Tag Archives: public libraries

CryptoParty Newcastle and user privacy in libraries

The following post was contributed by Aude Charillon. Aude is a curious librarian interested in intellectual property, digital literacy, open data, online rights, and currently working at Newcastle Libraries.

CryptoParty Newcastle postcard

On Sunday 22 May, we held a CryptoParty at Newcastle City Library.

What’s a cryptoparty?

A cryptoparty is an informal gathering of individuals where people discuss, learn and share their knowledge of tools and systems to protect their privacy and electronic communications. It’s called “crypto” because of cryptography and encryption.1

Why did we hold a cryptoparty in a public library?

I personally believe that libraries exist to defend people’s right to enrich and improve their own lives, their environment and society. We library and information professionals make this happen by facilitating access to and the sharing of information, knowledge and culture.

In public libraries we already do a lot around digital skills and literacy: we teach people how to use a computer and the Internet, how to search efficiently and be critical about the information they may find… Privacy is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; knowing how to protect it in the digital world is part of knowing how to use the internet and technology efficiently. I feel that teaching library users how to protect their privacy and providing them with the tools to do so is simply the next step for improving digital skills, and it fits with our role as librarians. (Thankfully, my manager agrees!!)

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondance, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 12]

How was CryptoParty Newcastle really organised?

Ian Clark pointed out in an article that CryptoParty Newcastle was probably the first to take place in a public library in the UK, but quite frankly that wasn’t at all what was on our minds when we set off in this direction.

The way it really happened is through individuals – not necessarily librarians –expressing interests and taking the initiative.

This is where I explain that I am, in a personal capacity, keen on the defense of online rights – I am not what you would call an activist but I am a member of the UK Open Rights Group (ORG) and a supporter of La Quadrature du Net.

One day in early March, the following message appeared on the (then dormant) ORG North East mailing list:

Every time I see the snoopers' charter in the news again, I think to myself, we should put on another cryptoparty.

If we have a core of at least four people who want to make it happen, I'm sure we can do it. Say sometime in May? I can find a venue in Durham but am open to someone else finding a venue elsewhere.

Anyone up for it?

I was “up for it” because attending a cryptoparty was a chance for me to learn about privacy tools from people who used them – I wanted this event to take place, so I thought I might as well help make it happen! And because of the reasons outlined above, I was able to offer a space at Newcastle City Library.

A core group of four met, a date was set and a format agreed – you can see some of our preparations on the CryptoParty Newcastle wiki. The fact that the impetus came from individuals rather than institutions is reflected in the vocabulary we used on the event’s main page: the event was hosted by ORG North East and Newcastle Libraries. We promoted the cryptoparty through the ORG North East and Newcastle Libraries channels, local Linux user groups mailing lists, and it even attracted the attention of the Newcastle City Council Communications team who made a short video!

What happened on the day?

There were 6 people on the organising team and about a dozen participants turned up. We had picked topics and arranged to have one per table, so people could go to the tables they wanted, to learn about the tools they were most interested in. It was very informal and this system seemed to work pretty well. We also had handouts, which were brilliant and that people took home with them.

In a nutshell, people spent the afternoon discussing the tools, learning how to install and use them and eating cake!

Most participants had already had a go with at least one of the tools, so it was also interesting to hear how people were using them. A couple had never used any of them but felt they should learn more about how to protect their privacy and communications. A couple of people were very experienced and some conversations became very technical! All in all, everyone seemed to get something out of the event.

At the end of the day, we started talking about the next cryptoparty. We managed to recruit some of the participants to help with organising / helping out at the next event and we have a date pencilled in for October.

For more in-depth views on the day you may like to read a write-up from one of the participants and a piece by one of the other organisers: “What we learned from hosting our cryptoparty”.

Handouts cropped

What can you do for user privacy in your library?

First of all, you may like to make your library users aware of why they might want to use privacy tools and help them get started with some of these.

A great way to do this is obviously to organise a cryptoparty – because who doesn’t want to come to a party to talk about rights online and to improve their digital skills?! Don’t worry if you do not have experience of the tools: find the people who do and who may be interested in helping you out. Members of your local ORG branch (or the association in your area that’s advocating for online rights) might be able to help, but you could also try the local tech community – especially the user groups of open source systems as they often have similar ethics. There is not one format for cryptoparties: it’s worth looking at what others have done and decide with your co-organisers what works best for you.

Another way to teach your users about privacy tools is to hold digital literacy sessions. You may already be delivering one-to-one sessions or group workshops on using a tablet, accessing online journals and resources, etc. so why not add another topic on protecting one’s privacy while browsing the Internet?

Second, you might like to actually offer some of those tools on your library’s public computers or support them through your library’s infrastructure. This is where your favourite IT colleagues will have a few things to say – but, as they say in Newcastle: “shy bairns get nowt”.

The easier thing to put in place would be to offer alternative, more privacy-minded browsers on your public PCs. You may already have Internet Explorer and / or Chrome installed; you could also offer Firefox with the HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger add-ons, and of course DuckDuckGo as the default search engine. The next thing could be to also offer Tor Browser – though if you have a content filtering system in place your IT colleagues might say no (and add a few more reasons why).

If you have bandwith to spare and an understanding IT department part of a very forward-thinking organisation you could also get your library to become a Tor exit node, or at least a Tor relay, to support the Tor network.

Your best resource (in English) is probably going to be the amazing Library Freedom Project based in the US. You can learn from their digital privacy education session slides or use their toolkit on running a Tor exit node in your library, among other things!

[1] This is my interpretation. See also the definition on the CryptoParty website, at: https://www.cryptoparty.in (Accessed 4 June 2016)

Investigatory powers bill and libraries

This blog post was contributed by Ian Clark from the Informed team and Lauren Smith, a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.

The news that libraries may be forced to hand over personal data to the security services raises serious ethical questions regarding the confidentiality of what people choose to read. A fundamental ethical principle of the library and information profession is the freedom of individuals to access information and read whatever they choose in confidence. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) is very clear on the obligations to library users. Its ethical principles state the need to demonstrate:

Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

Such a principle is undermined if the government is known to be able to access data on the “information, ideas and works of the imagination” that individuals access. The chilling effect of such a move would inhibit individuals from accessing whatever they want without fear of reprisals from the state.

Furthermore, CILIP has also endorsed the Council of Europe’s “Public access to and freedom of expression in networked information: Guidelines for a European cultural policy”. These guidelines are very clear that what users choose to access should be treated as confidential and that the privacy of users should be paramount:

1.2 It is the responsibility of individuals using Public Access Points to decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access.

1.3 Those providing Public Access Points should respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential.

The proposals laid out by Theresa May seriously threaten these basic ethical principles. If the state is able to access data on what individuals have been reading in public libraries their freedom to read and access what they choose is seriously compromised.

Ironically, these proposals come at a time when libraries and librarians in other parts of the world are emphasising the importance of ensuring that individuals can access what they wish in confidence. In December last year, librarians were in uproar when Haruki Murakami’s borrowing record was published in a Japanese newspaper. In response, the Japan Librarian Association re-affirmed that:

“Disclosing the records of what books were read by a user, without the individual’s consent, violates the person’s privacy.”

In the face of similarly intrusive legislation (the PATRIOT Act) in the United States, some libraries have begun purging records of inter-library loan requests to protect users’ privacy. As yet we have not seen comparable moves by the profession in the UK, but the increasingly aggressive rhetoric from the government regarding what and how individuals seek out information is clearly in conflict with the values we espouse as a profession.

Libraries should not distinguish between books and web activity. What individuals read and access online should be as private and as confidential as their book borrowing habits. Although we do not have the constitutional protections to intellectual liberty that American library users are afforded under the First Amendment, both professional organisations (such as CILIP) and political bodies (Council of Europe) are very clear that what a user accesses in a library should remain confidential. The proposals put forward by Theresa May threaten these basic principles of intellectual freedom and liberty and will put intolerable pressure on public libraries. Our government’s desire to undermine these principles is not only dangerous, but will also seriously undermine the bond of trust between public libraries and their users.

The private sector and the digital divide: an unhelpful invasion of public library spaces?

Image c/o Taichiro Ueki on Flickr used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Ever since the emergence of the internet, there have been concerns about those excluded as services increasingly move online. Commonly referred to as the “digital divide”, this exclusion has manifested itself in two distinct ways: lack of access (first level) and that of skills (second level). Progress has been made with the former in recent years as the numbers of those without internet have steadily declined, but the latter has proven far more difficult to address.

Over the course of the past two years, the number of people that have never accessed the internet has fallen by approximately 15% (from just over 7m in the first quarter of 2013 to just under 6m in the equivalent quarter in 2015). However, a lack of internet skills is still stubbornly high. In a BBC online skills survey last year, the corporation found that 20% of UK adults lacked basic online skills. Indeed, the overall lack of skills (particularly across the poorest households) remained unchanged between 2013 and 2014. These findings have been reinforced by a recent report by Go.On UK that found that more than 12m people “do not have the skills to prosper in the digital era”.

Traditionally, public libraries have been a key mechanism to close this so-called divide. Indeed, the People’s Network was borne out of this effort to close the gap and help more people get online. Libraries were seen as the ideal place to provide the support required. They offer a neutral space free from corporate influence, and are staffed by individuals trained to seek out and evaluate information. However, recent years have seen widespread library closures and cuts to staffing levels that have seriously impeded the services they provide. As a result, the libraries crucial role in bridging the digital divide has been severely undermined.

Whilst the role of libraries in tackling the digital divide has diminished, private sector organisations have stepped in to fill the gap. In March 2015, for example, BT and Barclays announced that they were going to work together to connect more people to the internet and to provide support to help people develop the skills they need. In order to provide this access and support, BT and Barclays would be working with local authorities to deliver the initiative in public libraries and community centres in England.

The delivery of this initiative is particularly interesting given the role of public libraries in this area and begs the question why such an initiative needs the direction of either Barclays or BT given the support public libraries have provided. However on the surface, in terms of closing the digital skills gap, there appears to be some benefit in their involvement. For example, Barclay’s Code Playground initiative is potentially a useful way to teach children how to code – a skill that is increasingly regarded as an important one for children to develop (although there are differing views on the extent to which coding itself should be prioritised). However, this option is only available if they can visit a Barclays branch during a weekday with an adult and can provide a laptop. An option, therefore, not available to those without a computer at home or those whose circumstances prevent a visit to the bank on a weekday.

Initiatives such as the Code Playground could, of course, be delivered effectively by public libraries should they have the funding and staffing to make it happen. Indeed, with public libraries being far more accessible to the general public (and a lot more child-friendly) there is a real opportunity here for libraries to develop the digital skills of the next generation and help the UK lead the world in bringing through the next generation of coders.  Delivering such an initiative that requires individuals to visit a branch and bring expensive equipment with them is perhaps not the most effective way of addressing the deeply entrenched digital skills divide.

The move to enlist Barclays and BT into the drive to tackle the digital skills gap emerged as an outcome of the Digital Inclusion Charter, where 38 signatories committed in December 2014 to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016. The public library scheme will be run by Barclays Digital Eagles and BT’s Digital Friends. BT volunteers will be “working with trained Barclays staff – called Barclays Digital Eagles”, although it is difficult to determine who BT will employ as “Digital Friends” to deliver this initiative.

Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity regarding Barclays “Digital Eagles”: are they Barclays staff that have volunteered for these roles and been given extra training? Are these people experts who were recruited specifically to provide this service in libraries? Or are they simply bank staff doing this as an additional duty? It is unclear from the information currently in the public domain etc how Barclay’s will deliver this service. What we do know is that of the 377 UK-wide vacancies available at Barclays in August 2015, none have the title “Digital Eagle”.

Problems presented by the BT/Barclays partnership

There are a multitude of problems presented by this tie-up between BT/Barclays, and public libraries in England.

  • The encroachment of a commercial enterprise into a neutral public space such as public libraries is fundamentally at odds with the ethos of freely providing access to services for all.

 

  • The attempt by commercial enterprises to take over the roles of public servants: on what basis are volunteers working on behalf of a commercial body able to better provide the service than trained staff/volunteers working in public libraries?

 

  • How long is this funding going to last? It’s stated to be a two year project, but what happens when it ends? How will Barclays, BT and the government ensure that the development of digital skills continues after the project comes to a close?

 

  • Hardware – with Barclays Code Playground scheme (designed to help teach children to code), children have to bring their own laptop to the sessions. As this pairing of BT and Barclays seems to cover the internet connection (BT) and skilled support (Barclays), has there been any consideration regarding the provision of hardware? All three are required to effectively tackle a lack of digital skills, how will they ensure all three are available? Or is it only accessible to those who can provide the equipment?

 

  • Staffing – are commercial enterprise staff going to be allowed to use a public, neutral space? What will be the checks and controls on suitability of Barclays staff to work with often vulnerable users, such as Disclosure verification? Can we be sure that the staff provided by Barclays/BT will adhere to the highest levels of trust and privacy, meeting the standards expected of professional librarians?

 

  • Will BT or Barclays be allowed to use this neutral public space to promote their own commercial enterprises? Will there be any requirement for them to be entirely neutral when dealing with issues in terms of communications and banking?

 

  • When will this service be available? Is it only during dedicated sessions, as with those Barclays currently hold in their branches? Or will it be available during library opening hours, whatever they may be? Will BT/Barclays staff be available on evenings and weekends when the library is open?

 

  • Confusion over availability – digital TV means viewers across the UK will be seeing adverts for this service, which is actually only going to be available in England and Wales. This creates unrealistic expectations in potential service users of the resources available to them in their location, which their local public library staff will have to deal with.

 

Before the commencement of such an initiative, some clarity on these issues would be helpful and made clear to the general public.

Comment from CILIP – the professional body for librarians

To date, CILIP have not made any official comment on the implications of this collaboration between BT and Barclays, restricting their references to the announcement to a single tweet linking to a story published on The Bookseller website on 19th March. They also tweeted a link to another Bookseller story about the official launch of the pilot scheme on the 22nd July, but have not voiced any official concerns about this intrusion of commercial enterprises into a public space. Whilst there has been no comment to date, a representative from CILIP has attended all the meetings of the overseeing body, the Leadership for Libraries taskforce and have therefore been aware of the developments. It’s possible, of course, that all of the concerns raised above have been put forward by CILIP and these have been factored in to the development of the project.

The implementation of the scheme

The launch of the trial scheme took place on 22nd July 2015. As most of the publicity was on Government websites and the sites of the companies involved, the launch seems to have gone somewhat under the radar, aided by the lack of commentary by the professional body.

The press release mentions 100 libraries and community centres being involved in the scheme. The initial reports stated the scheme would cover “57 libraries and 13 community centres across the country. A further 10 sites, including a care home, a charity home and a homeless centre will also be provided with free wi-fi” – a total of 80 sites. Details of the remaining twenty sites are not currently clear which begs the question, what’s happened to involvement of the care home, charity home and homeless centre in the scheme? BT state that “more than 100 libraries and community centres” will deliver the project. The first Leadership for Libraries meeting indicates that the funding is for “80 libraries and 20 community centres in areas of social deprivation”, but in a later meeting the scheme is proposed to cover “100 sites including over 50 libraries”. Thirty libraries appear to have been dropped from the scheme, but there is no indication as to why.

Trying to locate specific detail about this scheme appears to be particularly difficult. How many libraries and other locations are actually involved in this scheme? Where can we find out which ones they are, and where they are? Why is there no consistency in the messages being published about this scheme? One of the risks of commercial enterprises being involved in public spaces and services is that the entire culture of a corporate body is focussed on protecting its own sensitive commercial secrets – a culture at odds with public body accountable to the public. The result seems to be what we have here with the BT/Barclays tie-up: a project that is both difficult to verify and one riddled with conflicting information.

Alternative approaches

In contrast to the above approach of inviting commercial enterprises to take possession of elements of a public space and services, an alternative project has also recently been launched in England by Arts Council England (ACE). As part of the drive to increase skills, ACE have announced the availability of  £7.1 million in funding for public libraries in England to access, which will run for six months and help enable free wifi access across all public libraries in England. Confusingly though, that initiative is also a “key development” of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce in parallel to the BT/Barclays project.

Final questions

It would be helpful if BT, Barclays, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce address the issues raised above, and communicated with greater clarity about the nature of the scheme and how it will be delivered. Answers to the following questions would be particularly beneficial in terms of the roll-out of this scheme:

  1. How many public libraries are involved in this initiative? Which specific ones are they?
  2. What restrictions are there on the employees of commercial enterprises while in a neutral public space? Are they allowed to promote their products, or try and gain a commercial advantage by attempting to gain clients while positioned within public libraries?
  3. Was any analysis done on the viability of asking commercial enterprises to donate funds to public libraries to allow public library staff to provide the services which those commercial enterprises now wish to provide in libraries, prior to BT and Barclays being given permission to place their own staff within those spaces?
  4. What protections are in place for the vulnerable users of public libraries who make use of the resources provided by the BT/Barclay partnership? Both in terms of the checking of the commercial participants in this scheme, and ensuring that no inappropriate promotion of products is being undertaken.
  5. Who is responsible for the security of the machines which participants will use for the initiative, e.g. ensuring that no malware is installed on the machines involved.
  6. What is the long-term plan for supporting this approach to developing digital skills in the general public, once this project is completed?

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.

 

Why I think boycotting The Sun newspaper is a good idea

In this article, the author raises their concerns about what materials can be viewed as appropriate for public libraries to stock, explains their position regarding why they believe The Sun cannot be regarded as suitable stock for a public library, and outlines why a public petition to remove it deserves support.

(Image c/o Liam Wilde on Flickr.)

I will jump right in and start with the biggest accusation, censorship. It’s a complicated subject and one that will have most liberals squirming in their seats. Where should a line be drawn between free speech /access to controversial publications and having respect for those who do not wish to see such resources? I think that throwing censorship at an argument shuts down discussion rather than opening it up for debate and becomes counterproductive.

Boycotting a product, organisation or even placing embargos on countries seems to be an effective and accepted way in which we use our collective disapproval of an action or product to put pressure on a company and make it change its ways. Yet when the company in question is a newspaper any criticism levelled against what they do is instantly branded as censorship.

Many women feel reluctant to speak out over issues that concern sexism as a torrent of online abuse, including violent threats, often follows and again this shuts down debate leaving concerns about sexism overlooked while mainstream sexism is allowed to thrive.

I am, for the record, against censorship. I respect the right for people to have different opinions to my own and I relish the opportunity to challenge them.  I believe that the current rules in which a library operates (CILIP guidelines) work perfectly well for the written word.  There is no need to change the way in which we select literature or buy books that may or may not offend the reader. The difference is that the reader can choose whether they want to access the book or not.

When it comes to The Sun that choice is removed. You cannot choose to ‘unsee’ a sexist image blazoned across the front page. It is difficult to avoid the full page soft porn that accompanies each issue, every day and tough not to see the derogatory and eroticised headlines that accompany stories of the crimes frequently committed against women.

To assert that a library operates with no bias, rules or filtering of material is an outright myth. The on-going debate about unrestricted access to the internet is a perfect example. Libraries already filter against materials and websites deemed to be inciting terrorism. This is presumably because we, as a society, believe that terrorism is something that we do not wish to facilitate or encourage and is detrimental to us as a community. I agree with this principle. We have guidelines and an ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ which states “Our network is filtered to block offensive or illegal material being viewed or downloaded in the library”. Again I agree with this policy. The library is a community resource and it aims to be inclusive even going so far as to state that the Council is “determined to remove discrimination”.

I believe that to use the CILIP guidelines for images such as those in The Sun does not keep up with the changing nature of materials available.  New guidelines are needed for visual imagery. It is irresponsible and unequal to put the rights of people wanting to view offensive material above those who don’t. Why are the needs of these people not as important when we argue about rights people have in the library environment?

Libraries attempt to avoid displaying offensive materials in line with local needs. They do not distribute leaflets for hate groups, nor do they permit the use of racist and abusive language for staff or public. This is because it goes against our beliefs of what is right in a community. To argue that libraries exist in a vacuum where anything goes in the name of free speech is simply untrue.

Libraries operate on a decreasing budget. Choices are made as to what may “educate and inspire” readers and to provide resources to a diverse community.  I am grateful that the library service I work for does not buy The Daily Sport or The Daily Star who along with The Sun were cited in evidence presented at the Leveson Enquiry into press standards as having “a tendency to uphold myths about domestic and sexual violence, prostitution and violence against ethnic minority women; news reporting which implicitly blames women for violence committed against them; and the normalization of images and stories which sexualize and objectify women.”

So what exactly is the problem with The Sun? The Sun has been criticized for eroticizing crimes against women, see recent example of this with the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. The paper regularly objectifies women and distorts news stories suggesting women are responsible for the crimes committed against them. They continually mock women in the public eye by trying to shame or humiliate them into being silent. Clare Short MP and Harriet Harman MP have both fallen prey to this.

It is the normalization of everyday sexism that we need to fight against. 30 universities in the UK stopped selling The Sun on their campuses as they saw a conflict between their own equality policies and the selling of a sexist newspaper. The Sun still exists. People are still free to buy it if they choose but these institutions have decided that the selling of this paper on their own campuses would render the universities own equality policies meaningless.

Likewise Tesco  and The Co-op supermarkets made the decision to cover or remove ‘lad’s mags’ such as Nut’s and Zoo because of their graphic front covers and misogynistic content were inappropriate to their wide customer base.

Currently, there is an online petition asking The Sun to remove the Page 3 topless full page image from its newspaper. It has been signed by 189,000 plus people including the signatures of 154 MP’s. The question of if Page 3 has a place in 21st Century Britain has recently been discussed in parliament but it continues to be printed.

“One in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime” (2003 Unifem report). The normalizing and possible eroticizing of violent crimes against women and the daily objectification of women in newspapers such as The Sun perpetuate  the idea that women in our society are not respected and not taken seriously. Evidence presented to the Leveson Enquiry states “There is much evidence about the media’s role in providing a conductive context for violence against women to occur by condoning, tolerating and normalizing abuse of women”

Bizarrely, The Sun chooses not to show soft porn in their weekend issues as they see these editions as ‘family friendly”. I see my local library as a family friendly environment but am confused as to why The Sun and its soft porn, misogynistic content is accessible every day for all to see.

This article isn’t a criticism of the council I work for, in fact I think the beliefs and guidelines they hold dear on equality are commendable. I do understand the difficult position they are in being bound by the CILIP guidelines but there is a real conflict of interest.

I am delighted that this question and the introduction of the petition highlights an issue which has for too long been overlooked. Libraries need to move with the times and face up to the growing issues surrounding offensive imagery and how it is displayed or accessed. The voices of those who do not wish to be exposed to such material needs to be heard.

The real debate lays in what kind of society we want to live in. Can we accept the existence of offensive materials or publications that we don’t agree with without stocking them? Do the council’s standards on equality come before or after the rights of people wishing to access the materials in question? Do people who do not want to see offensive imagery have the same rights as those that do wish to see it? To say ‘anything goes’ in the name of free speech, is in my opinion a liberal cop out.

A. Ashcroft

*The views and opinions in this article belong to the author and not necessarily represent the views of any Council*

Access To Research – A Public Library Initiative

Theo Andrew works as a Scholarly Communications Officer in the Information Services group at the University of Edinburgh. Professional interests include: enhancing scholarly communication using new technologies; promoting an open agenda within academia; research analytics and altmetrics; and research information/data management.

Introduction

Data set containing over 1.6m temperature readings from stations across the globe.
(Image c/o Jer Thorp on Flickr.)

In January 2014 the Access to Research initiative was launched. This initiative was sparked by and is a response to a key recommendation in the Finch Report – “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications” (Page 7; recommendation v). The two year pilot co-ordinated by the Publishers Licensing Society aims to give free at the point of use, walk-in access to academic literature in public libraries across the UK. The launch quickly generated a fair amount of publicity, albeit with equal measures of scorn poured upon it.

This blog post is not going to spend a long time explaining what the initiative is and how it works – others do it better here – but rather I’d like to talk about some of the good points and some of the not so obvious bad points so you can make up your own mind on the matter.

Before we start, it should be pointed out that, despite arising from the Finch report which has rather a lot to say about open access, this initiative actually has nothing to do with open access as most people understand the term, and should not be confused with developments in this area.

Lets begin by looking at some of the good stuff that the initiative promises:

1. Costs

Firstly, the cost to participating libraries and the general public is zero. The initiative is intended to be free at point of use for the user, and free for libraries to sign up to participate with all the costs being borne by the publishers. While we are not aware of the actual costs they are presumably not trivial. Hazarding an educated guess I doubt you’ll see much change from £100k if you wanted to set up a two year pilot preceded by a 3 month technical trial.

2. Content

The 17 publishers that are included at the start of the pilot have contributed between 1.25 to 1.5 million articles from a portfolio of approximately 8000 journals. The figures remain a bit hazy as David Willetts in his launch presentation mentions one figure and the promotional text states another. However, knowing how these kind of statistics are pulled together I can appreciate the vagueness.  At a first glance this is a sizable corpus of material to access for free, although I will return to this point to put the figure in more context later on.

3. Building bridges

One of the less tangible benefits of this initiative is that it could help to break down barriers between research and the wider community. The portrayal of science in the popular media is personal bug bear of mine. For many people the only exposure they have to current research topics is when they are covered in the newspapers and television news. Unfortunately lazy journalism seems to propagate an ‘us v them’ mentality – one of the most commonly heard phrases in the news must be “Scientists state that X causes cancer*” which is rarely productive for all involved. If journalists or the public can engage better with the primary literature (i.e. find more interesting news articles to broadcast/ carry out follow up reading) then this can only help with perceptions and engagement with research. Even proponents of the Access to Research initiative admit that a key challenge is how to digest information obtained from scholarly journals. At least making the literature available for citizens to begin to make informed decisions is a good start.

*where X is an activity/thing regularly done/consumed by the public

4. Footfall

At a time when public libraries are struggling in the face of cuts to maintain services and prove their relevance librarians will seize upon any opportunity to offer more services for no initial outlay (other than staff training). Already there is anecdotal evidence* that offering new services such as Access to Research will entice new users who wouldn’t normally think of visiting. Although most people would agree that providing information online is much more desirable, an increased footfall at public libraries is a good thing.

* Sarah Faulder at 7min20 mentions  “ ….a glowing testimonial”

5. Usability

Although I’ve not yet actually used the pilot Access to Research service, from all accounts the search delivery service – Summon from ProQuest – is extremely easy to use and doesn’t require specialised training to use. Furthermore, it doesn’t require tricky authentication to access on site which is a major failing whenever I’ve tried to use some online electronic public library services in the past.

6. Leadership

Another less tangible benefit mentioned by David Willetts is ‘thought leadership’ and UK PLC to be seen to be doing the right thing.

 

Now lets move on to some of the criticisms raised against the initiative:

1. Terms & Conditions

Perhaps some of the most serious criticisms are the limitations imposed on accessing the content. It always pays to read the small print which reveals serious restrictions on use – here are some of the worst:

  • I will only use the publications accessed through this search for my own personal, e.g. non-commercial research and private study
  • I will not download onto disc, CD or USB memory sticks or other portable devices or otherwise save, any publications accessed through this search;
  • I will not allow the making of any derivative works from any of the publications accessed through this search;
  • I will not copy otherwise retain, store or divert any of the publications accessed through this search onto my own personal systems;

 

Some of these points are extremely patronising – the derivative works one for example. We have all heard the famous quote that science is based upon standing on the shoulders of giants. To not be able to make derivative works goes against one of the underlying principles of scholarship. What this point makes clear is that users are meant to be consumers not creators of knowledge.

Other more knowledgeable folk like Cameron Neylon make a more eloquent assessment of the problems these terms and conditions create. All I want to add to this discussion is that in this day and age there is no reason to force users to adopt restrictions on use that are only appropriate for print media, unless you wish to severely handicap the usefulness and therefore the uptake of the service.

2. Postcode lottery

Closely related to the point above, but sufficiently serious to warrant its own point is the postcode lottery of whether you can actually use the walk in service. With 10 local authorities participating in the technical pilot and 11 new authorities joining, that means there are 400 libraries at the start of the initiative. There are around 4,265 public libraries which means the coverage is less than 10%. You could say that some access to public is better than no access at all, however the fact remains that currently the majority of UK citizens are excluded from the service. In mitigation, this is the start of a 2 year pilot and the initiative hopes to sign up a lot more local authorities as the pilot progresses. I would fully expect coverage to increase over time as more libraries opt in – although it’s hard to estimate quite what the final coverage will be.

3. Content put in context

1.25 – 1.5 million articles sound like a lot of content to read. However, if you consider that there are around 46.1 million records in Web of Science; and it is estimated that in 2006 the total number of articles published was approximately 1.35 million, the range of articles you can access through the initiative is a drop in the ocean. So if you are lucky to live close to enough to walk in to a participating library you can only access the equivalent of the research that was produced last year. As far as I know the selection process to be included in Access to Research is opaque – what papers are chosen and who decides?

4. Preserving the status quo

Perhaps one the most disappointing points for me is that this initiative is trying to preserve the status quo of academic publishing. It’s firmly rooted in the print distribution model and has built in sufficient obstacles for users to overcome that it is setting itself up for failure. The initiative goes against nearly all of Ranganathan’s five laws of library science:

i. Books are for use

…but the articles are digitally chained to prevent their removal.

ii. Every reader his [or her] book

…but the majority of readers can’t visit a participating library

iii. Every book its reader

…but the portfolio of journals is not comprehensive.

iv. Save the time of the reader

….restrictive terms and conditions prevent this.

v. The library is a growing organism.

….perhaps this is the saving grace as there is room for improvement.

 

5. Motivations

I’d like to take time to consider the motivations behind the initiative. Commercial organisations do not do anything for free unless there is a benefit somewhere further along the line. To put it in the crudest possible terms the benefits are the holy trinity of cash, turf or fame. The Access to Research initiative certainly ticks all three of these boxes.

The Publishers Licensing Society who have co-ordinated the Access to Research initiative, and Nature Publishing Group have been very forthright in admitting that the scheme is about ‘creating a new audience for information’ and opening ‘another channel to the market’ for their content. I can’t comment on how publishers actually intend to monetise the situation, but the standard Modus operandi is to develop a market then sell products directly to it.

It has been widely commented that there has been a great deal of hard lobbying by publishers to position paid-for Gold Open Access services as the main method of delivery of open access in the Finch Report. The focus on Gold OA has been widely criticised by a broad spectrum of the academic community and has resulted in a partial backtrack. In the face of renewed criticism academic publishers will be keen to please to government and show everyone they are the good guys:

“Government has been extremely pleased to see how publishers have tenaciously

pursued their welcome proposal for a Public Library Initiative (PLI) in the national and

public interest.”

Certainly the response (above) from the Rt Hon David Willetts to Prof Dame Janet Finch indicates they are heading along the right lines.

6. Access to public funded research

In the last few years there has been legislative movement in the States pushing towards taxpayer access to publicly funded research, and this viewpoint is gaining momentum in the UK. One of the main criticisms levelled at the current subscription model is that public funded money is being used to produce the research, but the fruits of the labour are not available to the people who funded it. One way to stop dead this argument is to say the public has access to all the research they need through an initiative like Access to Research.

Personally I would rather not rely on the generosity of third parties to deliver a sub-set of content (from an opaque selection of materials), that can have access removed at any time (2 year pilot), and is made difficult to access (via restrictive terms and conditions of use). I would rather see all content funded by taxpayers (either directly via research councils, or indirectly via universities or other sources) to be available freely via the internet (either in a repository or via an open access publisher), preferably with generous reuse rights granted up front.

The Too Long; Didn’t Read (tl;dr) summary

My own personal take on all of this is that the ‘Access to Research’ is a step in the right direction, but falls short in the implementation, and is driven by motivations that are not so altruistic as you might first think.