Thursday, 29 September 2011

The future silver age of public libraries and their arch enemy Moore's Law

Earlier today a librarian activist who I follow on twitter was being dismissive of the phone box library phenomenon. I have a soft spot for them.

Several months ago, I don't recall whether it was before of after I started blogging regularly about new phone box libraries, but I was having some kind of online exchange with the librarian activist. She was lamenting the growing number of library closures, and I asked if ever there was a golden age of new libraries being built. I don't recall the answer, but the number of libraries in the UK has been in decline for decades.

I'm hopeful that its not going to decline for ever.

Right now, our elected officials and professionals employed for the purpose of providing libraries are failing, libraries are closing. The total number of libraries will bottom out and then begin to rise again. But at some point between now and the flying car and rocket pack future, there will be a new silver age of libraries being built and opened.

Trying to visualise what these libraries of the future is a difficult task, I don't know what they'll look like, it may be fleets of mobile library buses, or plastic dome-shaped prefab units, with moulded desks and shelves, staffed by a catbot terminal like Emma, or a ubiquitous chain of high street shop/libraries run commercially and owned by the state like the Tote betting shops.

But one thing I'm pretty sure of is that they won't be computery technology centres. I've got a theory:-

Moore's Law is the Enemy of the Public Library!!!

Let me remind you, Moore's Law is that one about computing power doubling every eighteen months/two years. For £100 of computer memory now, in two years you'll be able to buy twice as much, a £1000 computer this year is twice as powerful/fast as a £1000 computer from two years ago.

Its not just cutting edge computers, its independent of price point. Bastard Bob's budget computer's are affected too, a £200 net book from two years back is about half as good as a brand new one.

Look at mobile phones, Amazon Kindle, its the same unstoppable progression of technology. And its exponential.

The other week there was a quotation on the internet about how a three-term prime minister will leave office with a mobile phone 64 times more powerful than the one they came into office with. And "it isn't possible with current technology" is no longer an excuse for not doing something, you just have to wait for a few years.

In the Amazon fire launch the other day there was a slide about how the Amazon original homepage from 1994 was about 40Kb of memory, and now its about 800Kb. A ten year old computer would struggle to run modern HTML5 webpages, a twenty year old computer probably wouldn't load them at all.

At some point the diminishing power of old computers gets dangerous. For example in 1984, the BBC, Acorn computers and the European Comission created the BBC Domesday Project, a survey of Britain in computer form, stored on laser disk that ran on special software on BBC Acorn computers and a specially made laser disk player. They were installed in libraries and schools.

Within three years the laser disks were scratched and wouldn't work well, the guy who knew how to use it would have moved to another job. Twenty years later it took another BBC project to un-encrypt all the locked down data in archaic data formats.

Another example is Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6. Still widely in use, governments across the world have issued warning about security vulnerablities in it and urged everyone to upgrade or use alternative web browsers.

If someone's working on a thing on a computer in a library, and wants to carry the data home with them, what format should the computer be kitted with? Floppy disk, 5.25", 3.5", 3", Zip drive, burn to CD, DVD, memory card, usb drive, save to their own 'library hard disk folder', bluetooth it to a smartphone, google drive, or send it into the cloud? What do you do, accept the short-comings or spend whatever the start up cost was every five years to replace the portable storage media?

So in this future silver age of new public libraries being built, would investors in libraries build computery ones, knowing their cutting edge technology will need replacing every five to ten years?

I doubt it.

Whatever the initial investment is, they're going to have to constantly re-invest to keep the library great, and they can't ever stop.

Only fast buck fly-by-night charlatans would invest in things like that.

In the old village library of my youth, there was a wonderful book on origami, long out of print and forgotten by most library users. It was about thirty years old, but contained some of the most elegant and ingenious works of origami in it's pages. Libraries are great for old books.

Take classics such as War and Peace, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice. A decent hard back copy could last for decades. Sure the cover will need reattaching every few years and maybe book rebound if pages start falling out, but with a bit of care, the books will last for lifetimes.

Anyhoo, back to phone box libraries. I don't know if they are the future silver age of new libraries. What I do know is that whilst brick and mortar public libraries are being closes and centralised, the phone box libraries are springing up in tiny villages across England at an increasing rate.

Their take up has been propelled by BT's adopt a kiosk scheme, where local communities can buy a red K6 phone box for £1 and use it however they like.

They are a low cost, low maintenance, easily maintainable unit, and as the case of the Coed-y-Paen box confirms, strangely resilient to crime. Within a fortnight of all the books being looted by thieves, the community had restocked it and it was back in use. Their size is entirely appropriate for the tiny villages and hamlets which have employed them to date. They don't require specially bred midget librarians, in fact the villages seem to manage quite with them run by locals without the need for specially trained librarians at all.

Most likely such a model wouldn't work for larger towns and cities with greater densities of library users. But, like the Boris Bike scheme in London, a vast distributed book swap scheme with clusters of local units isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination.

Elsewhere I have documented twenty four of these phone boxes, finding new ones now at a rate of three a month. The phone box library sector is one part of the public library sector which is growing.  BT have sold around 1,500 phone boxes since the scheme started two years ago, and I'm certain that far more than twenty four have been turned into libraries, its just a matter of finding them.

Library in a Phone Box #24 Arkesden, Essex

The Saffron Walden News reports on the opening of a new phone box library in the Village of Arkesden near Saffron Walden in Essex:-
Telephone box walk-in libraries are becoming all the rage as another one pops up in our region.
The unusual High Street accessory was featured last week at Henhan and now villagers in Arkesden are enjoying their newly-acquired collection of books.

BT asked for a donation of £1 to purchase decommissioned phone boxes, which Arkesden Parish Council took them up on earlier this year.

The council then invited residents to decide on a new use for the iconic red box.
Suggestions included a shower, parcel collection box, local information point, history archive, tea stop (with kettle and provisions), art gallery and an honesty grocery shop.

But it was Arkesden resident and mum-of-three, Jemma Macfadyen’s winning library idea that was voted the most popular and usable.

She has since moved temporarily abroad with her family, but thanks to her idea, villagers can now borrow books anytime, day or night and replenish the library with unwanted books from home.
Cllr Jane Chetcuti, from Arkesden Parish Council, said: “Unfortunately, the traditional red phone box has become redundant in modern Britain.

“BT’s great idea for councils to adopt local kiosks not only saves the iconic red box from extinction but also enhances communities.

“Jemma Macfadyen’s book exchange idea provides a lovely focal point where people can meet and swap books they have enjoyed.”

Children's books are also available and a notebook is provided to encourage book reviews and comments.

Beti Newton, ex-postmistress in Arkesden, who has lived next to the phone box for 37 years said: “I used to be paid 50p to clean it every week!

“The library is such a lovely idea and very well-used. I borrowed a book, recommended to me by a friend, just this weekend.”
Looks like a fine example of a four shelf phone box library, although the shelves are less full than other examples with no stacking on top.

After discussing matters with a few acquaintances, I feel I should point out that I have never bought a red phone box from BT, given it a fresh lick of paint, installed shelves, filled it with books and painted on a sign that says "Phone box Library".

However dozens of other people across the UK have done for various reasons, and I'm not such a self-righteous, pompous and condescending prick to tell them that they are wrong, these things are not "libraries", and how dare they use that word for a glorified book-swap, take it down at once, return those books to their private homes and leave public access book exchange facilities to trained professionals and elected officials who clearly and demonstrably know better than village-dwelling little people.

If the patrons of the phone box libraries wish to refer to them as phone box libraries, then that is fine with me.

Forsooth, there have never been public libraries in the villages Thruxton, Cowlinge, Haybridge
and Little Shelford. But now there is at least one structure that bears the word "library".

The existence red phone box libraries, swear down, are not and have never been a reason to close public libraries, or to justify their closure, or excuse their closure, or mitigate their closure, they are merely a serendipitous parochial reaction to the availability of redundant red phone boxes.

Perhaps I'm wrong, The Saffron Walden News, The South Wales Argus, The Warrington Guardian and the BBC too, perhaps we should not be reporting on such trivial matters.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Library in a Phone Box #9 Staplehay, Somerset

Its not often I find myself driving round the 'west country', so whenever I am there, I try to take advantage of the situation and visit as many phone box libraries as I can.

I was on the A5, heading north, and put Staplehay into my sat nav thing. It took us off at junction 26, then on a bit of an adventure through windy country roads when I could have just headed to Taunton and the town of Trull. Anyhoo, we emerged into Staplehay, pulled up at The Crown Inn, and before me stood the mighty Staplehay Book and Info Exchange.

There's four shelves packed with books, and more stacked on top, children's books in a box on the floor with a selection of larger books. Around 150 books in total I reckon.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Library in a Phone Box #23 Haybridge, Wells

Found this one on the way to Wookey Hole, Haybridge is the village just before you get there. Its little more than a street with a few houses and some kind of works depot on the other side, anyhoo, when I spotted a phonebox I hadn't seen before I had to stop and get my camera out.

Its a dusty looking phonebox, still awaiting a fresh lick of paint, but it had a rather fine collection of books, four shelves of a custom-made bookcase, bolted on where the phone used to be. Around a hundred books, with children well-catered for.

Haybridge is about three villages east of Westbury-sub-Mendip, which let me remind you, was the first documented phonebox library. Although when I drove through Westbury, I could see no phone box.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Library in a Phone Box #22 Coed-y-Paen, Gwent

Disaster for the library in a phonebox movement as the South Wale Argus brings us news that thieves have robbed the Coed-y-Paen phonebox of almost its entire stock:-
THIEVES stole 100 books from an old fashioned red phone box which Gwent villagers had converted into their own honesty library.

Coed-y-Paen community council paid BT £1 for the box, installed shelves and filled it with around 100 books donated by villagers as they do not have a library or a bus service to get to one.

But thieves cleaned out the phone box in the middle of the night, stealing all the books - except one, Alan Titchmarsh's autobiography Trowel and Error.

Hilary Jones, 47, a member of Coed-y-Paen's residents' association, said: "Why would anybody need to do that? There's no point to it."


But thieves struck last weekend and cleaned the phone box out - a church warden walked past the phone box at around 11.15pm on August 26 and saw the books were still there, but they had been taken by 8.15am on August 27.

Mrs Jones said: "We were really pleased it was getting used, it's always nice to do something that everybody thinks is a good idea. I think the whole village has been saddened by this theft but we are restocking our shelves at the moment, we won't be put off by this."

The villagers are currently refilling the shelves and have around 25 books so far.

It doesn't make sense, thieves stealing secondhand books?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Library in a Phone Box #21 Box, Gloucestershire

Crikey, pimped on the front page of the BBC news website the other day was a story about a phone box library in the village of Box in Gloucestershire, near Stroud. This marks the BBC news's website's tenth phone box library story, and the twenty-first I've clocked in the UK.

Apparently it was inspired by a story on The Archers, I must have missed that one. Anyhoo, it seems to be have been driven by the villagers rather than forced on them by the council. There's a nice quote too from Carolyn Dolan, the villager who's idea it was.
Like all these things the novelty might wear off but at the moment it is being used.
Going by the photo on the BBC website it contains a small three-shelf unit (small Ikea Billy model) and a potted plant, the article reports that the library has around 40 books, which is a bit small compared to the other phone box libraries covered previously on this site.

Elsewhere on the internet, in my old stamping ground of Bolton there's are bit of furore, the council are proposing that to soften the blow of closing a third the local libraries, they're to have ‘Neighbourhood Book Collections’, 300 or so books at local locations.

Ian McHugh, a spokesman from the Save Bolton Libraries campaign says:-
Local people need a proper library service, not a small pile of books in the corner of a community centre.
I think this is an interesting counterpoint to the phonebox library phenomenom, councils can't afford to run full-scale libraries with books, internet access and quiet areas, and librarians are dismissive of some of the alternatives, in the mean time civilians are putting together their own solutions.