The UK public library service is an outstanding success story. With over 4,700 libraries, 693 mobile libraries and over 129 million books the service has a presence in most communities in the country and consequently in most peoples lives.
These impressive statistics are reflected in the fact that nearly 60% of the population are library card holders and that 10 million people use libraries at least once a fortnight. The public library service is therefore probably the nations most popular and well used cultural institution. (Source: New Library: The Peoples Network).
Over the last five years society has begun to feel the impact of a revolution in communication and computer technology. Increasingly computers are affecting and influencing the way that we learn, work and communicate. One example of this is that more people work directly from their homes and want to be able to access information directly from their computer. Developments like this will mean that many people's information demands on their public library will change. If public libraries are to remain a success story they too must change and develop new services in order to meet their users new needs.
The development of computer networking is one of the main reasons for the changes that are taking place in our society. By looking back at how computers and the way we use them have changed in recent years, we can begin to understand why computer networking has had such a big impact.
Initially computers were stand alone and were used mainly to manage information in the form of databases - for example a computer could act as a library management system for one library, making the day to day management of book issues much easier and more efficient. However it would only have access to information about books in that library as it couldn't communicate or share information with any other computers.
The next development was that one main computer could have many different terminals linked to it. This meant that people over a geographically wide area could access the information held on that one computer. For example, libraries across an authority could all be connected to the same library management system and so track and manage the stock at an authority level rather than simply at an individual library level. Staff in one library could find out instantly what books were held in another library and could easily order and reserve stock from across the authority. An example of a similar kind of geographically spread computer network is a bank cashpoint system.
However, these networks are insular and can't communicate with other computer networks. For example the library management system in one authority wouldn't be able to communicate with the cashpoints or even the library management system in a neighbouring authority.
In the 1990s people starting linking these computer networks together - producing networks of computer networks of which the most well known one is the Internet. These networks link many thousands of computers all around the world and are now accessible from a desktop PC. As these networks developed, easier ways of retrieving information and navigating the networks developed. The most well used method now is an easy to use text and picture based system called the World Wide Web. As the Web became more popular and more people began to use it, more information was made available on it and commercial companies began to offer services over it. Now anyone with a computer potentially can book holidays, buy merchandise, take online educational courses or contact experts around the world from their desktop.
The development of email has also meant that it is very easy to contact and communicate with people all around the world. Email is increasingly many people's preferred way to communicate within an organisation. Email also allows people with common interests to form online discussion communities, communities which are often made up with people from all around the world.
These developments are supporting the emergence of what is coming to be known as The Information Society.
The Information Society is a term that is well used but seldom defined! It is used to refer to a society which has an economy which is dependent on the creation, storage and accessibility of information on a national and global scale. Typically this information is transferred and accessed using the latest communication and computer technology.
The Information Society will have some key impacts on our lives:
1.The workplace and peoples careers will be less structured and stable. People will be able to work from home. They will be able to work for companies which aren't even based in the same country as themselves. People may need to develop marketable skills which they can then sell to employers rather than the current traditional employer and employee relationship. Learning will therefore not be confined to a period of formal education at the beginning of our lives. Increasingly, people will need access to education throughout their working lives as they may have to re-train and become re-skilled several times in their careers.
2.Businesses will increasingly operate in a global marketplace and will need access to the latest information, skills and research in order to compete in such a fierce competitive environment. The economy will become more and more dependent on knowledge industries e.g. the learning industry, communication technologies and the new networking technology.
3.The Information Society will also be one where citizens will be able to interact more effectively with their governments. Public information will be more easily accessible and so citizens will be able to be more informed and consequently able to more effectively participate in decision making.
4.Culture will become more accessible and also more important. Cultural facilities such as museums, galleries and literature will be accessible via computer networks. Online exhibitions, downloadable books, the much heralded digital TV and radio will allow the individual to chose and tailor more effectively their cultural life.
These are just a few of the changes that are beginning to take place. The public library cannot remain unchanged whilst the society in which it operates alters radically. It too needs to adapt its services and reinvent itself in order to exploit the new opportunities that the information society offers.
The Information Society presents many opportunities for public libraries. This is a view shared by the current Government. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has made it clear that public libraries have a role to play in the developing Information Society - but what is this role to be?
Libraries will have to develop new services, new roles and new visions of themselves in order to exploit the opportunity that is offered to them by the Information Society. Libraries have the potential to make use of a global information network and at present are not ready to do this.
It is important that libraries grasp these opportunities. Libraries must adapt and renew services so that they continue their important public role and provide relevant services to the public. There is a need for renewal, for planning and for a vision of what these libraries must be like to meet the challenges ahead.
The last Government foresaw these challenges and commissioned the Library and Information Commission to produce a report which would answer these issues and would provide a vision of the public library service that the citizens of the Information Society will need. New Library: The Peoples Network provides this vision.
The authors of the report recognised the importance of understanding library users needs and wanted to investigate the publics reaction to this new vision of what public libraries of the future might offer, so a small-scale research programme was conducted.
The key concepts of this vision were identified and their appeal, relevance and potential impact was assessed by a number of target groups in four different library environment - a small local library, a main central library, a library in a deprived inner city area and a rural library.
The survey found that people are aware that the use of IT is fundamental in todays society and they recognise that public libraries have a role to play in making it accessible to all - to level the playing field and provide technology for those that cannot afford to buy it.
People were passionate about books, about being surrounded by books in peace and quiet, and being able to browse and find something unexpected. These were important library values that people did not want to lose. People participating in the study expressed strong concern that once IT gets a foot in the door it could take over at the expense of the bookstock and the good values of the library.
Library staff were seen to have an important role to play in helping and coaching people in their use of IT. The presence of the library staff was also felt to be important in keeping a human feel to the library, and especially in encouraging people who might feel intimidated by new technology.
Value was placed in the area of education in its widest sense. The library could become the natural place for people to turn to for advice, support and practical training in IT and communication skills.
The New Library report recommends that libraries need to be transformed if they are to continue to act as intermediaries, guides, interpreters and referral points in the information age whilst continuing to offer the best of todays services.
The New Library will continue in the primary public library role of enabling all people to prosper and improve the quality of their lives. This will be through the continued provision of services for the housebound, community outreach, access to books, literacy projects and all the other traditional services. Libraries should also aim to ensure the library is a place where the public can acquire the new skills, learn to use information creatively and undertake the self development required for full participation in the Information Society. The New Library will become an institution that offers access to the Information Society through the provision of computer terminals and training for all members of the public.
The New Library will be open and accessible to all for all their information needs - whether these needs be for resources in print or electronic form.
The New Library will make information about every aspect of life available to people and provide valued leisure and cultural opportunities.
The New Library will be meshed into the new national education system which is being developed. It will part of the National Grid for Learning, it will support all people learning to access and interact with learning resources around the world.
The New Library will enable people to involve themselves more fully with the democratic process. Using information and communication technology in the library people will have ready access to local, central and international government.
The staff of the New Library will be fully trained in the latest information technology and will help people overcome their anxieties about the new world of networked information and assist them to navigate through it.
This vision of the New Library will apply to all libraries in the UK - not just the large and metropolitan ones. Even the most remote rural library will be able to offer access to the same facilities as a large urban library - ensuring that all people in the UK have access to the opportunities offered by the Information Society.
At the heart of the New Library report is a recognition that this new network must be the means through which libraries offer new services and provide access to their own resources. The report groups suggested content and services into five main areas.
The public library will form an integral part of the National Grid for Learning (a proposed national education network) by providing resources and equipment for people of all ages to participate in lifelong learning.
Children and young people will be supported in acquiring basic skills, building their personal knowledge and developing information searching skills through use of multi-media learning resources geared to the National Curriculum.
Networked resources will also offer opportunities for personal learning for adults, whether it is in support of a career or for leisure. Already the California Virtual University offers students from all over the world distance learning courses at over 300 Californian universities and colleges.
Libraries will provide a safe, creative environment for accessing these resources, which will help in overcoming the inequality of opportunity experienced by those that do not have access to new technology at home.
With such a wealth of resources available many people will need the support and guidance of trusted library staff in accessing and evaluating whats available.
Networking libraries will allow access to global digital collections of images, video and sound recordings from the smallest libraries or even from home, school or the workplace.
It will also be possible to access all UK public library catalogues. Improving access will also mean that people with mobility problems will find it easy to exploit the new opportunities. The new services will be adapted for people with impaired sight or hearing.
Independent learning will be supported with training packages. Information on job and educational opportunities will be available. Interactive communication with educational institutions will be possible, for example online application procedures will be available.
The public library network will be a gateway for citizen communication, promoting a healthy democracy and social cohesion. A public library network of access points, open to everyone, will help to bring a sense of belonging and renew the potential for participation in society.
Many public agencies already have Internet websites and these will develop as more people use the library network.
A healthy society must also interact with itself, and as well as providing access to centres of administration, people will be able to interact with government and voluntary organisations and interest groups.
A current example of this is the independent website that has been set up to allow the public to provide the Government with feedback on the proposals within the Freedom of Information White Paper. The website features background information, press comment, an interactive discussion forum and the chance to email questions directly to the Cabinet Minister for Public Service.
The easier two-way transfer of information and documentation between people will allow for faster and more efficient routine transactions with government and public services. Applications for planning permission and driving licences could be processed electronically for example.
Local government will be able to use the network to consult residents affected by local issues. A teledemocracy can be envisaged with canvassing of public opinion and maybe even voting conducted electronically. Self publishing in electronic form will become a reality for individuals and special interest groups. Individuals will be able to become better informed and to promote their views in the interests of wider community development.
The public library is already a provider of high quality information to the business community. Networking will allow faster access to up to the minute information from a wide variety of businesses and support organisations, such as chambers of commerce and trade associations, who will be increasingly networked themselves. Access wont be restricted to visiting a library as people will be able to log into the library network from home or work.
Job seekers will be able to extend their searches beyond their local librarys stock of newspapers and journals. It will be possible to conduct searches of local, national and international publications that are tailored to the individuals personal requirements. The Guardian newspapers RecruitNet, for example, allows you to define your job requirements and the search function matches appointments to your precise specification.
The library has always been a resource for learning and has a specially important role to play in learning in order for individuals to update or acquire job skills. People will be able to learn and develop their Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills at their own pace by using specially designed training packages.
Citizens are also consumers and therefore the ultimate generators of national wealth. The consumer needs ready and reliable access to information on products, services and producers, as well as access to legal and commercial information - all of which the public library network will provide.
Libraries support a sense of community and identity through local history collections and the public library network will allow these unique collections to be accessed nationally. Already examples from the Leeds Public Library local history photographic collection are available on the web. Digitisation of materials will not only improve access but will also help with the conservation and security of the original source. Records of births, deaths and marriages will be available, as will local newspaper archives.
Electronic communications will mean that support will be available from specialist librarians and archivists worldwide and publishing personal stories and local histories electronically will also be possible. As well as visiting local collections and exhibits from around the world, interactive communications will make it possible to participate in community history projects. The Pier 21 Society in Canada, for example, allows people who have passed through this important port in Nova Scotia to publish their personal stories.
Through public libraries people in the UK will be increasingly able to experience the cultural diversity of our society and the rich fabric of global culture.
The National Digital Library will be a vast electronic collection of the very best from all the significant collections in public libraries, national libraries, museums and galleries. These collections of rare materials and cultural assets will be accessible not only to researchers, but everyone.
More imaginatively, multimedia exhibitions of images and narration that can be visited from any local library will give everyone the chance of a guided tour as opposed to a passive walkabout.
As well as giving the taxpayer greater access to publicly funded collections, the technology will also allow the visual arts to be provided and promoted in new and exciting ways. This will improve the way in which the UKs cultural heritage can be promoted around the world which will develop and support the tourism industry.
Learning will be supported by interactive packages on arts, culture and the media.
Improved communications will allow anyone to seek advice from information specialists inside and outside of the public library sector. Project EARL has recently set up Ask a Librarian, the UK's first electronic national reference enquiry service that enables public librarians to bring their expertise to the public via the network. People can ask questions by email and answers are supplied within two working days from the partner public libraries taking part in the service.
The UK Public Library Computer Network will be the means by which libraries will be able to connect to each other, the Internet and other networked resources. All the libraries in an authority will be networked together at a local level. Each of these local networks will then connect to a national network which will link them altogether. This network will also be linked to the Internet.
This national network can be compared to a tree - each branch of this tree represents a local authority network, the trunk to which the branches connect represents the national library network which links all the branches together. The roots out of which the trunk grows represents the global networks like the Internet. All the branches of the tree are connected to these roots by the trunk. The earth in which the roots grow is the mass of information which all these networks provide access to. The roots suck up this information and via the trunk it is delivered to the branches.
All UK public libraries will be connected to this network irrespective of their location and the size of the population that they serve.
Each library will have at least three or four computer terminals through which the public will be able to gain access to the UK Public Library Network. The larger the library the more terminals are envisaged with large central libraries having at least 40. Terminals will be also be provided for staff.
The report suggests that a Public Library Networking Agency be set up to lead and co-ordinate the developments outlined in New Library. It is recommended that the body has a UK-wide remit and operates by commissioning other bodies to develop various areas of content and services.
These exciting new services will be impossible to provide unless public library staff are provided with an extensive programme of training. This is something which is recognised as very important in the report.
Public library staff already have many of the communication and customer care skills that are needed to deliver a high quality public service. New skills need to be built on this existing expertise. Skills which will allow librarians to work with an increasingly diverse range of materials - in print and electronic form - from the local and global sources that will become available.
A UK-wide training initiative is recommended by the report so that all members of staff will be ready to meet the challenges of the future.
At a national level, over a five year period, an ICT training programme will be initiated that will provide training in core competencies to set targets and agreed standards. Training will be quality assured, involving organisations such as the Investors In People programme. Appropriate training may be accredited by further and higher education or professional bodies. Core training materials will be produced centrally, but will be tailored to meet local requirements.
As well as skills development, all staff will be trained in the concepts of the UK Public Library Network and its likely impact on their role as well as gaining an understanding of the magnitude of the change programme that we are embarking on.
There are already successful examples of this type of national training initiative to support major cultural and organisational change. In the academic sector, the eLib programmes (set up by the Joint Information Services Committee of the Higher Education Funding Council) have helped in upgrading the skills of library staff. The Post Offices national training initiative involved training 85,000 staff.
Already there have been recommendations in the People's Lottery White Paper which suggested that money from the National Lottery should be made available for training teachers and librarians in this new technology.
The report recognises the importance of staff having time away from their normal duties for formal and informal ICT training, so that they can become confident and have time to practice their new skills. It is proposed that funding covers some of these staff release costs so that libraries are not left short staffed whilst staff undertake training.
Library staff will continue to use their current core skills but will be working with an increasing range of electronic as well as print-based materials. They will, for example, be able to direct the child asking for information about dinosaurs to the Natural History Museums website, where they can view the Museums dinosaur collection on 3D-surround video. The Public Library Network will extend the range of services that can be offered via mobile libraries and housebound services. People unable to visit their local library will be able to browse and select books from the same collections as those visiting the library. Many people will be unfamiliar with these new electronic resources, and they will look to library staff as the natural trainers and guides to the new technology - just as they did when faced with the first OPACs.
Access to the Internet will provide a vast amount of potential sources of information and electronic mail will allow staff direct access to experts worldwide and thousands of information resources. However, the key skills of conducting a reference interview, identifying the readers information needs and having good customer skills will remain crucial.
This comprehensive training initiative is seen as an important component of the Governments plan to develop a learning society. Librarians like all members of the information society will need to undertake lifelong learning.
The total funding required for implementing the recommendations of the report over a 6 year period is estimated at around £720 million. This will cover the development of the network infrastructure, the provision of equipment, the cost of a national staff training programme and the development of new services and content.
A mix of funding from difference sources will be necessary to develop the infrastructure, operate and manage the network, create the content and develop the new services. Although central government has a part to pay in funding, it will also be necessary to draw on as wide a variety of funding sources as possible.
It is expected that collaborations and partnerships with other public agencies and the private sector will be developed. Partnerships with other libraries, such as academic libraries and libraries in commercial and voluntary organisations will also be explored.
All these new developments in services will result in a number of opportunities to generate income which can be used to offset some of the costs that will be incurred. It may be appropriate to offer some new services on a commercial basis - business information is an obvious example of this. Income could be generated from charging for specialist training or for the commercial use of digital information created by a library.
Although the report makes a powerful case for establishing a threshold of free access within a UK public library network, it does not make a recommendation on free access or charging at this stage. However, the report does recommend that the Government makes a funding commitment which will encourage others to contribute to the investment in the public library networking plan.
New Library: The People's Network was launched on 15th October 1997 and formally presented by Matthew Evans to the Secretary of State, Chris Smith. A response to its recommendations is expected from Government (possibly in a speech by the Prime Minister himself) at the beginning of March 1998.
Whatever the Government response, this report signifies a defining moment for public libraries. New Library: The People's Network provides an exciting vision of the public library of the future which cannot be ignored. As our society develops into an 'Information Society' public libraries cannot afford to stand still and must grasp the vision that the report provides.
We must ensure that our libraries continue to fulfil their wide and valued role in society. We must seize this moment to renew and reinvigorate our libraries so that they can play a defining role in helping to smooth the path to the technological future for our society.