My predecessor, Sarah Ormes, in her final ‘Public Libraries’ column for Ariadne, owned up to having spent five and a half years at UKOLN. Coincidentally, I too have just concluded five and a half years at the University of Plymouth. This led me to speculate, as one does in those brain numbing moments when awaiting yet another delayed train on a drafty platform in grey November (yes, its ‘leaves on the line’ season again folks), whether, after five and a half years in a post, some of us need to regenerate, like ‘Seven of Nine’, the ice maiden in the current Star Trek series -Voyager. I pondered as to whether failure to move on or ship out, could result in mental ossification, and, if it did, would anyone notice? Or, heaven forfend, one could become so institutionalised, so ‘adapted’ (sorry, back in Voyager land again), to the thinking and behaviour patterns of the organisation, that one is rendered incapable of that prerequisite for survival today - ‘joined up’ thinking. The insertion of a new mental motherboard, by way of a new job, might be the only way to negate in-house thinking and force one’s brain to think outside of the box.
Well, dear readers, here I am, bright eyed and fairly bushy tailed, after my first few hectic months at UKOLN, hoping to engage your hearts and minds on a regular basis in this column. I also plan to get the thinking cap on, and pen articles on topics which I hope will be of interest, and which, with a bit of luck will stimulate debate.
I am particularly pleased to have taken on the mantle of Public Library Networking at a time when so much is happening at local, regional and national level. The People’s Network continues to roll out, and will continue to do so until December 2002. By then every public library will be connected to what used to be referred to as the information superhighway - a term which seems to have slipped out of use, perhaps since Al Gore lost the presidential election. Examples of good and innovative practice which exploit the opportunities presented by ICT and networking, are springing up all over the place, and I plan to look at some of these in more depth over the coming year. More on this next time.
My reason for mentioning the timeliness of my UKOLN appointment, and my involvement with the public library sector, is best explained by my bnefly summarising my recent background. For the past eight years I have worked mainly in research and development in library and information services within the higher education sector. I was involved in two projects within the Joint Information Systems Committee’s (JISC) Electronic Library Programme, and, before that, with a British Library funded project to evaluate the viability of benchmarking for the library and information services sector. At the time (1994) people felt benchmarking was strictly for the manufacturing industry – amazing to think how widely it has now been adopted, and in such a short time. I cannot, therefore, avoid drawing parallels with the situation for public libraries at the moment, in terms of rapid change and the emergence of new roles and services. Universities and HE colleges have ‘been there and done that’, and now take for granted their ability to connect to global information networks. Email is often the mode of communication of choice for most staff in the HE sector, given the fact that people are away from their desks for a lot of the time, either teaching or in meetings, or are otherwise unable to take phonecalls. Electronic discussion lists are also widely used in the HE sector; discussion lists enable individuals to seek help and advice within a known user community; they also provide useful contacts and generally act as an informal communication channel and mutual support system. I have now taken over as manager of the JISC mail “lis-pub-libs” discussion list, and have been pleased at the number of people joining the list. For those wishing to avoid email overload there is a weekly digest option, which is available on JISC mail lists. It has been suggested to me by a colleague (thank you to Andrew Poole of Instant Library Limited), that a brief guide to using the lis-pub-libs mail list might be welcome? This I will do, whilst acknowledging that JISC mail already provides online help for those wishing to join or leave lists. If a new guide reaches the parts that JISC mail cannot reach - thereby encouraging more people to join the public libraries list by saving time and effort, then it is worth doing.
To return to me and my experiences again, I have, albeit in a modest way, contributed to the University of Plymouth’s staff development programme, by developing and delivering a course on effective use of the Internet and search tools. My interest in staff development and training remains strong, and led to my recently acquiring a teaching qualification – a PGCE (Post Compulsory education) - something which I now feel was well worth the time and effort, even though it did not always feel like it at the time (attending class for one night a week for a year). Staff in public libraries might like to consider a teaching qualification themselves - given their new learning support role. A local education authority grant was available for my course, and for the Certificate in Education (for those without a first degree), but you will need to check this out, as the situation is constantly changing (witness the demise of the individual learning account).
Immediately prior to taking up my post here at UKOLN, I worked on a project to develop a new postgraduate qualification for staff working with disabled students. The implications of the new disability and human rights legislation for education providers, was just one facet of a highly complex subject, which staff need to understand, and which forms the basis of one module. This might have already been evaluated in relation to public libraries and the learning agenda, for example for those public libraries with Learndirect centres, but I am unsure? Having worked alongside staff who assessed the needs of students - in relation to the provision of enabling technology (supported by the Disabled Student Allowance) - I hope that some of the knowledge I acquired will come in useful in the public library sector. I note from the December edition of Managing Information  that some public libraries are using the People’s Network to focus on the provision of enabling technologies to make ICT fully accessible to people with a range of disabilities.
This brings me on, albeit briefly in this context, to the topic of Digital talking books, which are an interesting development in the convergence of ebook and audio technologies. The DAISY consortium (Digital Audio-based Information SYstem) has been formed to establish a world standard for the next generation of information, which includes digital talking books and braille. Standards are the key to genuine accessibility, and the digitisation of audio resources will benefit those who are print disabled, as well as those with visual impairments. This includes people with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, and people with particular mobility problems, who experience difficulty holding and using printed books.
Talking of books – you remember them. They smelt wonderful when new, were good to have and to hold, and looked superb on shelves. Well, forget all that. Ebooks sit on virtual shelves; you need hardware and software to read them; they can be read in bed with the light off (very partner friendly), and have been the central theme of a multitude of recent events. I have gone from 0 to 60mph in a very short time, in an attempt to get my ebook knowledge up to speed for the two events at which I was invited to present in November 2001 . I have also attended a third event on this fascinating and complex topic – and all of this in the space of several weeks – evidence that ebooks are current flavour of the month.  Like porridge – ebooks are hard to nail to the wall, partly due to the fact that they are not tangible objects, and partly because they comprise digital texts, software to read the texts, and hardware on which to load the software to read the texts - and that’s just for starters. Further afield, in Australia the Public Libraries conference 2001 featured a paper on ebooks , and in November in the US the National Institute of Standards and Technology held a conference entitled: Ebook 2001 - authors, applications and accessibility on ebooks . Both the US and Australia are much further down the ebook road in terms of implementation in both public (and academic) libraries. For those of you wanting practical examples of the issues facing those who have already implemented ebooks in public libraries, I would recommend reading the special edition of Public Libraries – the US Public Library Association journal dated September/October 2001. 
However, I will be writing at greater length on this topic, as much water has passed under the bridge since Sarah Ormes produced her useful issue paper on ebooks . I will try to capture and summarise the wealth of experience and opinion I encountered at the events I attended, and also build on my own research into ebooks.
Well, at this point I must end my first epistle. I have missed the deadline, and hear the thud of the editor’s boots echoing down the UKOLN corridors as he comes in search of my modest offering. To quote the words of the late Douglas Adams: “ I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they fly past.” 
Public Library Networking Focus