Questions for Nick Poole

Nick Poole – The Future of Libraries, Access Lab 2020

Obviously, there’s no way of knowing, but do you think the current situation and aftermath will have a negative impact on the footfall through physical libraries?  

The impact is playing out differently in different sectors, but yes – since the generalized prohibition on non-essential movement and travel announced by the Prime Minister, in-person usage has fallen dramatically. However, at almost exactly the same time, some Library Authorities are reporting increases of between 600-700% in new registrations for Public Libraries. It is clear that just because our physical libraries are closed, our services are needed more than ever. This may well be the impetus we have needed for some time now to value digital engagement in libraries on equal terms with physical use.  

Private personalization: librarians often see themselves as advocates and protectors of their users. There is currently some disagreement between libraries and publishers about the data the latter often want to collect and what they actually need to provide access to their products. Simultaneously, users are more used to signing up for personalized services. Can these tensions be resolved to the satisfaction of all?  

CILIP’s view is that the information-and-data-literate user should be informed about and in control of the ways that their data is collected, stored, processed and transacted. We believe that there is a significant risk in the emergence of a data-driven ‘attention economy’ that is opaque to the person who owns their data. There are huge benefits to the user in being able to aggregate data – in terms of personalization, efficiency and added-value. These benefits should not – and do not have to – come at the expense either of their right to privacy or their right to control how their data is used. We believe that there are three significant roles for librarians in this process: 

  • Educating users so that they are informed of and able to control how their data is used 
  • Supporting organizations and businesses to implement policies and systems which put the individual user in control of their own data and 
  • Supporting Government and legislators to bring forward better regulation which protects the rights of the individual to control the use of their data 

What or who do you see as blockers to Libraries adopting new technologies? And how could we overcome those blockers?  

I think there are a wide variety of factors at play here, some of which are external to use as practitioners, and some of which seem to be intrinsic to our behavior as information professionals.  

External factors include risk-aversion in our institutions, limited technical knowledge and confidence among very senior leaders, lack of appropriate budget and resources, the ongoing lure of the ‘shiny new thing’ and the relatively slow pace of our actual turnover of technologies relative to the accelerated pace of the market for new products and solutions.  

Some behaviors which I have observed among information professionals include a huge disparity in the degree to which we are ‘digitally-curious’, ranging from hugely enthusiastic early-adopters right through to active resistance to new tech, sometimes from very senior people in the sector. There is also a concern that we sometimes tend to let “the best be the enemy of the good” – essentially problematizing new technologies to the point where we convince ourselves not to adopt them. Take AI and machine learning for example. There are undoubted ethical risks associated with their use, but most of these stem back either to poor deployment or exploitative business practices. This does not make the technologies themselves inherently problematic – it just means that we need to ensure that they are deployed in a way that is compatible with our professional ethics and the rights of the individual user.  

I think one way we overcome these issues is always to bear in mind our central purpose – to empower people through knowledge and information. Each new technology brings with it new opportunities to fulfill this purpose as well as new potential risks. Our job should be to embrace the technology, get on top of it quickly, help our organizations use it wisely and well and support our users in making the best possible use of it. 

How CILIP will use its influence in further promoting the concept of open access combined with technology to achieve value for money for the UK taxpayers, given that stakeholders are global rather than local?  

Open access is an inversion of an economic and industrial model that is several centuries old, so we ought perhaps not to be surprised that it is taking a fair amount of time to gain significant purchase. Unlike incremental change, which can roll out in different ways across different parts of an ecosystem until it becomes the new ‘norm’, open access requires an ecosystem-wide change in how we understand and transact value. It does none of us much good to over-simplify this proposition – as sometimes happens in conversations about open access. For example, there is an economic truism that ‘quality costs’. You can’t engineer the costs of quality control out of a system entirely, so if our proposition is that these costs need to be distributed differently, then we need to come armed with a clear economic model for how this redistribution can happen (and whether it will be driven by behavior change, consumer choice or regulation).  

Technology is really the minor part of open access, which requires a much more complex change that involves people, policies, business and operational models. I sometimes think that because the capability of technology makes new economic systems viable, it gives the false impression that wholesale change can happen quickly. It’s like having an electric train before you’ve built the tracks.  

I think the single best thing an organization like CILIP can do is actually to create the conditions within which open access can flourish. This means building human infrastructure, relationships and trust. Because the transition to open access will require diverse self-interested actors to make different choices that are in the interest of the whole ecosystem, the best thing we can do is build a cross-industry community that is prepared to do so. So, the short answer is that I think we can do the ‘social engineering’ work that is required to achieve a transition to open access before we start talking about the technological platforms across which the content will run.  

It came as a bit of a shock to me when he prefaced a remark with the rider “those of you old enough to remember the beginning of the web” and then, later, suggested that our profession tends to be panicked by new technologies. Is he perhaps underestimating our capacity to understand and implement new technologies? From my (failing) memory of those days, a lot of us saw the opportunity and were instrumental in building web tools? That happened again with social media, and I think is happening, certainly in health librarianship, with AI.  

I was really quoting a number of key industry figures – particularly from the technology sector – who felt that libraries had lost out in the first generation of structured search online. An abbreviated version of this narrative is that information science did the ‘heavy lifting’ of taxonomies, information architecture, search and retrieval in the early days of the Web, but we foundered when it came to turning this into a consumer-ready proposition – particularly on the points of design, marketing, user experience and – most critically of all – convenience.  

Hence, we designed the early generation of impenetrable web interfaces to library systems which expected the general public to understand Boolean operators while ‘big search’ companies focused as much as possible on masking complexity to create the simplest user experience possible. It isn’t that we don’t understand or know how to implement new technologies, but I have been involved in enough library sector digital projects to know that we aren’t always great at making them nice to use.  

These are generalizations, of course – there are remarkable digital tools developed by and for librarians and information professionals. But I think we have to understand that in a modern age characterized by convenience above almost all else, we need to do the hard work of making systems effective, useful, well-structured and so on, but then put all of this complexity behind a big button that just says “click here”. 

Person with a laptop

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