Another year gone and the millennium celebrations and Y2K bug already seem to belong to some dim and distant technological past.
As 2003 drew to a close the spotlight was on the use and abuse of Information Technology: never was so much havoc caused by so few. The language employed by the media to describe events in the online world reflected global concerns about warfare and disease. Viruses, worms and trojan horses 'infected' and 'invaded' international networks, and a 'war' on spam was declared.
The Internet, long hailed as an empowering and democratising resource, became a weapon in the hands of the spammers and hackers - the Luddites of the 21st Century. The misuse of Information Technology, rather than the technology itself, resulted in mayhem throughout the connected world. One Microsoft patch after another was required to ward off the invading viruses, which bore names like 'slammer', 'blaster' and 'Sobig'. 2003 has been labelled the 'year of the worm', according to a news item on the PC World.com Web site, with four major outbreaks in August alone .
Email attachments became suspicious packages - to be opened only if the contents were from a known or reliable source. This whole virus phenomenon was able to adapt quickly to any threat posed to their survival, making them virtually unstoppable. Spammers and hackers also seem quick to adapt; they rapidly learn how to penetrate the patches, filters and firewalls to remain one step ahead of legitimate software developers.
Governments have acknowledged the seriousness of the risk posed by computer viruses, and a new European Community directive or 'spam law' came into force on 11 December 2003. Its full title is: The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 , but it is unlikely to improve matters and has met with widespread criticism . Minister of State for e-Commerce and Competitiveness, Stephen Timms, MP, is quoted as saying:
"these regulations will help combat the global nuisance of unsolicited emails and texts by enshrining in law rights that give consumers more say over who can use their personal details". 
However, notice that it is 'consumers' to whom Mr Timms refers - the regulations do not cover business email addresses or UK corporate computer users. The 'spam' law simply states that service providers have the right to "take appropriate technical and organisational measures to safeguard the security of that service". However, a measure will only be deemed 'appropriate' when it is "proportionate to the risks against which it would safeguard". The term 'appropriate' like 'reasonable' is open to interpretation, and security managers and systems staff will be expected to use judgment when assessing the nature and severity of future threats.
System security therefore remains a concern for local authorities, and public libraries are reliant on the corporate IT serving local authorities. Security managers will be looking to introduce more powerful anti-spam filtering software, and waiting to see what solutions Microsoft come up with to strengthen the security of its operating systems.
Another piece of legislation came under the spotlight towards the end of 2003. The Data Protection Act has been in force since 1998, and was designed to give individuals certain rights, including the right to know what information about them is held on a computer. If personal data gets into the wrong hands it can be misused for a variety of reasons, and the Data Protection Act aims to prevent this happening.
However, the law itself has to be interpreted and acted upon by individuals. For example, public sector staff may have to exercise personal judgment and critical skills when making decisions regarding the retention of data, and how it is used. Fear of the possible consequences of non-compliance with the law i.e. litigation, may well cause individuals working in a variety of sectors, including the public sector, to interpret the rules too closely. Instead of exercising critical judgment they may be abiding by the letter of the law rather that the spirit.
If you are wondering what all this has to do with library and information professionals, I feel it touches upon the wider issue of information and how we use it. Moreover, digital skills, information literacy etc. are topics many of us feel strongly about. These are skills we are supposed to have, and which we are expected to develop in others. Data may be the raw product at the beginning of the information chain, but the evaluation of what it becomes when analysed, synthesised and interpreted is the bread and butter of the information professional. Library and information staff are trained to question the reliability and currency of sources, and much more. In the information-overloaded world of today, where people tend to rush everything and go for the 'sound-bite' or quick fix, it is the critical thinking skills which suffer.
In addition, public sector staff are constantly being urged to share information and to collaborate with other sectors and departments, such as social services, as well as the business community. However, it may seem that companies like British Gas and the police see the Data Protection Act as a barrier to sharing information, sometimes with disastrous results. Guidelines may not be the answer - they also have to be read, digested and interpreted; it is those information and critical analysis skills that are required. Perhaps information professionals are missing a huge training opportunity here?
Things are starting to shape up well for 2004, although concerns about future funding for sustainability and development continue to dampen enthusiasm. At the government level, Peter Beauchamp, Chief Library Adviser at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has taken on an 'extra' role as Head of Local Government and Libraries . This will end the separation of library policy - for which the DCMS is responsible, and local government funding - which comes within the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). A new Public Library team and a Local Government team have been appointed to oversee the delivery of cultural services. The new unit should also help drive the next stage of the 'WILIP' project (Wider Information and Library Issues Project), now called 'Routes to Knowledge'.
Routes to Knowledge is a Resource-led project which aims to raise the profile of all libraries by demonstrating to those who influence and shape information policy the vital role they play in delivering the national, regional and local agenda. Further details are available on the Resource Web site .
My observation is that public libraries are increasingly treading the same path as academic libraries in their support of learning and the provision of 'hybrid services' i.e. electronic and traditional print resources. The library is becoming a place where reading and quiet study co-exist with the hum of computer-use and group activities. In the hybrid model, collection management becomes more complex, and staff need a mix of new skills, ranging from the negotiation of site licenses for e-collection development through consortial approaches, to managing digitisation projects, and training and supporting users in the networked environment.
As I have stated in previous columns, the next stage for public libraries now that the ICT infrastructure is in place, is the building of quality content. To advance this programme the JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee) has set up a group called the Common Information Environment Working Group , which aims to 'promote educational excellence through technology in the public sector'. The six members organisations are:
These organisations will collaborate to develop an online information environment: 'based on common standards so that electronic resources and services can be made available to the widest possible audiences' .
In 2004 the issue of providing facilities in public libraries for laptop users became a hot topic on the People's Network JISCmail discussion list . The discussion was prompted by an email referring to plans to create Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) hotspots in libraries. However, this was initially hijacked by health and safety concerns regarding public access to library electricity supplies for users of laptop computers. Setting these concerns aside for the moment, it is the creation of wire-free environments in public libraries which is of most interest. The notion of Wi-Fi hotspots in public libraries was first mooted in the summer of 2003, when Chris Batt, then Acting Chief Executive of Resource, was asked by Stephen Timms, MP if it was feasible for public libraries to provide these. This would be a very positive development for public libraries, and would certainly raise their profile by demonstrating that they are relevant, capable of technological innovation and responsive.
However, one must not get too excited about Wi-FI at this stage, as there are a host of issues which have to be addressed before any action can be taken. Funding is the obvious one, but system security is also a huge concern. If 2003 was the 'year of the worm' who knows what might be in store in 2004? People's Network desktop computers in public libraries tend to be 'bolted down' for public use, so that disks, memory sticks etc. can be used without fear of infecting corporate systems with viruses brought in from outside. Once the public are able to plug-in their own laptops (or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)), local authority systems will once again be open to invasion by any virus that has infected users' laptops.
Wi-Fi hotspots have been set up in coffee shops and airport lounges, and even Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) trains have them . One or two public libraries already have coffee shops - perhaps a pilot project could be set up in one of these? How about Wi-Fi on the beach? Yes, Brighton beach is running a free Wi-Fi feasibility pilot, although sun on laptop screens has jokingly been cited as a minor problem . Maybe we should consider mobile libraries with Wi-Fi serving remote coastal areas? The vehicles could set up on the beach next to ice-cream vendors.
There is a US Web site which lists all the American public libraries offering Wi-Fi hotspots . In New York Wi-Fi is available in every branch of the public library service, and there are over 50 branches . Some have names which JK Rowling would be proud of: 'Spuyten Duyvil' and 'Throg's Neck' for example. A banner on the Web site proclaims: 'free wireless computing at the library' - an example of effective marketing, as you can't fail to miss it, and 'help' pages are provided telling users how to configure their laptops for WiFi use in the library.
WiFI may be blue sky stuff for UK public libraries at the moment, but interest is strong. I believe that one or two pilot projects will be funded in the not too distant future.
Personal Digital Assistants and MP3 players are already being piloted in several public libraries to deliver ebooks and e-audio . Handheld devices provide an excellent vehicle for the delivery of mobile portable services to specific groups of users, such as people with disabilities or who are housebound. It is too early to predict how widespread ownership of PDAs and other mobile devices will become, or whether the loaning of these devices by libraries will be a success. Converged technologies like third generation (3G) mobile phones may prove more popular as they offer the portability, versatility and freedom users expect and value. 3G phones are available but they are expensive, whereas PDAs have dropped in price. Libraries will have to bide their time, and respond to demand if and when PDAs and 3G mobile phones reach critical mass in ownership. Texting or SMS (short message service), for example, has been adopted by some public sector departments as a means of communicating with the public or to provide news . Texting offers a cheap, effective and non-threatening method of contacting or informing citizens, particularly young people for whom texting is a popular and often first choice means of communication.
Well I have no earth-shattering predictions for public libraries in 2004. 'Joining up' with other library services, especially in education (further, higher, schools) and the health sector is featured all round; Resource and CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) are actively pursuing this in order to raise both the profile of libraries and that of the information profession. The British Library (BL) has supported public libraries for some time through the Co-operation and Partnership programme . BL has now positioned itself as a leader and innovator in the information world, as exemplified by its recent initiative with Amazon.co.uk. If you missed the announcements, BL has made its extensive bibliographic catalogue records (2.55 million records) available to Amazon, enabling rare, antiquarian and pre-ISBN books to be identified and purchased online .
New technologies (apart from Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile technologies) which have featured on the JISCmail Peoples Network discussion list include Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) which is used to help machines identify objects using radio waves rather than magnetism. Libraries can use RFID in place of barcodes for the identification and circulation of stock, including videos, DVDs. More on this in a future article.
E-learning is another area to watch, and of course libraries have an ongoing commitment to develop electronic services to complement telephone and other more traditional modes of delivery. On the topic of e-government - Resource announced at the end of last year that readers of The Sun tabloid newspaper are to be offered free Internet taster sessions to raise traffic and awareness of the UKonline service . Now that ought to reach a lot of reluctant Internet users.