Libraries Change Lives


A couple of weeks ago I was at a fancy lunch event in Brussels – with an actual princess – (that’s how they do things there).

No, it wasn’t some corporate jolly, it was an event to publicise the role of the 65,000 public libraries in the lives of the 503 million inhabitants of the European Union.

Funded by the Gates Foundation and designed and delivered by the Reading and Writing Foundation, a Dutch thinktank for literacy development in Europe, it was a bit of a masterclass in lobbying for the relatively uninitiated (me).

LIbraries Change Lives event

I must admit that the majority of public library natives there were a bit bemused – this isn’t our natural habitat – we’re much more comfortable in community halls with cups of tea and biscuits.

But this event wasn’t aimed at us – it was aimed at some of the 751 MEPs who debate European Legislation and who could have influence over the perceived status, importance and role of public libraries in their countries of origin, and, of course, at European level.

I don’t know about other countries in Europe but in the UK this kind of lobbying just isn’t usually done. We don’t see the relevance of EU parliamentarians in our daily life, funding or strategic priorities. And we don’t often look to our closest neighbours (with the noble exception of the Scandinavians) for examples of innovative and inventive library service delivery – we’re far more likely to look to the anglophone countries overseas. Perhaps this is natural, but we might just be missing a trick.

LIbraries change lives book

(The book I helped write)

I must declare an interest here, I was involved in drafting some of the think piece articles in the publication presented to MEPs at the event, but I learnt a lot through this process:

  1. If you can convince an MEP that public libraries are relevant to their brief and worth talking about, then you can probably convince anyone
  2. You can be ambitious and shout about the difference your library can make to important political priorities, even if it’s not the shiniest, best funded library around
  3. The room lit up when ordinary library users, who were invited to the lunch, shared their stories of how libraries had changed their lives – from the migrant who learnt German at the library and was volunteering to help others, to the unemployed man who joined the job club and is now in full time employment
  4. There are models for community libraries out there in some of the least well off European countries that show just how much can be done with community involvement and good will (more on this in later posts)
  5. Building an amazing library is just the beginning of delivering excellent service – listening to Francine Houben describe her inspiration for the Library of Birmingham was breath-taking – but the way that vision has been demolished by funding cuts following its opening, equally so

Francine houben

(Francine Houben on the inspiration for the Library of Birmingham)

I also heard critiques of this event – that we were talking to the self-selected more ‘friendly’ MEPs and that this kind of lobbying feels too far removed from everyday service delivery.

These may be justified, but what the Reading and Writing Foundation have created is a bank of video case studies and testimonials on Youtube and a digital publication with many of the video protagonists’ stories. These publications focus on key messages and policy areas, which anyone can use or take as a template for their own lobbying activities.

The Reading and Writing Foundation want to start a Europe-wide debate about the value and contribution of public libraries, and that sounds like something worth doing to me.


Printing a new kind of library


If I’ve been quiet recently it’s because I’ve been trying to practise what I preach – and that means we’ve all been working harder than we ever thought possible.

I’ve been working with Carillion in their four library services in London (Croydon, Ealing, Hounslow and Harrow) to develop Creative Work Spaces. These are locally designed creative spaces exploring new ways of learning, playing and working in tandem with traditional libraries.

The fruits of our collective labour finally fell from the tree yesterday evening as we watched our Creative Work Space logo being printed out from two 3D printers generously loaned to Northolt library in Ealing by Ultimaker.

photo 2 (6)


The 3D printers are the nucleus of our community managed and run maker space in that library, which is the start of an inspired project conceived by Fiona Tarn, who works for Carillion’s not-for-profit subsidiary, Cultural Community Solutions. Fiona and her team (shout out to Kieran, Maria and Amy!) have been tirelessly working to get this, and other innovative projects off the ground.

The project has also received support from Locality and the Arts Council to develop its ideas and find out about other inspirational libraries. We have learnt from other exciting maker spaces such as Create Space London in Stonebridge Park and South London Makerspace and become part of a community we didn’t even know existed before via Open Workshops London.

Over the next few weeks Northolt library will acquire new tools and equipment which has been specified by the community group that will be running and managing the maker space. To find out more about the maker space in Northolt and get involved, check out the Meetup page or ask to join the Google group.

But Creative Work Spaces is about more than just putting maker spaces in libraries. It’s about coding clubs, coworking spaces, community engagement and inspiring talks and collaborations with people who are pushing the boundaries of creativity, technology, science and knowledge.

The 3D printer workshop was the first of what we hope will be many thought provoking and interactive engagements between library users, makers and innovators in library spaces across London. If you would like to run a talk or workshop or come along to one, just get in touch via this blog, or twitter @katiepekacar or @hounslowculture. We’d love to hear about your idea.

And how did that logo turn out? Well it’s a work in progress but we’re pretty happy with our first effort…

photo 1 (7)

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:

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:


(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:

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:

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)

Q&A with Robogals London – and why making robots in libraries couldn’t be more obvious


“By partnering with public libraries, Robogals can create a bigger impact in local communities and make more people aware of our programme.” Yuen Lan Chow, President of Robogals London Chapter

Manchester Libraries have been working with Robogals’ Manchester chapter for quite some time now and they put me onto the potential for Robogals to be great partners for public libraries across England.

So on Monday I met up with Yuen Lan Chow, current president of the London chapter of Robogals at Deptford Lounge to find out more about what Robogals is all about and why they’re so keen to work with libraries. Here’s what she told me:

What is Robogals? What’s it all about? Who is it aimed at?

Robogals, a unique student-run organisation was founded in July 2008 with the aim of increasing female participation in engineering, science and technology. This is achieved through fun and educational initiatives aimed at girls in primary and secondary schools.

Mainly, we run an outreach program in which university students volunteer to hold and mentor robotic LEGO workshops, as well as robotic competitions. We also run events and programmes that are around our central aims. For example, we actively involved in a world record-breaking mass robot dance, Robogals Experience Sharing Programme, Robogals Rural and Regional and science fairs.

To date, Robogals has chapters at 21 universities across the world, with 7 of them based in the UK.

Robogals 4

(Image: The Robogals)

Why would you want to spend your free time teaching girls how to make Lego robots?

Because of joining Robogals, I found out about Lego robots. Like most girls, I believed that robots and programming were for boys, so I though it would be hard to make Lego robots when I attended my first Robogals training session. However, I soon realised that I handled it quite well; especially considering I am just a chemistry student and not studying engineering or mathematics.

After I found out more about the aims of Robogals, I told myself that I wanted to teach more girls about Lego robots and share my own experience. I’m willing to give up my time to do this because I feel like I might be able to change a girl’s future through one of our Robogals workshops. 

Robogals 3

(Image: girls putting their creations to the test at a Robogals workshop)

Why is Lego Mindstorm your preferred tool?

Lego Mindstorm includes a central CPU brick that controls the system and a set of components such as sensors, motors and LEGO parts. It is our preferred tool because it comes with lots of variation and it is not hard to learn. Everyone plays with Lego some point in their childhood, so students can get on with the construction straightaway.

The programming consists of a simple, visual interface, which is easy for students to understand as well.  The variations of Lego Mindstorm enable us to design a series of teaching materials with different complexity, so matching the need of students from different age groups. 

Moreover, Lego continues to develop Lego Mindstorm and provides a good support on it, which means we can deliver best workshop to the students.

Robogals 1

(Image: Lego Mindstorm)

What do you think the girls who attend your workshops get out of it?

Our workshops have been designed to engage girls in a range of STEM topics in a way that is fun and creative. And during the workshop our volunteers share their passion and excitement in STEM with the girls. Apart from raising their interest in STEM through the workshop, we hope ‘STEM’ is introduced into girl’s vocabulary, and to create a positive influence against the traditional mindset of STEM as being male-dominated. In the same time, they are informed with the available options of their future career path in STEM area.

Robogals 2

(Image: girls building a Lego Mindstorm robot at a Robogals workshop)  

Why might you be interested in partnering with public libraries (in London)?

For Robogals London chapter, our primary activity is holding campus based robotic workshop for local schools. Although London chapters has taken part in off-campus events in the past, London chapter want to do this more often.  This becomes possible in the partnership with local libraries.

By partnering with public libraries, Robogals can create a bigger impact in local communities and make more people aware of our programme. We are able to deliver our workshops to general public and even reaching girls from minority ethnic background. Moreover, our volunteers also have a unique opportunity to meet different people and develop their transferable skills. 

A window into Augmented Reality: Q&A with Amplified Robot


Amplified Robot partnered with Lewisham Libraries to deliver AR and VR experiences on People’s Day.

This is the start of a series of 1-to-1s I am holding with potential partners for the cultural sector, to help you get a handle on what they do and how they could help you deliver your services.

Why did you get into Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

We originally got into Virtual Reality and  Augmented Reality six years ago by way of the work we do in Visual Effects (VFX) for Film and Television. We saw AR and VR as a natural extension of this work and of course we could see the enormous potential in the fields of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.

How would you describe what you do to someone who knows nothing about it?

That’s always tricky because it is essentially a visual medium, but here goes – An augmented reality system generates a composite view for the user that is the combination of the real scene viewed by the user and the virtual scene overlays generated by the computer/smartphone/tablet that is augmenting the scene with additional visual information. The virtual scene that is generated is designed to enhance the user’s perception of the combination of the real world and virtual world that they are seeing and interacting with. The ultimate goal of Augmented Reality is to create a system in which the user cannot tell the difference between the real world and the virtual augmentation of it.

What’s special about your approach and what are you most proud of?

I think we are primarily a creative company that harnesses technical power and expertise to create compelling work in new media. I am most proud of the team we are building to realise our goal.

What do you see coming up in the future in your field/what are you most excited about? 

We believe that this new media and technology is currently at the beginning of it’s life cycle. If you think of it in terms of the cinema then I feel we are at the black and white film, hand cranked camera, silent  movie stage – so that means there is a long and exciting journey to come! For instance I would very much like to see wearable technologies become integrated into our daily lives as has happened with mobile phones. Ultimately I can see us interacting with Holodecks such as you can see in Star Trek!

How could someone learn to do what you do (e.g. what coding languages are needed, what kind of creative skills)?

For programming, you need basic arithmetic and problem solving skills as this will be your bread and butter. I recommend starting with Java as your first programming language because it has a very clean syntax base. Also training in gaming programing such as Unity.

There is also the more artistic side of visual creation for AR and VR and for that we need people who have skills in painting, drawing, designing and CGI animation. Especially Maya CGI artists.

But most of all you need passion and commitment.

Amplified Robot Team 2(Image: Amplified Robot team)

Why are you keen to work with public libraries (what do they have to offer you, what do you have to offer them)?

We believe that public libraries are ideal places to create hot-spots for people with the right mindset for what Augmented and Virtual Reality has to offer; people who want to learn, broaden their minds and will be encouraged to do so with the help of this new technology. Augmented Reality as a technology hasn’t reached any where near it’s full potential and we’d like people to perceive it as precursor to something even bigger.

photo 3 (Image courtesy of Lewisham Libraries – Amplified Robot in Lewisham Libraries’ Tent on People’s Day)

Where can people find out more about you? 

You can find more information about us from our website From there we have links to our social media; one of them is our YouTube channel where we showcase most of our projects so please check them out!

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)

Why the unconference is the new conference


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)