There’s a strain of contemporary culture which views digital innovation as the tool of corporate evil – suggestive of a dystopian future where Jeff Bezos deploys drones to replace you on the enquiry desk. But at the CILIP MmIT event ‘Affordable Futures: High-tech, low-cost Library innovations’, there was a spirit of human warmth.
Partly, this was because the air-conditioning had broken in the upstairs room at the University of Sussex. But it was also notable that the speakers – all of whom have a great deal of digital experience and expertise – spoke clearly, inclusively, and without jargon. There was a real sense, in fact, that anyone can be a digital innovator. All you need is an idea, or a problem. Most library staff have plenty of both.
By the time he’d finished, Antony Groves – Learning and Teaching Librarian at the University of Sussex – had the delegates making 360 degree photographs on their phones. Using the Google Cardboard app and a cheap Cardboard Viewer (£15, and similar in appearance to the old red ‘View-Masters’ of the 1980s), we were able to knock up a rudimentary virtual reality experience within a few minutes. Sussex uses enhanced versions of this technology to take students and staff into the ‘hidden spaces’ on campus, such as high-security labs.
Dr Jon Knight, from Loughborough University, described how his IT team created versatile digital signage for their library using old display monitors and ‘Raspberry Pi’s’. A Raspberry Pi is a tiny, cheap computer that you can programme. It looks like a circuit board, and you can connect it to other hardware via USB ports. Instead of spending half of the budget on fancy new plasmas, Jon and his team dug out decommissioned computer monitors, whacked Raspberry Pi’s on them, and created displays which gave students real-time information about group-room bookings and study spaces.
There is something quietly defiant about this approach. If you can make something yourself by recycling old equipment, then you become independent. Your library budget stretches further, and you are no longer in thrall to a blue-chip company that decides on a whim to make your systems obsolete.
That was very much the vibe of the final presentation, given by Carlos Izsak, a pioneer of the maker movement. Carlos is an Education and Community Development Specialist, and founder of The Makercart. The Makercart is a fully portable pop-up makerspace from which Carlos runs workshops and activities. These makerspaces are places to share experience, ideas, knowledge, and equipment: sounds like a library, right? At the event, Carlos got us to make LED Christmas cards. Digital making, even on a modest scale, is a soothing and satisfying way to learn.
All of the speakers were looking for ways to put digital innovation into the hands of people who work in libraries. Even as someone who writes with a fountain pen, and occasionally slips his sim back into the Nokia, I found the dissident spirit both inspiring and welcoming. And I left the room buzzing with ideas.
By Ed Hogan.
Antony Groves – Creating low-cost VR for your Library
Dr Jon Knight – Using Raspberry Pi’s to drive Digital Signage in Libraries and beyond
Carlos Izsak – Making Library Makers: 3 years in the making…
View Storify here.