The news where you are: digital preservation and the digital dark ages

(Image c/o Pierre-Louis FERRER on Flickr.)

The following article was contributed by William Kilbride, Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition

That’s all from us, now the news where you are….

This awkward cliché, repeated at the end of every BBC news report, signals a crude shift in gear. It seems that ‘The News’ has two parts: ‘the news where we are’ (London-centred politics, war, economics, English premiership football); and ‘the news where you are’  (local and parochial oddities that may entertain the yeomanry but which won’t deflect the ship of state from its mighty  progress).  Ruthlessly and deservedly lampooned during last year’s independence debate, the phrase came to mind last week as Vint Cerf shared his fears on the evanescence of digital memory and the need to take collective action to counter the pernicious and ubiquitous impact of obsolescence.  Reported by the BBC, the Independent, the Guardian and others (mostly from San Jose CA) it would seem that a digital black hole is set to initiate a digital dark age sometime soon.  There’s a choice of metaphors but none of them good.

The news where I am (The Digital Preservation Coalition) is surprisingly different from the news where they are.

First thing’s first: I don’t have a copy of Vint Cerf’s original remarks so my observations are really only about the reportage.  In fact almost anything he might choose to say would have been welcome.  It’s undoubtedly true that preserving digital content through technological change is a real and sometimes daunting challenge.  Our generation has invested as never before in digital content and it is frankly horrifying when you consider what rapid changes in technology could do to that investment.  Vint, as one of the architects of the modern world, is exceptionally well placed to help us raise the issue among the engineers and technologists that need to understand the problem.

We do desperately need to raise awareness about the challenge of digital preservation so that solutions can be found and implemented.  Politicians and decision makers are consistently under-informed or unaware of the problem.  In fact awareness raising was one of the reasons that the DPC was founded. Since 2002 DPC has been at the forefront of joint activity on the topic in the UK and Ireland, supporting specialist training, helping to develop practical solutions, promoting good practice and building relationships.  A parliamentarian recently asked me which department of government will be best supported by all this work (presumably in an attempt to decide which budget should pay for it).  I answered ‘all of them’.  I am not sure if the question or the answer was more naïve: it’s hard to imagine an area of public and private life that isn’t improved by having the right data available in the right format to the right people at the right time; or conversely frustrated by its absence.  Digital preservation is a concern for everyone.

But that’s not the same as saying that a digital black hole is imminent. It might have been in 2002 but since then there’s been rather a lot to celebrate in the collective actions of the digital preservation community globally (and especially here in the UK and Ireland) where agencies and individuals are beginning to wake up to the problem in large numbers.  These days we’re seeing real interest from across the spectrum of industry and commerce. Put simply the market is ripe for large scale solutions.  It’s easy to focus on the issue of loss, but we can also talk confidently now about the creative potential of digital content over an extended lifecycle.

In January this year the DPC welcomed its 50th organisational member: the Bank of England.  It’s a household name but nor is it particularly a memory institution with a core mission to preserve.  Other new members in the last year include HSBC, NATO and the Royal Institution of British Architects.  They all depend on data and they all need to ensure the integrity of their processes, but they are not memory institutions with a mission to preserve.  Any organisation that depends on data beyond the short life spans of current technology – we’re all data driven decision makers now – needs to put digital preservation on its agenda.

If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that we face a social and cultural challenge as well as a technical one.  We certainly need better tools, smarter processes and enhanced capacity which is ultimately what Vince’s suggestion for Digital Vellum is about (though others dispute the detail of his proposal).  But this won’t solve the problem alone. We also need competent and responsive workforces ready to address the challenges of digital preservation.  Time and again surveys of the digital preservation community show that the skills are lacking and where they exist they are themselves subject to rapid obsolescence.  We know that digital skills are crucially short in the UK economy: at the same time as Vint was arguing for Digital Vellum the Chief Constable of Police Scotland had to apologise for having misled parliament because statistics about draconian stop-and-search powers were inadvertently deleted.  The nation’s most senior policeman could lose his job because his organisation lacked digital preservation skills.  Arguably the lack of skills is a bigger challenge than obsolescence.

Moreover a political and institutional climate responsive to the need for digital preservation would allow us to make sense of the peculiarities of copyright.  Those who argue for the right to be forgotten ingenuously assume an infrastructure where you will be remembered: a somewhat populist rush for data protection and cybersecurity is tending to stifle reasonable calls for data retention.  This is pretty raw stuff.  At the same time as the technology commentators were worrying about technical obsolescence a senior politician was caught deleting content of his own containing comments that now seem ill-judged. The machinations of those who want us to forget might well be a bigger threat to our collected memories than digital obsolescence.

DPC was founded to ensure closer and more productive collaboration by its members.  I grant you that some of this has involved the slow grind of hard problems: a standard here, a training programme there, a research project peering into the future, a policy review, a procedures manual.  All of it is worth celebrating and we’ve been doing so for years now. I have no idea why journalists haven’t noticed this: we’ve been trying to get their attention for years.

San Jose is lovely in early spring. But there’s a better story about digital preservation where we are.


Do you have something to say on a current issue facing the information world? We’re always looking for new contributions to Informed from the information professional community. If you would like to write something for the site, do drop us a line!

Ten years of freedom of information – what does the future hold?

Image c/o v1ctory_1s_m1ne on Flickr.

To celebrate 10 years of the Freedom of Information Act, Bilal Ghafoor (FOI Kid) reflects on its impact and ponders what the future holds for this important Act of parliament.

If you go onto the website or read the official publications of any government department, local council, NHS organisation, the one thing that almost all of the information will have in common is that it has been volunteered. And while the communications and press teams in many organisations do a great job, ultimately they are a prism through which an organisation shines out what light it wishes to. Most press releases or official statements do not contain raw data. Most organisations do not publish email trails that they are even slightly uncomfortable about.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force on 1 January 2005 and it has, in the words of the Justice Select Committee, which undertook a post legislative review of the Act, been “a significant enhancement of our democracy.”[1] However, it went on to note that “we are not surprised that the unrealistic secondary expectation that the Act would increase public confidence in Government and Parliament has not been met.”[2] This was, after all, while the fire of the MPs’ expenses scandal was still smouldering.

I continue to be struck by an observation I heard when I attended a Request Initiative event on FOI that all the complaints about the burden of FOI are irrelevant – public authorities hire FOI officers and spend money not on releasing information but on withholding it. Aside from personal data, which must be guarded, there is more truth to this idea than I would like.

I remember when I worked in FOI in a central government department, a Labour Secretary of State visited us. The first thing he did was apologise to us for bringing in the Act. It was not just Tony Blair who later thought it foolish. We in the FOI team (it seemed to be the natural home of a couple of a Marxists who had somehow joined the civil service), thought it to be utterly bizarre. How was it not a good thing (and not just because it kept us in employment)?

It is our tax, it is our society, these institutions are ours, the work they do belongs to us. It almost seems like a naïve assertion, but perhaps that is because it is so true. If we live in a democracy.

But there are dangers. The FOI Act, which was heroically worked on by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (which just celebrated its 30th birthday party – 20 years older than the legislation itself), came into force over a long period of time and the dangers are similarly slow but sure.

The Government’s response to the post legislative review[3] highlighted that it wanted allow organisations to refuse multiple requests from the same person or organisation. At first glance, this might be ok – why should one person be allowed to harass an organisation with lots of requests? But what about a local newspaper wanting to make lots of requests to local organisations? How is a local newspaper  supposed to survive on being able to make only a small number of requests in any one year to the local council?

There is a suggestion that ‘thinking time’ be included in cost limits for responding to a FOI. This means that any request of a new kind or for new types of information or invoking a new exemption will start to breach the cost limits and be refused. This encourages organisations to hire non-specialists. Or to copy in 15 members of staff into emails about FOI requests and to count thinking time 15 times over.

The chronic under-funding of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is another terrible problem. While the ICO’s basic stance seems to be to advocate the release of information and accessibility for all, in the latest triennial review of the ICO, its own submission to the Ministry of Justice[4] proposed a charge for requestors wanting to use its services. This would be appalling. But I can see that the ICO is constantly frustrated by its tiny grant in aid (the organisation runs its entire FOI operation for less than many central government department’s communications and spin budgets) and that this proposal is a sign of its desperation.

Application of the Act has become complicated – most ICO decision notices and Tribunal judgments add nuances onto how we should apply exemptions. I love the complication, but I am also very drawn to an idea that was kicked around by others on Twitter that perhaps all of the exemptions should be discarded and everything become subject to a plain public interest test. This would include cost limits – if you ask for a lot of information, if it is in the public interest to provide it, it should be provided. Thanks to relatively recent developments in understanding of ‘vexatious requests’), where a request would be significantly disruptive, the Act allows for a refusal.

The FOI Act is not perfect. But I am still of the generation that compares it to Yes Prime Minister days of secrecy and am thankful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information and other advocates that we can now ask the people who formerly felt like our masters for our own information.

[1] Post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Justice Committee Para 241, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmjust/96/9602.htm.

[2] ibid

[3] http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/policy/moj/gov-resp-justice-comm-foi-act.pdf

[4] https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2014/11/ico-response-to-the-ministry-of-justice-s-announcement-of-their-triennial-review-of-the-information-commissioner-s-office/

MOOCs – a revolution in education?

Are MOOCs really opening up education to all? (Image c/o Md saad andalib on Flickr.)

The following post was contributed by Informed team members Jennie Findlay and Ian Clark.

There has been much coverage of the emergence of MOOCs (Multiple Open Online Courses) in recent months, sparking multiple discussions about their usefulness as a new learning experience for a wide variety of users.  Their popularity has continued to rise since the first MOOC was launched to the public in 2007, so much so that even high street retailers such as Marks & Spencer have joined in, using the MOOC platform in conjunction with an academic partner in order to deliver a course on “commercial innovation” (a growing trend as MOOC providers begin to focus on providing job-related training). Some MOOC providers are also now beginning to focus on providing “nanodegrees”, designed to focus on training individuals to get very specific jobs. Within a few short years, online searches for learning providers with a physical location have been outstripped by those for online courses.

Of course MOOCs can be excellent learning tools, but as with any other method of delivering information and education, they also have their limitations. Most (free) MOOCs have excellent signup rates, but also an incredibly small course completion rate (averaging only 4% in one study).Those people who are successfully participating in MOOCs are also those people who are most likely to already have an advanced level of education. But are current MOOC offerings just an academic toy for those who are already well educated, and are they bypassing those who are actually most in need of access to expert training and life-enhancing skills? What’s stopping those who could most benefit from gaining skills and education via a MOOC from embracing the opportunity of self education?

Access barriers to MOOC use

There are multiple reasons why those who would most benefit from being able to access the university level training provided by MOOCs are unable to do so.

Access to a reliable internet connection

Access to an internet connection is an essential requirement for involvement in a MOOC, which are, by definition, delivered entirely online. But for many of those people who would most benefit from such a course, those with lower skill and education levels for example, securing access to a reliable internet connection, at an appropriate time, can present a significant barrier to engagement. According to the Office for National Statistics’ Internet Access statistical bulletin, 16% of households in the UK do not have an internet connection. Of those households without internet access, 12% say they do not have access because the equipment is too expensive and 11% say the access costs are too high. Furthermore, in households where the income is below £12,500, only 58% use the internet (lower than middle income households in 2005). It is clear, therefore, that for lower income households, MOOCs do little to broaden access to education and break down existing barriers.

Ownership of a computer/laptop with which to undertake a MOOC

A core requirement of an interactive course is that you have access to the equipment which will enable you to interact with fellow students and your tutor. However, the cost of owning a computer to enable you to undertake the course can be prohibitive for many, which means that their only option to access the course is via their local public library, and the computers available there.

Accessibility of public libraries

To use a public computer for a course of study requires that there be reliable access to that computer for the user. With reduced opening hours in many public libraries, not to mention library closures, being able to find a library open during the times when a MOOC student can visit presents a further significant barrier.

Availability of public computers

Undertaking a course of study, particularly while also working or undertaking other full time duties, requires the ability to set aside specific times for studying which fit around the student’s schedule. A lack of reliable availability of a computer will have an impact on this essential requirement to plan times of study. Many public libraries have restrictions on the availability of their computers, including limiting user sessions to one or two hours at a time, restricting the daily amount of hours a user can have on a computer and, in some cases, charging users for access to the internet. This can make it impossible for MOOC students who rely on access to these computers to schedule their studying time properly.

Reliability and speed of library networks

If a user has managed to both to access a public library and secure a public computer, they may still encounter difficulties engaging with a MOOC. Ageing technology and limited bandwidth availability on library networks means that those that rely on publicly accessible computers may experience greater difficulties than those who do not.

Course online interaction requirements

Many MOOCs encourage or require scheduled interaction sessions with either other participants, or the tutor. These are often in Google Hangouts, or MOOC-based chat rooms. This requirement to be able to be online, and access certain tools, can be difficult to comply with, particularly if the student has problems guaranteeing their ability to be online at a specific time. Many of the internationally based MOOC providers schedule these events in the evenings or weekends, which are particularly difficult times for some students (eg those with families) to get online.

Amount of time needed to commit to completion

There is a need to dedicate substantial time to many of the courses available online. Most Coursera courses, for example, have an estimated workload of 5-15hrs per week. Regardless of the course’s flexibility in terms of deadlines, for some the amount of time required to complete the course is too much. For those on low incomes, the combination of balancing requirements of family and personal development means that the latter will always lose out to the former. In addition, missing one class of 3 hours in one week due to other responsibilities will mean that 6 hours are needed the following week in order to catch up. This becomes an increasingly difficult task if internet and computer access are not guaranteed.

Cost issues

Cost of undertaking some of the commercial MOOCs

The most useful MOOCs are those which provide accredited training, and which will therefore be accepted and respected by potential employers. Although many MOOCs are currently being run free of charge to participants, it does not mean that they will be provided in this way in perpetuity. Currently, the substantial costs of creating and hosting MOOCs are being absorbed by the providers or course creators, but it is unclear to what extent this is sustainable in the long term. Most MOOC providing bodies are commercial entities, and inevitably they will eventually want to create a return on their investment.

Increasing introduction of costs to use public library networks (first hour free or sliding scale of charges for use of equipment)

As mentioned above, certain libraries have begun introducing charges for the use of their computers, usually after an initial free session time. Manchester City Libraries allow free use of library computers for an hour, and after that hour, users are charged a fee of £1.50 per hour. Having to pay for the use of a public computer can be a significant barrier for lower income MOOC students. And this is before we consider the cost of printing out documents, which comes at a price in public libraries. Many MOOC students will need to print out a substantial volume of the course materials in order to consult them when offline, this could significantly increase the financial burden.

The MOOC effect…

Beyond costs and barriers, MOOCs do not seem to be the giant step forward for the open, broad-based education revolution its advocates claim. For example, 70% of those who embark on such a course already have a degree, they are not attracting a huge swathe of people beyond the usual groups who engage with higher education. Even then, it’s questionable whether MOOCs are working for the majority with completion rates usually below 10%.

There are also concerns about the quality of the education provided via MOOCs. As one leading digital innovator in academia, Professor Dan Cohen (who led the development of Zotero) argues:

“We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Cohen has also claimed that he and other innovators are concerned about what he calls the “lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect to them”. Cohen argues, essentially, that MOOCs take a rather old-fashioned approach to education and that instead of promoting MOOCs as an alternative we should develop digital projects that help students to explore and encourage them to build their own digital projects.

There is also the danger, of course, of a narrowing down of course providers. As is inevitable, providers will merge, take-over competitors or disappear (particularly as some struggle to generate a return on their investment). In such an environment, there is a very real danger of the range of providers declining and the quality of the courses suffering as a result. A move towards one leading player in the market could create serious problems from an educational perspective, particularly if that player has other commercial interests and sees MOOCs as a way to cross-promote. Equally, there is a danger of developing very narrow skills that will either benefit the provider itself or its partners, rather than a well-rounded education that encourages the kind of critical thinking skills that are not considered desirable or profitable within the workplace.

Cohen also points out that most of the successful MOOCs have been maths/computer based and primarily vocational. It may well be that MOOCs are a beneficial education tool, but it may not be across all subjects. Some may lend themselves to the learning styles that MOOCs demand whilst others may be less so. After all, everyone learns in a different way. Some prefer face-to-face tuition, some prefer textual learning, some are happy with videos. For those who perform best when receiving face-to-face interaction (whether that be with peers or teachers), MOOCs will not be a suitable alternative to traditional methods of learning. A mixed approach for such students, however, may be more suitable.  San Jose State University, for example, found that a combination of online lectures and face-to-face class time significantly improved the pass rate for engineers.

Conclusion

MOOCs have certainly got a lot of people talking excitedly about their potential to revolutionise education – again, something to support this might be helpful. However, it is not clear yet whether they offer any significant advantages over formal routes of education or that they are quite the revolution that its advocates suggest. There are still a number of barriers that need to be overcome before many can embark on a MOOC, in this respect they differ little from the more traditional method of learning. Higher education has long seen to be the preserve of the few, particularly the elite institutions. There’s little to suggest that MOOCs are any different in this regard.

Indeed, it appears that they erect the same barriers as their traditional counterpart. Cost is a big factor in preventing engagement, as is time. Neither are in abundance for those at the bottom of the economic scale. For those with limited resources (both financial and time), MOOCs may appear as distant as a top university. They are not, as yet at least, proving to be the big game-changer for further education that the advocates may have suggested.

Not only are MOOCs failing to open the doors of education to all, but they are also failing to be revolutionary in how they teach. Rather than taking full advantage of the technology that such a programme should allow, they take a rather conservative approach. As Cohen points out, many universities are already providing more sophisticated methods for engaging students digitally. MOOCs, at present at least, seem to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to engaging with students in new and innovative ways.

MOOCs certainly appear to be here to stay, but are they really the big step-forward that we have been led to believe? There are still barriers to their use as with more traditional routes of education. They are not accessible for those without the means to engage with them, either financially or in terms of the time they can commit. They seem to offer nothing new in terms of digital learning, in fact they seem some way behind traditional universities in terms of innovation. MOOCs are certainly an interesting development in terms of the delivery of education. It remains to be seen whether they herald a revolution in terms of opening up education and with respect to fully exploiting new technologies in the learning environment. In short, the jury is still out.

Speak up about the hidden consequences of library cuts

Image c/o Ian Clark on Flickr.

On the day of the Speak Up for Libraries Conference we hear from Alan Wylie, a public librarian and campaigner for public libraries, about the consequences of library cuts on outreach programmes in libraries.

We’ve all seen the headlines, and as a library campaigner I’ve been unfortunate enough to see them every day, announcing cuts to library service budgets and the closure of libraries but what about the hidden cuts, the fine detail tucked away in the ‘consultation’ or ‘re-organisation’ report, what damage are these cuts causing?

Concerns about hidden cuts to library services are not new, as these articles from 2010/11 demonstrate:

“The cuts will just make it harder for libraries to provide outreach work and school visits – everything around making books accessible.”
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/20/spending-cuts-libraries-at-risk

“Reader development staff – the people who run activities such as library reading groups, author events and outreach work to schools – are also being culled wholesale in some parts of the country.”
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/25/hidden-cuts-undermining-local-libraries

Since 2010/11 the situation facing public libraries has deteriorated rapidly with CIPFA estimating 3000-4000 library staff lost (900+ in London alone) but what the figures don’t often show and the headlines rarely announce is the loss of specialist staff and services. For example staff in outreach teams who work with nurseries, children’s centres and schools to promote the enjoyment of reading and the importance of literacy to young children and their parents/guardians. One such person is Dave Pickering who until earlier this year worked as an ‘Early Years Library Outreach Worker’ with Enfield Libraries until:

“Last month the team of five people that I was a part of was reduced to a team of one person.”

Dave was very clear about the impact of these cuts:

“I worked with children and parents across Enfield. The Guardian is currently tracking the “Enfield Experiment”. Like many parts of London, it is a place where you will find shocking disparities between the wealth and lifestyles of people in one area compared to those in another. I moved around the borough, working both in communities you might describe as affluent and those you might see as deprived.

My service was valued in both places, but the impact of its loss – and the loss of other even more essential and life-enhancing services – will be felt most keenly by the poorest and most at risk, rather than by people who can pay for private children’s services and who don’t need the extra help to combat the social conditions they find themselves in. We’re not all in it together, because the impact of each cut is vastly different for each person depending on their situation.

The government is literally taking things away from children; it is dividing and dismantling communities and claiming that this is an unfortunate reality.”

Recently in Hampshire very similar cuts to those already made in Enfield have been proposed:

“The proposals are part of a package of measures , which include reducing the mobile library service in Hart and Rushmoor and ending the family library link service
One aspect of the cuts is to disband the library outreach team, which promotes the use of the library service to playgroups, schools and community groups.”

And I’ve also been told that part of the new proposals for Havering Libraries include cutting the team that promotes the Summer Reading Challenge. Nationally this annual event is a public libraries success story:

  • Research shows that taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge can help children keep up their reading skills during the long summer holiday
  • A record 810,089 children took part in the 2013 Summer Reading Challenge.

In January 2014 the Save Wolverhampton Libraries Campaign wrote an open letter to the Wolverhampton Chief Executive outlining their concerns relating to proposed cuts to the library service including those to “services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio”:

“The proposed cuts constitute closure by stealth of one of our city’s most precious assets. We are especially concerned about the removal of services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio; we refer you to the many roles carried out by our city’s librarians of which the following is not an exhaustive list:

  • Support with CV writing
  • Support with job searching
  • Support with form filling
  • Support regarding benefits
  • Support or assistance with IT and associated training
  • School holiday and Saturday activities
  • Outreach with schools
  • Outreach with community groups”

In the 2013 report  ‘The public library service under attack‘ commissioned by Unison and written by Steve Davies of the University of Cardiff, the figures show that although building based activities appeared to be holding steady or increasing, outreach was being cut:

“Although some respondents reported an increase in provision in some services (a quarter reported an increase in Baby Bounce and Rhyme time), close to one fifth reported cuts to both school holiday activities and to outreach with local schools (19% and 20% respectively).”

 John Vincent, co-author of the blog ‘Social Justice Librarian’ and coordinator of ‘The Network’, recently raised similar concerns about the demise of outreach and targeted services to ‘marginalised groups’ in a recent piece he wrote on libraries and social justice:

“We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.
But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.”

Richard Lyda an Outreach Librarian based in the US outlines the crucial importance and the positive benefits of his role:

“My experiences teaching for Head Start made me appreciate how important community outreach can be for so many people. Families need to know that resources exist before they can access them, and effective community outreach is a great way to spread the word about valuable community resources.”

“I would suggest not to overlook outreach as a mode of service in public libraries. I’ve had a very gratifying and fulfilling experience in my almost 5 years as an outreach librarian. I get to see the service positively affecting youth, families, and seniors every day.”

In my opinion outreach is crucial to the relevance, integrity and survival of public libraries without it we are in danger of losing touch with those in our communities that need our services most.

It helps to ground us and to break down the ‘professional in an official building’ barrier, it also helps to loosen the ‘footfall & issues’ noose put around our necks by those only interested in quantative data.

 

A celebration of library services, from A-Z

The following post was submitted by Gary Green, one of the creators of the Library A-Z project.

The Library A to Z launches on the 17th November 2014. It’s a free set of promotional materials that aims to provide a positive message about the value of libraries. The initial idea for the A to Z came about from the desire to address the misunderstanding that a modern library service = a building containing books. It is intended to show that libraries have much more to offer. During a time when library service funding throughout the United Kingdom is being cut, when it should be increased, it’s particularly important to emphasize the benefits of library services in a creative way that would draw people’s attention to them.

The original idea for the A to Z list was formed at a session at the Library Camp East event and the original list of words that forms its basis was crowd-sourced there too. Following on from this, a project was set up to raise funds to create of a set of illustrations and promotional materials based on the A to Z. £4,500 was raised in 30 days over summer 2014 and this provided enough money to pay for an illustrator, produce the free materials and spread the Library A to Z message to politicians and the media.

The main feature of the Library A to Z is an illustrated alphabet based around a list of words showing a wide-range of library services and how they support areas such as literacy, access to online services, the well-being, education and economic situation of individuals, communities and society. The illustrations, along with their associated words also make up a full colour illustrated book highlighting the value of libraries. The book is intended to be sent to local and central government politicians reminding them of the value of libraries, with the aim of encouraging them to pledge support and continued funding. The book also includes quotes from library users sharing their personal experiences of libraries, which are taken from the Voices for the Library site. A chapter of key library facts and figures is also featured in the book.

S

So, for example, take a look at the letter S from the Library A to Z and we see that it features library services and resources such as School visits, Sexual health (information about), Story times, Scanners, Study space (to think and work), the Summer reading challenge and Statistics. It also tells us about some of the users of library services: Silver surfers and Students. It also highlights some of the positive outcomes of libraries: it’s a Safe (place), it offers Serendipity, Sharing, a place to improve Skills, Social literacy, Spelling and Stereotype breaking.

The A to Z doesn’t cover all services, resources and positive outcomes provided by library services – the key message is to show a wide range of things on offer.

The illustrations from the Library A to Z have been turned into promotional materials including posters, the book and greetings cards. They can be freely downloaded (along with the original illustrations) by anyone to promote libraries. Some of the materials, such as the posters, can be edited to include information about local library services.

Further information and links to the free downloadable material can be found on the Library A to Z site at http://libraryatoz.org

A to Z

Happy birthday Informed!

Today is exactly one year since the launch of Informed, so the team thought it would be a good chance to reflect on what we’ve achieved and look ahead to what we want to achieve over the next year.

Image c/o Elaine Ashton on Flickr.

But first, some Oscars-style thank yous!

We would like to thank our amazing moderators who read all of the content and check it against the contributor guidelines. These volunteers give up their time, sometimes at short notice, to play a crucial role in the smooth running of the site. Not to mention that all of them were involved in helping to shape the site from fuzzy idea to fully launched in just one month.

We also want to thank the authors who have contributed posts on a wide range of topics and to a consistently high standard. Again these are volunteers and we appreciate the effort that everyone puts into their posts. We have approached people to write for us, but most have volunteered which is heartening as it shows that this space was needed.

It’s ok, you can put away your hankies now.

So it’s been an amazing year. The team are incredibly proud of the quality, quantity and range of content that is hosted on Informed. We set up Informed to provide a neutral space for people to write blogs (with anonymity if required) on information issues with a wider societal impact, but in this first year it has become so much more. We are proud to host the LIS open access declaration, which has gathered nearly 100 signatories from LIS professionals who have publicly committed to publishing their research only open access. Alongside posts about the role of volunteers in CILIP, the role of LIS professionals in disasters and falling numbers of LIS students and available courses, we feel that the remit has expanded to include professional reflection without straying into esoteric introspection. Posts have covered topical issues such as a petition to stop The Sun being available in Islington public libraries, policy initiatives like increasing access to research via public libraries and internet access in prisons. Themes have also emerged in the content of Informed, with a number of posts on open access, web filtering and several using FOI requests to gather important data.

Now we need to start thinking about how to keep up the momentum and ensure that this next year is as good as the last. Firstly we are planning to be more proactive about approaching authors, both for topical and more general posts. Secondly we are going to draw up a publishing schedule so that we can commission articles further in advance to give authors more time. Finally we would like to get more of you involved with the site! Whether you would like to sign up to join our team of moderators, submit a post to Informed, or suggest topics you’d like to see covered. We’d love to hear from you via our contact form or in the comments below.

The cost of subscription publishing

The following article was submitted by Stuart Lawson.

The high cost of subscription journals has been discussed endlessly among librarians and those advocating for open access. While it is common knowledge that the prices paid by libraries are higher than most can really afford, there is still surprisingly little data in the public domain about what the exact costs are. Partly this is just down to the fact that libraries haven’t traditionally published detailed breakdowns of their acquisitions expenditure, so there is no cultural norm of doing so.

Partly it is due to the contracts that libraries sign with publishers to gain access to their journals. Some of these contracts contain non-disclosure agreements which prevent librarians from publicly disclosing the prices or pricing calculations. However, while this practice does exist, it is less widespread than is sometimes assumed. In the UK the only publisher whose contract includes a non-disclosure agreement which it claims prevents signatories from releasing some data even when subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests is Elsevier. The legal position of Elsevier’s non-disclosure clause has not been tested in court and if there are any brave librarians out there who wish to pursue that route, it could be worth getting a legal opinion about whether it can be done.

Subscription costs for all other publishers can be gained by any member of the public by sending FOI requests to UK universities, either as an individual or through the website whatdotheyknow.com. So that’s what we’ve done. The subscription costs paid by around 100 institutions to six major publishers are now openly available on figshare. We will be sending carefully-worded FOI requests separately for Elsevier data to obtain as much as is legally possible at the moment.

Transparency in subscription data is particularly important right now because we are seeing increased transparency in the price of APCs, and if this is seen without the context of the costs of subscriptions it could be used to claim that open access is needlessly expensive (thanks to Ernesto Priego for pointing this out).

Huge thanks to Ben Meghreblian for doing most of the manual labour or sending out all the FOI requests and collating the responses. Not every UK higher education institution is included in this dataset, particularly some of those institutions which have merged in the last few years, but the majority are. The notable exception is the majority of the research-intensive Russell Group universities, which were excluded because I know that someone else sent similar requests earlier this year but have not published the results yet. Even though those Russell Group universities would tend to have much higher subscription expenditure, I think it is important to see how bearing the burden of the costs of academic publishing is not limited to the more wealthy institutions.

A few caveats about the data so far:

  • The requests asked for data in calendar years, and some institutions responded with data in academic financial years. In those cases the data has been put in the column for the latter year. For example, if a figure is given for 2012/13, it is placed in the 2013 column. The money may actually have been transferred during 2012, but it will be for subscriptions for 2013.
  • Some institutions have not included expenditure through subscription agents or other intermediaries, including big deals. Others have included these costs. This makes directly comparing institutions’ expenditure more tricky.
    We are still waiting for responses from some institutions. These figures will be added to the spreadsheet as they become available.

For further details of individual requests please follow the links given in the tabs in the spreadsheet.

UPDATE: Further data has been added to the dataset, which now includes expenditure on  Elsevier journals for some universities.

Should UK universities block access to parts of the web?

The following post was submitted by Daniel Payne.

Image c/o Gerardofegan on Flickr.

Either a subset of the internet – or no internet – is ever accessible to any individual. We are never using the Internet, if that even exists. This is due to a variety of positive and negative mechanisms which include the state, the law, the self, whether you actually have internet access at all, internet service providers, friends, teachers, financial situation, cultural reasons, and your mum.

It might come as a surprise to learn that universities and other higher education institutions throughout the UK choose to block categories of the internet beyond what is required of them by law, from sex and abortion, to naturism, online greeting cards, and marijuana. This is often referred to as “content-filtering” by the companies who perform the blocking, since this sounds less bad.

As information professionals working in the libraries of these institutions, should we care that we are working in an environment which automatically excludes whole categories of the internet? Why does a university pay money to do this, and who decides which categories to block and why?

There are of course parts of the internet which are blocked before the university steps in. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) maintains a constantly changing list called the Child Abuse Image Content list (CAIC). Companies which give us access to the internet subscribe to this list and block these parts of web. There are also websites blocked by order of a court. These are usually file sharing sites where major infringement of intellectual property occurs. Try accessing: http://www.thepiratebay.se.

In addition to that which is legally required, many universities license third-party content filtering software such as BrightCloud, Websense, Smoothwall, Bloxx, and Fortiguard [1]. In response to a request for a webpage, the software will either allow or block access depending on which categories the university has selected (and as is the case in some universities, the profile of the individual requesting it).

So what categories are universities choosing to block? Under the Freedom of Information Act, I contacted universities to find out whether any blocking on  their networks occurred, and if so, what categories they blocked. Where universities claimed an exemption to disclose a list of URLs due to perceived security implications, subsequent requests were made to ascertain the “categories” by which websites were blocked (i.e. pornography).

Here is the good news: of the 119 higher education institutions I received a response from, 63% confirmed they did not carry out internet blocking [2]. Indeed, some institutions such as Imperial College, pointed out that blocking parts of the internet would be against the principles of academic freedom.

Here is (some) of the bad news. A  full list of responses is available on figshare [3]:

  • 10% refused to confirm or deny that they did or didn’t block parts of the internet.
  • Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance blocks the category “abortion” for junior users.
  • In addition to “adult”, Queen’s University Belfast also blocks “naturism”.
  • University of Aberdeen and Nottingham Trent University block “marijuana”.
  • There are a whole host of vague categories such as “questionable”, “tasteless”, “extreme politics”, “violence”, “unethical”, and “intolerance”.

Universities who carry out the category-based blocking described above are keen to point out that they have mechanisms in place where an individual can request that a block is lifted. However, this can often involve seeking permission from the head of department, or submitting an evidence form which justifies your need to access that material;  processes which will never be immediate and could be humiliating. Should an adult have to get permission to access porn? Are the number of adult individuals in UK universities getting off on porn on library computers in full view of everyone else endemic enough to warrant this?  What about a 15 year old looking up abortion?

The 10% which refused to provide any information at all generally did so by claiming an exemption under section 31(1)(a) of the Act, which permits public bodies to withhold information in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime. My only comment on this would be how surprising it is that 63% of universities didn’t think this.

Universities and these content-filtering companies cannot or will not release very detailed information on these categories, since doing so would provide  information for the individuals or organisations behind those URLs to attempt to circumvent their designated classification. We therefore don’t really know much about how companies decide which webpages are “unethical”, or “questionable”.

Universities and their libraries are about creating, disseminating, questioning, and archiving information. The biggest possible subset of the Internet out there in the wild should not be reduced any further by universities according to an arbitrary, “undesirable” set of categories, but offered alongside digital literacy skills which empower students to judge information for themselves, not make judgements on there behalf.

 

[1] Some universities freely volunteered the name of their content filtering software. Some, when requested, disclosed this information. Others specifically refused due to “commercial” interest reasons. The list of content-filtering companies here have all been mentioned by at least one university.

[2] Where a university responded by stating that it only blocked malware/spam sites, this was counted as a “no blocking” response.

[3]Payne, Daniel (2014): Categories of websites blocked by UK universities. figshare.
http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1106875 Retrieved 17:12, Jul 23, 2014 (GMT)

 

This post represents the opinions and thoughts of the author alone. Any information obtained is believed to be accurate. If you believe there are errors, please get in touch.

How better information management could minimise disasters

The following article was submitted by Katharine Schopflin.

Image c/o Eric the Fish on Flickr

I recently attended a talk given by Jan Parry, who provided information and research support to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which, in 2012, oversaw the disclosure of public documents related to the 1989 disaster. Their website provides very clear background on what happened on 15th April 1989, as well as outlining the work they did to gather related documents and make them publicly available. I should state that the following is entirely my own interpretation: Jan’s measured, even-handed talk was essentially factual and did not offer up any opinions on either the disaster or the work of the Panel. But it made me think about the information public organisations hold, how they use it, and its value for preventing disasters and revealing facts. I’ve selected a couple of things from Jan’s very fulsome talk, and any mistakes in reporting are my own misremembering or misinterpretation.

Jan began by showing us the map of the Hillsborough ground which was used on the day. This plan both showed and lacked information pertinent to what happened. Much has been written about the power of maps to give and withhold information: they are representations and a choice is always made about what is included and how it is shown. This map shows how space was constricted at the Leppings Lane end of the ground but is limited in representing how confusing the divided inner concourse was for supporters, nor exactly how uneven the distribution of turnstiles was, things which had they been more apparent might have encouraged different policing decisions.  Jan also mentioned information that was available about previous (non-fatal) crushing incidents at Hillsborough and the results of the report into the Bradford City ground, which identified the dangers of using ‘pens’ in football terraces. These were not considered as part of plans for crowd control during the match.

As well as information which was available, but was ignored, some information was out of date. The police Operational Plan, which exists for every football match, had not been updated since the two teams last met at the ground the previous year. From a knowledge management point of view, both teams having met at the same ground for the 1988 semi-final could have provided useful learning points to inform a new Operational Plan, but if there was a debrief of police officers present at the previous match, it was not added to it. And in this case, knowledge transfer was vital, as the Match Commander in 1989 had no experience at Hillsborough. Other information could have been added to the plan: roadworks which made many Liverpool fans late are thought to have contributed to the crowding which built up at the Leppings Lane entrance. I’m not in a position to judge whether having a better map of the ground, an up-to-date operational plan, or more shared experience about managing a match at the ground, would have prevented the disaster. But these seem to me to be vital pieces of knowledge which needed to be expressed, and once expressed, shared and made explicit.

Jan also talked at length about the evidence gathered in the lengthy series of inquiries and investigations which followed the disaster. The stated purpose of the Panel was to allow documents related to the disaster to be released into the public domain ahead of the usual 30 years, but in the process an enormous amount of information was assembled together for the first time. Each contributing organisation: the government, police authorities, coroner’s service and NHS were asked to scan, digitise, redact and catalogue these documents with Home Office support. Some of the documents had always been available, but not read as significant. South Yorkshire Police happily released material which illustrated that some police statements had been edited before being made public, but did not see that this might have damaged earlier investigations. Many of these documents are now being used as new evidence and cases are being reopened.

One of the recommendations from the Panel was that public bodies such as police authorities and the coroner’s office should have a mandate to manage and keep their records (something which surprised me was not already the case). South Yorkshire Police had been going to dispose of some of the records which they instead gave to the Panel, and were within their rights to do so. Of course there are limits to ‘just in case’ record-keeping, but these public sector bodies could, if they had wished, destroyed information pertinent to new investigations. If the suggestions are followed, they will have a responsibility to keep records and manage them in a way that enables them to be found again. This seems essential to me if we want to be able to prevent or subsequently investigate significant events in the future.

However, I think this alone is not enough. Public sector information also needs to be joined up and exposed to analysis, in a way that modern technology now makes possible. Take the absence of information about road works in Operational Plan for the match at Hillsborough in April 1989. Modern data analytics tools enable police to combine public domain data about planned roadworks, standard traffic flows and their own knowledge of expected crowds to build a clear picture of what the outside of any stadium turnstile will look like just before a match. And this isn’t a theoretical picture, an actual map illustrating anticipated road and person congestion at any time of the day could be generated without difficulty. The guidance on policing football matches is undoubtedly more sophisticated now as a result of lessons learned from Hillsborough. Whether or not they have these kinds of tools at their disposal I do not know, but it is surely vital that they do.

Similarly, every investigation into a large-scale disaster or act of violence that I have read about has indicated that joining up information at an earlier date could have prevented death or injury or at the very least found answers to questions asked by victims or their families. Once disparate information is brought together it becomes clear if something in the situation is or was ‘not right’. Indeed, it was with these ideas in mind that the Home Offices large-scale IT systems, HOLMES and HOLMES2 were introduced across police services in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. Many local authorities are to be lauded for releasing data into the public domain, but it is by no means mandated across all public bodies. Technology has created great possibilities for manipulating data, but it needs to be available to begin with. This requires public bodies to maintain their records and, within reasonable and compliant limits, make them available as early as possible. The technology and analytical expertise exist. Opening up the data also needs to follow.