Panlibus Blog

Archive for October, 2009

Steven Abram – Open in Libraries Technology & Education

online09

stephen Abram Stephen Abram is Vice President, Innovation for library system vendor SirsiDynix.  He is track keynote speaker for the The Open Movement in Libraries, Technology & Education track, on the third day of the conference.

In this first podcast in our Online Information 2009 series, Stephen first explores the meaning of the, often over used, openness concept.  Are we talking about openness of systems, software APIs, open source, approach, minds, libraries, or a combination of several. of these.

With such a broad topic, it was inevitable that we addressed many many aspects of the influences of technology and attitudes on the way libraries are evolving.  Touching on the library system industry, and how it has and is changing, postulating on the future of libraries, and external influences from our rapidly changing world, this is a great introduction to his presentation an the track it kicks off.

Will Linked Data mean an early end for Marc & RDA

For the uninitiated, NGC4LIB is a library focused mailing list which has a reputation for often engaging in massive discussions and disagreements around the minutiae of future cataloguing and library focused metadata practices.  They have recently been involved in one of these great debates stimulated by the comments of Sir Tim Berners-Lee in a recent interview.    As is often is the case on this list, the debate wandered well off topic in to the realms of FRBR and it’s alternatives before being brought back on topic by Jim Weinheimer, who started the conversation in the first place.

A statement in Jim’s contribution caught my eye:

Implementing linked data, although it would be great, is years and years away from any kind of practical implementation

hmg.gov.uk_data Implementing linked data is already well underway with many groups across the Globe.  For instance there are couple that we at Talis are closely involved with.  Following on from Sir Tim’s interview comments, the British Government are currently running a, soon to be opened, closed beta of data.gov.uk.  Through this site they are not only opening up data in many forms such as CSV, like their American cousins at data.gov, but they are also starting to encode in RDF and publishing it via the Talis Platform which provides a SPARQL (the query language of the Linked Data web) end point.  This approach not only lets anyone download the raw data, but also enables them to query it for whatever they have in mind. If you want a sneak preview of how such data is queried, take a look at some of theses examples.   In a similar vein, metadata from BBC programmes and music is being harvested in to Talis Platform stores.  Again these are open to anyone to innovate with – check out these screencasts  to see some of the early possibilities.

Ah but that is not bibliographic data, I hear someone cry – It’ll never catch on in libraries.  I get the impression from some comments on the NGC4LIB list, that it will not be possible for ‘our’ data to participate in this Link Data web until ‘we’ have predicted all possible uses for it, analysed them, and developed a metadata standard to cope with every eventuality.   There are already a few examples of the library world engaging with RDF and Linked data, one obvious one being the Library of  Congress with LCSH another the National Library of Sweden.  Neither of these examples are encoding the kind of detail you would expect in a Marc record, they are using ontology to describe associated concepts such as subjects.

There has been some ontology development towards this larger goal with Bibo (Bibliographic Ontology Specification).  Although not there yet, Bibo is good enough to be used in live applications whishing to encode bibliographic data.  Such an example is Talis Aspire.  Underpinned by the same Platform as the UK Government and BBC Linked Data services, it uses the Bibo ontology to describe resources an an academic context

Alongside data.gov.uk there is a Google Group conversation taking place. The refreshing part of this conversation is that it is between the producers of the data sets, those developing the way it should be encoded in to RDF, and those who want to consume it.  Several times you will see a difference of opinion between those that want to describe the data to it’s fullest, and those that wish to extract the most value from it. “I agree that is a cleaner way of encoding, but can you imagine how complex the query will be to extract what I want!”.  This approach is not unusual in the Linked Data world, where producers and consumers get together, pragmatically evolving a way forward.  Dataincubator.org is an open place where such pragmatic development and evolution is taking place.  Check out examples of a subset of Open Library data. (note this is an example of data, not a user interface).

Semantic Library _ Mark Twain Another, bibliographic focused, experiment can be found at semanticlibrary.org. From some of the example links on the home page, you can see that building in this way enables very different ways of exploring metadata.  People, subjects, publishers, works, editions, series, all being equally valid starting points to explore from.

Doth the bell toll for Marc and RDA?
Not for a long old time – Ontology like Bibo, and the results of work at Dataincubator.org and semanticlibrary.org, may well lead to more open useful, and most importantly linked, access to data previously limited to library search interfaces.  That data has to come from somewhere though, and the massive global network of libraries encoding their data using Marc ,and maybe soon RDA, are ideally placed to continue producing rich bibliographic metadata.  Metadata to be fed in to Linked Data web in the most appropriate form for that purpose.  There will continue to be a place for current cataloguing practices and processes for a significant period -supporting and enabling the bibliographic part of the Linked Data web, not being replaced by it.

No doubt the NGC4LIB conversation on this topic will continue. Regardless of how it progresses, there is a current need and desire for bibliographic data in the linked data web.  The people behind that desire, and the innovation to satisfy it, may well have come up with a satisfactory solution, for them, whilst we are still talking.

The impact of the economic recession on university library services

Senior managers in libraries have been managing fluctuating budgets for years now, but have managed to maintain service provision. However, the prospect of deeper financial cuts introduces the real possibility of reductions in opening hours, staff development as well as limitations in resource provision. The decreasing value of sterling will continue to impact UK libraries in what is now an internationalised supply chain, and shifting demands of expectations of students and academics will of course continue to have an impact.

Recession reportThis is how Head Librarians in UK universities currently perceive the oncoming impact of the economic downturn according to The impact of the economic recession on university library and IT services, a report published last month by JISC, SCONUL and UCISA, that seeks to find some of the questions that are taxing most if not all of us about how the UK’s economic problems are going to play out in the academic library sector. The report considers IT services alongside university libraries, and we have blogged about the impact of the recession on IT services on our Education blog.

To pretend that the recession somehow marked the start of budgetary restrictions in academia would be to mythologise the recent past, and this report doesn’t fall into that trap, quoting one respondent to the study from the Head Librarian of a post-1992 university:

I’ve had year on year cuts every year I’ve been here… but what we’re facing now actually is nothing new for us. We’ve had hefty audit difficulties but we’re through that now, but [the audit difficulties] resulted in fall backs, which resulted in budget cuts. So I’m quite expecting 09/10 to be difficult; I’m expecting 10/11 to be more difficult, but it’s within a context of never having much fat on the bones anyway. I know I’m going to cope with it because I’ve been doing it for the last seven years, I’m not coming from a position of plenty to a position of poverty.

An opportunity for review?

But lest we should feel that we’re on a never-ending downward spiral, the report is clear that the library service remains essential to the institution’s core mission of learning, teaching and research. And although there is realism that the “achievable” cost reductions of 2009/10 will give way to much more challenging conditions, there is also a sense of “looking at the bright side”, i.e. seeing an opportunity to review current practices and services to ensure that they remain fit for purpose:

It’s an opportunity for us to look at what we do well, where we have maximum benefit and add true value to activities both that are delivered by this department and also that this department contributes to the faculties and to other departments in the university. [Pre-1992 University]

It’s all the more praiseworthy, given the chronic budgetary challenges that university libraries have endured, that a shift to a more customer-focused service has nonetheless been achieved. It’s all the more remarkable that one of the principal manifestations of this transformation has been a breadth of service provision, with cataloguing and collections management giving way to “a service that delivers a wide range of information management tools across a very broad spectrum of format”.

Social learning spaces at risk?

The physical library building is a huge element of this service transformation. As the report notes:

Changing the physical space of the library so it works better for students has consequently increased their use of the library space (but not necessarily the library resources). So with the shift of resources online, evidence suggests students are now spending more time within library buildings than they have in the past; the library has become a social study space.

The ability to continue to improve and develop social learning spaces, as recommended by the report, may well be compromised by capital budget cuts, which according to the report, are more likely to be impacted than recurrent spend. Estate budgets including storage and social learning spaces may well be endangered, although the acknowledged status of social learning spaces as market differentiators in the competition between institutions to attract students, may mitigate to an extent.

Bournemouth University techno booths 2With library design and service enhancements such as extended library open hours now at risk, the problem as I see it is the difficulty of taking away something that has previously been given, a problem that is all the more acute when applied to something that is perceived as an entitlement. So these changes, should they occur, will require delicate handling, especially in the customer-centric services now offered on all campuses.

Rationalising resources?

Another fundamental aspect of academic library provision discussed in the report is information resources. Most libraries are planning to renegotiate their journal portfolio and software licences in coming years, and are also prepared to cut journal subscription and book purchase in preference to staff losses. The impact on university life of cancelled subscriptions has yet to be evaluated, although the report does point out that reductions in spend will have a knock-on effect of weakening library purchase power in the supply chain.

In the meantime, libraries are prioritising measures such as consortial purchasing alongside JISC collections, and also the emerging Open Access model, as a combined means of managing costs in journal subscriptions. Whilst the report suggests liaison with academics to identify e-resources that could possibly be discontinued due to insufficient use, the widespread licensing of national deals can hinder rationalisation of individual titles.

On top of global price increases, UK university library spending power has also been adversely impacted by the drop in the value of sterling. The report notes that no university has developed a plan to mitigate for the impact of currency fluctuations (a problem that extends beyond the library) even though it is a source of concern to everyone.

A choice of two negatives?

Of course we don’t know for certain how the budgetary challenges will impact the university library; all that the report has done is to open up the minds of Library Directors and synthesise the findings, valuable though that certainly is. But the report makes a number of general points that are applicable whatever the outcome.

Firstly, the report points out that libraries will need tools at their disposal for assessing their impact, value and costs, as the sector as a whole comes under increased costs pressure.

And secondly, libraries will inevitably have to make a choice between carrying out multiple cuts across the whole range of services or identifying entire areas to cut instead. The multiple cut scenario entails a risk devaluing the overall offering, and dashing user expectations right across the board. On the other hand, cutting an entire service area, even if it’s a real minority taste, is bound to cause pain.

A choice of two negatives – let’s hope that the future offers more than this.

Pode – The crafty catalogue

ILI 2009Librarians are better at enhancing the end-user experience in physical libraries than in virtual services.

This was the intriguing opening to an engaging presentation by Anne Karine Sandberg at Internet Librarian International, and the second half of the next generation OPAC session, the first half of which has been previously blogged.

Anne and her colleagues at Oslo Public Libraries wanted to explore the potential reuse of cataloguing data and to create library mashup applications to make use of open content, with the ultimate objective of…  you guessed it, enhancing the end-user experience.

They agreed that the mashups created should not favour one system, but should make use of SRU, MARC and Z39.50. And because Koha is the best known Open Source integrated library management system in Norway right now, they installed Koha, imported their cataloguing data, and used it as a basis for their work.

Anne demonstrated one of their mashups – Trip Planner. By mashing up data from the catalogue, GeoNames, Google Maps, Encyclopaedia Norvegua, Open Library and weather forecast data, they’ve created a nice application whereby users can search for a location (London was used as the example) and get a broad sweep of information from diverse sources – population; currency; language courses; travelogues; fiction; cultural history; today’s weather; Google Map.

In their next phase of work, Oslo Public Libraries will be focusing on converting the cataloguing data from MARC to FRBR. This isn’t just about creating further mashups, although it introduces the possibility of mashups in the realm of fiction, which would certainly work in a public library context. It’s also about seeing what difference that makes to the catalogue display, and to the search experience.

It would be interesting to find out more about how Oslo’s users are benefiting from the work, especially as this was the starting point of this initiative.

Authenticity and the next generation catalogue

ILI 2009Internet Librarian International last week ran a session on next generation catalogues. In the first presentation, Peter Bryant spoke about what he termed “Adaptability, aboutness and authenticity”. Peter is a Learning and Development Tutor at Middlesex University, and specialises in work-based learning, which, he says, is fundamentally about reflection. Peter doesn’t tell his students what is and what isn’t authentic information. Similarly, he didn’t actually tell us how he defines authentic information. This was a problem according to all the people I spoke with after the session, and is certainly a problem when trying to critique his ideas, many of which hung off this word “authentic”.

Peter also dislikes reading lists, on the grounds that “Just because I like something, doesn’t necessarily mean my students will too.” Instead, he believes it is his responsibility, as a teacher, to allow students to form their own ideas of what is authentic. Moving onto linked data (which he does briefly), Bryant is more interested in how we construct authentic knowledge than in the linkage itself.

Does Bryant believe, then, that everything is down to subjective evaluation? Is Dan Brown as “authentic” as Jane Austen in his view? Thankfully not. By presenting a problem – namely, how do we know that Kohl (for example) is the man in a given discipline? – Bryant makes it clear that there is, in fact, a very real and valuable hierarchy in any discipline, but that we may be going the wrong way in determining that hierarchy. Currently, Google uses citation counts. There is also an academic hierarchy – we talk about Tier 1 journals, for example. Finally, we have the scenario that Bryant has already implicitly attacked – where the academic tells us who we should read. These are the systems we have in place, Bryant says, but do they determine the “authenticity” of information?

In his experience, many learners don’t have ready access to the library or even the internet, and in any case traditional tools aren’t useful for reflection-centric work-based learning. A Community of Practice is, in Bryant’s view, much more valuable. This has repercussions for the next generation catalogue. He wants his students to use mechanisms such as blogging – they blog about what resources they’re using, and at the same time follow each others’ blogs, and in this way authentic knowledge is constructed.

I’m not sure I agree with this. Staff at Talis, for example, can only go so far down the road to relativism, in which the value of information is largely determined by the subjective way in which it’s received. That’s because in technology, machines either work or they don’t work; it doesn’t matter whether I personally find the information “authentic” or not – a more objective correctness is very important. But is that unique to technology? My brother is a chef. To what is his professional development about reflection? Well, there is certainly a large element of good practice that he has to master. But recipes either work or they don’t. A soufflé will rise according to chemistry and whether the process followed by the chef is correct. So if people in certain professions don’t have access to the internet or to a library of good quality resources, to what extent can we work around that? Is it acceptable to use Communities of Practice as some sort of substitute for good quality resources? Or is there in fact a need for both in equal measure?

The development of students’ critical faculties with regard to information resources surely hinges upon their respective relationships with lecturers and libraries.

Issues around information literacy and the role of the lecturer are pertinent here, but surely that is about a three-way partnership between the lecturer, the student and the library. The lecturer points to certain key resources for a module, as a signpost to quality and significance. The student consumes those resources. The lecturer strongly encourages and incentivises the student to develop research skills to unearth other good quality and relevant resources. The library ensures that all those resources are available to the student at the point of need. If any one of those elements is taken away, I would say that the student’s development in any discipline will suffer in some way, and it would be wrong to make a virtue out of it.

Tony Hirst on the invisible library

ILI 2009At home we are more or less obsessed by The Sopranos right now. Any spare hour means a Sopranos episode, and we’re currently about halfway through Series 3. My fairly late return from Internet Librarian International last night provided us with the opportunity to watch two more episodes, including one entitled “University” that focused on Meadow Soprano’s experiences at Columbia University. So we’re very early into the new millennium, and I’m struck by how much time Meadow is spending at the university library, sitting at some table in front of a pile of books.

Tony HirstMy point is that until I heard Tony Hirst speak at Internet Librarian International, I might have thought of the invisible library in that now-familiar “library without walls” kind of way. Undergraduates at Columbia may no longer be magnetised by the library building, and instead will be consuming more information on the go – in their room, at Starbucks, back at the parental home, and so forth, as the e-resource revolution continues to transform the learning experience everywhere.

But Tony Hirst didn’t even use this as his starting point. I’ve learnt, from following his blog, that you can rely on Tony to move a familiar concept way beyond its former position. So instead of taking us through tired old scenarios of ubiquitous information resources, Tony made us think more deeply about the idea of invisibility. He conjured up a familiar fairy story, The elves and the shoemaker, to represent the library as a shop fronting the wares of other people.

He also introduced us to the Invisible Theatre, in which a troupe will set up in a non-theatrical environment such as a shopping centre, and will perform a scenario which the “audience” i.e. passers-by won’t even perceive to be a performance as such. They may draw those people in to some discussion, and then quietly tip-toe away, having acted as an unacknowledged catalyst of a social situation. I used to perform street theatre myself, back in the early 1990s in Manchester, but it was very much a performance. Tony’s description of the invisible theatre reveals how much more participative street theatre has become in the intervening period, and my take is that libraries are making the same shift, breaking down the barriers between the library and its users.

Along more technological lines than elves, shoemakers and street performers, Tony spoke about tools that are rendered invisible through their seamless integration into other services. Google Scholar is a great example of this. Anyone can search for articles, but Google Scholar is able to determine, without the user realising, access entitlements, and if the user is from, say, a university with a subscription to the e-journal in question, then the user will simply experience seamless access to the full-text. That’s precisely the kind of invisibility that we’re all working towards. It can be problematic because in the National Student Survey, for example, you might not be converting a complaint to a compliment. Instead, a library service or tool will be something that the library user is unknowingly dependent on, but the point is that they are dependent on it, and they are actually dependent on it being invisible, and that’s the business case.

He also urged internet librarians everywhere to go with the flow. On Twitter it’s possible to do a search on the tweets of specified users for keywords such as “how” and “libraries”, and thereby tap into a rich source of useful tips. Today’s information environment is all about flows of information and we should all be engaging in it.

Finally, he warned us about being invisible “in the wrong way”, for example by setting up a repository that isn’t exposed to Google.

The EOD (E-Books on Demand) Network

ILI 2009Silvia Gstrein from University of Innsbruck spoke engagingly on Thursday at Internet Librarian International about the E-books on Demand (EOD) Network. Established in 2007, the network now involves over 20 libraries in 10 European countries (not the UK though – why not, I wonder). I loved hearing about this project – it seems to be meeting a real niche need.

Silvia explained very clearly how the network works. A user finds a book of interest on the online catalogue of one of the 20 participating libraries, and clicks to request to digitise the book.

If the number of pages is present in the metadata, then a price can be given immediately (member libraries set their own pricing).

The library then receives the order, and scans the book. The digitised copy is then sent to the central server at University of Innsbruck.

An email is sent to the user, and payment can now take place. Card processing is also managed centrally at University of Innsbruck.

The user can either download the PDF or have it sent on CD.

User can follow progress of the order throughout the process.

The service has attracted favourable feedback from users, who would nonetheless also be interested in 20th century, something that is not possible under current copyright legislation.

Silvia made the important point that many 15th – 17th century books would otherwise only be accessible via visits to physical libraries. The electronic library has largely freed up academics from spending inordinate amounts of time travelling around from one library to another amassing physical research materials, but not surprisingly, antiquarian books are lagging behind. And cultural artefacts are, of course, for sharing. I’ve got an early 17th century prayer book stored in an acid-free box in the wardrobe of my spare room where no-one else can see it, which is not ideal. One of the most amazing things about it is the graffiti written by what I imagine are rebellious choir boys down the ages. It would certainly be great to share the pleasure I get from looking at it. Maybe this is a candidate for some kind of citizen-cataloguing project, along the lines of Peter Murray Rust’s ideas.

Operationally, the service doesn’t pose any problems for the participating library, with the three top libraries receiving one request per working day on average. For some libraries who have never digitised their materials, it’s an opportunity to embark on digitisation, and they appreciate the guidelines and ready-made workflow provided by the EOD network.

So far about 3200 books have been digitised to 1900 customers, and the average price of an order is €50. €50 for 400 year old graffiti? A bargain, I’d say.

Cory Doctorow keynotes at Internet Librarian International 2009

ILI 2009I went to one of the Birmingham Book Festival events earlier this week, and saw the British playwright, David Edgar, talk about How Plays Work. At one point Edgar talks about the particular problems that romantic comedy presents in the construction of a drama, basically because everyone knows how it’s going to end (unless it’s Jane Austen’s Emma, he said) so you’ve got to draw in quite sophisticated devices to keep the audience interested. So when he was writing his book, How plays work, he really wanted to quote a few passages from Nora Ephron, screenwriter of Sleepless in Seattle et al, but has found, over the years, that it’s almost impossible to obtain permission for quoting passages from film screenplays, because of the over-protectiveness of the entertainment industry towards its own intellectual property (last clause is my words rather than Edgar’s). Just to make sure that I’ve driven this point home, he was prevented from reproducing a few lines in the pursuit of scholarly endeavour together with a full acknowledgement, rather than photocopying an entire script.

Cory DoctorowIt should come as no surprise to anyone who attended Internet Librarian International on Thursday that all of this sprung readily to mind when listening to Cory Doctorow’s opening keynote speech. Doctorow drew a picture of a group of elite broadcasters deciding what we’ll look at and delivering a glossy production to entertain us all. This wouldn’t be a problem, he said (although I find that debatable), except that those people have the ear of lawmakers, and are intent on using that to preserve their privileges.

It’s interesting to have a Canadian point out that in the UK here is no right to parody – and that use of copyright material to parody can constitute copyright infringement or even libel. I had no idea that this was the case, and can only think that the British sense of humour, surely one of the best reasons to live in the UK, is some sort of miracle. Doctorow used this to demonstrate that every country has its own information regulations and legislation. However, international treaties have begun to harmonise right-holder rights. These agreements effectively set a minimum floor for right-holder privilege, but unfortunately no ceiling, and Doctorow argues that this means that public rights vary from one country to another.

Doctorow then turned his attention to Google Books Search, focusing on the contentious issue of whether making copies for the purposes of indexing is unlawful. If enacted, every search engine will be breaking the law, and this would effectively break the web. Copying is just about as difficult today as it’s ever going to be, as a combination of capacious hardware and usable networks means that copying (which was technically a lot more difficult at the time when copyright laws were originally formulated) is going to get easier and easier.

He outlined a number of scenarios to illustrate our dependence on the web. The idea of trying to do my job without the internet certainly chimed with me. I’d struggle without RSS and Delicious, let alone Google. If we’re not careful, then, all these activities will find themselves regulated under copyright legislation, because almost every online activity involves copying in some way.

In the UK, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, authored, unusually, by an economist rather than representative from the entertainment or publishing industry, pointed out that copyright doesn’t actually deliver much in terms of economic value. Copyright protection won’t encourage dead artists to produce more work anytime soon.

Doctorow argued that information is a means to an end – it’s about helping people to do interesting things with information, rather than making information an endlessly tradable commodity per se. And with the dramatically lower costs of coordination brought about by the network, it is actually information technology that is the engine, so cutting off the use of IT will be far more economically damaging than cutting off the privileges of the entertainments industry.

He also drew our attention to ACTA – the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, currently being hammered out in secret. Four key elements of ACTA are:

  • The three-strike rule. This has just been passed in France, and is under consideration in the UK. It means that anyone who is accused (as opposed to convicted, which apparently is too expensive to implement!) three times of copyright infringement, then your ISP will cut off your access to the internet. All the benefits of the internet become subject to the capriciousness of the entertainment and publishing industries, Doctorow argued.
  • Criminal sanctions for non-commercial infringements so your children are liable to gaol time if caught trading files
  • Proposals to wire tap the whole of the internet to detect copyright infringement
  • Searching at borders of hard drives including archiving of private information.

To say the least this is heavy-handed, removing any vestiges of a right to privacy or to a fair trial, and there’s no reason to believe that this will stop infringers who use sophisticated mechanisms to avoid detection. American NGOs have apparently requested details of the treaty, under the Freedom of Information act, but the Obama administration has refused, saying it’s a matter of national security.

Depressing stuff. But like many people, I was heartened by developments in the UK this week, when pressure in the blogosphere and on Twitter effectively broke a super-injunction served on the Guardian preventing any reporting about a Parliamentary question concerning the actions of oil traders, Trafigura. Society gets the freedom(s) it deserves, and there is more scope for disruption than we often realise.

What makes a good library service? New guidelines issued by CILIP

CILIP logoAt the PLA 2009 conference last week, Bob McKee, Chief Executive of CILIP, proudly presented a new set of guidelines as to what makes a good library service. In comparison to the traditional bulky, text heavy and complex use of language presented in traditional library guidelines, this A5 pamphlet could easily be overlooked as an advert or flyer rather than library guidelines. However, this is not to be perceived as a bad thing. The concise manner in which it is presented leaves no room for hot air and leaves it do exactly what it says on the tin: guide.

The guidelines urge the library service to be:

“Continually refreshed and improved to respond to the adapting needs of local communities”

And

“Library buildings, equipment and ICT facilities should be well-designed and kept up-to-date.”

The ten questions to ‘test’ whether your library service is up to standard, highlight many benchmarks which could only ensure a good service is being achieved. The one which caught my eye in particular, was point four.

“Does your library service provide what local people expect in terms of location, accessibility, materials, resources, staffing and activities?”

There is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to turning around the current perception of the library service; each should not be a clone of another. Whilst sharing best practise has a valuable role to play, we must engage with those around us ensure the local library service is engaging, and as odd as it may seem, local.

Download the guidelines here.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries, Literacy and Information Management Report: a review

APPG report more ppl shotLast week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group launched their new report: an inquiry into the governance and leadership of the public library service in England. On the basis of the progression we have seen with the DCMS modernisation review, I had little expectation of this report providing any real insight or vision. As I worked my way through the report, I found myself scribbling and highlighting away, only to find the very thought I had just noted to be clarified in the upcoming paragraph. So I was pleasantly surprised to say the least, as I found the report to consider more perspectives than I anticipated.

It would have been too easy for the scope of the report to be wide and vague, which no doubt would have provided a foggy vision if any. So it was good to see that the focus of this report is specifically on the effectiveness of arrangements for the governance and leadership of public library services. The six lines of enquiry were very appropriate in light of the current situation. They were:

1)      What are the strengths and weaknesses of the present system for the governance and leadership of the public library service in England?

2)      Should local communities have a greater say in decisions about the public library service?

3)      Should central government do more to superintend the public library service?

4)      Are local authorities the best agency to provide library services?

5)      What are the governance and leadership roles of the Advisory Council on Libraries (ACL), the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)?

6)      What changes (if any) are required to improve and strengthen governance and leadership?

Perhaps a closer look into the role of technology and innovation may have been a potential area for inquiry, though this may be something which stems from point six. As the report began to take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of the public library service, they acknowledged that:

“The submissions presented a bleak national picture with more weaknesses than strengths being identified.”

Amongst some of the more legitimate and agreeable points raised, there were a few points which led me to frown as I read. For example, the group believes the library service is diverse and innovative, listing it as one of its strengths. But is this really the case? Would this report really be necessary if they were? A couple of contradictions arose too, for example, listing staff to be helpful and experts at one point and then ill equipped and unhelpful at another.

In summary, the key recommendations were to develop one lead voice for libraries through the establishment of a single Library Development Agency for England (LDAE). A reassuring recognition, as a vision leading the library service could not be any more crucial than it is today. The current role and purpose of the many national agencies has brought confusion to the service, lacking a prominent player leading the way. The report rightly recognises the library sector has lost its way, and is sadly regarded to be of low value by decision makers.

Whist the LDAE is in the making (I assume answers around who, when and how are yet to come) we can expect a mid-term communications strategy and training and development programmes for public library personnel to improve management and leadership skills, from the MLA. Interesting, as the report recognised the MLA’s poor record with libraries in the past, and some contributors felt regret around the recent changes to its regional structures. The formation of LDAE would result in revision to the role, function and allocated funding of the MLA, making them a surprising/uncertain candidate to lead the way on the mid-term plans.

Overall, I was pleased to see the group recognise dramatic action is required and quickly. Yet it could be argued that recognising the problem is the easy part, finding and implementing the solution is the real challenge.

Image copyright of APPG. Publisher, CILIP.

Full report available to download from CILIP.