At the beginning of March I attended The Edge Conference, hosted by Edinburgh City Council. The conference speakers focused on innovation in library services within the broader context of the community, environment and current economic situation. Many of the speakers were from a library background, but the conference also heard from politicians, technology experts and partner organisations.
Mark Turley (Director of Services for Communities, City of Edinburgh Council) commented on statutory duties for library services and how it was easy to get sucked into focusing on saving money in libraries, rather than focusing on making best use of money available. He also emphasised the benefits libraries have upon communities, economic development & education/learning, but he also highlighted the fact that libraries need to focus on gathering evidence to support these claims.
Amy Eschleman (Assistant Commissioner, Chicago Public Library) spoke about the Chicago Public Library service and how they used social capital as a method of developing communities. As an example, she highlighted how the introduction of Near North/Cabrini Green Library in Chicago helped develop a run down area of the city. They also developed a youth project that engaged middle and high school students (YOUmedia). The project wasn’t just about users consuming information. It was about them creating it too and the project embraced the idea that learning can happen anywhere. The Chicago One Book, One City project saw participants in the YOUmedia project respond to a specific single book in a creative way. They created written, musical, videos and fan-fiction responses to the book. The YOUmedia project shows youth a pathway through libraries that they never knew existed before. More recently the project participants were asked to design a bus for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. Chicago is looking to expand the YOUmedia project to adults – including maker and hack spaces. Amy also recognised that libraries need to emphasise their worth beyond the circulation statistics, and Chicago Public Library Service will be releasing an online toolkit to help with this.
Riccardo Marini (Urbanist) focused on libraries as place making anchors and emphasised the importance of introducing design early on in the building process. He talked about how it is the places that we like that successfully engage the interest of people and allow human exchange to happen. He highlighted the fact that many people draw on their childhood experiences when asked what a library means to them. He saw the interest in Frederick Taylor’s theories of efficiency as the death of a lot of good things, because it moved the focus onto money and away from happiness. We are often led by accountants focusing on efficiency (rather than creativity), not by the service providers or users. The way services are presented to potential users determines how people feel about those services. We need to present them in the right way- a positive and creative way. The positive effect will ripple out from great projects.
Judith St John (Head of Idea Stores, Tower Hamlets) spoke about the development of their Idea Stores. The council asked for public opinion on library services – 98% of respondents considered libraries important, but wanted more books and I.T. The council wanted to move away from the negative impression that the public had of their services. They wanted to rebrand them and so, Ideas Stores were born. There was more of an emphasis on the retail model in Ideas Stores, but staff felt this was destroying the traditional approach of libraries. However, since opening Idea Stores use has gone up from 550,000 to 2,200,000 a year.
Peter Fleming (Leader of Seven Oaks Council) talked about the experience of localism in his area. At present, Kent County Council are responsible for providing library services, but with the emphasis on localism how much longer will this be the case? Seven Oaks has a mixed economy & is 93% green belt. He emphasised that the assets of local councils are insignificant when compared to those owned by NHS, MOD, SEEDA, etc. He felt that Councils needed to focus on what they’re good at and that partnership working should involve partners they would naturally expect to work with, but if a council is going to run with partnership working it needed to have clear visions and the passion to go with that idea.
Alison Todd (Children 1st Charity) discussed the role that libraries have in protecting children. Libraries are recognised by children as safe places. Partnership working could be developed between children’s services and libraries, including information workshops for parents and carers. She saw a place for private sector involvement in the delivery of child protection services eg. Sponsorship of workshops. Criminal Record Bureau (C.R.B.) checks were necessary, but their implementation needs to be improved.
David Lee (Leader of Wokingham Council) talked about Wokingham’s plans for commissioning services from the private sector (including their public libraries), as a response to reduced funding from Central Government.
Annie Mauger (Chief Executive, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) focused on the current situation regarding libraries in the UK and how librarians are developing their advocacy skills in these uncertain times. She highlighted that the emphasis in the media is still on library closures, but as Fiona McLeod (MSP) said, “Library closures are not the real threat – it’s the slow erosion of opening hours, staffing & resources…” In some cases cuts in library services are up to 37% and there is an increasing divide between those who “have” access to services provided through their own means and those who don’t. It is those who don’t have access who are being targetted by the current round of cuts. CILIP are currently revising the professional body of knowledge and this should help show where the librarians role is heading. CILIP’s Simon Edwards will also be visiting library schools to talk about future skills & curriculum that will be needed.
Derrick McCourt (Director Scotland, Wales and UK Local government at Microsoft) highlighted the digital gap among small and medium-sized Scottish enterprises. He also wondered if those who don’t read books might also not be digitally connected.
Christopher Platt (Director of Collections & Operations, New York Public Libraries) spoke about the current E-book/library situation and how libraries have a role to play, despite the fact that many publishers feel we don’t. We need to highlight to publishers that libraries have a huge number of hits on our sites. For example, NYPL e-stock circulation is the 3rd highest issue branch. Users love the fact that NYPL are Kindle enabled and Amazon friendly, but publishers don’t. The library service wants the library site to be New Yorker’s intellectual home – the first place people come to look for a book, whether they borrow it or go on to buy it.
Lester Madden (Augmented Planet) demonstrated the use of augmented reality – a system that combines computer generated graphics with the real world. Common examples of augmented reality are enabled via geo-location; tag markers; and markerless technology. Uses of augmented reality include providing value-added information and promotional material. There are a number of services freely available that can help non-programmers develop augmented reality applications (for example Junaio).
Karen Reece (Capita) talked about providing library services in the cloud and reminded us that many library services are already in cloud. For example, Librarything, social networking, E-books, online catalogues.
Jim Thompson (Digital & Information Service Manager, Edinburgh) talked about virtual developments in Edinburgh’s library service. Their latest offering is “Our Town Stories“, a site that displays Edinburgh’s history on a map in stories and images. It takes on the idea of user generated content by allowing users to add their own stories to the site.
Thoughts about the conference
It was particularly interesting to hear about innovation in library services that didn’t focus solely on technology. There often seems to be an assumption that technology is the answer to most problems, but many of the speakers at the conference showed us that the physical space and the people involved are just as important. If Riccardo Marini is right when he says that people formulate their ideas about libraries based upon experiences they had during their childhood, then, to keep them interested, we also need to focus on ensuring that they have positive memories of libraries all through their lives. We need to ensure that our libraries develop with our users.
The conference also affirmed the idea that a library service is so much more than just providing a building with a sign over the door saying “Library”. It is just as much about the people involved and how they interact with services provided. The context you put any service in (whether it’s a library service or not) has an effect upon how people relate to it. As Judith St John said, “People make places, more than buildings & roads.”
Despite all of these great ideas about innovation and service development, we need to remember that innovation often comes at a price, and in the current climate of cuts to public library service budgets we need to ask how (and if) these innovations should be funded? Well, as Mark Turley said, public libraries benefit individuals, the community and economy, but we need to ensure we are able to measure their impact and have the evidence readily available to present to people who might question their value. Hopefully Chicago’s online toolkit will help us measure this impact. Riccardo Marini also highlighted that if we give the accountants the final say in funding our library services we may well end up with more efficient library services, but they will be so uninspiring that people won’t want to use them. So, we need to invest in providing inspiring services. During the conference Liz McGettigan (Edinburgh Libraries and Information Manager) also suggested that as public libraries have done so much for the UK over the years, isn’t it about time Central Government acknowledged this and did something for libraries in return? ie support public libraries and help them achieve their potential.
I really enjoyed attending the conference. Having heard from a wide range of speakers with perspectives outside of my own experience it’s given me a greater understanding of libraries’ role in a broader context and has also given me a few ideas that I hope I will have the chance to develop in my own library service.