Will the open library provide more or less access to information for all people within the community?
I initially started this article by suggesting that open libraries could provide greater access to information and that this could potentially be a good thing. They provide greater access to information simply because the library is open for longer periods of time. However, does an open library provide greater access to information than a less technologically enabled staffed library?
If the user is computer literate then the staffed library and open library provide the same access to information. However, if the user is not computer literate then the open library provides less access to information. This is because many people do rely on the librarians to help them use the IT facilities in the library. Many users do not know how to search the catalogue in order to find the books they are looking for; others do not know how to log on to a computer let alone search a digital database effectively; most users cannot use the photocopying and scanning facilities without help; and in libraries when there are self-service machines, most users come to the desk with their items anyway preferring the human interaction and service they get from the staff. Open libraries exclude all of these people. So, if it is cheaper to staff a library than to set it up for open access, and if open access excludes users, then is it not true that staffed libraries provide greater a access to information than open libraries given that a staffed library service in the evening provides access to more people and for longer periods of time? The simple truth is that librarians are as much a part of the access infrastructure of a library as computers are.
Who are the designated end users and does the Open Library truly serve them?
The designated community of an open library are users that are computer liberate and technologically enabled. Many people who attend the library during the day are excluded because they do not know how to use the technology in the library. If the open library scheme is targeting those people that are working during the day then that is fine. It is acceptable to target these users if the library is open to everyone else throughout the day. However, if the end user is someone in full-time employment/ education and is already technologically enabled, is the open library the best solution for their needs?
The bottom line is that the library now provides more electronic resources than it does physical copies. You can borrow e-books and e-magazines through the library website, you can take courses through University Class and you can learn languages also. True open access for a technologically enabled user actually means ‘remote access’. That user can access electronic resources from home, work, while on the train or their lunch break. That user already has a broadband or 3G connection and is already connected to the information they need. Does it make sense that we are investing millions countrywide to set up individual open libraries to service people who are already connected to the internet and who are online? Does it not make more sense to invest this money in electronic and digital resources that can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere and by anyone that has an internet connection? This is also important because one countrywide electronic resources license actually serves the entire country. The open library initiative is setting up single, individual libraries in every county to provide greater access to information. It is like choosing to pay for hundreds of Windows licences when one will cover the entire country at a lower cost.
So, if the actually information can be provided electronically, whey else would someone need an open library? Of course, people will use it not just for the information it holds, but also for the facilities, ie. copying, computing and studying. Again, the designated or targeted user likely already has a computer and printer in their home, or alternatively, will use printing and photocopying services at work. So if the open library will only be open in the evening and the people using it will already be technologically enabled, is it worth the investment to open the library as a study space for professionals and students? There is no doubt that it would be useful for people to study and hold meetings in the library, but do we really need all of the additional security and technology to provide people with a desk, a chair, or a group meeting room? And will people feel safe and comfortable enough to use it anyway?
It appears that the reasons behind the open library are misguided. The attempt to appease disgruntled librarians and patrons by arguing that the open library will only be open for a few hours in the evenings and on Sundays simply does not add up or make sense from a financial or end user perspective.
This is the first of a 6 part series on Ireland’s current Open Library Initiative….
In principle, I am not necessarily against having open libraries in our communities. We live in a very diverse society in which people have all kinds of different lifestyle patterns and needs. Having our libraries open 24/7 in this context can only be a good thing. The core function of a library is to provide access to information and if open libraries provide greater access to information then they may not be all doom and gloom. However, a serious and considered examination needs to be undertaken in order to assess whether the current open library initiative in Ireland is a positive or negative move by the government. In order to achieve this, some questions need to be asked and answered.
Is the open library initiative cost effective in its current guise?
The current plans are to open the library for additional 4/5 hours each evening. In order to do this, libraries will need a serious upgrade to its facilities. Considering the current outdated technology currently in our public libraries, this will be an expensive venture. Security gates need to be full-length from ceiling to floor to prevent people stealing items. All computer access, photocopying/ scanning, check in/outs, entry/ exit gates, and also item returns will ideally need to be automated. CCTV in the libraries will need to updated also. Added to this, will be the ongoing servicing and maintenance costs of operating the service. This operation will not be taken over by IT Departments already working in County Councils, but will be carried out by the company supplying the technology. What all of this amounts to a very expensive venture. And if money is not spent wisely by choosing technology that is fit for purpose and reliable, along with a servicing contract that allows for efficient problem solving and technical support, then the cost of this will run into tens of thousands of euros per year per library.
So, the question is, is it really worth the cost in order to open the library for an additional 4/5 hours in the evening? And besides, if you have the technology in place, why close the library at all when 10pm comes? Why not open it all night? I will return to this question a little later. The cost question is very important. A Library Assistant at the beginning of their contract, earns 21,500 euros per year full-time and works on a salary scale that reaches 37,000 euros. If the end goal here is to simply open the library for a few extra hours in the evening, why not create a job for someone like myself who is currently surviving on the scraps of temporary part-time work?
Why spend all of this money when access to the information in the library can be provided so cheaply by creating a job for a young newly qualified librarian? This calls into question the real motives of the government with this initiative. The bottom line is that this project in its current guise of 4/5 hours extra opening is simply not cost effective. And worryingly, the only way to make it cost effective is to reduce staff and have an Open Library all of the time. So when librarians express concern for the future of the profession, they are being realistic about where the open library initiative is heading.
Glen Holt’s article ‘Getting Beyond the Pain’ assessing the impact of funding cuts on US libraries and suggests ways in which these libraries need to adapt to not only retain efficiency with less money, but also to maintain their relevance in an ever-evolving information age. Holt points out that, ‘the point is simple: unless yearly income is rising faster than inflation, the library’s annual spending power erodes precipitously. When any political leader starts talking about “stable budgets,libraries need to watch out for real-dollar income declines”. Added to this problem of placing the library within an quantitive socio-economic framework, is the fact that the ALA have adopted a strategy in which they treat the funding of public libraries as local matter. He suggests that “he most important thing is making sure that your community is aware of the library and what the library can do”. In this sense Holt argues that libraries need to improve the ways in which they communicate their funding needs and their benefits to communities and society.
There is no doubting that libraries can do more to improve their services even with less money. Holt further points out that bureaucratic processes within a library can often lead to an unnecessary depletion of finances, especially at a time when the taxpayers are less willing to provide public funding for any public purpose irrespective of how good a cause it is. Finally Holt lists four ways in which libraries can retain their relevancy and their funding:
Need to demonstrate the critical need for youth services, adult literacy, help for immigrants, job preparation and economic development
Need to tell voters, politicians and civic leaders about the critical benefits they provide to their communities
Funding is not only a local matter because libraries are crucial to the nation
Library leaders need to focus much more on customers
Need to ask what role can libraries play in international information industry
I have no doubt that there is a lot of waste within public libraries, but there is also a great deal of potential. There is no doubt that libraries need to become more connected to a global economic and information framework and they can do so by connecting more directly to national and university library services, as well as partnering with information services abroad. A promotion and move towards Open Access can also open up new avenues for libraries to pursue. However, for now I would like to focus briefly on a principle borrowed from agriculture that could be applied to how libraries operate within a local community. These communities may not now be willing to give financial support to libraries through public funding bodies, but they should be encouraged to contribute in other ways. I believe permaculture practices can be applied to libraries in order to find ways of becoming more efficient, saving money, and also involving the community more. Permaculture originated as an agricultural movement that promoted permanent agriculture practices by mimicking nature. In nature, nothing is given away for free and wasted. What you have, on every level, is a kind of energy exchange. Patrons in libraries are not customers in a traditional sense in that they pay for the service through their taxes. However, at times when people are not willing to fund a library, they may be willing to contribute to the library community by giving up their time and skills in exchange for services. This principle is at the heart of permaculture in that rather than providing books for free, patrons exchange time and skills for the services. Basic services could be run in this way freeing up time for librarians to do more specialised work. It creates a stronger sense of community spirit and brings the library firmly to the centre of community.