"Unless public services cooperate, broadband Britain will be going nowhere" . "Libraries are sleepwalking to disaster: it's time they woke up" . Warnings, predictions of failure or even extinction seem to be a recurring theme on email lists, news alerting services, think-tank reports and in the media. Some refer to public sector failings in general, whilst others attempt to raise the collective public library conscience and consciousness, and galvanise people into action.
For public libraries help has come along in the shape of a document entitled Framework for the Future (or F4F for convenience)  F4F, from the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport), is a sort of 'blueprint' for public library activity over the next ten years. Three key activities are identified in the report:
In the previous edition of Ariadne (issue 35), I stated that I see these three areas as closely related and inter-dependent. I also said that I would focus on digital skills and services - the second activity mentioned above. However, before tackling this particular topic, I would like to explore the issue of basic skills or traditional literacy which I feel has an impact on all three of the listed activities.
I have been grappling with the practicalities of getting non-library users, non-readers, and people with poor basic skills, to come into a library to use the People's Network ICT facilities. Every public library in the UK is now able to offer access to the Internet, email, and a host of other networked services and resources. These public access computers are aimed at people who do not have access to IT facilities at home or at work, and, in particular, those who have never used a computer before. Many of these people will have low levels of literacy and can therefore be deemed to be among the socially excluded members of society. Activity three on the F4F list is developing measures to tackle social exclusion and develop citizenship.
Digital skills are a pre-requisite of e-citizenship. To become an effective user of the e-Government services and electronic resources currently being developed, you have to know how to use the Internet and complete online forms etc. However, those with low levels of literacy need to jump this hurdle before they can acquire digital skills. Literacy is a massive problem in the UK; DCMS state in the framework report that there are around seven million adults in England with literacy problems (paragraph 4.5); they also note that it is hard for people to be active citizens unless they can read. Getting seven million people to attend literacy classes amounts to an enormous undertaking, but libraries are to promote reading and informal learning, not provide basic literacy tuition - this is a specialised area which other organisations are tackling .
Libraries may need to tap into these initiatives and provide follow-up sessions for those with some basic literacy. The Internet as a motivator and promotional tool for reading and learning is only starting to be acknowledged, but how are libraries to encourage those with poor literacy to use their facilities? Publicity materials are usually in printed form; leaflets, bookmarks and text on a Web site may have limited impact on those just starting to read who may not visit a library. Local radio is an obvious choice, but there are costs associated with air time, and targeting the appropriate radio station might be difficult, given the diversity of the potential user-base.
2005 is the date by which local and national government services are to be delivered online, and this is fast approaching. Local authorities are tasked with developing and delivering e-services which meet the needs of local residents. They then have to promote these services so that people actually use them. The Government is aware that the take-up of electronic services may be low, and is concerned that time, effort and money is not wasted. However, acquiring digital skills is only part of the picture. In addition to literacy skills, people need what might be called 'information literacy' or information-handling skills, which are different from IT skills and may or may not include digital literacy. It could be argued that these skills are necessary steps on the path to digital literacy, and that information literacy is an essential component. If the Government's vision of a nation of e-citizens is to become reality, citizens need to have some understanding of the information environment. If they are to be encouraged and retained as users of e-services then their expectations need to be managed; the advantages, benefits and limitations of the Internet need to be explained and experienced. The inclusion of metadata may help with the retrieval process, but for lifelong learning people need to be able to evaluate what they find; Google works well for many people, including me, but then, as a colleague pointed out, we information folk do things automatically: we scan long lists of hits quickly; we make judgements before selecting the result which seems most likely to fit our initial enquiry; we guess Web addresses; we look for currency and source and so on. But you cannot assume that all people can acquire these digital skills overnight.
A way forward for libraries, in terms of reaching socially excluded people including those with literacy problems, seems to lie in collaboration with other council departments and other library authorities. We should not forget social services, schools, the police force, and the health service - each service will have staff with in-depth knowledge of local communities including socially excluded groups, and may have ideas regarding the contribution libraries can make. Collaboration with other library authorities is a good way to spread cost, as well as share expertise and effort. Libraries within a defined geographical area, or which come within the remit of a Single Regional Agency (e.g. SWMLAC- the South West Museums, Libraries and Archives Council  ), or even where there is a shared interest in delivering a specific service, can form partnerships to develop and deliver digital services jointly.
Co-East is an example of an established consortium comprising ten public library authorities in the East of England, which aims to adopt ICT solutions to meet current need. Co-East manages established services such as Familia  - a guide to geealogical resources in public libraries, and Ask a Librarian  - a virtual reference service currently featuring a live interactive trial. Co-East is also prepared to experiment with a view to informing the wider library community and is currently working with Essex Public Libraries and Loughborough University on an ebook project  with funding from the Laser Foundation . Ebooks may or may not be appropriate for users of UK public libraries, but Co-East, along with the London Borough of Richmond  (funded by the People's Network Excellence Fund )plan to find out. Blackburn with Darwen also plans to trial ebooks, including audio books, using iPAQ handheld devices, and is working in partnership with the London Borough of Richmond on audio book services . Services like these are built upon traditional services, and yet are able to meet the social exclusion agenda. By targeting specific user groups, such as the housebound, visually impaired people and young people, they bring flexibility, added functionality, choice, and the latest technology into libraries and people's homes.
Hampshire also feature some interesting e-services on their Web site. There is a link to the 'library bookshop' - an internet bookshop offered in partnership with Browns Books, Gardner Books and Seek Books  and 'Web Watch', with links to, for example, The Reading Agency's 'Summer Reading Challenge' , and the BBC Proms (with the option to buy tickets online, access mail lists/message boards, and a guide to what's on). There is a database of courses in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight (Link 2 Learn), and another on community services. Hantsweb provides users with links to quality information sites, including a separate link to children's resources, plus popular search engines, such as Google, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo, and the Government's UKonline site. This enables new Internet users to gain familiarity with a limited set of carefully selected resources. Internet 'taster sessions' could be designed around these pages, and users could build knowledge, or venture out onto the superhighway, on subsequent visits. Follow-up sessions, that build on initial 'tasters' should form part of the service, so that new users do not leave a session empty-handed and wondering what to do next. New users must be encouraged to return, and to progress their skills. Digital skills take a while to develop, and like driving a car, practice develops experience and knowledge.
Providing access to digital skills and services might mean linking reader development work to Web services, as exemplified by the highly successful Stories from the Web  service for children, managed by Birmingham Libraries. E-services can be developed around the needs of specific groups, such as children in care, housebound and disabled people, or rural communities. Collaborating with colleges of further education, museums and archives, and council departments, such as social services should become the norm for libraries. They should be seen to be inseparable from other service providers rather than a separate entity. Libraries need to raise awareness of their role as implementers of national programmes and demonstrate to all stakeholders, especially their respective local authorities, that they are both relevant to people's lives and able to assist with the delivery of key corporate objectives.
Public libraries can also learn from the recent experiences of institutions of further and higher education. Higher education has had to adapt quickly to the widening participation agenda and to new disability legislation (the Special Educational Needs Disability Act 2001). The two initiatives indicate the Government's commitment to social inclusion, and changes to the curriculum as well as the physical learning environment have been made in order to make them accessible to non traditional learners and disabled students. Higher education has developed a range of expertise in supporting students from a variety of backgrounds, and a range of disabilities and learning difficulties. Much of the work has focused on supporting learners in a networked environment, and digital services, portals, gateways, and e-learning and distance learning models have all being developed. Supporting students with dyslexia using ICT has been a major task for higher education, and public libraries might find it useful to compare their strategies for coping with literacy problems amongst learners.
If Charles Leadbeater, quoted in my first paragraph, is to be proved wrong i.e 'libraries are sleepwalking to disaster'..., then libraries have to act, and act now - this is the message I have been hearing for some while. The framework document simply provides the map; library authorities are expected to use their own compasses and collective brain power to find the route to acceptance of their role and place in the UK networked environment of the 21st Century. Much of it revolves around local communities and organisations - both external and internal, and finding ways to work with them and serve their needs. The commercial sector offers various models which may not work for the public sector, but thinking around their ideas can stimulate the brain cells, and get library folk thinking along marketing lines. Having developed e-services you've got to tell potential users what they offer and why they should use them. Its no good just telling other librarians how good your services are.
Article Title: "Framework for the Future: Access to digital skills and services (including e-government)."
Author: Penny Garrod
Publication Date: 30-July-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 36
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue36/public-libraries/