Web Magazine for Information Professionals

I Have Seen the Future and IT Works

Chris Batt Director of Library Services, Croydon, discusses Information Technology.

A title like that is going to take some effort to live up to. Whether taken in its original literal sense, as used by Lincoln Steffens reporting life in Russia in 1919, or as my intended double meaning, that IT will play a significant part in making the more abundant life, it remains quite a task to provide proof. It is a bold statement as a counterblast to the dystopic view of the future given at last year’s lecture by Trevor Hayward. The choice of title was not mine: I might have added to it - I have seen the future and IT works, SOMETIMES!

On the poster promoting the lecture were three questions: will information be used for the good of individuals and society? What will the future hold? Will public libraries die, or lead the way to the Millennium?

The short answers are: don’t know, don’t know and yes! More is expected of me than that, so first I will examine the nature of the Information Society: is it just a marketing fad or a real social revolution? Second, I will define some landmarks along the pathway into the future: the indicators of change. Third, I will give some examples of those changes in action.

The Information Society

We can all agree on one thing about the Information Society. It has generated a great deal of information! And there has been no greater source of this than the European Commission. I will not dwell on the importance of the Commission except to quote from three studies that give a public library/public information spin to their messages: "public information as the new engine of growth" (EU High Level Expert Group. Final report). "…libraries have a key role to play in facilitating public access at local level to electronically available information…" (European Parliament Green Paper). "…public libraries will continue to play a crucial role as gateways to information resources, including those on the global superhighways." (Public Libraries and the Information Society Study). The components linking the studies, underpinning the Information Society movement, are the outputs of the union of information and communication technologies and their rapid diffusion, epitomised by the Internet. It is my view that current trends have the makings of a social revolution, perhaps on the scale of the Industrial Revolution, but very different. The Industrial Revolution was about using mass resources to deliver high returns to a few. In time the drift to cities produced better sanitation for a healthier and therefore more efficient workforce and other social goods, not least the public library movement.

However, mass production methods subjugated rather than enriched the individual. If it becomes a revolution, the Information Society will bring new individual opportunities that may not be fully comprehended for 40 or 50 years. Information is now being delivered direct to the individual on a scale undreamt of. This also offers, through discussion lists, email and self-publishing, new opportunities for the sharing of views and opinions with a global community.

But at present, we sit on the cusp of the change curve in a period of uncertain transition from the old to the new. Within the developed countries only a minority of citizens are purposive users of the Internet, but it is a large and ever-increasing minority and companies large and small are moving into Cyberspace as they scent a huge potential market.

There are four phrases that appear again and again in the literature and in the corporate goals of governments, both national and local: economic development; lifelong learning/education; democratic rights/community action; social inclusion. These are not only ideals for the revolution but the engines that will drive the change.

Landmarks on the Road into the Future

We live in a time full of signposts. The Information Society and indeed the role of the public library in the change process are becoming common parlance. Through various reports, documents and initiatives, the message is that information and education are once again to be valued as public goods and that there is going to be a clear sense of direction from Government.

The National Grid for Learning (NGfL) has many resonances for the public library movement. On-line resources, connecting institutions for learning, harnessing IT to improve the quality of life and removing barriers to learning are all strands of service which can be seen in the public library. The NGfL white paper makes a bold commitment to connecting all schools, colleges, universities and public libraries to the Grid by 2002. This statement alone ought to be cause for some celebration within the public library sector. However, Government has made an even clearer statement of intent by sanctioning the publication of New Library: The People’s Network and then producing a response which makes new financial commitments to building the public library information superhighway. New Library: The People’s Network proposes a national network connecting all public libraries. There would be minimum configurations of hardware and a national information policy exploited by a public library network agency. Three key elements of the network would be: Infrastructure (backbone and local networks); Content creation (education and lifelong learning, training and business for economic prosperity, social cohesion and national treasures); a national IT training programme for library staff. The cost of delivering all these elements is estimated at [sterling] 750m spent over seven years and the Government has initially promised [sterling] 50m for content creation and [sterling] 26m for training and pump-priming projects, with a commitment to investigate ways of building the infrastructure in partnership with the private sector. To some this may seem a less than fulsome offering but [sterling] 76m is not to be looked askance at and work to prepare guidelines for all aspects of development is proceeding at some speed. Ministers have realised what librarians have always known: that public libraries have served to bind communities together, have created opportunities for self-development not found elsewhere, that they remain highly popular with communities and have been recycling on a grand scale for 150 years!

Glimpsing the Future

Some of the building blocks of the future public library can be seen in the services we now provide in Croydon. We have tried to draw out of our successes some understanding of the shape and content of future services.

CD-ROM Network : the Croydon network now contains over 150 databases delivered through 15 public terminals in the Central Library and extending by high bandwidth connections to branches and schools. Access is available to national newspapers, business databases, government information and much more, at the touch of a button. There are few people using the CD-ROM resources who would return to traditional printed media.

Public Access Training Resources : developing new IT skills is an essential stepping stone towards the Information Society. In Croydon we will soon have access to PC training packages in all our branch libraries alongside free access to the Internet.

Croydon On-line : Croydon is developing a web site intended to be the engine of community development. There are now many public service sites around the country, but we are trying to use the medium of the Web to produce a model that will allow not just the delivery of information to the community, but the means of greater community activity and creativity. Through Croydon On-line you can access the library catalogue, send the library an enquiry, send questions and complaints to a variety of Council services and find information about living, working and studying in the town. You can make comments about what you think is missing from the high street and you can promote your business on the global network. Moreover we now encourage local groups to mount data on the site so that the citizens begin to own the network. We have an on-line poetry magazine maintained by a group of local poets who regularly perform live in the Central Library, and a multitude of other groups are beginning to be involved. (Croydon On-line: www.croydon.gov.uk) The strengths of the Web are the ease of updating compared with traditional formats for community information and the fact that we can point to anything that looks to be of interest. The goals of Croydon On-line relate to economic development, debate and democracy, ownership, learning and inclusion.

Lifelong Learning : Now a phrase of some significance, it sums up a new strand of government policy encompassing quality of life, new opportunities, re-skilling and equality of access. It therefore has relevance to the public library and is important for a particular reason. if we are not careful something of what makes public libraries unique will be lost in the headlong rush for the lifelong learning experience. There is a vision of lifelong learning as an extension of more formal learning structures, with awards, accreditation, recognition of achievement and quality assurance. One of the Fryer Report task groups, working under the umbrella of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning , said: "…access to learning opportunities requires resources for self-directed and autonomous forms of learning as well as access to educational institutions, progression routes and formal qualifications." There is nothing wrong with that but it is my firm belief that the public library can and does address a broader agenda, which is about learning for life rather than lifelong learning. People have been coming into public libraries and learning things since the very moment the first recognisable public library opened its doors. People already come into their library to find out about full time, part time or adult education courses. They expect to be able to get support material for those courses and in future the public library will play a vital role as an interface between the world of learning opportunities and community need. This will extend to the local library delivering networked learning material to those people who through choice or necessity will use the public library as the access point to resources such as the National Grid for Learning, the University for Industry, the new education entrepreneurs (Disney, Tesco, universities) and, of course, the People’s Network. The public library becomes the community nerve endings of the education system.

Learning is not simply about following accredited courses to obtain qualifications. It is about gaining knowledge to lead better, more fulfilling lives. Such learning comes frequently in very small quanta. It may be finding out where something is sold more cheaply, or how to travel from A to B in less time. It may be broadening one’s emotional experience by reading about the life of another person or locating the self in the context of other people, be they real or fictional. Public libraries are unique in the way that they can allow those tiny portions of learning to invisibly change people’s lives. Nobody has ever measured the social good of such effects although public library managers know that users expect the library to meet their information and reading needs again and again and again. The invisibility of the process means that it has not featured in any of the national discussions about lifelong learning. Yet better managed, the continuous process of learning for life could make a significant difference to the lives of everyone, and there are many examples of the ways in which the public library can enrich this invisible activity. They are examples of very basic roles which public libraries have fulfilled for many years. Yet the learning for life role has not always been well-served even by the public library. Where it has worked well it has probably been more by chance than design. In the future we have the opportunity to create new services around the emerging media.

The wired public library will give access to a world of documentation that can be searched and downloaded to a local terminal. While the economics of such new opportunities may not be fully worked out, the benefits will be great. Joining the global shared interest group demonstrates that the enquirer has a body of knowledge of value to others. To achieve such equality and opportunity is what the networked society will be about and it is to such change that the public library should be committed.

All those trivial questions like: who’s that French artist with spots? How dense is a house? What is Sanderstead for? What was Elvis Presley’s favourite aftershave? Are these the sort of questions that should be answered by services provided as public goods? My answer is that we cannot readily judge whether or not the questions are trivial, or why they are asked and what value the answer will add to the life of the questioner. Such questions (all of them are real) sit at the heart of the role of the public library as the community knowledge bank. In future we will be better placed to give answers with less cost.

The Web already forms an integral part of the services in some public libraries as staff and public use it as an encyclopaedia on everything. In addition, of course, one of the hidden strengths of the People’s Network will be the connection of people to other people as well as to information. Email services such as Stumpers and Ask a Librarian form meta-brains as the knowledge of librarians can be brought to bear on intractable problems. No other technology can bring such immediate connectivity between people across the face of the globe.

To see the Future you Have to Look in the Right Direction

Some readers will rightly argue that there is nothing particularly new about anything I have said. True, but progress comes generally through the repackaging of things we already do and know. We need to know where to look and what paths to follow.

If we are to see revolutionary change in the emergent Information Society it will be within our own communities. It will be a revolution that is at once global and local. People will change their behaviours locally as they connect to global networks. Connectivity will be a right giving access to resources, people and opportunities. While we may wonder what a room full of empowered citizens would be like, the fact that more people will be able to express opinions when they wish to will change the local democratic process.

I believe that much of that change will be mentored and managed by the public library, where concepts such as economic development, learning for life, citizenship and equality of access have resonance for what public libraries have done successfully for a long, long time. While change is needed now, it will be a long time before the public library as a place disappears. People will want to come to use resources, to borrow books to read (still better information technology than the computer in many situations), to get advice from a real person and just be around other people - the public library has been and will be a convivial meeting place. At the same time those public library services will need to migrate into cyberspace; to allow 24 hour access to information and advice from anywhere, and to ease community access into the diverse world of the information and learning that will be available - the global meeting place for the local community.

So, What Does it all Mean?

Where are we are now on the continuum of change and what should we be doing as information workers? There is a growing diversity of resources to choose from so we must widen our selection processes and decide on the right medium for the right situation. The old is not always bad, the new not always good: we must be selective and critical. Now is the time to experiment. If we do not start now others will get to the high ground first. Obviously, content creation will be everything and management will be for the citizen. Both physical and financial accessibility will be crucial, and space and place will co-exist. New opportunities will emerge from traditional models and we must cherish the tradition of the public library. The stability and continuity of the institution are critical to community health.

Learning for life is not just remote access to traditional education. It is about enabling everyone to grow, through formal and personal learning, how they want to, when they want to and where they want to. To do this a national information policy is vital. Without a national information policy we will face competition between networks and services that will merely serve to weaken the magic that I have tried to describe. Every element of the library and information sector will need to converge if we are to produce real added value for everyone. Whatever the future public library looks like and whoever runs it, I want it positioned to be nothing less than the heart and the brain of the information society.

Author Details

Chris Batt
Director of Libraries and Museums, Croydon