IT and the Public Library

The Public Library is one of the institutions held in the highest affection in the UK. If you doubt that, look at the reaction when even the smallest branch is earmarked for closure. In these economically challenging times, the library is one of the “softest” targets for cuts. Of course, we live in a time when the e-book reader and downloads are biting into the traditional book market.

It was therefore with sadness that I heard of the untimely death of Bob McKee, 3 days short of his 60th birthday; Bob was due to retire around now as CEO of CILIP, and previously the Library Association.

I first shared a platform at a Conference with him in 1990. Even in those days before the emergence of the internet and the WWW as a public phenomenon, Bob had been writing, lecturing and thinking about the impacts of computing and the information age (he wrote a book of that title in 1985) for a decade. Much of his language was alien to me at that time, notably Information Haves and Have nots. He was one of a handful of visionary librarians I then met who saw the digital divide coming and the need to reinvent the public library to meet its social purpose in the digital era.

I suspect many readers of an IT persuasion haven’t been to a Public Library, unless you have small children, for a while.

Over the last 15 years, through the BBC’s “Computers Don’t Bite” and Webwise and as a major part of the UK Online centres, Public Libraries have been playing an important part in tackling the challenges of digital exclusion. Earlier this week, I heard Martha Lane Fox, in her Role as Digital Champion, give the latest UK Figures: 9 million people in the UK have yet to use the internet.

I passionately believe that we need to move to a fully connected society. We now know that what helps the elderly, the disabled and other groups at risk of exclusion to take the first steps into the digital world is taster lessons, around their interests from people they can identify with in an environment that they trust.

Hence, I will argue the importance of local libraries. While the traditional role may be in decline, in the words of the song “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

It may well be that lending e-book readers to help people download books rather than visit a branch to get a physical book may well be a role in the future.

However, those of us comfortable with the virtual world, should think seriously about the role of physical space as part of the solution to e-inclusion.

Libraries are one of the biggest global programmes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over the last 15 years I have met many people whose lives have been transformed by access to the Web and internet, among groups who risked being marginalised. Many would not have taken the step without the community access facilities.

We still have 9 million to go in the UK to get everyone benefiting from the digital world. As IT professionals I hope we are signed up to the universal access goal.

We still need the vision and passion that Bob showed over decades if we are to get there.

If you haven’t seen a library recently, go look...

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    David Campion wrote on 22nd Oct 2010

    There will always be a hardcore of otherwise intelligent people who chose not to use computers as they feel that they get on very well without them and cannot bother to learn how to use them. What are they going to do if their local library is closed?
    It is pretty inconceivable that the large amount of information available, at least at the present time, in Council Reference Libraries will be accessible via the Internet so provision for these has to remain.
    While there will be many who are happy to use e-Book Readers there will be many who prefer to have hard copy.
    Is it really conceivable that the book trade will disappear in the longer term with access only being via IT devices?

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  • 2
    David Lawrence wrote on 22nd Oct 2010

    I'd be very surprised if the Library vs Computers argument didn't run to extinction for the former prior to a sudden realisation that yet again society has bent over backwards to embrace technology that cannot meet the needs of all of its intended market

    Computers are undoubtedly here to stay but they haven't replaced the TV, haven't replaced radio and won't replace hard copy books. Besides which, what kind of a Xmas present is a Kindle?

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  • 3
    David Almond wrote on 29th Oct 2010

    The comment "many readers of an IT persuasion haven’t been to a Public Library" was a shock to me. I came into IT through Librarianship training and through the BBC and government IT programmes in 1984. Libararys and computing should always go hand in hand - they both offer open access to information and although we are now all part of the information age there is a still a need for direction in where and how to look for information. And that is the same whether it is sourced from the book or the byte. Libraries are always the victims of governments as they are an easy material cost - but I agree with the statement think of their value and how this can never be replaced when it is lost.

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  • 4
    David James wrote on 4th Nov 2010

    I don't think that physical hard copy books will ever be phased out completely. Why because there is a thriving secound hand market for these books.

    Take for instance training books that do cost quite a bit of money, but providing they are still relevant you can sell them on when you have taken and passed the test. Or borrow them from your library and return after you have completed the test. I myself have done this many times.

    Computers are not here to replace things we already have, but to work alongside, help, simplify and speed some processes up.

    Can you imagine a christmas scene where everyone logs into the chosen smartphone on christmas morning to see what gifts and vouchers have been sent to them?

    The one serious flaw for the new library which has opened near me is that the floor space given over to books is so small. Yes there are big areas for computers, copiers and even a games machine. Most of the people I know no longer go there, as it has turned more into an internet café than a library. The old library down the road which the new one was supposed to replace is now doing a booming trade.

    Proof that good quality libraries and librarians are still wanted and needed.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp

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