Comments on (and brief summary of) a report produced by the Tavistock Institute, entitled "Evaluation of the People's Network and ICT Training for Public Library Staff Programme"

The full report was published by the New Opportunities Fund in February 2004 - the report itself is dated 2003. Paper copies may be obtained.   A web copy readable in WORD is also available.  A further report is promised for April 2004.

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Signs of the times?

Two cartoons from library-related websites in the USA (original sources unknown). The one on the right apparently appeared in 'The New Yorker' about 10 years ago.

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The Tavistock report covers only the period Nov 2002 to March 2003 during the implementation and 'early days' phases of the People's Network. It runs to fifty pages but many contain a mishmash of politically correct and/or pseudo-intellectual verbiage masquerading as scientific analysis - this is from page 2:

"we give a holistic account of the sixteen case study library services, within an analytic framework which seeks to identify the different constellations of factors that account for the varying progress made in implementing PN and realising its potential"

How about (!):

"we analyse data from sixteen library services to identify factors
that helped determine their uptake of the PN in these early months"

The authors seem fond of constellations: this is from page 20:

"On the basis of the evaluation data, but informed also by our analytic constructs, we have grouped library services around four different constellations which represent different points along a spectrum of change and development".

In fact, the analysis in the Tavistock report is logical and really quite good! A pity it is wrapped up in verbiage. Instead of the above, try this:

"We have grouped libraries broadly according to how far they had progressed in implementing the People's Network at the time of our assessment".

Social inclusion is mentioned early on:

"Social inclusion was also a key policy goal for PN. The evidence strongly indicates that ICT access and training has attracted citizens from socially excluded groups..... A common strategy for reaching these groups has been to work in partnership with other agencies. Usage of PN, ICT skills development and more people in the library helps both parties to meet targets and to fulfil their goals to support community learning. There is however an ad hoc, responsive flavour to much of the work around social inclusion, with relatively few library services taking a targeted approach informed by community profiling and needs identification"

Roughly translated, this might mean that few libraries have actively encouraged groups of drug users to play games of 'virtual pool' on the new computers as an alternative to hanging around in nearby shopping arcades. Believe it or not, some have!

The report contains several important admissions as to the impact of the People's Network on libraries. To its credit also, it is more professionally written than First Findings, a critique of which was published on this website early in 2003. Commendably straightforward language is used to outline the views of many 'traditional' library patrons.

"PN has also attracted unfavourable comment from many users of traditional library services who resent the displacement of books and shelving to make way for the new banks of computers, feel uncomfortable with the changing library atmosphere with so many young people now in the library, and believe that non-residents (foreign students and asylum seekers) should not be entitled to free internet access as non tax-payers."

There is also candour as to main uses of the PN machines - although an expensive survey of libraries to determine this basic point was hardly necessary!

It is admitted that

"some libraries had restricted access to games and chat rooms as a way of managing excessive levels of demand (and coping with the influx of children and teenagers). Others are contemplating introducing a charge for email use. There was sometimes a lurking sentiment here about appropriate and inappropriate use..."

One of the parts of the report that is well worth reading identifies several types of users, including, for example:

Comfort zone users This group uses the library as a place to hang out. They use the terminals for a variety of purposes, most commonly games....   In the libraries visited, this profile characterised some of the male unemployed library users aged 18-25 and school truants. Young people also had a strong all-day presence in the library after school or during the holidays. The library was seen as a good place ‘to chill out’ – an alternative to milling around shopping malls and other public spaces. Many library staff appeared to be in ‘sufferance’ response mode, rather than looking at how they might engage imaginatively with these users or draw them in to other kinds of library services.

Problems experienced by librarians are summarised thus:

[There are] varying demands on library staff time.... The experience of central libraries, has been that most users of PN terminals are self-directed, with minimal interaction with staff beyond manual logging-in where required..... Community libraries, on the other hand, were more likely to attract teenagers using ICT for its infotainment value and younger children. Both groups tended to take up a great deal of librarian time in policing, invigilating and ‘noise containment’ roles. Novice users were the other main category of user whose support needs could potentially fill all available time, and which needed to be balanced with other librarian responsibilities. This was proving one of the most problematic areas....

Apart from the obvious consequences of muddled implementation of the People's Network (as outlined in early 2003 on this website) the different impacts on individual libraries, discussed at length in the report, could be dealt with by imposing clear policies uniformly across the UK:

These changes would remove most of the problems experienced to date, and indeed have been implemented in part in a few libraries:

"Some of the libraries visited have sought to dampen demand for some kinds of ICT services so as to free up more time for other more serious or appropriate forms of ICT use. Access to games and chat rooms, for example, has been banned in some libraries. Some library staff would also like to see email access curbed, for example, through the introduction of a charge for this service".

The vast waste of front-line library staff time that has been one consequence of botched implementation of the People's Network is well described thus:

"In some library services, for example, staff could spend up to 3 or 4 hours in a day simply logging users onto the network. On busy days, staff in one library reported that they spent more time logging the users onto the internet than issuing books or dealing with enquiries".

An admission of failure to attract 'non-computer' users to some libraries (maybe because there were so few books worth reading?!) was provided by one library manager: similar fears about the demise of libraries generally may be responsible for much of the enthusiasm for the PN with its implied continuation of resource support from central government with its agendas of e-government and social inclusion:

"if it was not for logging people on and off all the time staff would be twiddling their thumbs and in danger of losing their jobs"

The absurdity of conflicting centrally-imposed 'performance targets' on front line staff is well illustrated:

In one focus group, a participant pointed out that it can be difficult to maintain the Council’s performance target of answering the phone in four rings, whilst at the same time spending time at the computer helping a user. Staff can end up running to the service point whenever the phone rings.

It might be asked at this point whether qualified and intelligent librarians, with degrees in English, Literature or Information Science, should be reduced to the level of internet cafe 'computer monitors'. Managers seem to have accepted an overall dumbing down of public libraries in order to attract more patrons (of whatever quality) with the shallow, albeit uncertain, expectation of securing future core funding:

"The monitoring of the political agenda was an important contributor to our success. We started thinking of ways we could ......... fit into the wider political agenda. We ..... picked up on what the political agenda wanted:  We had a visit from the minister and through (thought??) that - if this is what he would like to see, we will start delivering it."

People who have been party to debasing the UK public library service by slavish acceptance of the People's Network might do well to ponder both the transitory nature of many government 'priorities' and the impact of wider general access to the internet - and without the filtering and snooping that have been dominant factors in many libraries:

"The most visible indicator of PN success .... is the high volume of use of the public access terminals, arresting the decline in library use of traditional services. ..... It is to be expected however that citizens will increasingly access internet services from home or work .... as connectivity levels diffuse across the society and PCs with internet access become a standard consumption good..... the curve of broadband connection is now moving beyond the early adopters ...... The implication of this for the public library service is that whilst public internet access will undoubtedly be important for a significant proportion of the population, the high levels of demand currently experienced may not be sustainable beyond the short term".

The conclusion above may be wrong simply because:

the use of the PN to date has been by a tiny, almost insignificant, fraction of the UK population.

If all library users had from the outset always been required to log-on using an 'identifiable' library ticket then good base data would now be available. However, even in Devon where some of the most paranoid filtering and snooping still occurs, 'non-attributable' access to PN machines remains commonplace.

One subgroup are experienced computer users who also use libraries. Most already have computers at home but use libraries for 'free' high speed connections and for programs (or hardware) not available at home. The mass-market for trivial emailing and playing inane arcade games, especially if taxpayers foot the bill, is 'open-ended' and the scope for continued debasement of library ambience correspondingly large. Against that, the use of PN machines in some libraries in towns having a low number of 'school truant'  patrons has shown a steady decline from the 'hectic early days' - even where access is still free.

In the future, data might be made available to construct (for example) Venn diagrams (used in group and set theory) clearly to illustrate the present and likely future impact of the PN on many different social subgroups and taking into account the different present and likely future home computer access of each subgroup. A start has been made by identifying 'community' libraries swamped by game-playing yobs and sedate libraries such as Sidmouth where gaming has never been a problem. Unfortunately (and all too typically), since the purposes of data collection were not codified at the outset, much of that collected 'ad hoc' by library authorities may not contain the required detail.

Interactive digital TV may play a far greater role in e-government. It might be possible to combine data from the PN with 'household group' data on digital-TV uptake, which has already reached 50% of households - although many have only 'freeview' boxes. Analysis of the scope for the PN itself to contribute to 'e-government' or 'social inclusion' was given in the original PN report on this website, in the section commenting upon First Findings - look in the purple prose! Would anyone care to argue with my calculations, as published in February 2003? Here is an edited version of what you will find by clicking the link above:

It can easily be shown that the PN is so thinly spread that only a tiny fraction of the population could ever use it on a regular basis.....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!

Almost as a postscript, one solution to the log-on problem highlighted above may be suggested - and is implemented widely outside the library service!

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