Questioning the future of the written word

Something this weekend reminded me of the time I was too lazy to transcribe the builder’s order for materials and just scanned the plank he’d been writing on, so I could email it to the merchants.

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Later, I was talking to my friend David, who teaches at a university. These days, student papers are submitted and marked electronically. That won’t surprise you, I’m sure, but what impressed me was that David delivers his marks and feedback as audio files which the students can then listen to when they get their grades.

The students have responded positively to the audio feedback, and David finds it more efficient, too. He reads the paper once, then goes back through it dictating into his phone. Not only does he get the work done in less time, but it helps him to highlight the reading experience to his students: “By the time I get to this point in the essay, I’m lost, because you haven’t established your argument on the preceding pages.”

Another friend who works in a senior academic role refuses to give book reports in written form; instead, he will mark out two hours of his time and take editors and publishers through his comments orally, over the phone. It saves time, means he can work from his notes, and enables them to question him or seek clarification as they go.

Attendees working on tasks for Matt's workshop at the Royal Dutch Library

Earlier this month, I was leading an event for the Royal Dutch Library of the Netherlands exploring the future of our relationship to the written word. We pondered how new technologies and their social impact might affect this relationship, including developments in machine recognition of text and speech.

“If voice recognition and machine transcription were perfect,” we asked, “what would we gain? What would we lose?”

One of the first responses was immediate and positive. “No one would ever have to take minutes in a meeting again.”

We then started to explore issues around archiving and preservation, disability and accessibility, and division between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Such explorations formed the basis of our event’s opening activity, which encouraged participants to challenge their thinking about the future, rather than resting on the assumptions of the past. It’s part of an ongoing project at the library to develop a space which explores the Netherlands’ relationship to the written word.

The 1954 "Groene Boekje" guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
The 1954 “Groene Boekje” guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

This is particularly interesting in a Dutch context, because the Dutch language is regulated by an international treaty which seeks to maintain consistency between use in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname.

The Dutch Language Union puts out a regular publication, the “Green Book”, which includes official spellings for all Dutch words. However, another publication – the “White Book” – suggests alternative rules which some Dutch publishers and firms have preferred to follow. (The official spelling reform of 2015 was particularly controversial).

 

 

 

All of this dispute, debate, and linguistic politics provided rich pickings for a group of Dutch culture and information professionals trying to imagine a library space devoted to the future of the written word in the heart of Den Haag.

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From speech recognition to linguistic treaties, graffiti and doodles, hate speech and ‘fake news’, the value of fan fiction, battles over privacy, piracy, and copyright, and the political power of the written word, there’s so much to be discussed when we imagine the future of reading and writing.

If you’d like to contemplate some of the questions we asked ourselves, you can read them in this PDF download.

Perspectiva colaborativa en las bibliotecas: Challenges & opportunities for Spain

Poster for the "perspectiva colaborativa" event in Spain, showing scissors and a silhouette of a human head full of gears on a cutting board

Courtesy of the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport, plus the Ubik Tabakalera library in San Sebastian, I’ll be joining librarians, architects, culture professionals, and other stakeholders in the future of public libraries for a one-day workshop exploring challenges & opportunities in community collaboration.

What does it mean for these institutions to join forces with organisations, institutions, businesses, non-profit entities, users and potential users, when designing & delivering the services of the future?

How might libraries serve as spaces of collective creation & learning, and how would this service relate to their traditional mission and brand?

How could awareness of the wider transactional and contextual environment affect the way libraries define and negotiate their own future?

I’ll be joined by librarians from across southern Europe to explore these issues in an open, participatory, multidisciplinary format. In addition, our host venue is Ubik Tabakalera, one of the most fascinating public libraries in Europe, headed by the fiercely impressive Arantza Mariskal.

Spanish speakers who love their library and want to help shape its future should join us  in the Basque Country on 30th May for a day of discussion and debate.

Read more at the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport’s website.

Toronto iSchool, 6-7 June: Learning to Plan on Library Island

We can’t predict the future, yet we do it all the time. We have to: there are objectives to be set and met, projects to be devised and delivered, holidays to be booked, birthdays to celebrate, mouths to be fed, children to raise, dreams to be fulfilled.

Sometimes people and organisations anticipate the future based on what has gone before – but then we risk being blindsided by social and sectoral changes, financial crises, political upsets, natural disasters, and complex systemic challenges.

So, how do we prepare for futures characterised by turbulence and uncertainty?

What methods help information professionals to develop foresight, insight, and awareness that will support decisions made for their communities, teams, and institutions?

Welcome to Library Island.

This June, visit the University of Toronto’s iSchool – “Learning to Plan on Library Island” – to develop skills and awareness which will help you to deal effectively with potential threats, opportunities, and challenges.

This two-day event will feature speakers including Peter Morville, author of Planning for Everything; Stephen Abram of Lighthouse Consulting; and Rebecca Jones & Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones. I’ll also be there to offer insights gathered from information professionals working with institutions, communities, and businesses around the world.

Experienced consultants and leaders in the information profession will share planning tips, tricks, and methodologies. Participants will explore and experiment with new ways to develop their strategy, vision, and mission, including sessions of the Library Island play-based activity.

It’ll be provocative, inspiring, practical, challenging, and fun. Visit http://www.thefutureoflibraries.org to see more about this June’s University of Toronto iSchool – we’d love to see you there.

Traditional games, digital spaces: USQ + Queensland Museum Network

In 2017, I spent six months developing special community engagement projects for the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

I had a wide remit to find new ways to connect with the local community, pilot external partnerships, and encourage innovation in line with a new service model being rolled out across the university’s Scholarly and Information Services division (SILS).

During that time, among other projects, Dr. Kate Davis and I won & delivered the division’s first external tender; SILS partnered with the university’s radio school to pilot podcasts bringing together academic experts, artists, and professionals from across Australia; and we joined forces with Ann Arbor District Library in the US to offer coaching & professional development.

This week saw the announcement of another project coming to fruition: a partnership between staff on the university’s Toowoomba campus and Cobb+Co Museum, the local site of the Queensland Museum Network.

Cobb+Co’s Learning Officer Tony Coonan worked with SILS’ Zoe Lynch and Shane Gadsby to develop a browser-based version of Burguu Matya, a traditional game attributed to the Wiradjuri people.

The game had been available to play in physical form at Cobb+Co’s Binangar Gallery, dedicated to Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Zoe and her team of media designers, invited to explore external partnerships, proposed developing an online version which could be played on devices both within the museum and statewide.

The successful small-scale pilot tested the SILS in-house media design team’s capacity for work with external clients,  strengthened relationships between the university and its local community, and explored the opportunities for USQ to enrich the cultural and learning offer for both the people of Toowoomba and users of the wider Queensland Museum Network. The future relationship between the university and the museum will be structured and enhanced by a memo of understanding.

You can read more about the project at the USQ website.

#MyLibraryMyStory: Strengthening Communities in Times of Crisis

National Library Week starts today in the US, and this year the American Library Association is asking people how their library makes their community stronger, using the hashtag #MyLibraryMyStory.

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There are countless ways in which libraries, by providing access to information, knowledge, and culture on the community’s own terms, strengthen neighbourhoods, institutions, businesses, schools, towns, cities, states, and entire nations. But you never realise just how much a library strengthens your community until disaster strikes.

In Ferguson, Missouri, it was the library’s acclaimed response to a period of civil unrest which made headlines around the world. When local schools closed, Scott Bonner and his team made a safe space for children in the community – they even carried on their lessons, thanks to the efforts of teachers who volunteered their time.

In Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, the libraries made sterling efforts in the wake of a series of devastating earthquakes; more recently, the same city faced crisis once again after a horrific shooting, and once more, librarians found their spaces pressed into service, providing safety and refuge for the community.

When crisis strikes, organisations can sometimes flounder: unexpected threats can cause fuzzy thinking, emotional responses, or injudicious implementation of rehearsed responses to disaster. In the worst case scenarios, ill-considered efforts to mitigate or resolve a disaster can exacerbate the situation – most famously with the reactor incident at Three Mile Island.

Yet crises also offer possibilities to learn, adapt, and renew the institution’s mission and value for the community it serves. In the case of Ferguson, Christchurch, and many other communities facing different forms of crisis, libraries have demonstrated exactly how they make their communities stronger, even when “business as usual” has broken down.

That might mean offering storytimes to comfort the children of shocked and traumatised families.

Leaving wifi on in abandoned buildings to enable people to obtain information, or communicate with their loved ones.

Protecting valued heritage collections from the effects of disaster, or documenting and acquiring new materials to record the crisis itself for posterity.

Libraries have even been known to offer guides to others affected by a disaster in how to preserve or restore their damaged belongings, as the State Library of Queensland has done when floods strike their state.

As part of the #UKLibchat discussion on social media this month, we explored some of the ways in which libraries deal with disaster, risk, and impending crisis. You can see some highlights and further reading gathered in this Twitter moment.

When disaster strikes, a community’s resilience is tested. Libraries, as information institutions serving a wide range of needs in communities large and small, public and professional, general and specialised, are powerful actors offering safety, continuity, and comfort in the times of gravest crisis.

No library service seeks to be tested in the way those of cities like Christchurch and Ferguson have been, but in such moments, hidden aspects of libraries’ social role are made starkly manifest, offering lessons for us all.

That’s why #MyLibraryMyStory is dedicated to information professionals who have been tested by crisis, and who stood strong for their community.

Workshop at the KB Atelier

This week I led a workshop at the Royal Library of the Netherlands in the Hague (it’s called the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, or KB, in Dutch).

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Just over thirty professionals from the library, archive, museum, and education sectors gathered to help the organisation develop its concept for the KB Atelier.

This will be a space for exploring, experimenting, and co-designing new formats for public engagement at the KB. The Atelier is in the business of finding fresh & valuable ways to celebrate and investigate the power of the written word for the 21st century, in collaboration with partners old and new.

I designed the workshop for Erik Boekesteijn and the brilliant team of KB staff assigned to this project, aiming to inspire debate, capture bright ideas, and build a community of interest and practice for further development of the Atelier concept.

The session combined design thinking tools and customised activities with elements designed to provoke debate about the future of our relationship to the written word.

The future is a difficult space for institutions – hard to predict or foresee, impossible to gather evidence from – and it was thrilling to challenge some of the Netherlands’ brightest cultural-sector minds as they contemplated possible futures for the written Dutch language.

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The session served to illuminate the landscape through which the Atelier might take KB’s visitors and staff on future journeys. Now the business begins of designing and building the roads and bridges which will traverse that landscape.

Watch this space for more developments at the KB.

Play Without Limits: The “Immeasurable” Value of Libraries

I’m presenting today to Portugal’s [Re]Pensar conference, an event for public librarians to reimagine their services, with a focus on gaming and maker technology.

You can listen to the presentation via YouTube above, or read the text (PDF download) here.

#NotEnoughSciFi: A dream who’s trying to save us

Are you watching Fleabag? I love Fleabag. The first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sitcom was so exquisite and complete, I could hardly believe there would ever be a follow-up. And yet – Fleabag series two is here.

I love the show for its mix of comedy, desperation, and sheer social awkwardness, all born of a radical honesty about the things we usually keep to ourselves.

One way that Fleabag discloses these hidden thoughts is by the lead character’s asides to camera – a televisual evolution from the play in which she originally appeared, a one-woman show where the character confessed all to her audience.

Read more