Day 3 and it’s the final day of the Public Library Association conference 2009. I had low expectations for the day, as I misread the conference programme to believe the day would be dwindling to an end. Yet as the first session began, I was quickly proven wrong.
I assumed the ‘Libraries opening doors to health’ session would be bland and irrelevant, so was attending a little half heartedly. But as Bob Gann, Head of Strategy and Engagement for NHS Choices programme began the session, he had me engaged straight away. The NHS Choices web site allows patients to review their own health services, and has been (informally) described as the “NHS Trip Advisor”. Aside from the direct work the programme does with libraries such as bibliotherapy and community information centres, it was clear the programme and the strategies used to execute it could be mirrored in libraries. For example, he crucially recognised the importance of syndication. Though the site gets lots of hits (attracting over 7 million visits a month), he acknowledged early on that people are less likely to visit a government website out of all the websites they could choose from, so by syndicating NHS information to over 100 different channels, such as YouTube to showcase videos and Boots to support their existing health information etc. they were able to reach a wider range audiences. An enjoyable presentation which I dare to describe as insightful, and hopefully something which librarians recognised as something they could emulate to achieve such similar successes.
The second presentation was from Senior Library Managers at the Nelson Mandela Bay Library Service and Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University and it began with a 15 minute thank you to the conference organisers. This is all very well, but I would’ve much rather preferred that that time was spent talking us through the projects. Just as I began losing my patience, some interesting aims began appearing on the screen. The NMBM aims to meet the information needs of those less privileged social groups, recognising that university and public libraries are building blocks of local information and knowledge infrastructure. Key projects were showcased during the session, including a reading project working with the youth of South Africa and New Zealand. The project encouraged participants to become avid readers – a unique fact in itself, as resources are not easily accessible in South Africa. Another project to develop partnerships to improve service delivery, increase the flow of information was adopted as it was believed to be the way forward. By the end of the session I was left thinking, if a library in South Africa can achieve so much with so little and really make a difference to their community, why can’t we?
Following a well deserved break, John Fisher, CEO of Citizens online began his session. He believes the focus should not be about getting everyone a computer, but ensuring everyone benefits from the use of a one. Conscious of his semi-graveyard slot, John began some quick interactive surveys to demonstrate the scale of the population who don’t use technology. Apparently, 15-16 million people (one quarter of the of the UK’s population) doesn’t use technology. And a further third of those are totally disconnected, and see no benefit in using it at all. He went on to explain the Everybody Online project, where a digital champion has been recruited, Martha Lane Fox, the Co-founder of Lastminute.com to launch a strategy to improve these statistics. The project aims to optimise social media tools to engage with communities by allowing them to choose their own information, and encouraging them to share and build online communities. It was a nice change to see a speaker actually speak and not read from a card or slides; in fact John’s entire presentation had no slides, resulting in a highly engaged audience.
Following the last few sessions, I began concluding my thoughts of the three days and of my first PLA conference. Though officially the themes were centred on community engagement, in hindsight, I felt it was something quite different. Reading between the lines, I felt the main focus of the delegates wasn’t around engaging with their communities at all, but more about justifying their existence. Cases like Wirral and more recently, the proposals of library closures in Aberdeenshire, has left librarians constantly thinking about how they can build their portfolio of ammunition, should their service come under the firing line some time soon. And if recent goings on are anything to go by, it’s almost certain that they will have to in the coming years. Each speaker seemed aware of this too. Though not literally, each was providing ideas and models to do so, with the term ‘outcome based accountability’ sneaking in quite frequently.
Throughout the conference I was keen to speak to as many people as possible and gauge their opinion on the sessions as they happened. It was interesting to see the two distinct interpretations of the presentations that emerged. Throughout the conference, many librarians felt many of the speakers weren’t as insightful as they’d hoped, lacking an understanding of the real issues. Whereas particular Councillors and Senior Executives were nodding enthusiastically when informally discussing over lunch that the declining library usage would rightly justify library closures. There appears to be a distinct difference in vision for the future of libraries between librarians and those elsewhere, begging the question, do we need to engage internally before externally? Should my assumption be correct, librarians have no option but to fail if half of the team has already given up…