I purchased the Guardian newspaper to read on the train from Bath to Birmingham the other day. It was the Thursday edition, so the tabloid-sized Online section was sandwiched between the folds of the main paper – a sort of light digital filling in an otherwise heavy snack of wars abroad and spin at home. “Why sex still leads the net”, ran the Online headline, with the byline: “porn websites are making millions. Now mainstream dot.coms are asking them for advice”.  My immediate reaction was to sigh … was it ever thus, and to wonder whether technological advance goes hand in hand with the pursuit of hedonism and spiritual decay. Does history repeat itself? Will modern Western civilisation rise and fall like the Roman Empire? The article led me to reflect on whether this taste for services that sell sex on the Internet, albeit of the virtual kind, need concern the public library community. You may think that networked public library services are a far cry from all this seedy stuff, but if this were the case one wouldn't need to draft those Acceptable Use Policies, or weigh up the pros and cons of various filtering software packages. Both are standard weapons in the public library arsenal, that aim to ensure the barbarians remain outside the gates (and portals).
The Guardian article focused on one Danni Ashe, a ‘coiffured’ blonde, equipped with the usual assets associated with a lady who makes a living from baring her flesh (she sells online nude photos of herself). Ms Ashe is a porn star turned entrepreneur, who has become the hot keynote speaker on the Internet conference circuit. Star appearances include the Internet World Conference in Sydney, and the Streaming Media Asia seminar in Hong Kong. On these occasions Danni is encased in a ‘cleavage-hugging suit’ - rather than the birthday variety - I thought you might like to know that. Danni has also been called upon to testify before US congressional committees on child protection and internet related issues, and is much sought after as an advisor and consultant to those who earn their crust (or maybe a global bakery in this case) out of dot.coms. Ashe started her business after teaching herself HTML - hmmm. I taught myself HTML a few years back, but sad to say I am not anticipating profits of $7 to $8 million this year. Have I gone wrong somewhere? (apart from the obvious - no sniggers please, I’m a librarian).
Ashe’s success is based on a subscription model. Nothing new here you may think - people are obviously prepared to commit themselves to paying a regular or lump sums for services they want. Playboy magazine obviously thinks a subscription model will work for them - they are still smarting from having lost $50 million in two years in online operations, and are now looking to generate income from their “Mobile Playmate of the Month” service. Will the armies of young (and getting younger) mobile phone users be able to access these?
Picture this - you are on the train (a recurrent theme in this column you will find), and your ears have been bombarded by the massed bands of the mobile ringtones. Suddenly, the young salesperson next to you pulls out his state of the art, third generation, mobile phone. The ringtone is in the top ten - its the 'Bob the Builder' theme tune. On his rinky dinky little screen is the mobile equivalent of the Sun's 'page three girl'. Okay, it's safe to come out now. One can only hope that subscribers to such services will view these images in the privacy of their own homes, but as this is a monthly download something tells me images could well be used as screen-savers.
Turning now to Public library users -most seem prepared to pay one-off amounts to borrow videos, DVDs and CDs. They will also pay a small fee for services such as email or extended Internet time. The success of the former lies partly in the fact that libraries tend to charge less than the local video store, and offer longer loan periods. They also offer a broader range of titles, for example, BBC dramatisations of classic novels and leisure activity videos. However, I'm not sure if library users would be prepared to pay subscriptions for these things, or for services which have been previously been free or very cheap, such as Internet access? However, Public Libraries do have to sustain services when the People's Network and New Opportunities Funding (NOF) ends, but I doubt whether many of you anticipate charging commercial rates for many these services - it surely defeats the whole social inclusion and learning opportunities objectives.
However, despite the drive for public sector organisations to adopt business models, I'm not convinced that models like subscriber-based ones translate well to the public sector. It is not always a matter of how good a service is - as successful children's projects like Stories from the Web  can testify. Birmingham Library Authority, who lead this project, looked at subscription models when their Wolfson funding ended. To make the model viable, they needed a reasonable number of library authorities to subscribe to the service for a year or more, with fees reducing in line with the total number of subscribers. However, not enough authorities felt able to commit at this time. It is therefore back to the drawing board for the 'Stories' team and a re-evaluation of possible funding opportunities.
Services such as those offered by Playboy magazine and Denni Ashe, rely on individuals parting with their cash for something they want and are happy to pay for. In the case of library authorities, the individual end-user may not be expected to pay for services. This means that a subscription service would need to come out of existing budgets, and something else might have to be dropped in order to pay for the new service. The library is also accountable to the local authority, which in turn is accountable to raft of stakeholders, including national government and the ratepaying public. It is all very complicated.
Perhaps the only way forward, and many of you are already doing this, is for public libraries to work increasingly in partnership with other local authority departments, as well as with local community groups and external agencies, such as the Learning and Skills Council. The need to think outside of the 'silo', as it is now called ('boxes' are passé), involves joining forces with those doing similar things. This raises the profile of the public library at local authority and national government level, and enhances their standing within the local community. This helps when it comes to impact evaluation, as library services will be perceived to be a part of a whole, not something isolated and primarily associated with lending materials. This is the diversification which small businesses, and the farming community in particular, have been charged with doing as a means to surviving in a changing world. For the public library, the immediate need is to identify methods to evaluate the impact of new ICT-based services. You need to convince the purse string holders of your effectiveness, and of the value placed upon your services by your user community. Result - happiness and sustainable services.
Public Library Networking Focus