Pushing the boundaries of public service delivery at Edge 2013

Edge logoOver two beautiful almost-spring days on 28th February and 1st March around 150 members the library community met in Edinburgh for the 2013 Edge conference, organised by a team of staff from Edinburgh Council Libraries and Information Services led by Liz McGettigan. Although the delegate list largely comprised the names of senior members of UK public librarians, in his opening address Councillor Richard Lewis also welcomed library staff of all career stages from as far afield as Norway, Nashville and New York to the conference. Also in attendance were some other key players in library services delivery, such as senior council staff and representatives from supplier firms. The excellent line-up of speakers brought practitioners, policy makers and commentators to the podium, all with much to say about the future of public services.

Panorama of the city of Edinburgh

Thursday 28th February was a fine almost-spring day in Edinburgh

Last year my work commitments meant that my engagement with the conference was limited to the Thursday evening. This year, however, I was lucky enough to attend the whole event, including the associated exhibition and conference dinner at the Roxburghe Hotel, Edinburgh.

The conference took a traditional format with a packed programme of short talks of up to 25 minutes in length presented in plenary. The presentations covered a number of topics, all of which related to improved services provision. In some cases, for example library partnerships, these could easily be identified in advance by checking the conference programme. Others emerged over the course of the two days. For example, there was an interesting debate on the future of libraries as distinct from what will become of the publishing industry and books, which carried over from the conference hall to the conversations in the networking breaks and at the conference dinner. Similarly Paul McNeill’s very personal story of dyslexia prompted much personal reflection and group discussion at the end of the first day.

Ramsey Geddes

Edge2013 welcomed delegates from all career stages: 19 year-old Ramsey Geddes is a Modern Apprentice

Three conference chairs orchestrated the proceedings around three half-day themes: (1) the physical – investing in infrastructure: (2) the social – better together; and (3) the digital – it’s time for the future. Jonathan Guthrie of City of Edinburgh Council was first to chair on the Thursday morning. He invited tough questions for the speakers at the panel sessions that concluded each of the sets of three presentations. Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of CILIP, used her opportunity on stage the same afternoon to urge audience members to consider their part in a move from service delivery based around transactions to an environment where libraries are seen as collaborative spaces for interactions. Graham Coult, editor of Managing Information, played his role as chair on the second day with his characteristic sense of humour, at one point summoning up last year’s Edge dinner speaker Mary Queen of Scots (photographed here for the Library and Information Science Research Coalition blog), much to the surprise of the delegates.

The best speakers in the main sessions not only described innovative practice, but also framed their material so that the impact of this work was made obvious. By sharing lessons learnt in this way they made it possible for those who wished to apply this learning to do so in their own professional settings. Jim Thompson achieved this to good effect on day two of the conference as he explained the digital library strategy in Edinburgh, and Marshall Breeding gave plenty of pointers for delegates to follow up post-conference, including the link to his Library Technology website (which attracts over two million hits a month – a few more than http://hazelhall.org!) It was clear that many of the presenters could have held the audience’s attention for much longer than their allocated slots. For example, although James Murdock covered an astonishing array of service developments in his 20 minutes, it was obvious that there was so much more to learn from the innovative practice at New York Public Library.

I enjoyed most the excellent thought-provoking talks by Bill Thompson of the BBC Archive Development and Richard Watson of Strategy Insight. Thompson focused on our relationship with text and the place of reading in a world where digital becomes the default format, and questioned what the Internet might be doing to our brains (see, for example the article Is Google making us stupid?). You can read more about Bill Thompson and his work on his blog: I have to say how delighted I was on browsing through his posts to discover that Bill has bought into the pledge to serve only on conference panels where there is a gender balance.

Edge2013 panel

Bill Thompson answers a question asked of one of the Edge2013 panels

Watson’s talk discussed the implications of the The bookend scenarios project which set out to uncover the possible futures for New South Wales public library services in 2030. He drew attention to the importance of the word “public” in the term “public libraries” to highlight the broad value of the services that they offer. He also argued that society should start paying attention to what people put into their heads in the same way that it is concerned with what enters their mouths, and recommended The library book as an excellent celebration of libraries.

The content of these two presentations fitted well with others that considered the future of public libraries – particularly those of Brian Gambles (Birmingham) and Neil MacInnes (Manchester) – which gave a sense of how major transformations can open up the library services both physically and intellectually. Equally the talks that outlined specific initiatives – such as the Glasgow MacMillan partnership, South Lanarkshire’s library service within the Blackwood and Kirkmuirhill community wing, the award-winning Skipton Rewind Songwriter’s Club, the neighbourhood partnerships within Edinburgh, and the Reading Agency’s Myhealthylibrary project – confirmed the core role of public libraries in supporting communities. Richard Watson’s suggestion that if libraries didn’t exist there would be a need to invent them rang true as each of these speakers related the impact of their work on the user groups that they serve.

Several of the presenters spoke about the broader context in which public library services operate. Early on the first day, for example, Rory Mair of COSLA emphasised how the work of public libraries needs to be very obviously hard-wired to government targets, especially given that future investment in public services will follow outcomes rather than services per se. He advised library staff to go beyond championing the impact and value of what they do, to become the “gigolos and escorts of public service”, i.e. the people that others would like to be seen out and about with. He envisaged a key role for libraries in stemming the need for expensive failure-led services provision.

The slow motion “car crash” that is welfare reform came up in several sessions. Speakers such as Alan Sinclair, who is Welfare Reform Manager for City of Edinburgh Council, predicted that increased hardship will put further pressure on local authority services, and bemoaned the difficulties of planning for this due to the shifting timescales for the reforms. Public library services expect even greater demand for online access when the reforms come into force, yet the level of investment to support this has not been forthcoming. Conference organiser Liz McGettigan made a call for the Department for Work and Pensions to allocate funds to public library services following the model used for the People’s Network as a means of preparing to support some of the most vulnerable in society – many of whom have very little, if any, experience in using computers – in navigating the new welfare landscape.

A further stream of conference debate centred on the future UK digital infrastructure. Mike Neilson, Director for Digital at the Scottish Government, spoke on the efforts to ensure that the country is well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital age with reference to Scotland’s Digital Dialogue. Natasha Innocent of Broadband Delivery UK argued the case for libraries to run the citizen strand of broadband delivery by providing digital champions and a place for business to connect. She pointed out that as well as the requirement for physical infrastructure, there needs to be provision to build skills for digital capability amongst the population at large. This human element could be provided through the public library service.

In addition to offering opportunities for learning and networking, the conference celebrated the achievements of colleagues whose work demonstrates excellence in innovative library and information practice: the Edge awards were presented at the conference dinner.

The Edge 2013 team

The Edge 2013 team members: Grainne Crawford, Ian Kirby, Liz McGettigan, Gaynor Bowers, Sarah Forteath, Paul McCloskey and Jim Thompson

As well as congratulating the award winners, thanks are due to those who brought everyone together for a very productive conference, especially Liz McGettigan’s team in Edinburgh and the sponsors.

McGettigan ended the event with a call for delegates to keep learning, keep sharing and to return next year. On the basis of the success of the 2013 event, I am sure that many of this year’s delegates have already started planning their trip to Edinburgh and Edge 2014.

For further information about Edge2013, please see the conference web site. For a flavour of the conference Twitter back channel and more photographs, please see the blog post by James Hargrave of Suffolk Libraries.

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