This was a free event, designed for public librarians and those in the Higher and Further education sectors to share knowledge regarding the library's increasing role in improving the digital literacy of its users. Jane Secker, opening the day's programme, explained how both the IL Group and the Tinder Foundation shared concerns over the digital literacy of the UK public in a landscape where there is increased emphasis to apply for jobs, benefits and pay bills online and yet, according to the UK Digital Inclusion Charter, 11 million people lack basic digital skills. Having spent a lot of time supporting digital literacy in colleges and universities, librarians in the academic sector are in a very good position to be able to share with those working in the public sector what works, what doesn't and can help them save both valuable time and resources.
There were three speakers in the morning and again in the afternoon, followed by themed discussions after each trio had presented. The speakers came from a variety of Universities, myself included, and spoke enthusiastically for ten minutes on topics ranging from a demonstration of Aurasma, as well as Vines, digital footprint workshops, Libguides and big data. I spoke about the social media masterclasses I had set up in my own workplace and what I had learned from them, as well as how they had also been integrated into the subject librarians' digital literacy programme. My ten minutes zoomed by but there was chance for plenty of conversation over lunch and despite the struggles public library staff are facing they seemed genuinely excited and motivated to be there and to be picking up tips they could use.
The discussion tables in the room consisted of a speaker, a facilitator who took notes and then the rest of the attendees moved round in turn. I'd thought initially that we might be discussing the presentations and how they could be utilised in a public library setting; however, we were each given a theme to consider and ours was welfare reform.
Throughout the day, public library staff from Islington, Coventry, Worcester, Lambeth, Hampshire, and Richmond libraries engaged in conversation about how Universal Credit and changes in applications for other benefits, such as Freedom Passes, were affecting their workload. Unanimously, and unsurprisingly, human resources were said to be the main issue staff faced due to an increased demand from users being directed to the Library, not always with the staff members' knowledge, and a lack of skills to deal with the advice users were asking for when filling out the paperwork. I was surprised that very few mentioned a lack of computers and having to charge for pcs because I remember quite clearly when my husband was out of work and we didn't have a computer he hated having to spend money to fill out long application forms on the public library pcs, which would invariably crash as he went to click send!
To deal with the issues, some said they recruited volunteers who signed up to a code of practice, others decided to signpost help rather than refer (and made the distinction between those two terms very clear), and others spoke to services such as the Job Centre to tell them to stop sending people to them and refrain from offering false promises that the Library staff could not possibly fulfil. One Library staff member tried to focus on the positive of more feet through the door can't be bad and adopted a 'let's show them what we have while they are here' approach.
Volunteers, ethics and a trusted brand
The majority of the public library staff there said they were using volunteers to deal with the human resource issues, and this led to a question of responsibilities and the importance of them being provided with oversight, training, and ethics guidance, especially in light of staff possibly being provided with personal information about claimants when helping them to fill out forms. Ethics was also raised as a concern with the arrival of Halifax and Barclay staff providing IT lessons in libraries and how this could potentially tarnish the reputation of a public library as a safe, neutral environment as it becomes associated with corporations and commercial advertising.
While I'm not sure anyone discovered a solution to relieve the turmoil public library staff are experiencing, there did seem to be a lot of hope in the room. Although I keep up to date with what is going on in public libraries and even though my family and I are regular users of several near us, it was nevertheless still enlightening to hear of front line experiences and led me to appreciate even further the effort the staff put in and the motivation they have to provide the best service they can. It felt like a really worthwhile day for me personally as I was asked quite a few questions about what we provide at Brunel University London for students and I was exceptionally pleased to think it had been useful.
I would like to thank the Information Literacy Group and Tinder Foundation for inviting me to this and I hope they continue to work together. Some huge topics were very quickly touched upon on the day and therefore in this blogpost. If you are interested in following up any of the themes mentioned, I would recommend the following links:
Lauren Smith's list of what public library staff do
Ian Anstice's Pros and cons of commercial involvement with libraries
Ian Clark's post asking Why are Barclay's in our libraries?