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.

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