The Modernisation Review of Public Libraries – what it does (and doesn’t) say about technology

Public Library Modernisation Review Policy Statement, released this week, looks at some of the challenges being faced by public libraries and the government recommendations in each of these areas.

The issues identified were based on a review conducted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) late last year which received 154 responses. New technologies were expected to be key.

What becomes clear (and what those on the ground already know) is that while the People’s Network (based on £120 million funding from the National Lottery) was an amazing leap in providing internet access across the UK, this was back in 2000 and precious little support was available to keep this up-to-date.

New developments in technology don’t actually feature as much as expected. Many of the recommendations focus on building on (and sometimes formalising) the role already played by libraries in ensuring that free internet access and information literacy skills support is available to all.

A new statutory body (encompassing MLA) is recommended to advise libraries on Digital innovation; including lending, digital engagement, communication and digital content.

And, to skip ahead, Chapter 5 is the one that looks at ‘digitisation’ specifically, with the stated aim that “all libraries grasp the opportunities presented by digitization”.  As mentioned above, one of the Government’s main recommendations is that libraries provide free internet access. As the provision of public services moves online this becomes more pronounced. Libraries are encouraged to support The National Plan for Digital Participation and continue working with UKOnline centres to reach the purported 12.5 million adults in the UK who do not currently use the internet. The MLA/Joint Academic Network (JANET) agreement is proposed as the way to improve broadband internet speeds in public libraries, though this particular recommendation (to actively consider investing in JANET, the education online network, to provide high speed broadband access in public libraries) may fall on deaf ears in the current economic climate.

The inclusion of E-books and e-lending were no surprise *(well, e-books weren’t, e-lending is a made-up word to mean lending of e-books) but it’s positive to see the Government is proposing to include e-books in Public Lending Right (PLR) legislature. This is (now, still) included in the Digital Economy bill.

Perhaps the most surprisingly part of the review, is the recommendation that public libraries actively engage with Web 2.0 technologies and that social networking tools should be available on library computers. Again, this is not necessarily something that librarians don’t already known, but it is still great to see it as a recommendation. The quoted statistic that “92% of respondents to the consultation believe that libraries should be using Web 2.0 while acknowledging that local authority network security policies often restrict their ability to do so” should come in handy for those writing business cases for web 2.0 services in public libraries.  Proposal 38 should also prove useful:

Proposal 38: Government recommends that all libraries allow access for users to social networking sites which are valuable communication tools and part of our cultural infrastructure. 86% provide access at present.

It’s an overwhelmingly positive document, recognizing the vital role public libraries play without being overly adventurous. The focus is on internet access provision and e-book lending rights with scarce mention of audiovisual materials or other technologies in libraries. There is a passing reference to a national catalogue (building on Unity UK) but not enough detail to draw conclusions .Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technologies rate a mention as part of the stock supply chain. It seems a shame that despite the DCMS Ipsos MORI survey in 2009 — the libraries omnibus — showing that more people were visiting their library to ‘borrow music, films or computer games’ than to use a computer, this isn’t reflected in the report.

This policy statement is obviously just a start of the conversation and quite a distance from turning recommendations into action (and funding) but it does take a long overdue step in recognising the role of public libraries and their staff in providing and supporting access to technology.


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