Public Sector Information in the Digital Age

Steven Hartshorne, SCOOP

The May meeting of SCOOP saw the delivery and discussion of two presentations of considerable interest to librarians in the information sector. The first, unfortunately not given in person but presented to SCOOP as a Power Point slideshow, was by Aniela Kaczmarczyk of the Tinder Foundation. The subject was the Society of Chief Librarians’ (SCL) Public Libraries Universal Information Offer (PLUIO), for which the Tinder Foundation has been commissioned to create a workforce development programme. Key to the SCL’s offer is the role of public libraries in the government’s Digital By Default agenda, particularly where the programme of welfare reform and the move to increase online interactions with government departments has put pressure on already stretched services.

The statement issued by the SCL makes the case thus:

“The PLUIO seeks to position public libraries so that they are seen as one of the natural places to offer support to citizens accessing government information and services, and so result in the commissioning of public libraries by Government.” The statement’s final phrase is somewhat ambiguous. It could either mean there may be a will to build new public libraries, or (sadly more likely) an intention to give public libraries more work to do which was formerly performed by other elements of the public sector. The brief that Tinder was given looked to address a number of primary concerns: The Tinder project sought to address the following concerns:

  • A need to increase staff awareness of the content and scope of government websites.
  • The need for increased skills in the area of referral and signposting.
  • Training in the awareness and use of local websites and information sources.
  • The need to address the needs of particular user groups and the complexity of their needs.
  • Increasing awareness of the shifting context of information, services and the development of electronic transactions.
  • Resolve anxieties about time, confidentiality and responsibility.

The outcomes of the training programme are that staff delivering the offer:

  • Are confident and enthused about their role as a digital champion in a public library.
  • Can demonstrate their knowledge of online government and information services.
  • Recognise the importance of their role in future policy.
  • Can identify and recommend appropriate steps for their customers.

The staff training, composed of five modules, will be delivered via a combination of face to face sessions and an e-learning package, with a network of regional representatives to mentor trainers who will cascade the learning packages to the workforce. The content of the modules did cause some concern, as a central element of libraries’ ability to deliver this offer, training in how to deliver digital skills, is included as an optional module.

The consensus was that any attention given to staff training in the areas of welfare reform and Digital By Default was welcome, but nevertheless, a number of issues were raised:

  • Staffing did not seem to be addressed anywhere in the planned programme. Since many library authorities have lost staff trained in information and reference roles, it would be difficult to see how this offer could be provided within existing staffing levels. The same could be said for releasing staff from frontline duties to undertake the training in the first instance.
  • Although the details of the training have yet to be finalised, it was felt that the necessity of accessibility requirements to be factored into the training of staff and the delivery of the programme needed to be acknowledged.
  • Confidentiality was alluded to in the consultation, but there are considerable problems around the use of volunteers in handling confidential information.
  • There is potential for public libraries to work with specialists in other sectors that don’t seem to be included in the programme.
  • The members of the committee who work in public library organisations commented that much work had already been done in this area by individual libraries and there was some concern that this had not been taken into account by Tinder.

A final point made during the discussion was perhaps the most pertinent one: since this activity in the library sector is in order to enable the public to access government services and comes as a direct result of government policy changes, surely there is a clear case for the government to fund it?

The second presentation was given by Graham Francis, an Associate Product Manager with the Government Digital Service (GDS) with responsibility for the Gov.UK website. Graham explained that the team with which he works essentially decide what tasks the Gov.UK site should do and what the interface should look like. The driving force of the development of Gov.UK was Martha Lane Fox’s report Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution and her subsequent work on rationalising government web sites. The underlying principle of the site is that users shouldn’t have to understand how government works in order to get what they need. The site has been “built around the needs of users” and the site’s structure is designed around the transactions that members of the public have with government departments and agencies. It was at this point that some members of the committee raised the point that the needs of users in the official publications (OP) community didn’t seem to have been addressed particularly well.

For example, when searching for specific publications, some metadata (for works such as HC and Command Papers) does not appear in the initial search results, which can make locating the specific documents problematic. The site also uses the term ‘Policy Paper’ to cover a range of document types, which again isn’t helpful.

Certainly specialist browsing is not well catered for on the site although the improvement of this is a project priority. One problem is the potentially unhelpful terminology (what is the difference between ‘Publication type’ and ‘Official document status’?) There also seems to be no indication of other sources of OP material, such as the National Archives and Parliament.

Another issue some users had with the site is that currently the datasets provided on the site are not available in open data formats, although Graham assured the committee that work was ongoing to address the situation.

The final slide of the presentation described the Government Service Design Manual which is a key element in the government’s Digital By Default strategy and will no doubt influence the format of official publications in the future.

Graham assured us that GDS encourages feedback, although some members of SCOOP had noted that it was not always acknowledged or acted upon.

The content of both presentations generated a great deal of discussion, both during the meeting and in subsequent correspondence. It is clear that the issues raised by both projects will impact the way in which the public and workers in the information sector access official publications in the short and long term. The emphasis on transactions and services rather than access to and retrieval of information does present a number of challenges to users. This would suggest that the necessity of trained information professionals to mediate for them is not going to go away in the age of Digital By Default.

Request for information

Please find below a request for information on behalf of Sharron Wilson, the Serials Librarian at the Advocates Library in Edinburgh.

“The Advocates Library obtains bound volumes of legislation via Legal Deposit. We are very aware at present that there are major delays in the production of UK Statutory Instrument and Scottish Statutory Instrument volumes – mainly due to budgetary constraints. These were last produced for 2009 and 2008 respectively. We are having to cope with a huge number of archive boxes of all of the loose parts. I am trying to establish if I anyone else in a similar position? If you obtain the bound volumes of UK or Scottish SIs can you please contact me directly?

With thanks in advance.”

Sharron’s contact details are:

Sharron Wilson, Serials Librarian,

Advocates Library, 11 Parliament House, Parliament Square,

Edinburgh, EH1 1RF.Tel: 0131 260 5617



Rewriting the Book: the New Library of Birmingham

Ralph Adam: Journalist

Book Rotunda credit Christian Richters

“Libraries are a thing of the past like ration books and Rod Hull”.

“The days of the local libraries are, sadly, finished”.

“Antiquated and totally redundant”.

“Surely it’s only benefit scroungers and single mothers scrounging benefits who use libraries anyway? And their children don’t need education, or free internet access”.

(comments from a BBC discussion list about libraries).

When did you last see guards having to hold back the crowds trying to enter a library?

We read much about the death of the public library, but far less on the many innovative openings and re-launches. Even new national libraries are being built – though few acquisitions policies match those of Tajikistan’s (where reports suggest residents have been ‘encouraged’ to donate their private collections as an alternative to losing their jobs!).

Europe’s biggest library, the Library of Birmingham (LOB), has sparked interest worldwide. Opened in September 2013 by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot for daring to campaign for girls’ education, it is becoming a major cultural destination. Malala, in her address, said, “pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism”.

Located in Centenary Square, Birmingham’s new ‘cultural heart’ and part of the Corporation’s Big City Plan (claimed to be Britain’s biggest-ever city centre regeneration project), it is hoped that, with its important special collections, the library will attract 3?m. visitors annually and, of course, many more online. The idea was to create a debibliophied library: its Director, Brian Gambles (who received an MBE in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to libraries) emphasised the need for “an open, accessible and welcoming space – a democratic space….” In that, they have certainly succeeded. The outside of a library encapsulates its content, rather as a jacket does a book. Perhaps the LOB’s design is really an ad for the ‘new’ Birmingham?

A new People’s Palace

Francine Houben of Mecanoo, a Dutch practice, won the international competition and was selected as the lead architect, in conjunction with the engineering consultancy Buro Happold. Construction was by Carillion, while Capita Symonds were the project managers. The plan was to create a ‘people’s palace’ – a place of learning and community, rather than a traditional library. The budget was £193m. (though only £186m.was actually spent). The building covers 35 000m? (of which around 7 000m? is taken up by the rebuilt repertory theatre and ancillary features). A recessed circular performance space in Centenary Square is also intended to “engage the public with the library programme via a public entertainment venue”. The LOB’s theme, which appears on much of its excellent literature and publicity is “Rewriting the book”. Its first major photography exhibition was punningly entitled Reference Works – but does it still? Not, according to the Director, when asked about the future of library reference services.

Architectural features are frequently the main focus of reviews. But architects are artists. They often have little concern for the users of the buildings they design; more important is the beauty of their vision. And few people ask: “what is the point of a library?”. Jonathan Glancey in the Telegraph compared the LOB to a pile of enormous, geometrically-arranged birthday presents, gift-wrapped in gold and black, surmounted by a gold hatbox with everything tied with ribbons adorned with interlocking black and silver circles. Notice – his review talks only of the architecture; no mention of the library’s content or services. Metro did, at least, comment on “the library’s designers being more concerned by its appearance than its practical use.”

So, what is it like?

A spacious entrance area (shared with the theatre) welcomes ‘customers’ to the library’s ten floors, The design is spectacular: a transparent, light-filled façade, laced with delicate metal filigree and composed of interlocking circles reminds us of Birmingham’s industrial past. At its heart, and zigzagged by escalators over four balcony levels, is the book rotunda carrying 400,000 volumes (a further 600,000 are on closed access – and, as yet, apparently uncatalogued). Natural daylight and ventilation have been emphasised.   Unusual features of the library are its two tranquil garden terraces (to help people learn about food and its literature), children’s spaces and a panoramic viewing gallery on the roof (a ‘secret’ garden – ideal for staff parties, but one of the highest points in the city and open to all). It also features a study centre, (plus spacious carrels within the reading rooms), a substantial music library, a BFI-backed mediatheque, community health centre and the archives, as well as cafes and much lounge space.

Brian Gambles says that: “it will become a centre of learning, information and culture designed to handle 10 000 people a day. The library’s influence will extend beyond the physical boundaries of the building, its global digital presence allowing the public to access content from anywhere in the world.” That seems to have succeeded: in its first eight months the Library welcomed over 2m. visitors (50-60,000 a week).

This is Birmingham’s fourth central library. The original, opened in 1865, burned down fourteen years later with most of the reference stock, including the Shakespeare collection, destroyed. A club was formed locally to collect donations in the hope of recreating the historic collection. It excelled and the new library, built in 1882, found itself with one of the world’s strongest collections of the Bard’s works. A specially-built Shakespeare Memorial Room was designed to hold it. Later, when this library was itself replaced by a brutalist concrete 1970s building (which soon became ‘the place to hang out!’ – but never received its marble exterior or underground bus station’) the room was dismantled and stored. It has now been recreated as a beautiful feature of the LOB.

Birmingham claims to be Europe’s ‘youngest’ city (25% of the population are under 25) and the library is very much geared to the young. There is no ‘silence rule’ – it is acknowledged that many users attracted by the new services also want to use the library as a place to meet their friends.

The LOB has had in instant impact: the Birmingham Mail’s report on the opening was headed: Crowds flock to the “breathtakingly wonderful” Library of Birmingham.   Visitors will have noticed the massive queue at the entrance, as if the city’s residents had, at last, found something to do on a Saturday afternoon: take a stroll around their library! Even now, many visitors are there purely to sightsee. Go to the French Trip Advisor, for example, and you will find such comments as; “sublime!”, “don’t go for the books – go for the view”, “the best library ever” and “great staff.”.

A users’-eye view

As a heavy user of London’s libraries (which can be overly-bureaucratic), it is great to find one that is easy to join (it took less than a minute to get a four-year membership) and has superb computer and wi-fi facilities (at first PC access was unlimited; now it is restricted to nine hours per week – all of which can be used in one day). In the early part of the year, when the London-Birmingham rail fare tends to be 25p, the LOB is a viable option! Unlike many libraries, you feel you are getting a real welcome as soon as you enter. There is much explanatory material: lots of leaflets emphasising staff expertise and the range of resources (including free legal and intellectual property advice) in a clear, encouraging style. Leaflet topics range from excellent guides for newcomers (Introduction, Knowledge & discovery and Study & research) to Health & well-being, Music & film, Young people (covering the Soundbox studio and rehearsal facilities), the business information and planning service and lots more. There is, of course, also a visitors’ guide and floor plan (much needed!).

It is nice to find large, free lockers in a library to save carrying heavy bags around. The reference section is disappointingly small; I found the staff I tested poor at answering general questions or at directing me to sources, such as the OED or the Statesman’s yearbook. The bookstacks are high (even at 6’ I found some hard to reach) and there have been many complaints about the inaccessibility of research resources. One problem is that much of the large reserve stock (the ‘stack’, containing more than half the library’s total book stock , has been inaccessible due to lack of essential equipment (mobile lift platforms to enable staff to access resources safely ) which has not arrived. In mid-June two members of staff told me they had been banned from discussing stack access and cataloguing! More than one paper has suggested F for farce as a suitable classification for the story!

Staff are not always easy to find – and can be very busy. Although staff claim that their numbers have been cut substantially, figures suggest that the totals are the same as for the old (but smaller) library.

Asked about his own favourite libraries (his perfect one doesn’t yet exist!), Brian Gambles named Peckham, Aarhus and Seattle, among others. Perhaps, soon the Library of Birmingham will be everyone’s favourite!

(Photograph Christian Richter)