Posted by: paultovell | October 15, 2009

Space invaders in the box at LIEM

Derby's Quad (BBC)

Derby's Quad (BBC)

Bit of thinking inside the box today (the Box being a room in the shiny new Quad centre in Derby) at the LIEM (Libraries and Information East Midlands) AGM.  LIEM (http://www.liem.org.uk/) is one of those cross-regional things that works really well at bringing people together – a cross between the rather quiet MLA East Midlands and the M1.  So reps were there from all types of library and information service; though sadly the speaker Gareth Johnson (see Roots / Routes post below) has swine flu.  In his place, it was decided to hold a debate about social networking, and what actually emerged was a side of the argument I’d not heard before.

The usual reasons were given for why we should be engaging with the Twitter-Facebook fraternity – 70% of students would feel “lost” or “lonely” without Twitter/Facebook/mobile phone – and yet a lot of our libraries prohibit their use, which sends a very negative message.  These students want a very personal service and environment now – hence university libraries are doing away with banks of computers and loaning laptops.  Study areas with static furniture are out; moveable furniture and screens are in, so they can shape their own learning space.  And so with Twitter – a way of sending messages to personal devices that are constantly about the student’s person.  In the words of Chris Powis from the Universty of Northampton, “we’re moving into their personal space”.  But – and this is where things got interesting – what if we’re actually invading that space too much?

Not that it’s a bad thing to embrace new technology, of course.  But aren’t we in danger of exacerbating the Digital Divide rather than overcoming it?  By embracing all this new stuff, are we neglecting our community groups who aren’t so techno-savvy and who actually still depend upon phone calls or printed flyers for their information?  You can bet your bottom dollar that not every community group will be in a position to access all of the e-services we now offer in libraries, but how will we know which ones we might be alienating in our frantic attempt to invade the Facebook ether?

The other issue is one of control.  Someone mentioned the worry that Twitter may lead to comments appearing on sites that might be racist or abusive, with no way of removing them.  But it turns out (and I write admittedly as a non-user) that it’s largely self-regulating.  Seconds after a tweet appears that is on the verge of offence, a barrage of tweets punch back at the original comment and justice is done.  But you have to relinquish that bit of control for the sake of getting meaningful conversations or responses happening. You can’t moderate every single tweet, nor, it seems, would you want to.  People actually respond to a less rule-driven environment well, especially if they’re students and think they know it all anyway.  And having granted students that flexibility, having empowered them to dictate their own study method, to design their own study space, and access the library at their preferred time of day and location, we then insist on communicating with them through channels which potentially alienate people and which may well turn out to be fads anyway.

I may have spliced the debate slightly with my own thoughts, but these are some of the issues that were raised, and I found it very refreshing to look at things from this point of view, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it.  I have to say there is one other point I really liked, which was that a Derby City librarian had realised through his course at Sheffield Hallam University (“one of the noisiest libraries I’ve ever been in”) that there was a market for public libraries to provide silent study space!  When once it was the domain of the academic library to provide silence, perhaps now a new USP for the public library emerges!  (Though thankfully we didn’t get back into the debate about noise in public libraries – that would have really turned me off…)

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