When is a mobile library not a mobile library?


When it’s a travelling circus, tardis-like time machine, miniature world fair, fold-away workshop or peripatetic emporium of technology. (For more options, see this blog post by tinyme: http://www.tinyme.com/blog/10-must-see-mobile-libraries/).

Or alternatively, when the service has been cancelled because it’s not cost-effective.

The traditional image (reality?) of the mobile library in England is a slightly tatty bus with a limited stock selection and possibly a single computer with wifi connection. It’s often a bit of a millstone around the local authority’s neck – an expensive service that is hard to maintain and used by relatively few people… but if withdrawn it leaves some rural areas feeling they are without a physical library service at all.

You may call me Pollyanna, but I don’t see it that way. To me the mobile library has incredible potential to be an engaging, exciting and unique cultural experience for the public it serves.

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(Image: Book Mobile, Jonathan Dueck)

I see a buzz of excitement as the brightly coloured, eccentrically shaped customised vehicles roll into small towns, villages and deprived suburbs. I see vivid mobile sculptures unfolding from roofs and pop-up tents bursting out of doors. I see storytellers and performers setting up intimate shows and workshops for rural communities.

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(Image: , Colourful Mobile Library, Ikhlasul Amal)

I see community book sharing and imaginatively curated book collections – in the evening I see book clubs and writing clubs taking over the space and writing recommendation cards for other readers to find in the books they have read (or written). I see outdoor cinemas and intimate film screenings of BFI collections by virtual film clubs networked across the local authority, just like the Finnish mobile library showcased in this year’s IFLA conference:

“Välkky is a unique Mobile Library in Espoo, Finland. In addition to the traditional lending stock the bus has a wide range of interactive media. In the mornings the Mobile library visits schools and kindergartens as a modern children´s library. In the afternoons and evenings Välkky can function as a Writer´s bus, a movie theatre, a multimedia workshop, a meeting place for a book club or a handicraft group for adult clients” (IFLA Conference 2014: http://www.ifla.org/files/assets/public-libraries/publications/day_1_10.45_-_eva_wilenius1.pdf)


(Kajaani Mobile library, Wikimedia Commons)

I see mobile makerlabs and interactive play emporiums/libraries/activities sponsored by local children’s services, just like this Pop Up Parks one being piloted in a Design Council and Guy’s and St Thomas Charity project in Southwark right now: http://thekneehighproject.com/2014/08/26/team-update-pop-up-parks-5/

Pop up parks

(image courtesy of Pop Up Parks)

I see travelling interactive art and museum exhibitions, like those curated by Isis Arts in their bespoke mobile arts space: http://www.isisarts.org.uk/the-big-m

And of course, me being me, I see robotics kits and learning tools for all ages to find out how to make as well as use  technology.

I also daydream and wonder about partnering with local retailers to transport affordable fruit and vegetables to communities that don’t have access to them on their doorstep, delivering health information services for local PCTs, partnering with blood banks and adult education services, homes for the elderly and services for disabled people to provide economies of scale and a service that people will queue round the block to experience.

The business model for a mobile library is tricky, but it can’t be impossible, especially if it provides the rustle and hum of excitement of the travelling circus when it comes to town.

(Cover photo: The small enchanted circus at night… Cosmonautirussi)


Fail fast, fail cheap – a new approach to public library innovation


The title to this post is a quote from Corinne Hill, Director of Chattanooga Public Library that I just love.

It’s the public library version of Google’s ‘fail fast, fail often’ mantra and it ironically reflects the reality of public library funding constraints, while also describing the creative, entrepreneurial energy her library embodies. Her inspirational approach to library innovation is something we can all learn from. We need to get away from fear of failure and move towards embracing new ideas, even if they don’t turn out to be quite the right ideas for us in the long run.

You can hear her talk about her approach here


Corinne attributes the successful innovation of her library service to a number of factors:

  • a strong strategic vision that enables her to prioritise activities – and axe things that aren’t working
  • distributed leadership which means that anyone has permission to try something new – as long as it fits with the organisation’s aims and isn’t too expensive!
  • a completely open mind as to how she might achieve her aims – including a total openness to partnership working and reciprocal arrangements
  • letting the community (who are partners in delivering the innovation Chattanooga creates) design the space and the interventions in a way that makes sense to them rather than dictating how it should be done

She describes the 4th Floor at Chattanooga Public library as a ‘Beta Space’ for the library. The place where things can be tested out and allowed to fail – if they really succeed they get integrated into the library offer throughout the rest of the building – as 3D printers now have in Chattanooga.

I love that idea, but I’d like to take it further.

I think the Public Library as a Beta Space for community innovation is a really exciting idea. A place where people go to try out and test things when they don’t know exactly what they’re for or how they might work. The new tech or community group or creative idea might not be a neat, finished product and lots and lots of them might not last more than a couple of weeks. But this approach would position the library as a hub for ideas, creativity and enterprise in the community – which is exactly where it should be.

But that means it will host a fair few failed projects…

What’s the worst that can happen? That’s what I always think when I hear people discussing the risks of innovation. Sure, if you’ve invested thousands of pounds in a new library management system or reference suite that no one uses, that’s a pretty scary failure. But the art of innovation is to understand which are the failures you can and can’t afford, even which are the ones that you should embrace and the ones you can really learn from.

The approach to digital innovation I advocate involves a lot of partnership working – and that’s not always going to work out. If not you can just shake hands and go your separate ways. There are lots of other tech partners out there in the universe.

Innovation takes a lot of work and energy, and failure can sometimes be a blessed release from constantly pushing that resistant boulder up a hill (although as Jacqui Thompson from Gateshead libraries says, when you’re starting something new you can’t be put off easily). So you need to recognise what is a genuine failure that you just need to let go of, and what could work out with a different approach, or just more persistence.

Lots of failure can be depressing. No one wants to keep falling over. So we need to learn from each failed project and make sure we don’t fall into a pattern of similar failures. Partly that’s about having a strong strategic view – what are we trying to achieve? Where do we want to get? And reviewing what went wrong when things didn’t quite work out like we wanted, in case there are some approaches or behaviours we need to address, skills we need to develop or factors to take into account next time.

But sometimes it’s no one’s fault. it just didn’t work, even though you wanted it to. So don’t sweat it, the chances are that no one even noticed that stumble over there – they’re noticing all the amazing things you are making happen through your hard work.

(All of Corinne Hill’s views are my own interpretation)

Image: Mike Linksvayer P1040010

You are the library


A combination of hi-tech enabling technologies and good old-fashioned human interaction can grow the library offer exponentially.

I’ve been talking a lot on this blog about the new exchange economy and the ways in which new tech companies are willing to work with libraries. But that’s only part of the picture.

Libraries have been the locus of oral history and listening projects for a number of years. For example, the Human Library has been hosted by public libraries and other organisations across the globe, including Denmark, Canada and South Korea – as well as The Idea Store in Canary Wharf and Swiss Cottage Library in Camden. The idea is that you book time to hear someone’s personal story – much like a human book – with the aim of increasing mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.

Another current/trend that complements these developments is the idea of Timebanking. A reciprocal scheme where you receive help/time in return for volunteering time given. A number of local authorities are sponsoring time banking, including Barnet Council, which has set up an enquiry centre in East Finchley library and is looking to roll the scheme out across the borough shortly. They have partnered with Timebank, a national volunteering charity to roll out their local scheme.

Team London, originally set up for the Olympics in 2012 is an online portal where people and charities can search for pro-bono support, including professional services such as graphic design and coding. Libraries could easily benefit from the huge good will and pool of skills available in London.

A few libraries have taken this idea further, creating experimental spaces that don’t have any books in at all – but are there for wireless and face-to-face networking and co-working. An example of this is The Edge, a bookless library space in Brisbane, Australia. There are some interesting analyses of how well these spaces actually work but a key finding is that if different people’s names/interests are displayed publicly they’re more likely to seek each other out and use the space as it was imagined.

However this is still a relatively untapped area with great potential for library service development. I think that the key to making local time banking or professional networking work within a library environment lies within that most under-utilised of assets – the library card. While public libraries are justifiably concerned about privacy and data protection, a voluntary scheme where people could list their skills and interests and register their presence in the library via their library card/online interface, then browse for other library users via the library database and book a slot to talk to them for 15 or 30 minutes would be relatively simple to implement. Timebanking could also be built into the interface. So you would go to your library to learn some basic Japanese before going on holiday, to find other entrepreneurs with similar interests or complementing skills, to find someone to walk your dog after you have an operation, or just to hear someone talk about their past. The library would still be a library, but it would lend people as well as books and other media.

(Image: Cloned Milkmen – How to scan your library card)

This is our new reality


This blog is going to be peppered with jargon, so I thought I’d start by explaining what I mean.

Perhaps the most prevalent bit of technospeak being used in the cultural sector at the moment is “Augmented Reality” and “Virtual Reality” (AR/VR).

Augmented Reality

There are lots of ways of thinking about Augmented Reality – and not all of them are helpful in designing engaging and relevant services. So I thought I’d go back to the (online) Oxford dictionary.

Augmented (adjective): 1.Having been made greater in size or value

Reality – well I’m not sure anyone has ever really got to the bottom of what that is and the OED doesn’t clarify things much if you’re feeling philosophical. But I’d say that in this instance what we’re talking about is your experience through your original five senses. This is only going to get more complex as new devices and applications come on the market and become ubiquitous filters for ‘reality’, but we can start with that.

So augmented reality is something that makes your lived experience of the world greater in size or adds value to it.

Mainly these days that is understood in a visual sense – overlaying digital images or animations onto ‘reality’ via applications on your smart devices. This could be a smart phone or a tablet and soon will include the range of wearable technologies (glasses, watches etc) that are coming onto the market. A really good example of this is the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum App.

However, it can apply to sounds and data as well. An example of this is the Courtauld’s Beyond the Label app, which provides background information about the collection to viewers in the gallery and then also for reference at home.

There is a very erudite description of Augmented Reality and its application in the British Museum here which helps you understand the technical aspects of it and also, crucially, how these experiences are anchored in ‘reality’ through the use of visual markers to trigger the content.

In the future we can expect to see encyclopedias where the content ‘comes to life’ on the digital or real page once the visual marker is triggered by a smart device – such as T-Rexes roaring at you or volcanoes exploding. Or multi-layered texts where the author invites people to respond to their work and these responses are accessible via smart devices while reading the original.

How can I have a go?


Excitingly enough, there is a really good opportunity for libraries to get involved in playing with Augmented Reality this summer via the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge which has an AR app triggered by posters that you put up around the library.

Children can download the app and go on an AR treasure hunt where the characters on the poster come to life on their smart devices. It’s really worth building this into your summer reading offer this year as a toe in the water because it’s free for those signing up to the Summer Reading Challenge. Check out the app here: http://sol.us/mythical/

Virtual Reality

Typically, Virtual Reality is much more immersive than Augmented Reality and tends to be more influenced by gaming culture.

These days you would tend to put on a headset, such as Oculus Rift, and experience an immersive virtual environment.

Gateshead libraries have partnered with local tech companies and universities to provide free access to Oculus Rift headsets for library users in special workshops targeted at young people.

However, advances in projection technologies and movement sensors mean the boundaries between AR and VR will probably be coming down over the next 10-20 years. Although, for the moment, this will be confined to specific environments (such as rooms or gallery spaces), you will be able to literally ‘be’ in a virtual reality space.

Again, (as we all seem to want to go back to Prehistoric times via these futuristic technologies), I’ll use the example of dinosaurs – you’ll be able to ‘walk with the dinosaurs’ – seeing three dimensional projections all around you as you walk through the Natural History Museum.

Any issues?

One big gap in this work in the cultural sector is any systematic assessment of whether these cool things do actually ‘augment’ people’s reality.

It would be good to get people together who are doing these things and see if we could evaluate whether people used them, how they used them and what they liked about them.


I think we could create a real niche for public libraries in providing access to things like AR and VR without extensively productising it – providing a beta test experience for people where they are encouraged to play, wonder and get involved in shaping the future of these kinds of applications.

Libraries should also be a place for debate – what do these new ideas and technologies mean for our society? What will change? What will stay the same? What do we all want our new reality to be?

(Header image: Orlovsky and Oculus Rift, Sergey Galyonkin)

Why all library professionals should learn to code


To be honest, the title of this post should really be “why everyone should learn to code”.

I know everyone is busy, everyone has their day job and it’s hard enough just getting all the things you have to do done, let alone setting yourself another seemingly impossible task. But the more I think about it, the more important it is.

Coding is the new literacy we all need to learn

Firstly, coding languages unlock the secrets of the digital age. Unless you can code, you can’t have a say in the way things look, the way they work or what they do. As a library professional, you can put down a specification in a tender document but how do you know if you will actually get what you want? And what if what you want changes before the app/library management system/website is finished, but you can’t do anything about it because it’s not in the tender specification?

And because you’re a service manager you’ve got a lot more control than the average member of the public, who just buys or consumes, or is given this stuff to use (for example, by their library service). This may seem like a relatively small problem now, but Universal Credit is moving all benefit recipients online, in the future there may be no actual Post Offices or banks you can go to – services may only exist online, and the gadgets we keep in our pockets, on our wrists, in our glasses or even contact lenses will frame and colour our world in ways we can’t even imagine now.

Are we really saying that we don’t want to have some control over that?

Data IS information

(Some) Library staff are often described as ‘information professionals’. But how can this continue to be the case if library staff can’t understand, organise and manipulate the big data that is the information which is increasingly used by commercial firms and governments to make decisions that affect us? The public need to be able to use this data too – and public libraries are the obvious place where this can be enabled.

If we are on top of it.

And to be on top of it we need to be able to code.

So what?

A lot of people say they ‘don’t do’ technology – and I get that I really do. It’s tempting to make it one person’s job and to just go and ask them slightly bemused questions or get cross with them when it doesn’t work. And I’ll be honest, I am really not the most natural technologist in the room. I like my Roberts Radio and my hob top kettle. I used to let my friends/partner/family tell me what tech I should buy because I really didn’t care. And I’m not very good at coding. But I’m learning. And I’m not even a library professional 🙂

Sue Lawson, from Manchester LIbraries, recommended https://dash.generalassemb.ly/ and I’ve completed the first two levels – it’s actually really fun! She also recently posted this link from Chattanooga Libraries on Linkedin http://www.nooga.com/166141/learning-to-code-all-it-takes-is-a-library-card/ which shows an exciting and simple way that libraries can help their staff and users get better at coding.

(Image: Highway Code, Beverley Goodwin)

Digital is the new black


(Image: Colossus, Bletchley Park by Adam Lederer)

This blog is about the importance of digital work in libraries and other cultural institutions. And hopefully some helpful ideas about how to do it.

Of course everyone agrees that libraries, museums, archives etc all need to engage in digital activities – digital is the new black.

Well actually it’s more like the new electricity, or gas, or oxygen.

But the catchall of ‘digital’  – digital marketing activities (don’t get me started on that particular digital prefix), online databases, new library or content management systems, teaching people how to use a mouse or access an online catalogue, digital artworks and creative activities, providing access to the internet or wifi – well it all just feels kind of messy. A bit like the picture up there. Loads of work, loads of activity, loads of energy – but for what?

I  believe that the fundamental duty of public cultural institutions, and particularly public libraries, is to make sure that everyone – or as many people as possible – are included in our cultural spaces and in society. And this is what the focus of any digital activities should be. Simple no? (I never promised to blow your mind – refer to my blog title!)

But inclusion in the digital age doesn’t just mean signposting things, making the internet available, showing someone how to consume the technology that’s out there. It means providing the space and encouragement for them to make the stuff. Allowing them into your archives, picture libraries and catalogues and letting them see what they can make of them. Fostering a digital maker culture in the same way you would encourage knitting groups, writing groups, sketching groups and family history enthusiasts to be creative with your things and in your spaces.

I like the picture up there because it’s messy and looks difficult to understand, so it’s a metaphor for how you can sometimes feel about digital activities in cultural services. I also like it because it’s beautiful and full of creative possibility, which is the kind of feeling we should all have about the digital activities fostered by public cultural institutions. And I like it because it’s messy and homespun, like a beginner’s woolly jumper, which is the kind of digital product we should all feel comfortable with as we start to include people in this brave new world.