Public Libraries Are Sexy

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It can sometimes feel as though public libraries are the whipping boys of the cultural sector. When we hear about library closures and cuts, the demise of the printed book and our impending obsolescence, as people seek out facts on Wikipedia and Google rather than at the public library, it’s hard not to feel a little unloved – dare I say it, unattractive?

But the fact is that public libraries, what they stand for and what they can achieve in communities, has never been more appealing to a certain portion of the population. Tech startups, particularly coding/gaming developers who are pushing the boundaries of narrative and experiential technologies, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE libraries.

Of course it can take them a little while to realise this. They read the same media reports as everyone else and they can have the same preconceptions as any member of the public who may not use libraries all the time –

Don’t you have to be quiet?

Aren’t libraries just for borrowing books?

I already know how to use a computer thanks.

I don’t have kids yet but I’ll keep you in mind.

But then you can remind them about what public libraries are really all about – emancipation, equality of opportunity for all, learning for the love of it, stumbling upon that thing you really love to do, the career you’d like to have or that amazing business idea. Including everyone in society – from homeless people to the comfortably off – a social setting where everyone is welcome. The ideals of open access and active participation in society run through libraries’ DNA – and guess what? They run through the DNA of many of the tech start ups that are sprouting up all over the country.

These people love you but they don’t know it yet. They want you but they just haven’t realised it. You’re that thing they’ve been looking for but didn’t know was out there. If you make it your job to go and find them and let them realise how much they love you you’ll be surprised at the results.

Because when they do realise it, they’ll do practically anything for you.

Loan you some cutting edge tech kit? Sure thing.

Volunteer to run some coding workshops? I thought you’d never ask.

Talk to young kids in the community about how to raise their aspirations and join this new tech revolution? Seriously! Is that even a question?

So get out there and go date some tech start ups – and remember, you’re sexy!

(Image: Library of Love, Nicola Jones)

Why the unconference is the new conference

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They’re springing up all over the place these days – informal gatherings of like-minded people talking about the things they love to do. A mass of people who are trying things out or interested in trying new ideas. Mini “Flash Talks” or self-organised topic debates pepper a day that is all about the quality of the delegates rather than the quality of the speakers.

Although they are often outside of working hours, the good news is that they are also often either free or surprisingly economical to attend. They are run on a shoe-string budget and rely on the goodwill of sponsoring organisations – sound familiar? Just like my features on Gateshead Libraries and Lewisham People’s Day, unconferences rely on the new reciprocal or gift economy to work. You give back just by participating, so if you go along don’t expect to be able to just listen quietly and slink to the back of the room to eat sandwiches. Come prepared to talk, show and tell things you’ve been working on and exchange details with hundreds of other people.

The two big unconference organisers that library professionals needs to know about are Mashed Libraries and Library Camp. Both have big events coming up soon –

Pi and Mash on 9th August is about pushing the technological boundaries of library work and library collections. Mainly run with academic libraries in mind, it’s a great opportunity for public library staff to find out about the latest developments in academia and build contacts with academic libraries which may have access to tech you’ve only dreamt about and will certainly know a few people who can help develop your coding and tech offer.

Unfortunately, it’s already sold out but you can get on the waiting list here. It was offering bursaries to help hard pressed library staff attend, so even if you don’t have any kind of travel budget you might be able to go next year. Or how about setting up your own Mashed Library event? Anyone can hold one…

Library Camp has been running for a few years now – I had thought that all public library staff must be aware of it but it seems as though that’s not the case! It’s a self-organised unconference about all aspects of library services and includes school and academic librarians, volunteers and users as well as public library staff. The next event is on 13th September in Newcastle.

But if going off to an unofficial conference isn’t on your service’s budget or radar this year, how about an international online library conference? Library 2.014 is running on 8-9 October and will include library staff from all over the globe. You will be able to stream live talks, demos and presentations and participate in online chat forums alongside your library colleagues from around the world. You can even propose your own paper! It’s not world peace, but it’s a start…

(Image: Conference Time, Christian Senger)

Gateshead Libraries: An Explosion of Digital Creativity

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At first glance, Gateshead’s public libraries look much like any other… but under the calm exterior lies an explosion of digital creativity.

Gateshead Libraries run loads of digital exploration, engagement and learning activities. As a result, they’ve had press coverage, built partnerships with Newcastle Makerspace and the local hi-tech economy and received grant support from the Carnegie Trust.

I spoke to Jacqui Thompson from Gateshead Libraries about her work to build their digital offer. Here’s what she had to say:

So, what are you up to?

I started working on developing our digital offer in 2012, with our first E-Day, and it has all grown from there.

We hold annual E-Days – events where people can experiment with new technology, such as Oculus Rift, 3D printers and programming Raspberry Pi. The next EDay is on the 27th September in Gateshead Central Library.

We work with the local branch of international game developer Ubisoft, and Vector 76 who work in Augmented Reality to run career days to help local young people understand how to get into hi-tech jobs. Local HE and FE institutions help out too, offering STEM sessions for young people.

Newcastle Makerspace provide us with invaluable expertise, provide access to kit and deliver workshops and technology making sessions for us.

We offer social media surgeries and coding sessions using Raspberry Pi – even raiding our Local Authority IT department for old monitors and keyboards to hook up to the home made computers. Ubisoft also run game programming workshops.

Soon we’ll be offering Coderdojo sessions, electronic circuits workshops and making HTML dynamic animations.

Who comes along?

SCIENCE KIDS 4A

(image: David Charlton)

These events all started because I was asked to bring more men and boys into the library and so I got the idea of gadgets.

I didn’t target our usual library audience, instead I went online and looked at the forums there were in the North East and what groups already existed.

I joined several forums and they have been brilliant for providing free marketing to developer communities. For example, Raspberry Pi have their own digital magazine, The Magpi and they featured our events.

We also approach local schools to see if they are interested in advertising our events to school children and have been invited down as far as Durham to speak to a school there.

We get around 100 people when we run gaming events with Ubisoft. Our first EDay brought in 131 people. Last year we were able to link in with Newcastle Science Festival and that brought in 350 people. Through running the events we’ve built up a mailing list of 200 people. A lot of men and boys come but women and girls are interested too.

What’s the strategy behind your service development?

We wanted to create partnerships with a focus on creativity and skill development to coincide with the introduction of programming into the curriculum. I also wanted to build on the growth of digital businesses in the North East.

I didn’t really have a budget for this work so I decided to survey what was out there already and build the service around existing groups and companies who were already working in the field. It only took one person to understand what I was trying to do and it all took off from there.

What are you most proud of?

Being the first public library to introduce EDay and all the activities which have stemmed from it. They have put Gateshead Libraries on the map and shown people what Libraries can offer.

And convincing people that Libraries are a place where wonderful things can happen.

What has worked really well?

SCIENCE KIDS 8A

(image: David Charlton)

The partnerships have been amazing – they have enabled me to run big events on a shoestring budget.

Vector 76 bring along their Oculus Rift. We’ve had great support and direction from Makerspace Newcastle, as well as loans of 3D printers and other technology. Ubisoft, Newcastle University and our other partners have all contributed their time and expertise to run coding and other workshops. Our ICT service have provided bits of old kit for us to play with as well.

It’s all done on a goodwill basis and because they understand what we’re trying to do. People now approach me to get involved, which makes things a lot easier.

What advice would you give other services who are just starting out on developing their digital offer?

Don’t be put off easily!

You need enthusiastic staff – someone who  is not afraid to approach people, can build relationships and keep up to date with what is going on in the field and in your region.

It is not essential to be a ‘techie’ but you need to do your research, have  an understanding of what’s going on and how it can be delivered and the freedom to do so.

Always have a plan B, as someone may let you down and remember to collect and record  evidence of what you are doing so you can present it to influencers and decision makers when you get the opportunity.

(Cover image: Gateshead Libraries)

Lewisham Libraries: Augmenting Reality on People’s Day

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There was a queue of young boys outside the Lewisham Library tent at People’s Day, the annual free festival for Lewisham residents held in Mountsfield Park, Hither Green.

They were all waiting to try the Oculus Rift headsets brought by the library service’s partner, Augmented Reality specialists Amplified Robot.

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(Image: Lewisham Library Service)

Inside the tent, people were gazing at the ‘People’s Patchwork’ made up of patches that each expressed how the maker felt about Lewisham.

It was a thing of beauty by itself, but several people were holding up their phones and scanning the patches using a special app developed by Amplified Robot. When they did this, an image specially selected from Lewisham Archive appeared in the place where the patch had been.

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It wasn’t what people were expecting from the library tent – least of all the Mayor of Lewisham Council who was treated to a virtual reality rollercoaster ride.

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(Image: Lewisham Library Service)

But it is all part of Lewisham Library Service’s work to change people’s perceptions of the library service and make it a place where you can go to experience the latest technology as well as to borrow books, use the internet, do homework or participate in crafting and storytelling activities.

What I loved about the digitally enhanced experience Lewisham Libraries offered on people’s day is that it took place in a tent, with bunting strung up and a blackboard outside announcing Oculus Rift alongside story time. There were cardboard robots to make with push pins and Pritt Stick and a corner for story time alongside the latest technology. And the tech itself mainly relied on people’s own smart devices rather than requiring lots of infrastructure in order to work.

I also loved that Amplified Robot gave their expertise, time and kit on a pro bono basis – in return they got lots of feedback on how the public interact with immersive and augmented realities which can help their own product development. And they are building a long term partnership with the library service. Hurray!

(Cover image: Lewisham Library Service)

Back to the Future: A Review of Barbican’s Digital Revolution

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This interactive exhibition promises to unite artists, designers, musicians and developers who are pushing their fields using digital media – so I went along to see what, if anything, libraries could learn from it (and to play with some cool stuff).

If you can’t get down there to see it yourself then here’s the lowdown.

What should I pay attention to?

Firstly, it was RAMMED. I probably chose the worst weekday outside of school holidays to go, because there was a teachers’ strike on, but it was really busy.

The demographic was interesting – it was full of dads and sons aged about 7+. Lots of library services have mentioned to me their hopes that featuring more ‘gadgets’ and a bigger tech offer will bring in precisely that demographic. And from this highly unscientific study it does appear to work. But there were also loads of women and girls there – proving that those of us with ‘XX’ chromosomes love tech too.

Secondly, there were some interesting and thought provoking exhibits that libraries would/should love to get their hands on:

  • e-textiles, including a dress with flexible LEDs that respond to your mood, a solar dress that generates renewable energy and a sculpture dress made with a 3D printer (by a company based in London – I will be contacting them but here is a showcase of their work)
  • e-makeup with LED lights on the face and a headdress that light up when you blink
  • thought controlled gaming – it’s basic but it can detect brainwaves to let you shoot moving spaceships with your mind
  • Cyborgs – tech that modifies human perception/capabilities (although this part of the exhibition was extremely limited)

All of these could/should be able to be exhibited and played with in libraries without too much trouble.

I’ll get on the case…

There were other things that people seemed to love and which libraries could probably source from their own communities such as retro hardware and 70s/80s/90s computer games.

What could be done better?

What disappointed me was the lack of depth and participatory activity throughout this ‘interactive’ exhibition. It was possible to set off pre-programmed art works that used motion sensors (and they were often very beautiful) and play games but there was no sense of getting underneath this digital revolution and understanding how it happened or how you could do it yourself. Fundamentally it was engaging the consumer rather than the citizen or citizen-artist. That was disempowering – the opposite of what the digital revolution should all be about.

I think the programme of workshops and school activities may be trying to remedy this, but for the basic punter there wasn’t much for me to do except watch and wave my arms occasionally.

I also thought that the majority of the stuff there fitted a futuristic/sci-fi aesthetic – none of it would have been out of place on the decks of Babylon 5. As such it didn’t really challenge anyone’s perceptions of what the digital future might look like or our role in it – for me that borders on the negligent.

And lots of the tech didn’t work – I tried engaging via social media, listening to audioguides on a downloadable app (too loud in there to hear anything) and either I don’t have any brainwaves or the thought controlled gaming wasn’t working.

I liked this about the exhibition though – one important aspect of the digital revolution is that it has been/will be glitchy and imperfect. Freak occurrences and malicious human actions may mean it doesn’t work at all. I wanted to ask ‘why isn’t it working?’ as a genuine and interested question.

So what?

I came away thinking ‘libraries could totally do this!! And they could do it better!”

So now we just need to get started.

I have some thoughts on that, apart from contacting some of the exhibitors to see if they’d like to partner with libraries. Here are some Digital Revolution-inspired activities libraries could take on:

  1. crowd-source a retro-tech exhibition of old mobile phones, working computers and retro games (there has to be a Meetup group for that)
  2. Display the visual markers from the Gibson-Martelli artwork MANA around the library with details of the app which will allow people to experience this augmented reality art
  3. Encourage your coding groups to do some DevArt by contributing to the Google-sponsored DevArt platform looking for coding-inspired artists
  4. build your own e-textile – here’s how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbdvrfwr6S

But then you can make it even better  – include how-to diagrams and Youtube videos; host coding workshops and maker sessions where people take apart old computers and figure out how they work; ask people’s opinions, host a programme of talks, forums and discussions about the digital revolution.

Get people really thinking. Isn’t that what we’re all about?

(Image: Barbican)

Ready, steady CODE!!!

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Ok I sound a bit like a broken record already, but I have been doing a bit of research on free coding resources for a library service I’m working with and I thought I’d share the love.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Why All Library Professionals Should Learn to Code, coding is going to become part of the core business of public libraries. But it’s also a way for the public to benefit from and contribute to the developing hi-tech economy.

From September all primary schools will be teaching children how to code, and libraries should be doing it too.

So there are 2 kinds of free coding courses: online and face-to-face.

Libraries can signpost people to the online courses (some for adults, some tailored to children) and they can offer to host the face-to-face ones.

Getting involved with established free code courses brings in audiences, cuts down on set up costs and lets you put your toe in the water. You can do your own stuff later once you’ve decided the best way for your service to own these kinds of sessions.

This blog just signposts the nationally organised free coding classes but I’m sure there are more happening in your local area that aren’t national. To find them, look on Meetup and/or contact your local HE and FE institutions. They are often looking for convenient venues and like-minded people.

Kids/young people

Code Club https://www.codeclub.org.uk/  Free coding club for children aged 9-11

Khan Academy  https://www.khanacademy.org/ Free online tutoring in a range of subjects, including coding

Coder Dojo http://coderdojo.com  Youth club where you can learn to code

Adults/anyone

Codecademy http://www.codecademy.com/ Online free coding courses

Code First:Girls http://www.codefirstgirls.org.uk/ Free coding courses on university campuses for women/teenage girls

(Image: Coding is the New Literacy, Michael Pollack)