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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 17. The People's Network, A Turning Point for Public Libraries

John Pateman

This report by Peter Brophy about the impact of the People's Network on the use of public libraries makes some rather large claims.

"A quiet taking place in cities, towns and villages across the UK."

"Lives are being changed for the better in many different ways."

"Communities are enriched and social barriers are breached."

Unfortunately there is not much evidence of this actually happening in this scanty (20 page) report. There is much wishful thinking but not enough evidence to suggest that "particular weight (is) being given to the needs of groups of people who have to date been under represented as Internet users".

Given that the People's Network is funded by the Government on the basis that libraries will provide free access to the Internet, it is somewhat surprising to be told that "in 80% of public libraries... Internet access is free". What about the other 20%? How much are they charging and what for?

On a relatively small sample (86 out of 210 public library authorities) we are told that up to 80% of People's Network users have never before used the Internet and people who had stopped going to the public library have been attracted back for the following reasons:

  • Learning - we are told that library staff are very encouraging and approachable in all respects and that libraries have a friendly helpful atmosphere. This has not been borne out by other research such as Open to All? Public Libraries and Social Exclusion. (Resource, 2000)
  • Finding work
  • Personal identity - This report is obsessed with age "Mrs V at the age of 90 is our oldest lady client"; "One 91 year old man came into a public library in Sussex"; "(One user) is 72 and until recently has never clicked a mouse"; "X, age 60, and recovering alcoholic, had never touched a computer in his life". Why should it be such a surprise that old people want to learn a new skill?
  • Community enrichment
  • Social Inclusion - In terms of social exclusion (not inclusion!) the emphasis is entirely on disability. It seems that installing screen magnification, text to speech output and alternatives to standard mouse and keyboard are the extent of most library efforts to tackle social exclusion using the People's Network.
  • Culture and creativity
  • A key question is whether or not new users are being attracted by the new facilities. There is a well-established correlation between ownership of a computer and social class. The report states that "although there is as yet no conclusive statistical evidence, there are indications that the People's Network is attracting individuals from these segments (social grades D and E) of the population". The question needs to be asked whether and how library authorities are gathering information regarding use of the People's Network by social class and how they are targeting and managing the Network to maximise use by socially excluded groups and individuals.

    In terms of use and access policy there is much emphasis placed on "misuse of Internet access" and how offenders should be "caught and dealt with immediately". It seems that librarians are using Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) to police what people can see on the Internet. Approximately 75% of authorities have also installed filtering software to prevent access to "unsuitable material, and a number have taken a walled garden approach as far as young people are concerned - this in effect gives access to selected sites rather than to the whole Internet".

    Predominantly white middle class librarians are deciding who can see what on the Internet, in the same way that they decide who can read which books. This creates a two tier service - Middle Class users who have the Internet at home can look at any sites they like; Working Class users who use the People's Network only have selected access to Internet websites.

    Woe betide those Internet users who contravene the AUP. A typical policy states "users are warned the first time anything unsuitable is accessed, banned for a month if caught for a second time and banned for at least 6 months if it happens again. In extreme cases the police would be informed". Are these draconian policies really going to encourage widespread use of the People's Network?

    The People's Network is being presented as a turning point for public libraries. It certainly has the potential to do this "through a combination of clear vision, innovation, appropriate investment and strategic management". Whether this is happening is another question and another assessment of the impact of the People's Network should be carried out to a evaluate whether it truly is "reaching into parts of society which have until now been by passed or at the very least under represented... (and is)... removing the barriers to participation in the information society".


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