of library resources, available to others to talk about your subject.

Unlike the public sector universities and colleges have introduced self-service to improve services and increase interaction between staff and users – rather than simply replacing staff with machines. A pattern repeated from California to Kazakhstan. It seems to me that the UK is almost unique in the Western World in being bent on destroying its public library service. The bigger picture is a happier one.

I keep asking myself how a country like the UK, that places so much importance on economic and cultural investment in the creative industries, can possibly close down so many libraries? If there is hope I think it is this essentially economic argument that might win the day. After all how many creative, talented people have we heard telling us recently that “It started in the library…”?