David Cheetham, project manager for the East Midlands Broadband Consortium (EMBC) gave a speech on the role of the broadband consortium, one of 10 regional networks in England established to deliver high-speed network connectivity to all Britain's schools. David gave a speech on the activities of EMBC  which was set up in the light of the government's pledge to connect all schools to broadband by 2005/06. The consortium aims to add value to teaching and learning by fostering collaboration in the region and best practice and in the use of ICT as a tool across the entire curriculum.
The consortium has already established a region-wide managed learning network for schools, adult learning centres, libraries and museums.
Because of the way the network is set up, (see diagram below), users in schools can retrieve the information they want far more quickly than if they were using an Internet connection, removing the 'dead time' sometimes associated with Internet use. The local access node shown in the diagram may be a public library or a secondary school. EMBC is aiming for 2Mbps (Megabits per second) symmetrical connectivity to all schools by June 2005. Connected schools already link to SuperJANET4, the higher education network and other regional grids for learning.
The strategy for developing content is to foster a practice-oriented approach to develop and support e-learning. Each LEA has purchased its own e-learning platform which facilitates the posting of content by teachers. David demonstrated some of the learning content that had been created and was being held on one such e-learning platform. He also impressed upon the audience the innovative uses to which technologies such as Flash were being put in order to enhance the learning experience. Although schools can limit access to this content, it is hoped that most schools will choose to release it to the wider community. It is only through making this content widely available for reuse that good practice can be encouraged.
The scheme also makes available to all schools content that was previously difficult to obtain. For example a partner, Channel 4, makes available learning and teaching content. Master classes are also facilitated - if a visiting US professor gives a lecture at one school, the lecture can be made available to all schools.
David sees the initiative bolstering mobile learning for the many adults who do not undertake adult learning or visit libraries. As part of the 'wider aggregation agenda', the consortium makes available free laptops with wireless connections to host organisations, for example LEA lifelong learning teams, voluntary organisations and libraries for online information and learning resources.
From a public library perspective, this is an exciting development because it is developing the infrastructure to connect libraries, museums and schools. Schools (or museum visitors) will be able to view Web-based library OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogues) from the e-learning platform and to view videos, CDs, books or journals which complement their curriculum.
Bob Parson and Mark Williams of Coventry City Libraries  gave a lively overview of their efforts to promote reader development and to engage socially excluded youngsters in reading activity - and showed that initiatives don't have to be digital to be effective.
Bob outlined the strategy for reader development for adults which included setting up reader groups outside libraries - in art galleries and coffee bars, for example by putting 'funky' postcards in these venues advertising the groups. Groups have been established thanks to this initiative and Coventry aims to facilitate these groups, not run them, so that they become self-sustaining. The library service also aims to support people in their choice of reading, whether they borrow books or buy them.
Another thrust encouraged people to write short book reviews and to send them to the library with the opportunity to win a prize.
The '101 Sensations' book created a real stir among delegates. The title is a take on 101 Dalmations as the book contains tasters from Bob and Mark's 101 favourite books. Available as a CD, it is being given away in Coventry libraries and the list is available online at the library Web site. It encourages people to read and to read authors they might normally dismiss.
There is also a full programme of author events in the libraries, again aiming to bring new readers into libraries or help people widen their reading habits.
The second strand of the talk was by Mark, and focused on the way that Coventry is encouraging its disadvantaged youngsters to read. It included moving video footage of the youngsters describing their favourite books. When starting this work, Mark identified existing youth groups and their reading habits and preferences. He emphasised that when starting a similar project it is important not to expect the young people to want to read but to be on hand to encourage them. Showing creativity and the importance of getting on the same wavelength as youngsters, Mark reported that some of the most successful aspects of the work had been taking youngsters on book buying trips and then to McDonalds afterwards - in fact McDonalds had supported the youth initiative with vouchers for free food.
In the post lunch slot, Rachel Peacock, reference and information manager for digital citizenship at Gateshead Library Service , outlined Gateshead's 'AskaLibrarian' and WebLog initiatives to engage citizens in digital interactions with the library.
The 'AskaLibrarian' scheme is currently in pilot phase and receiving around four enquiries a day although it has not yet been formally launched. It is a live help service offering answers to enquiries in real time. A UK library first, it uses 'page push' technology to offer reference enquiry information in a new format for users in the library, at home or outside the Gateshead area. If there is a virtual queue for the service, library members have priority over non-members. The pilot has been running since June 2002 and the enquiries generally fall into these groups: council-related, tourist information-related or obscure! Rachel highlighted that the breadth of queries demonstrated that users feel the library is a real reference source - not 'just' a place where they can borrow books.
In order to reply to the questions (and in real time!), librarians need to user power search tools such as Copernic, the telephone and books as well as have a good knowledge of library services and the ability to remain calm! The scheme has been very well received with 100% customer satisfaction reported. Longer-term, Gateshead plans to offer the service throughout library opening hours, mainly manned by staff at quieter service points and one-stop shops.
The library site is also a new breed of interactive library site. Live since 1 September 2003, it offers information about library services, access to catalogues, online discussions (for reading groups, for example), events listings, FAQs glossaries, and outputs to mobile and PDA. It uses the Web site creation and management system Affino, to encourage Web site visitors to engage and interact with the content on the site. Rachel herself has overall control of the site, including editing it and driving content from local people and organisations; she emphasised the importance of the Web site and library service as the public face of the library service.
Not content with these developments, the team has also started the UK's first library weblog  featuring items from shaving a cat's nose to Resource's action plan for public libraries.
Rachel then outlined the FARNE NOF digitisation project  to digitise folk music from the North East and the development of an associated weblog . Future weblogs founded by Gateshead libraries will focus on community groups and specialist Web sites.
So what else does Gateshead have in store? The newly-built Sage building in Gateshead is a state of the art building on Gateshead Quays will house two concert halls, rehearsal rooms, tuition space and library and information sciences which will have an ICT and e-learning focus.
Richard Albutt, project manager at Digital Handsworth, Birmingham Library Service, introduced Digital Handsworth as a NOF digitisation project providing a multimedia resource guide on the history of Handsworth to the community.
Part of the EnrichUK portal , the Digital Handsworth site  covers material from libraries, museums, archives and the community in the parish of Handsworth. Recording and digitising existing material, (particularly ephemeral resources such as photographs, personal documents and film along with oral history), was the key aim of the project. These are resources that cannot currently be viewed in one location and will chart the development of the area from a rural village through its rapid urbanisation into today's multicultural suburb.
The amount of progress that has been made is testament to the enthusiasm of the 75 local groups and individuals who have embraced the project. When the NOF funding ends, the hope is that the site will continue and be sustained by the community with the help of a library moderator.
Richard added a note of caution for others considering a similar project, stating that their original project goals were over-optimistic and that they are currently negotiating with NOF over targets and resource levels. One of the high points of the project is the sense of ownership that the community has for the site, reflected in over 180,000 hits in September and several local photographers granting permission to display their portfolios on the site. It is difficult to convey in words the wealth of images and information available on the site but it's very impressive and the resources instantly evoke the era and conditions of the parish. Digital Handsworth's interactive learning journeys and online learning role plays have also been well received and will be of interest to schools and adult learners alike.
Andrew Stevens, senior policy advisor (libraries) for Resource, the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries , was the final speaker of the day. His talk focused on Resource's role in drawing up an action plan from the DCMS' (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) Framework for the Future strategy. He mentioned the relative paucity of resources, (£1m a year for three years), with which to achieve the goals, reminding us that more people go to libraries than to cinemas or football matches. He emphasised that the goals can only be achieved by working closely with, and having the support of, organisations such as DfES, NHS and SOLACE (Society of local authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers) and in particular local authorities.
The strategy included: devising a high-level national route map; implementing a national framework with local delivery responsive to local needs; introducing a three- year plan working towards a 10-year vision, (distributed by Resource in September); aims for sustainable improvement; and establishing credibility in improving services.
The transformation of public libraries is the first and principal area of work for national public libraries, comprising:
Ideally placed to introduce the central themes of the framework, Andrew Stevens not only had responsibility for developing the action plan but for driving all the inter-linked work packages, (bar digital citizenship which is led by David Potts). The themes are:
Andrew emphasised that digital citizenship is a key part of Framework for the Future but that it should underpin the other strands of the plan and not be put in a separate box.
The talk concluded with a few words about upcoming key programmes, including:
Resource is actively communicating its work through seminars such as Talis' but also through the Resource Web site , through the Society of Chief Librarians' newsletter, the regional Society of Chief Librarians, regional agencies and professional and other press.
All five presentations offered a differing perspective across a central theme - putting the library service at the heart of community. Libraries understand and value the opportunity they have to offer assistance to the more vulnerable members of their community, and Mark Williams of Coventry City Libraries gave a very moving presentation to illustrate this . But I wondered whether we had fully considered how the service would cater for those in our community who are "empowered". I felt that Rachel Peacock's presentation on Gateshead Libraries demonstrated how libraries can and should be interacting with members of the community who are IT-literate and have high service expectations. And The Digital Handsworth Project offered an interesting twist on the libraries role as a "lobbyist", offering a platform to the community for showcasing its local heritage and its contemporary talent. Talis was delighted by the quality of the input and extends its thanks to those who participated and the many people who attended.
Fiona is a specialist in technology solutions for academic and public libraries.