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...

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
July 2018
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