The Role and Future of Local Libraries

December 11, 2019

When I was working full-time for a large R&D company I hardly ever went to local libraries. After reading a few reviews, I simply bought books from Amazon or similar. Quite often I was disappointed in the book and regretted buying it. This criticism mainly applied to business-oriented books which promoted an attractive-sounding idea or premise but often gave fairly insubstantial evidence to back it up.

However they did communicate or increase awareness of a topic that was usually interesting in its own right and had a certain amount of credibility. This is the name of the game of course, they’re not meant to be academic treatises.

When I worked as an independent consultant and had more time but less money I started venturing into libraries a lot more. Coincidentally my local library also had a significant refurbishment making it a much more pleasant place to use. I found that as I had physical space I wandered into many areas I wouldn’t have otherwise (travel, biography, cookery, health etc) so that was an additional benefit (or admittedly sometimes a procrastinating distraction).

I also ordered books, both for the area libraries (as suggestions) and for more technical items through the interlibrary loan system (which links into university libraries as well). I didn’t want to order a book for £25 only to be disappointed, better to pay £2-3 and study it in depth to see if it was really worth buying (unfortunately this price has now increased dramatically).

Currently I’m moving to London with my partner and need to downsize quite considerably. Over the past 25 years I’ve amassed loads of books. Choosing which ones to keep is tricky but in a way, so long as libraries keep going and developing, also not so important. If I need one again I can just use the library (as ordering a book they already have is cheap).

With this in mind it’s sad to read that due to the austerity cuts the role of libraries is decreasing. From the Guardian this week:

Almost 800 libraries have closed since the Conservative-Lib Dem government implemented austerity in 2010, new figures reveal.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (Cipfa) annual survey of the UK’s libraries, excluding Northern Ireland, shows there are 3,583 library branches still open in the UK – 35 fewer than last year. Since 2010, 773 have closed…

The number of paid librarians has also plummeted. In 2009/2010, the point marking the start of the Tory-led government’s austerity drive, there were 24,000 salaried staff working in libraries. Last year, there were 15,300 employees and more than 51,000 volunteers.

As the number of branches and paid staff have declined, so have library visits: there were 226m visits to libraries over the last year, compared with 315m in 2009/2010.

Also, on an political note:

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson (current UK PM) was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr about library closures, with the prime minister appearing to offload the blame on to local authorities, who have undergone dramatic cuts over the past decade. This year, council leaders warned that one in five councils might have to impose drastic spending controls to avoid bankruptcy…

Finally, Mr Johnson appears to suggest that the country can only afford libraries when there has been an economic recovery. As we have commented time and again, this is a fundamentally misguided policy. By investing in libraries, you create opportunities for education and skills across the country, which in turn creates the conditions for future economic growth.

To be fair, it would be helpful to see some evidence for this rather subtle connection (investment leading to growth) from which some new ideas might emerge on how to bring libraries more into the centre of things.

Finally there’s an interesting view from the author Neil Gaiman:

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

It will be interesting to see what the new UK Government decides on this and other matters after the election tomorrow.


The Weight and Playing for Change

October 18, 2019

Very nice international (5 continents) version of “The Weight”, from the inspiring Playing for Change project.

“Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. Our primary focus is to record and film musicians performing in their natural environments and combine their talents and cultural power in innovative videos we call Songs Around The World.”


The Importance of Taking Breaks

October 17, 2019

I read this remarkable story on GTD Focus:

At some point though, we need to shut it all down, kick back in our metaphorical Barcalounger, and let our minds float off on their own for a while.

Franklin Roosevelt understood this. Throughout his adult life, as Governor of New York to President of the United States – on the day the stock market crashed and the day the Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbour – Roosevelt paused every late afternoon for cocktail hour. He brought together the people working around him, often made the cocktails himself, and paused from the day’s occupation.

On Pearl Harbor day, this pause was between drafting his “Day of Infamy” speech, and his speech to the nation in front of the joint session of Congress he was asking to declare war.

Roosevelt’s best was essential nearly every day of his adult life, and no day more than this one.

Essential to our best is rest and recovery. Roosevelt offers a formidable example of how strength is nurtured and refreshed.

The story vividly illustrates the importance of taking regular breaks (long or short) to relax and refresh. Annoyingly this can happen when you feel you have the very least time for them. Hindsight often reveals that the tasks that seemed so important diminish and the bigger picture appears and it’s then difficult to understand not being able to take a break. A ritual, like Roosevelt’s, might help.

“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” – Dolly Parton


Beauty and Patterns

September 9, 2019

I was interested to read on the School of Life site that one approach to beauty was to classify it as the sweet spot between order and chaos. It’s main thrust was architecture, something that affects us all. Too much order and things look boring whilst a chaotic situation (say a heavily built up main street) can come over as confusing:

“It’s very helpful to think about why we don’t like either boring or chaotic places.  It’s to do with how our brains work. Our brains are all the time searching to find patterns in things and to make sense of what’s going on around us. If something is very, very simple our brains find the pattern immediately and we lose interest. It’s dull and tedious…but if the pattern is too difficult to see – or if there’s no pattern at all – our brains get frustrated and annoyed…but there’s an ideal midway-point between the extreme of too little order and the opposite extreme of too much order.”


Personal Bias

August 28, 2019

“Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works… We’re all biased to our own personal history.” – Morgan Housel


Applications of Complexity

August 23, 2019

I’ve written previously on various aspects of complexity (eg here) as it’s an interest of mine (I did data visualisation in this area quite a while ago when I worked at the IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester, see below).

One post, from 2009, gave an overview poster for the development of the key ideas starting from the 1940-50s and ending at 2009 with Web Science (see below). 

I’ve just checked to see if there is an updated version and here it is (up to 2018):

There’s another recent poster for the techniques used to handle complex systems. I’ve found it helpful to use such perspectives to think through problems (even if you are not an expert in the methods) as they can motivate new insights simply through a fresh way of looking at things.


Delivering Results

August 22, 2019

Interesting tweet from the productivity writer James Clear:

“Results = (Hard Work*Time)^Strategy

Working hard is important, but working on the right thing is more important. A great strategy can deliver exponential results.

Of course, the best strategy is worth nothing if you never get to work. Zero to the millionth power is still zero.”

Note the power law for strategy! So worth reviewing whether other strategies are possible.