UKOLNVirtual library - false dawn?

Frank Webster and Lorcan Dempsey

A condensed version of this exchange appears in Library Association Record, 101(5) May 1999, p.284-5.

Dear Lorcan,

It is my view that, to appreciate what is happening in libraries today, we need to keep two contextual factors firmly in mind. Though these are telling on the library world, it is far too easy to underestimate their significance if we limit ourselves to consideration only of library matters.

The first is an apparently inexorable shift away from public towards private provision of goods and services throughout society. There are lots of reasons for this (Thatcherism, globalisation, the end of the Cold War in victory for the West), but it is crucial for librarians to acknowledge the consequences of what has been called the ‘neo-liberal consensus’ for their long (and short)-term future. The effects are palpable in utilities such as gas and electricity (privatisation, liberalisation and so forth); they are evident too in higher education (it is increasingly self-funded, with students defined as ‘customers’ who must take responsibility for their ‘investment’ in degree programmes); and they are clear too in television where subscription and pay-per-view advance at the expense of public service broadcasting (and where the BBC has determined to re-invent itself as a competitive entrepreneur well capable of matching the commercial opposition for markets as well as in hard-nosed management). And the pressures are telling too in the library realm, with provision from general taxation increasingly unpopular, budgets continually reduced (even if the euphemism ‘efficiency savings’ is preferred), and the model of information dissemination increasingly that of the Blockbuster video chain: let customers determine book choices, only the most popular choices will be stocked, and let borrowers pay on the nail for what it is they want.

The second factor is a recurrent enthusiasm for new technology, which always, but always, seems set to turn the world upside down, but yet promises to result in overall improvement so long as it is embraced rather than resisted. Twenty years ago it was the ‘mighty micro’ that was going to transform everything and we were all ordered, accordingly, to get ‘computer literate’. Now it’s the Internet (or the ‘information superhighway’, ‘digitalisation’, or ‘cyberspace’) that is going to bring about the ‘knowledge society’, so we must all, accordingly, become ‘networked’. Because association with the leading edge technologies has an undeniable allure, then perhaps it’s not surprising that many a librarian, aware that the profession has something of a fusty image, eagerly endorses information and communications technologies, enthuses about the ‘virtual library’, agrees there is a pressing need to get ‘on-line’, and looks hopefully to the day when his or her library is a true ‘information centre’ equipped with row upon row of computer terminals.

When one takes these two contextual features and sets them alongside the recent history of libraries in Britain, then three observations may be made. First, there was a sustained laissez-faire attack made on the very concept of public libraries during the 1980s, one spearheaded by the Adam Smith Institute, that charged libraries were an unjust tax levied disproportionately on the poorer sections of society (who use libraries least), most of which revenue was then spent by librarians on their own salaries, and then these employees had the gall to select books for the public rather than directly address the latter’s needs as expressed by the ranking of its borrowings.

The library profession was never able to offer an adequate retort to this attack, not least because it was cowed by a second development which was a corollary of the free market assault – continuous and ongoing cuts in library budgets. Unappreciative politicians who more or less eagerly endorsed the market philosophy administered much of these, so most librarians must have cheered with relief when the Blair government was elected in May 1997. The abrasive language went, and a supportive minister, Chris Smith, came to office. Undoubtedly the political climate improved for those in the library world. However, it must also be said, the neo-liberal consensus has remained firmly in place, cuts in book budgets have continued, and the wider informational domain – publishing, broadcasting, electronic services etc – has gone on being marketised wherever possible and developed by private corporations firmly along commercial lines.

Nonetheless, one thing did change, and this leads me to my third observation. The Blair government willingly endorsed New Library: The People’s Network, a report actually commissioned by John Major, but strikingly consonant with Mr Blair’s concern to be up-to-date in everything. The dominant refrain of the Blairites is ‘modernisation’, and so too was it with New Library. Applied to libraries, this meant a good deal of tut-tutting about old-style habits (the dreaded library silence which so puts off the young, an over-reverence for books which inhibits the take-up of digital information, poor décor…). But it also promised a few more resources being made available on condition that the library got up to date and modernised. There was extra money to be made available for staff training, for buying some more computers, for connecting electronically (thanks to a special deal done with British Telecom), and above all for making available the Internet to the wider public. Libraries might also be advised to paint their rooms in bright and welcoming colours, since who wants to sit at a terminal amongst beige walls?

I am deeply sceptical of those librarians who have seized on New Library and its high tech enthusiasm to present a profession long on the defensive as at one with the future. In my view, it would be far preferable were librarians to foreground the Association’s founding principles about information being made available to the widest possible public without financial barriers to individuals. These are old-fashioned public service ideals, I know, but they seem to me much more pertinent than hooking up a few terminals to the World Wide Web. I am not, I insist, anti-technology (in my work I am surrounded by the latest technologies, which I use routinely, though I am not dazzled enough to argue that these are crucial to being an effective teacher in the late twentieth century). What I want, however, is a more judicious prioritisation of concerns – when it comes to libraries that means I put public service well above technological innovations (especially when, as I suspect, these will rapidly be commercialised and when they are introduced while book budgets continue to be reduced).

Moreover, the wider factors – the commercialisation of just about everything and the rhetoric that technology is the master key to change – lead me to be cautious and conservative when it comes to libraries. I worry that the ‘information grid’ may lead to libraries being by-passed, to librarians being displaced, and to information being charged at a metered rate as an individual rather than as a public good. The result of that, I believe, will be an information-saturated and simultaneously ignorant public.

Frank Webster


Dear Frank

I agree that to view libraries in isolation is to miss what is most significant about their purpose and future. I also agree that most discussion about the ‘information society’ does little to further our understanding of current change. In fact, much of it is literally rhetorical: its purpose is not to inform or to explain, but to persuade, to influence the ultimate release of funds, whether expressed as policy or as advertising. I agree with much of what you say about public services. Indeed, the routine comparison between today’s changes and those of the Industrial Revolution connects today’s learning agenda directly with original public library motivations as an institutional response to social change and uncertainty. This is true whether one focuses on the utilitarian aspect, where social and economic benefits are emphasised, or on the idealistic aspect, where personal fulfilment through cultural and social engagement is emphasised. However, it is precisely this belief in the reclaimed role of a strong public service in support of learning and development opportunity that leads me to disagree completely with your conclusion. Let me try to say why.

I would like to work towards some more specific points by way of two assertions. The first is that ‘technology is on the inside’. I too am surrounded by technology, but I do not think about it as technology. I have options for communicating with people, for finding out things, for writing and reading, for shopping. More widely, the flow of data drives the flow of goods around our roads, and into our shops; it drives the operations of markets; and it generates much of our post. Our sense of the world, or of other people, even of ourselves is increasingly technologically mediated as communications and computing technologies become pervasive, mobile and integrated. Computing and networking are a part of the visible and invisible fabric of our working and living. Technology is on the inside, part of the services, practices and institutions that shape what we do and who we are. This is the case in the home, in work, in the shop, in the school. So we need to say that choices are not about technology, they are about how best to support people as they work, learn and live.

I would suggest that this raises at least four issues for public libraries. First, libraries have always supported the development of communication skills: readers and writers have worked unobtrusively, unobserved, at their own pace. The entry costs are now higher. Do people have to buy machines or go on courses, or go back to school to develop these skills if they want to keep up with their children, to become more employable, to use, or to investigate flight prices? Second, libraries need to improve and extend their ability to deliver their services. To discover copies of books held elsewhere and to order them. To communicate with suppliers. To respond to enquiries. To share staff and other resources effectively. Third, what is a public library service without access to the most current reference and business information, to government information, to listings resources, to developing research, scientific and other data, to burgeoning grey literature in all fields, to the developing cultural resource? A service such as this betrays the public service vision, because it is a partial service, increasingly marginal to large classes of informational, learning or other needs, and thus marginal to many of their readers’ real interests. Finally, and critically, people spend large parts of their lives in the converging network spaces of broadcasting and the Internet. Are we really saying that such spaces should lack the civilising presence of libraries, archives, museums? That libraries should not try to enrich such spaces with learning opportunity, should not disclose the history of communities there, should not support reading and access to cultural resources?

This leads into my second assertion, which is that ‘the message is the message’. The reader interested in pottery glazes wants what is of most use or interest, whether this is a searchable database in California or a book on the local shelf. The student interested in natural history will benefit from the local library or museum collections, but also from the ability to reach into the remote resources of the Natural History Museum or the Smithsonian. A library provides imaginative and learning experiences, it answers questions and guides the enquirer to what is most appropriate to their needs. A library is about opening doors, not closing them because of some arbitrary decision that electronic resources are less authentic or of less value. The library is a place where the print, the digitised and the born digital can be presented as complementary parts of the fabric of knowledge, and which works to make the medium of delivery support the learning, imaginative or informational experience, rather than determine it.

And so to ‘New Library’. Why do I think such a programme is important? There are two broad reasons. First, the creation of new services will be a challenge, despite the ready rhetoric. Major issues will emerge in relation to the introduction of network infrastructure and management of content. Consider three content issues. We have little sense of the long-term ownership costs of digital materials. They are fragile and subject to format or medium obsolescence, presenting serious, barely explored issues of access over time. How do you secure the current investment in digital materials? Second, the variety of services in this new shared network space could become confusing and add effort for the user or developer who has to discover what is available, cope with many different interfaces, negotiate different authentication systems, work out terms and conditions, use different payment systems, and manage different results. This is an inhibitor to use and a major part of the library role is to develop discovery and integration services which save the reader’s time and release the value of resources in active use. Third, economic and business models are immature. For many resources we buy rights to use ‘content’, for particular communities and for particular purposes, rather than buying the ‘content’ itself. How do you support public and publisher interest in a changed context? We need to move to stable solutions for these and other issues if the legacy of the programme is not to be a thousand websites built on a house of cards.

And New Library is important because whether or not you think it is degraded political rhetoric, it connects libraries to their original purposes in the wider context of the government’s aspirations for learning and for social inclusion. It challenges libraries to assert their public service role, to make the links with education, with cultural institutions, with public service broadcasting, and to demonstrate their real value as physical and virtual assembly places. A life-long learning agenda cannot be realised without public institutions that support equitable access to the ‘stuff’ of learning. This case needs to be made and supported by visible services, print and digital. Library values make them such institutions; they need to ensure that their practices do also.

Frank Webster is Professor of Sociology at the University of Birmingham.

Lorcan Dempsey is Director of the UK Office for Library and Information Networking. UKOLN is funded by the JISC, the Library and Information Commission. It is also supported by the University of Bath, where it is based.

Content by Lorcan Dempsey of UKOLN.
Last updated on 28-Apr-1999

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