People's Network computers - best value or expensive beige elephants?
This webpage aims to encourage further independent investigation and reporting of how Lottery 'good causes' money is being spent. It may be of particular interest to librarians because of the contrast between 'Lottery largesse' for computers and lack of money for books and staff.
Initial scrutiny of the People's Network (PN) project suggests a lack of both forethought and objective analysis. Are 30,000 computers that cost about £4000 each really going to be used primarily for worthwhile purposes and to provide tangible 'community benefits'? Set up to help to engineer 'social inclusion', it can easily be shown that the People's Network is too diffuse to have a significant impact. Spending money on a PR exercise to "celebrate" the project is therefore questioned.
It is noted that more money than was consumed by the Millennium Dome has already been spent by the organisation overseeing the PN project. If any other websites exist to analyse how Lottery money is spent in the UK, please inform the author and provide links to this page.
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The People's Network in the UK is an old idea in library circles and predates the introduction of public access Internet computers. Nevertheless, in contemporary usage the term has become synonymous with public access to the Internet, social inclusion, broadband and Lottery largesse. Some of the information in this section has been adapted directly from the relevant websites http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk and http://www.nof.org.uk.
The cost of the whole project will probably be between £120 and £150 million, depending how much money various Councils have added to the basic £100 million of Lottery money provided through NOF for computers and infrastructure. A further £20 million is being provided via NOF for training 40,000 library staff to a basic standard of computer literacy. The cost-benefit of this exercise at £500 per staff member may also be questioned. For the sake of argument, a figure of £130 million will be used here as the total cost of installing some 30,000 computers in over 4000 public libraries by the end of 2002, inclusive of initial staff training. A further £50 million is being spent by NOF-digitise on producing material to be made available via PN computers and the National Grid for Learning. Although itself worthy of scrutiny, the digitise project is not discussed in detail here. The stated aim is to provide newly digitised content free at the point of use for the foreseeable future.
The New Opportunities Fund - early days but lots of money!
The People's Network 'computers for all' project may be traced to the launch of NOF on Friday 29th January 1999. It was created to award National Lottery grants to health, education and environment projects across the UK. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at the time was the Rt. Hon Chris Smith MP.
The NOF website and its press releases contain much of the self-congratulatory verbosity that is nowadays associated with government departments - except that NOF is not a department. In government-speak, "The New Opportunities Fund is a new Lottery Distributor created by the National Lottery Act 1998. It is a UK-wide non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport."
Setting the tone for what was to follow, the Chair Baroness Pitkeathley, a Labour peer, said at its launch:
"At the New Opportunities Fund we feel privileged to be setting up this new organisation which will distribute Lottery money to health, education and environment projects. Our programme is a challenging one not only for us but for organisations, groups and individuals across the UK. We want to encourage them to work together and with us so that as many people can benefit as possible, especially those who are most disadvantaged in society. By working efficiently together we hope to be making our first grants this Summer."
At the outset, £300 million was made available for "healthy living centres", but with no firm idea of what might be achieved where decades of health education had so clearly failed to counter the culture of junk food and lack of proper exercise. Baroness Pitkeathley explained that:
"We are looking for a variety of projects which will promote good health in its broadest sense. Projects are envisaged to include a wide range of facilities, including health screening facilities, dietary advice, employment, training and skills schemes, parenting classes, exercise classes and childcare. Local community participation in these schemes will be fundamental to their success."(Presumably, the emphasis on 'broadest sense' was so that the benefits (if any) from the centres could never be measured accurately)
Furthermore, it was claimed in the initial press release: "Projects which are funded will establish a core network of healthy living centres across the UK." Any blame for failure could of course be laid at the door of government since "The New Opportunities Fund is responsible for distributing grants for health, education and environment initiatives determined by the Government."
The NOF got off to a flying start with three programmes worth £1000 million announced on 29 January 1999. For comparison, the Dome cost just over £1000 million and was subjected to intense scrutiny. The NOF programmes were:
£300m - Healthy living centres
£400m - Out of School Hours activities
£300m - ICT Training for teachers, librarians and digitisation of educational and learning materials.
In addition, new initiatives were proposed by this document. These areas were:
Lists are available of projects that have received lottery funding via NOF, for example at http://www.nof.org.uk/contents/gen/download/grantlist.pdf . Most are for health and education infrastructure. Pre-lottery, these would have been expected to be covered by central or local government taxation.
The New Opportunities Fund - the People's Network project.
The first New Opportunities Fund to Train Library Staff in the Use of ICT (information, communications technology) was launched as a £20 million programme on 3 August 1999. The training was "aimed to help equip public library staff with the skills, knowledge and confidence to use ICT effectively in their day-to-day work and to use new technology to benefit the users of public libraries". Baroness Pitkeathley explained:
"Library staff play a central role in supporting learning for all ages and helping people to access information. At the New Opportunities Fund we hope that by using National Lottery money to boost public library staff training we will help many more people to benefit from new technology and the world wide web."
This was at the time when New Labour had conceived a New Big Idea - that the UK could become a world leader in Internet Commerce and e-business (despite that with a fast disappearing manufacturing base we would have nothing much to sell). A bloated stock market added to the general feeling of a new golden age.
A later press release confirmed the aims of the PN scheme.
"The People's Network forms part of UK online: a national drive to help everyone in the UK make the most of IT and the internet. The aims of UK online are to make the UK the best place in the world for e-commerce; to ensure that everyone who wants to can get online; and to deliver all government services online to citizens by 2005. An important part of the UK online project is the creation of 6000 UK online Centres in England by the end of 2002, where people can access the internet. At least half of these Centres will be in public libraries, thanks to the People's Network project. Further information on UK online is available at: http://www.ukonline.gov.uk or http://www.letsallgeton.gov.uk"
However, it was acknowledged that the training would only ensure that all public library staff achieved a basic level of competence in the use of ICT. Front line staff would "be able to navigate the internet and help people to make the best use of the ICT facilities in the library. Each Library Service will be allocated funding for the training. Libraries can select the training providers from a list provided by the New Opportunities Fund, or by choosing providers who meet the New Opportunities Fund published criteria."
Some small element of flexibility was included for the benefit of libraries that already had staff who were able to use a mouse. "The training will enable public library staff to use ICT to support reader development, help users in their learning and find information for library users. Library services will also be able to direct some of their funding allocation towards more advanced training, where they have staff who are already experienced in ICT."
Community Access to Lifelong Learning - a snip at £200 million.
The Community Access to Lifelong Learning scheme (CALL) was launched on 31 January 2000 with a budget of £200 million, £100 million of which was earmarked for People's Network (PN) computers in over 4000 libraries. This took the total projected spend for NOF to £1200 million. Scotland was the first to benefit from the PN funding, with £11.5 million granted on 22 May 2000 with an additional £2.37 million for staff training. The first grants in England, totalling £14 million were announced on 8 March 2001, with an additional £11 million to public libraries.
The Millennium Dome (R.I.P.) was famously characterised by a surfeit of spin over substance, and with protestations almost to the end that it had been a resounding success and with incalculable social benefits having been delivered. It eventually cost just over £1000 million, less than had been committed by NOF even at this early stage - but it did at least earn a little money over its short life. Given the outcry over the Dome and the waste of money it represented, it is surprising that the NOF has to date not attracted more scrutiny. This may be because it handles many projects and these are necessarily funded more diffusely. Individually, none has yet aroused public indignation.
A special report on the Dome is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/dome/0,2759,223661,00.html.
Whilst an argument can be made against charging for (most) library books, the Internet offers such endless opportunities for ultimately useless amusement and trivia that some control may need to be introduced to limit what otherwise might prove to become an inappropriate drain on library resources. This appears not to have been addressed by NOF. Many authorities had installed computers in libraries well before NOF got involved. Some experience of user demand was therefore available, and showed that even small hourly charges reduced demand significantly. Whilst this approach was adopted by a few Authorities within the PN scheme (despite being perhaps strictly outside of the initial NOF guidelines), their data on usage could usefully be compared to that from the bulk of Authorities who offered free access. There exist, buried in all the press releases, several examples of an upsurge in demand as soon as machines were made free of charge. Listen for example to a Councillor from Cheshire "We are expecting the People's Network to be hugely popular as our current modest provision of public workstations is frequently overbooked, especially since charges for the first hour of use were dropped last year."
Some authorities already impose high charges. For example Cambridge charges 50p per 10 minutes for email or use of MS Office at one of its learning centres! More details from http://www.camcnty.gov.uk/library/charges.htm#comphire. However, access to the Internet for information searching is free of charge.
There are data from other areas. Many years ago Government bodies that were centrally funded used to give away mountains of free leaflets. When cost controls were introduced in the late 1980s and the bodies became Executive Agencies or were fully privatised, leaflets containing invaluable information were charged at a token 20p or £1. Demand from the public fell sharply. The essential point then and now is that if a service is made free people will use it relentlessly. If it is charged at even a small fraction of its true worth (i.e., still highly subsidised) usage falls markedly. There may be a lesson here for public transport.
A token charge of 50p per computer session would be an interesting experiment. If each of 30,000 computers produced only £1000 annually the total income would be £30 million - a welcome addition to the reported £87 million total income of all public libraries in 2000/01 (LISU Loughborough University). For a printed summary of UK library statistics, email: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or try http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/dis/lisu/lisuhp.html. In fact, there are already signs of disquiet over the implications of long term 'free for all' use of library computers, especially for non-core purposes. For example, in the Devon Library Plan for 2002-2005 (http://www.devon.gov.uk/eal/docs/alp.pdf ) it is noted:
there is a conflict between the County Council's expectation that the Library Service should generate some income towards sustaining the service, and the national imperative to provide free access to communication and information for all.
Moreover, in a tacit admission that the machines may be used primarily for email and other short term tasks, it is noted:
the majority of users find the half-hour sessions adequate for their needs
It might have been more accurate to say that most users would happily accept whatever free time is allowed and are not sufficiently interested in 'lifelong learning' to wish to pay anything towards it. What may prove to be the final nail in the coffin is alluded to in two juxtaposed statements in the Devon Library Plan. In discussing the future roll-out of services to be offered on-line:
growth will continue to accelerate and the processes of development, exploitation, and promotion of the technology have hardly started.
A few sentences later, in discussing the large contribution made to setting up the People's Network system by the in-house ICT team of Devon County Council, it is observed:
However, that degree of support was specific to the project and will soon be withdrawn.
The need to help provide a part of e-government (but perhaps with little money to do it properly) is noted further down the same page:
The key role for the Library Service in contributing to the targets of the County Council's e-government strategy brings an important extension of the current role for library staff and the ICT support team. New directions for central and branch libraries will need a depth of technical support.
NOF is wonderful - we say so and you had better believe it.
Extracts from press releases extolling the expectations and claimed successes of the PN and other NOF projects are given below. The claims for success in libraries were made at a time when in reality, staff had not been properly trained, the computers and their myriad software control faults were proving a drain on staff time (to the detriment of other library work) and it was already clear that major uses for the machines, at least in some areas, were likely to be for emailing and surfing shallow websites.
Remarkable claims were made at this stage, perhaps to help justify the sums of money being handed out. Perhaps not surprisingly, many read as though they were taken straight from a Party manifesto - promises without any guarantee of delivery but with lashings of social inclusion, community involvement, partnership, and political correctness. Whilst there is much self- praise for what is about to happen, there is no suggestion of any proper monitoring of benefits, perhaps in terms of real jobs created assessed against the total expenditure. Given some of the claims, this is not surprising.
A recent report from the National Audit Office has reemphasised that UK Online computers tend to be used primarily for email and leisure purposes, even by older people. At least for the moment, they appear to have a strong preference to discuss public services face-to-face, rather than to adapt to e-government. The NAO website is at http://www.nao.gov.uk. The full report is at http://www.nao.gov.uk/publications/nao_reports/02-03/0203428.pdf and takes some time to download (pdf and 770kB). A shorter Executive Summary is available at http://www.nao.gov.uk/publications/nao_reports/02-03/0203428es.pdf. For anyone interested in how government money is spent (or squandered) in the UK, the NAO site is required reading.
Small questions about large sums of money
One of the interesting questions is why the whole PN exercise was so expensive given that it was known at the outset that only a fraction of the machines could probably ever be used for any type of structured learning courses involving formal training on (for example) advanced word processing or web design packages - simply because they had to be squeezed into any available space in already crowded libraries. Few of these had (or have) available any spare rooms that could be turned into dedicated learning suites. In any case, installation of the hardware was completed well before library staff were trained to even a basic level of computer literacy. Indeed, some are still struggling to cope and utilising 'home-grown' knowledge rather than the basic training provided.
At present , there is no funding guaranteed to secure the high level of staff competence and training that would be necessary to make full use of the computers, even assuming that most users were interested in anything more than gaining an introduction to the Internet. Indeed, the case studies of people who have benefited from the People's Network and On-line centres bear this out. On the website http://www.letsallgeton.gov.uk examples are given of several people who used the facilities only for simple surfing and e-mailing.
The one example of a girl who went on to take a word processing course that enabled her to find a job includes the revelation that she did so at a local college. Of course, in any project involving roll-out of technology to hundreds of thousands of users, a few examples can be found where there were real benefits. That is why in late 2002 NOF were casting around all UK public libraries looking for examples of 'case studies' that they could use to help 'celebrate' the PN project. They will find instances of genuine benefit, much as one can find buried treasure if one looks often enough and far afield. A few dozen of the more photogenic and 'socially inclusive' examples will be used to help justify the entire project. They will not represent a worthwhile level of cost-benefit analysis - as is easily confirmed by reading the first official report on the PN scheme. Entitled 'A turning point for public libraries' it is available at http://www.resource.gov.uk/information/publications/00pubs.asp. Copies by post can be obtained by telephoning Resource on 020-7273-1458. (Country code for the UK is +44). Initial comments on this report are given below at 'First Findings'
In reality, it seems likely that most of the machines in libraries will remain under-utilised in technical terms until they are deemed to have become 'obsolete' when another tranche of Lottery money will (perhaps) be provided to upgrade them. However, by that time, the cost of second-hand Internet-capable machines will have dropped to around £15, enabling any but the most severely disadvantaged households to own one.
Using the global figures given above, the average installed cost per computer was as high as £5000. This is five to eight times the 'free market' cost of comparable machines. It is also 50 to 100 times the cost of 'obsolete' computers that would have been adequate to enable most people to gain a solid foundation knowledge of Internet usage and word processing, these being two of the prime objectives. The future market may be confined largely to a transient population (tourists, students) and to those (few) people who are both seriously financially disadvantaged and yet do not own a home computer. The cost figures are confirmed by published anecdotes from various parts of the country:
So why was so much money spent - is the People's Network the library equivalent of the Millennium Dome? Much of the explanation of the high cost may lie in the rush to provide 'broadband' or other high speed Internet connections and, thereby, easier access to the range of 'digital learning' resources being assembled. Also, the PN network is seen as a 'key driver for broadband implementation' and this is (perhaps) needed if the aims of e-government are to be realised. Lottery money may in effect have been used to help fund a part of the infrastructure for e-government. Libraries may have been used as a cheap means of deploying some of the technology and without sufficient thought to either the knock-on effects for front line staff (or library users) or longer term funding. Indeed, this is not the first time that long term funding appears to have been neglected.
It has been predicted that museums will close and that their collections will be warehoused only a few years after hundreds of millions of pounds of lottery cash was spent on providing new facilities and buildings. With this 'capital' money used up on grandiose projects, the deficit in running costs will be even greater than before. The government dismissed the story as 'unduly alarmist' - but without saying quite why the calculations were wrong. More details at http://society.guardian.co.uk/lottery/story/0,8150,459071,00.html. A similar point is made in the April 2003 issue of 'Update' the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Discussing the future of 'social inclusion' and UK Online, they say:
Some NOF projects funded under the Capital Modernisation Fund face closure in January 2004, when their one year of revenue funding runs out. 'If UK Online centres are forced to close, it is not clear whether there will be sufficient resources to set up a replacement in the vicinity', says NAO (National Audit Office report http://www.nao.gov.uk/publications/nao_reports/02-03/0203428es.pdf.)
One of the key justifications for the People's Network project was to bring computer technology and opportunities to 'disadvantaged' groups. A recent national survey showed that while 44% of the population had direct access to ICT, for specific groups such as lone parents, people with disabilities and those with 'basic skills needs', the user rate was only 32%. It was further noted that whilst over 60% of professional or clerical people use ICT (and can therefore keep themselves mentally switched-on to the use of computers), this falls to less than 33% for those living in areas of deprivation. Amongst the 16-34 age group, who are the heaviest users of ICT, half are said not to be able to afford to own a PC. All of this is claimed to be "an eloquent case for library based public access ICT and training facilities".
However, the promise of 'computer access for all' must be seen against the backdrop of a desired (NOF) rate of provision of 0.6 computers per 1000 population and with several Authorities (including Devon) managing only around 0.4 per 1000, because of lack of available space in libraries.
Illustrative calculations can be done using a median figure of 0.5 per 1000, or 1 computer per 2000 people. Amongst the core assumptions must be that many experienced computer users would be expected to make use of library facilities simply because they were free and would offer (for many home users) a faster connection. Also, amongst people who were learning, regular use would be essential if any real progress was to be made. Using a computer for half an hour once a month, and with some element of extra travel often involved, might not be a viable route to building a substantial base of knowledge.
At the moment, use of PN computers is restricted to a narrow subset of the population. Already, some machines are fully utilised and with queues forming during busy periods. If, for example, only 20% of the population were ever to make use of the machines (which may be too low a figure), this would imply a provision rate of one machine per 400 users. Each library computer could be made available for (typically) 70 half hour sessions every week. Because of inevitable slack periods and system failures, the actual usage might fall to (say) 50 per week to satisfy demand from 400 active users. This implies an average of one session every two months! Given that many experienced 'surfers' are already claiming sessions almost on a daily basis there is no prospect of the machines ever being able to fulfil core social expectations. The logic of the People's Network scheme is almost a reinvention of libraries in the computer age but with the restriction that you are required to wait in turn to read the books, rather than being allowed to take them home. One alternative route would have been to provide far more emphasis on interactive digital television services.
In any case, widespread deployment of a technology just because it has become feasible is not in itself logical. Nor is the supposition that people will learn anything more worthwhile just because vastly more material is made instantly available. Indeed, 'information overload' can itself introduce an extra hurdle to genuine learning. Availability of so much material on-line can reduce (for example) writing an essay to a mechanistic procedure involving no more thought than 'click, cut and paste' and playing with a mouse. Experience of 100+ television channels bears this out, as do many documents written in government-speak. In justification, Resource have said:
"The UK Government has made very clear the importance it attaches to the role of learning in all its guises as the cornerstone of people's lives, and has set out its thinking in a series of key policy documents. Furthermore the Government sees universal access to ICT and its use as a delivery mechanism for learning opportunities as the catalyst for change. A major element of this is the People's Network, a £170 million project to create ICT learning centres in all 4,300 UK public libraries by the end of 2002. £50m of this funding is for NOF-digi as a major contribution to on-line resources complementing National Curriculum materials."
Not everyone seems to be convinced about the potential for 'real learning'. In the Devon Action Plan it is noted that out of over 50 static libraries, only 4 have specially designed and equipped ICT training suites. The others offer only computers dotted around often in busy areas of the main library. Furthermore, in the Devon Library Plan it is conceded:
In some cases, library buildings may not, themselves, be the only, or best, locations for learning centres or focal points for the Government's e-government and UK On-line strategies. The intention remains to share spare bandwidth .. and to involve other DCC public buildings.. other local authorities.. community and voluntary organisations.
In other words, it is recognised both that many libraries may be unsuitable and that many more types of buildings may be required to be pressed into service. Even these measures would probably both fail to meet demand for 'free' services and introduce myriad problems of supervision, abuse of systems and access.
Listen also to Anne Fine, a celebrated author of children's books writing in the Jan 2003 edition of Update, the CILIP magazine:
We cannot be Luddites and pretend this (computers) is not the future. Manifestly it is. But before sitting quietly by as the powers-that-be continue to starve the bookfund to pay for it, we must be confident it's all worthwhile......And there is simply no point in having brilliant new means of communication if there is little or nothing of true value to communicate. How many of us have sat in children's libraries and been unable to suppress the thought that those who are hunched at the machines are absorbed in what, in earlier times, we would call simply 'a waste of time'?.... Dismal enough, when nothing but time is wasted. But what if what is wasted is the talent of others? When something else has to be sacrificed, to make the space or release the money?
One of the Great Promises of the People's Network, trotted out by Devon Library Services (and a few others) in a range of leaflets, is the Pure Approved Thought:
"and it won't mean less money for books!!"
But what if the new technology had been properly thought through and costed utilising accepted principles of marginal cost-benefit analysis? Would then Devon have been permitted to spend at least half its Lottery windfall on new books and the other half on providing just as many computers but with less emphasis on broadband, video streaming and all purpose command and control systems fitted to even the smallest libraries? And where, in the coming years, will the staff and other resources come from to service the computers? Is Lottery money guaranteed to flow, digitised largesse without end? Where is the proven market for the £50 million worth of 'newly digitised content' that is to be made freely available by NOF and with such enthusiasm?
The full text of Anne Fine's address to the IFLA conference (Glasgow 2002) can be found at http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla68/papers/165-218e.pdf . If this direct link does not work try http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla68/prog02.htm#8 to get to the appropriate index page. Her lecture is worth reading if only for the clarity of exposition as a passionate defence of books and serious study having a place in the library of the future. It also affords a welcome opportunity to view an endangered species at close quarters - a conference paper written in plain English.
Contrast Anne Fine's heartfelt beliefs with the mechanistic government-speak used by a senior delegate from Resource at the same conference. For this, see http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla68/papers/161-123e.pdf . A glossary of jargon is at http://society.guardian.co.uk/glossary/0,11637,646397,00.html. The website of the Plain English Campaign may also be helpful! http://www.plainenglish.co.uk.
The impact upon libraries
It was inevitable that the Internet would take over libraries to some extent. What seems not to have been thought through is the interaction between the old and the new (the quiet of the reference library and reading areas competing with the clatter of keyboards) or the need to retain traditional standards of privacy and freedom when changing (merely) the method of delivery of information. The prime 'serious' use of the Internet in libraries is sometimes cited as being a source of reference material. Yet a recent MORI poll showed that 88% of people would prefer to talk to someone about a query rather than connect to the Internet. The figure fell slightly to 83% for people who were experienced in using the Internet - even they would prefer to talk to someone competent. http://www.mori.com/digest/2001/pdo10302.shtml. This is true even for computer related enquiries. One can either spend hours trawling through the Internet or speak to several clued-up experts within the space of half an hour using a telephone. Most are happy to offer free and highly relevant advice. In this context, an expert can be seen as one of the world's best interactive search engines.
Of course, the Internet offers many new possibilities - emailing one's friends about a day at the seaside, flipping through holiday websites looking for a cheap weekend, and share dealing and on-line banking, to name but a few. Whether these functions should immediately assume a dominant position (both physically and otherwise) in libraries that were never designed for the computer age is debatable, as is the basic supposition that they have a place in libraries at all.
However, the disruptive impact of computers in many libraries is only one example of what has happened as they have tried to become more 'socially inclusive' in an arguably misguided attempt to appeal to more people in the face of falling usage. Listen to Anne Fine again:
We may say it is the library's job to provide what people want. But people are plural, and the library user is, as we must keep reminding ourselves, an individual. Hanging about in a library in the north east, I watched a boy of 12 trying to do his homework with his fingers in his ears to block out the noise as the ladies at the desk laughed and chatted with local people who, in this depressed area, were using the library as a cheerful social centre.
Looking up, he caught my eye and said, embarrassed: "The problem is, I can't find anywhere quiet to work." In a library! Yet I recall, a couple of years ago, visiting a library in New Zealand, where a dozen teenagers were quietly sitting at tables, studying. Surely this is a more important provision by a library than social cheer. A library is not the Citizens' Advice Bureau, the nursery, the bingo hall or the coffee bar. It was conceived and endowed as something greater, so that people who chose could become something richer and deeper.
To which we might add only that a library may be no place for an Internet cafe where the computer equivalent of free phone-cards and postage stamps are handed out at the public expense. Nor should it be a place in which disadvantaged children eager to learn can no longer escape the bedlam of constant television, pop music and computer games in their own (often crowded) homes.
Perhaps the lasting impact will be deeper. In its determination to press ahead with the New Big Idea of e-government, libraries have suddenly become loved by central government, the reason being perhaps that they have agreed to accommodate a key element of the infrastructure - computer access for all - at no cost to the Treasury. Indeed, 'Lottery' money that had been earmarked for "health, education and environment" has been used to fund the infrastructure, under the guise of providing "ICT learning centres in all 4,300 public libraries by the end of 2002". Some press releases refer to a more modest target of 'over 4000'.
"The importance of the People's Network as an access route to online resources and the significance of the PN in rolling out broadband - both emphasise the core roles of public library services at the heart of government policy" - Director of Libraries and Information Society at Resource, quoted in Update (CILIP), January 2003.
Yet libraries have agreed this apparently without any guarantees of funding for staff in the long term and already central library 'reserve funds' in some areas have been raided to provide extra hours of front-line staff time. Automation of book issue systems to enable DIY for borrowers may release staff for PN duties, but when and who will pay? The bookfund perhaps, as witnessed already by irate borrowers wanting to know why the latest books were not available and had to be requested (at up to £2 each) from a distant library and with a waiting list. And yet there is (obviously to the layperson) no lack of money for people playing for free with computers. This seems at odds with published claims by (for example) Devon Library Services that more ICT broadens the library service "and does not take place at the expense of the book".
The last word can go to Anne Fine as she defends the role books have to play in Society and especially in the education of children, even in the computer age:
"Imaginative literature" (said Ford Madox Ford many years ago) "is the most important thing in the world because it is the only thing that can make you think and feel simultaneously. Books are the best instrument we have for ethical enquiry. It is the easiest and most comforting avenue to self-reflection, the most powerful source of enchantment."
What was really needed?
Any proper analysis of what could have been provided and how much it should have cost has to start with the cost of a simple computer, suitable for Internet, email and word processing using a reasonably up-to-date package. Such a machine would fulfil probably 90% or more of likely usage of People's Network computers. The People's Network was not installed 'cold' with no previous experience. Many libraries had had computers for years and had built up a data base of usage. These would show a preponderance of simple e-mail and web browsing, as would be expected in the absence of (in many areas of the country) any facilities for structured learning of complex packages.
It is also true that people simply do not need the latest machines or software (or a broadband or other high speed connection) to learn the basics of computing and e-commerce. This can be done on machines that are five and more years old, and the knowledge thus gained can readily be updated if and when required. The only real reason for faster and faster machines being sold is that they are 'necessary' to run the latest games or complex CAD or similar packages. These have no place in public libraries. An analogy is that one does not need a new car capable of 150 mph in order to learn to drive, just as one does not need a kitchen costing £20,000 in which to learn to bake a cake. Broadband or an equivalent high speed network may indeed be necessary to access some of the video content being produced by NOF-digitise but how many people intent on serious study (which might take weeks) would choose to do this in dozens of sessions in a library maybe miles from home and maybe spread over months or years?
However, logic does not appear to apply in the world of libraries and Lottery largesse, just as it does not apply in the world of home computers or cars. Long ago these passed from the realms of utilitarianism to being a prime means of disposing of surplus wealth in as conspicuous a fashion as possible. What has happened in libraries would have been more excusable had resources already been supplied in abundance to provide up to date books for the majority of borrowers. This website was prepared on an IBM 300GL computer that cost £45 (about $70) in November 2002, purchased from an electrical surplus store. Machines costing £200 each would happily fulfil 95% or more of likely public access library usage for years to come.
Yet even this does not explain why machines cost around £4000 each installed - and for models that could be bought off-the-shelf with a range of software (and a printer) included for £1000 or less. Part of the explanation must lie in the trendy obsession with broadband or equivalent networked connectivity and the rest probably in a desire to implement 'command and control' and snooping systems. Arguably none of these have a place in libraries that are starved of funds for books and buildings' maintenance. For a discussion of snooping and privacy in libraries see for example total_info_aware_system.htm. For a summary of broadband implementation in local government see http://www.socitm.gov.uk/Public/insight/publications/broadband+report.htm
The point is that 30,000 machines entirely adequate for most purposes could have been purchased for around £6 million including (often) slightly out of date software. Alternatively, £20-30 million would have equipped all libraries with 'stand-alone' new machines, leaving the remaining £80 - 90 million spent on the People's Network project to be available for providing (for example and on average) £20,000 per library for employing a dedicated computer literate person to look after the computers and teach newcomers on a part time basis for 4 years (c. £5,000 pa).
This would have ploughed more money into local employment and less into the coffers of distant suppliers. It would also have been more in tune with the stated aim of helping local communities and involving them more in Lottery projects. The expenditure on staff in public libraries is reported at £485 million for 2000/01 out of a total gross expenditure of nearly £900 million. (LISU Loughborough University mailto:email@example.com for a printed copy of library statistics). An additional £20+ million per year for staff would seem reasonable in view of the extra loading imposed by the PN project and (coincidentally) aligns roughly with the £30 million projected annual income calculated above.
Centralised procurement: an effort to save money?!
Some effort has been put into comparing the procurement by different Authorities, but little or none into asking whether all-singing hardware is universally required in all libraries. The results from an initial study of different purchasing consortia can be downloaded as a PDF report from the People's Network website at: http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk/future/procurement.asp. "The Resource Consortium Purchase Expert Forum is a group of representatives drawn from the public library and other sectors that is contributing to the strategic planning and development work of the People's Network Team. Details about the work of this and other Resource Expert Forums are available at: http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk/future/forums.asp."
"The People's Network is a comprehensive programme of public ICT provision which will connect all UK public libraries to the Internet where practicable by the end of 2002. The 170 million-pound initiative co-ordinated by Resource and lottery funded by the New Opportunities Fund, is part of the Government's commitment to give everyone in the UK the opportunity to get online."
£50 million of the £170 million is for the NOF-digitise scheme whereby organisations are given grants of typically £150,000 each to produce digital information packs on a vast range of topics and that will be made available, free of charge, to users of the People's Network and the National Grid for Learning (http://www.ngfl.gov.uk. and http://www.nof-digitise.org/grants). About 150 grants have been awarded so far with amounts ranging from £14,000 to £4 million. The output is envisaged to contain "over a million images, tens of thousands of audio and video clips, innumerable pages of text and many hundreds of new learning packages on topics as diverse as biscuits, migration, football and music." More is not necessarily better, and if ten million people each view one of these contributions, each may be viewed once and once only, on average.
Presumably the output from NOF-digitise will be free to home computer users also and in formats that older machines can utilise.
Resource Celebrates People's Network Success - by spending yet more money on computers whilst many buildings are crumbling and the book stocks are dwindling.
Resource is a government organisation that provides "the strategic leadership, advocacy and advice to enable museums, archives and libraries to touch people's lives and inspire their imagination, learning and creativity." The website is http://www.resource.gov.uk/. In September 2002 it appointed Public Relations consultant Harrison Cowley to deliver a PR campaign marking the completion of the People's Network - the UK's biggest publicly funded ICT initiative of its kind.
Boasting that "through the People's Network project, the UK's 4,000 public libraries will have 30,000 new computer terminals successfully installed by the end of December 2002, offering free or low cost internet access to all", it hails as a success "this six-year project, which has been funded by the New Opportunities Fund and managed by Resource" (This seems premature, the project has been running only for 3 years).
Jo O'Driscoll, Resource's Head of Communications, has said: "The People's Network is an absolutely fantastic achievement, which we all want to celebrate. Public libraries have so much to be proud of in delivering this project on time and in budget and we should shout about this success. Thanks to this new additional facility libraries can do what they enjoy most more effectively than ever before - helping people to find the information they need with more tools and resources at their fingertips."
"Half of the UK's population already use their local libraries (do they really? The number of registered borrowers is 35 million out of a population of 60 million, but only a fraction of these are regular users or users at all.) We'd like to see even more people joining, and want everyone to know about the difference that People's Network is making to the whole library community. Harrison Cowley will help us communicate the real difference that the People's Network will make to people's lives." (There is a slight problem here. Some libraries are already stretched to breaking point dealing with user enquiries about PN machines. If yet more people are encouraged to use them (or indeed merely to experiment and play), more money will be needed for front-line staff and perhaps on a continuing basis).
Harrison Cowley, with 10 offices across the
UK, will use the Bristol team to handle the PR brief, following a competitive three-way
pitch. (Are we allowed to know how much
all the hype is costing?)
The four-month national and regional PR campaign will feature some of the ways the People's Network has changed people's lives by offering ICT access to all and will aim to encourage everyone to visit their local libraries to benefit from these new facilities. Support will also be offered to bolster local PR and promotion activities through the production of a PR toolkit for libraries."
Sarah Bryars, who heads up Harrison Cowley's Bristol operation, commented: "We're delighted to be working on this campaign with Resource because the People's Network is a highly successful project and has wide appeal. Real-life stories from people who have genuinely benefited from these services will spread the word that public libraries have so much to offer - and will serve as a fitting celebration of the successful conclusion of this massive project."
"The campaign, which celebrates the initial implementation of the People's Network, marks the beginning of a new chapter in public library service provision. Two complementary programmes to support the training of all 40,000 library staff and create new high quality web resources, both on track for completion by the end of March 2004, will conclude the first phase of the People's Network."
Back in the real world, as reported in The Independent on 17 May 2002, libraries are characterised by falling usage, poorly maintained buildings often in areas where there is no longer sufficient demand for the services they offer, falling expenditure on books and shorter opening hours, presumably all to save money. These are points made by the library campaign http://www.librarycampaign.co.uk Set against this, is it really a matter for "celebration" that over £100 million has been spent on overtly expensive computers that are proving in many libraries a distraction and in others a nuisance to regular library users? Rather than spend money on PR consultants who will no doubt produce yet more glossy reports, T-shirts, logos, balloons, and banners might we have a report from someone competent on just what level of computer provision is needed in libraries, what it should be used for and what activities might in future be relegated to Internet cafes?
In her IFLA conference paper http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla68/papers/165-218e.pdf Anne Fine quotes the poet Ted Hughes as having
"inveighed against the new descending dark age of the computerised library and the word processed child.... It is an unthinking techno-chic madness... all part of the psychological blindness in our higher busybodies".
The People's Network Excellence Fund - yet more ICT in Public Libraries!
The following material is adapted from press releases.
"The People's Network project, which will connect all public libraries to the Internet by the end of 2002, has received £1.7 million from the People's Network Excellence Fund for 26 projects across England to enable libraries to further develop their ICT provision with new, exciting and innovative services. All of the funded projects will show how libraries are using their imagination and forward planning to create new People's Network services for their communities.
Many of the People's Network Excellence Fund projects are focusing on the need to make library services accessible from remote locations such as the home, shopping malls, or other community venues. This will typically be done either by innovative software approaches or physically expanding the existing network infrastructure, or in some cases, both. Services generally being focused on are lending services or access to library-based electronic datasets.
Other library services are using technology to help promote their People's Network services using video walls or outreach services with laptops. One 'particularly interesting project' will loan out PDAs to library users and allow the downloading of e-books and other MP3 files across the library's own broadband network.
The People's Network Excellence Fund is using part of England's share of the People's Network £100 million programme that is funded by the New Opportunities Fund and co-ordinated by Resource".
All of which will be a great comfort to borrowers who are continuing to desert libraries for the simple reason that the supply of new books is so poor.
Brief comments on 'First Findings' - the first official report into the PN scheme, written by Prof. Peter Brophy of Manchester Metropolitan University (previously Manchester Polytechnic).
Three rules need to be obeyed whenever it is desired to present a dubious project in the best possible light to a lay audience.
1. Use big numbers
2. Use glossy paper, wide margins and lots of pretty colours.
3. Avoid normalising data to the level of common experience.
With luck, no-one will then notice that the report consists mainly or exclusively of fine words strung together in sentences that are so vague as to have little or no substance.
Indeed, many reports consist of nothing more than a random assortment of politically correct phrases and buzz words liberally sprinkled upon the finest quality paper. Part of the trick is to realise that because so many glossy reports are now produced by local and central government, there is little chance of anyone actually reading a copy. (Sadly, the same is true for websites.)
For example, in early 1999, EDDC, DCC and Devon and Cornwall Police produced a joint report on community and partnership policing. It would probably have been received to universal acclaim but for one small difficulty - I wrote a letter to the local newspaper. An extract is given below. The full text is at accountability.htm.
"We need to be on our guard. There is large type and pretty pictures, as if few words on a page and multicoloured artwork can help to disguise lack of content and competence".
Forewarned is forearmed, and we can now examine briefly Professor Brophy's 23 page beautifully presented report on People's Network computers. It is acknowledged that only interim findings are presented, so there is room for improvement. However, the main congratulatory paragraphs revolve around the following data and assertions. Comments are in purple.
1. "The People's Network is a project to bring the internet and on-line services to the whole UK population". It can easily be shown that the network is so thinly spread that only a tiny fraction of the population could ever use it on a regular basis.
2. "By the end of December 2002, 68.5 million hours of internet access per annum will be available, and that most of it will be free at the point of use. Overall utilisation of this capacity is already above 50%." The human brain is hopeless at distinguishing 600,000 hours from 6 million from 60 million. This is because scaling factors of up to about 7 can be accommodated and peoples' perception of 'hours' is limited to about 8 or 10. The data would be better presented normalised 'per machine'. Thus 68.5 million divided by 30,000 computers yields 2283 hours per year or 44 hours in an average week. The actual time a computer will be available may be less, because of changeover times, system faults etc, and a figure of 40 hours may be a good maximum estimate. Assuming one computer per 2000 of the population, and assuming 75% utilisation (say 30 hours rather than 40) and assuming that AT LEAST half the time will be taken up by a few 'regular users' leaves 15 hours per week spread amongst (say) only 750 casual users. The availability is therefore ONE HOUR PER USER EVERY YEAR. This seems ample for the purposes of e-government!
3. "Statistical data has been analysed alongside individual case studies to provide a picture of a quiet revolution taking place across the UK". Does this refers to the seething discontent of some library staff? I never cease to be amazed how many 'academics' try to pull the wool by saying they 'analyse' data when the quality of the raw material is so poor that hardly anything could be done with it. But maybe it keeps them in gainful employment.
4. "People are finding new ways to communicate, across countries and continents, lives are being enriched, social barriers breached and learning opportunities grasped." How moving - and what a poetic way of describing sending an email instead of a letter.
5. "The People's Network is moving beyond connectivity into community engagement, to make the transformation to a wired society a positive experience for all." Count the buzz words, admire the social inclusion and despair that 'good cause' lottery money is spent producing this sort of drivel.
6. "That users appear to be coming in significant numbers from among disadvantaged groups in our society is an added accomplishment." At a time when the gulf between rich and poor is growing ever wider, it must be comforting for these unfortunate people (heavy purchasers of lottery tickets) to know that they are, on average, likely to be able to have one hour every year on a computer.
7. An on-line discussion list is maintained at www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/peoplesnetwork.html . Why bother?
8. "The range of users is extremely wide, from schoolchildren to 90 year olds". This represents the fraction of the population able to walk to a library and is a great surprise.
9. "Detailed analysis of libraries' returns suggests that reasons for using the People's Network can be categorised as follows: Learning, Finding work, Personal identity, Community enrichment, Social inclusion, Culture and creativity." How much 'detailed analysis' was necessary to produce this predetermined list? Who cares? It is all so predictable. Just look up the past press releases of Resource and the People's Network and you'll find all the stock phrases there, waiting to be recycled.
10. "In a three month period, 25,000 users undertook IT get started courses, 30,000 did an Internet Taster course, and 10,000 embarked on an office software course". Fantastic. In three months 30,000 computers could be used about 800 times each. So about one in every 400 users did something seriously educational, the rest emailed, surfed and played about - but I guess we suspected that already!!
11. "A survey of 10 library authorities logged over 85,000 uses of email over a three month period". Statistics are so meaningful when presented in total isolation! How many computers in the 10 authorities? How many total log-ins? Where is the perspective?
12. "There is no conclusive evidence that the People's Network is attracting individuals from social grades D and E (semi and unskilled manual workers, casual or low grade workers)." Oh dear me, better ask library authorities to make a special effort to look out for these people, ask them for a few anecdotes, and in the final report all will be well.
13. "A high proportion of unemployed people of all ages using the service for job related purposes." Revelation!!
14. "We have our own computer but rely on the library for Internet access." Entirely in line with expectations. Seasoned users, who know a good thing when they see it, will make full and regular use of the broadband lines, for example to collect dubious emails and visit sites that might transmit viruses, thus protecting their home machines. Once more people start doing this, the spare capacity for the poor D and E social groups will be zero, and e-government for the masses will be a distant dream. 'Twas ever thus.
15. "Of non-library users who have tried the computers, no less than 40% have joined the library." Yes, but did they read a book or borrow a video?
16. "NOF have commissioned the Tavistock Institute to undertake a two year evaluation of the People's Network. Preliminary findings are due in Spring 2003." I can hardly wait. Maybe this too will need translating into Plain English.
The paper copy of the report can be
obtained from Resource on 020 7273 1458 or downloaded from http://www.resource.gov.uk/information/publications/00pubs.asp.
Questions that the Minister (Tessa Jowell) may refuse to answer.
To ask the Minister these and similar questions you may send her an email at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, you may decide to stop buying Lottery tickets until such time as the government gets its act together.
Controversy in early 2003 over the proposed merger of the Community Fund (which hands out Lottery cash to small groups and charities) with the government dominated NOF has once again highlighted the problems at the heart of the lottery. These have included a continuing degree of bemusement amongst professionals as to why people buy lottery tickets. In a working paper dating from 1997 The Institute for Fiscal Studies observed:
" participation in the lottery is voluntary, so only those who feel that it is beneficial to buy tickets will buy them......although consumers are, on average, financially worse off after buying lottery tickets (since they are an extremely poor investment) they feel better off when they buy them because of the pleasure associated with doing so. We do not know what these pleasures are but can presume that they exist from the fact that people buy this commodity with such a poor financial return."
Perhaps the last word here should go to Baroness Pitkeathley the Labour Party peer who chairs NOF. Speaking in late January 2003 about the merger furore which has seen the previous Minister, Chris Smith speaking out against his own government's proposals, she tried to appear positive:
"We have to face the fact that people have not really appreciated all that the lottery is doing in a coherent way."
From here you can jump back to read any part
of this webpage again. Or you can skip to a new page giving initial feedback from library
staff on this analysis of the People's Network. Available at pn_computers_early_reactions.htm
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