Why we should close libraries

Recently there was a House of Lords debate on the role of libraries and independent bookshops, with Lord Bird – founder of the Big Issue – warning Government that if they keep closing libraries they’ll have to build more prisons and homeless shelters.

Libraries, added Baroness Rebuck, Labour peer and chair of Penguin Random House publishing group, are a bedrock of social mobility and social cohesion, and should be seen as key community centres, where alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services.

I agree with the view that we must protect essential services, knowledge and education for those most disadvantaged in our communities. I agree there is a wider, long term impact if we don’t.  

I don’t agree that libraries should receive an automatic ‘get out of austerity free’ card, merely on the grounds of being libraries.

The thing is, that this ‘community’ role is not in fact part of libraries’ official statutory duties. Not all of them are living up to it. But all of them are taking credit for it.

Furthermore, I need to point out that knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction, are found online. I would go as far as to say that talking about bookshops in the same breath as libraries is particularly unhelpful. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community.

In my view, libraries need to work beyond books to really become the community hubs Baroness Rebuck already gives them credit for being. They should be about social inclusion, providing learning and training opportunities to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Digital skills and digital inclusion are now a vital part of that remit – and it’s a part that was curiously missing from the Lord’s debate.

Some libraries are doing an amazing job of supporting the needs of their community, using digital and other means to engage and empower excluded and vulnerable groups. They’re working closely with Jobcentres, Citizens Advice Bureaux, GPs, social and sheltered housing organisations, faith groups, community centres and charities. They’re offering digital skills, jobs clubs, hosting community workshops, mother and toddler groups, school programmes, local history exhibitions and much, much more.

These, these are the community hubs. Online, offline, on the ground, in real life.

Other libraries are not.

They are insular, don’t integrate with other community groups or services, barely integrate with the council that runs them, and have a cultural resistance to change or modification. These libraries, I believe, deserve to close. I understand that change at a micro level in isolation is very hard. But the fact is these are organisations that have now consistently failed to make the most of the considerable advantage of their position and long-term funding.

From my perspective, it’s time this long-term funding should be channeled to the libraries – and other community organisations – really playing the role of community hubs. The organisations whose whole remit and reason for existence is about providing access to knowledge, learning, advice and other vital support services.

I want to make it really clear at this point that I love libraries. But I love them when they’re fulfilling their potential. When they are not, I believe they are bringing the institution down. I believe they are letting local people down. And I’m fed up of seeing them get a free pass to do so when other community hubs – community centres – are also at the brink of closures, and also faced with the really pointy end of the local council cuts.

During better economic times, some libraries have grown lazy. Austerity has been a shock to them. Now they really need to look beyond their doors and respond to their communities, to modernise, to think outside of the box (or book). And they have to prove that they’re doing more, for less money, for more people, and most importantly for the ones who need them the most.

That’s where I think Tinder Foundation can help. It’s our job to make good things happen in communities with digital technology. Some of the best UK online centres in our network are libraries. They are working tirelessly to make life better for local people, and digital has become a key way in which they are connecting people to the services, skills, and opportunities they need.

To do so they’re making use of our products and services (like our popular learning platform Learn My Way), our Management Information systems to track and prove their impact, and they’re taking part in our projects, pilots and campaigns (like this last week’s National Get Online Week) to engage with new audiences, new partners and new intermediaries. In fact 97% of our partners believe that it is only by working with other community organisations that they can become ‘community hubs’. You can read more about some of those partnerships in action in our recent Library Digital Inclusion Action Research Report.

I believe we can help libraries be better. I believe we can help libraries to be places Lord Bird, Baroness Rebuck and more importantly – local people – would be truly proud of. I believe we can make libraries so strong, so useful, and so essential that no one in their right mind would ever close another one.

But unless we act to change and create the library service of the future – unless we face up to the fact not all of it is working all of the time and cut out the bits that are failing – the vision Lord Bird set out of no libraries, higher walls, more prisons and more shelters, will still come to pass.

So let’s rise together to meet the challenge we’ve all been set.

Get Online Week: The campaign may be over but the fun’s just beginning

As quickly as it came around Get Online Week is over for another year – and what a spectacular campaign it was! A very fitting and busy celebration for a tenth birthday indeed.

Get Online Week is a great opportunity for the UK online centres network, and everyone else who wants to spread the digital inclusion message, to jump on the bandwagon and reach the 12.6 million people without basic digital skills, to show them how much easier a life online can be.

A front row seat

The Tinder Foundation team got out and about throughout the week to see Get Online Week activity firsthand and everyone was so impressed by all the great work they saw. I personally made it my goal to celebrate the big one zero by visiting ten different events. By the time I got home on Friday I was very tired but very pleased to have met so many wonderful people and seen so much exciting activity happening.

  1. Learn for Life, Sheffield

I visited Learn for Life in Sheffield with my colleague Boryana. It was so wonderful to catch up with the team there and meet all the learners who were finding out about all the wonderful stuff they could do online through Learn My Way and English My Way. Learn for Life supports refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, as well as people from the local community. It really feels like a family there, it was so busy and vibrant. A great start to the week.

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  1. Edlington Hilltop Centre, Doncaster

On the Tuesday I popped across to Doncaster to visit Edlington Hilltop. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that Rachel and Rob, two of our Get Online Week poster stars, were from this centre. It was lovely to chat to the team there and to hear about all the great stuff they were doing. I can’t believe they achieve everything that they do with just 2.5 staff (or full time equivalents) – they can only do it with the hundreds of volunteers they have.

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With Get Online Week star Rob, and Edlington Hilltop’s Centre Manager Rob

 

  1. Rotherham Libraries

After visiting Edlington Hilltop I went across to Rotherham Libraries who were using Get Online Week as an excuse to get out to five different locations. I visited them at a coffee shop in the centre of Rotherham. They had a great set up to register people as members of the Library, and then talk to them about eBooks and the internet. However, I did meet an older woman who didn’t want to ever use the internet. However persuasive I tried to be, she wasn’t budging. I hope I planted some seeds about the benefits to her of being online and that Rotherham Libraries can nudge her a bit more next time they meet. Everyone at the cafe was so nice, and I have to say, 10/10 for cakes and coffee!

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  1. The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

A few steps from Trafalgar Square and I was in this amazing day centre. From digital skills drop-in and lessons, to the provision of job interview clothes, this centre does everything they can to help homeless people in the capital. I gave one Big Issue salesman, Steve, his Learn My Way certificate, and spoke to lots of men, both learners and volunteers about their stories. Steve told me he used Facebook to communicate with his family via his phone but he knew nothing about email and searching. He was happy to learn that the internet had so much more to offer. A great visit.

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He said that gesture meant victory! Victory indeed for Get Online Week 2016

 

  1. Lloyds Charity Digital Skills workshop

A big thank you to our campaign sponsors, Lloyds Banking Group. The balloons, pens and notepads went down a treat and I was delighted to attend their Charity Digital Skills workshop on the Wednesday evening. More than 100 people were there to learn more about digital. Lloyds also launched their UK Business Digital Index 2016 on Wednesday to coincide with Get Online week.

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  1. Peabody Darwin Court

The team at Peabody Darwin Court in London were so nice and it was surprising to see that they had a whopping five volunteers to support all of the people learning digital skills. Covering everything from job searching to copy and paste, it really was great to see people of all skill levels learning something new during Get Online Week.

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  1. Cabinet Office Get Online Week event

I had a lovely time at Whitehall on Thursday lunchtime chatting to people from DWP and Jobcentre Plus Maidstone. It was great to hear how digital skills is now playing a bigger part in their day-to-day jobs, and I was delighted to show them how they can become a UK online centre and use Learn My Way to teach clients about all the wonderful stuff there is online to help them with their job search. It was a really insightful event and I hope we can work together in the future. Thank you to Chad Bond, from GDS, for organising these events throughout the week.

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8, 9 and 10. I spent the Friday visiting three centres across Liverpool: Liverpool Carers Centre, Mersey Learn (at Mersey Travel) and Kensington Community Learning Centre.

They were all doing such great stuff and there was even a raffle game at Kensington where learners would receive a free raffle ticket for each online activity they completed. Alan Tapp, at Kensington (Liverpool), should help us out with next year’s toolkit – he had prizes from local businesses, he had an online games competition, and a huge turnout for his event.

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Talking to amazing carers about Twitter. Communication is so important for people who are often at home alone with those that they are caring for

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Louise Ellman MP at Mersey Learn at Mersey Travel

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Pulling out prizes from the box at Kensington Community Learning Centre

 

The fun’s just beginning

Get Online Week 2016 was a truly brilliant campaign. I visited these ten events but I saw so much more happening across social media – look up the hashtag #GOLW16 to see how much was happening and other great photos from the thousands of events around the country.

We may have reached even more people over the past week, teaching them digital skills that they can use to make their lives easier, but the stats still speak for themselves. There are still 12.6 million people in the UK who aren’t able to access the online world and it’s so important that we’re there to offer them support.

Get Online Week is like getting a dog for Christmas – Get Online Week is for life. It’s so much more than a seven-day campaign; it’s an accelerator for activity throughout the rest of the year. Get Online Week may be over, but the fun is only just beginning.

Happy birthday Get Online Week!

The year’s biggest digital inclusion campaign is finally here and this year it’s going to be bigger and better than ever. We all like to celebrate on our birthday and Get Online Week is no different. This year is it’s 10th birthday – the eagle-eyed among you will remember that the very first one was a Get Online Day. Since then the campaign has grown every year, from Get Online Day to Get Online Week; from hundreds of events taking place across the country to thousands. And I can’t wait to see what’s in store this year – especially as I’m going to 10 events to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

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Tinder Foundation’s Director of Business and Innovation Adam Micklethwaite at a Get Online Week event this morning

 

The Get Online Week team at Tinder Foundation HQ have informed me that there’s well over 1,100 organisations taking part this year which is amazing. Thank you to everyone for signing up and for committing to host events that will reach new people in your community, showing them how big a difference technology and the internet can make to their lives.

If there are any doubters who are apprehensive about the power of online, you only have to look at this year’s campaign stars to see the impact it can have. Watch the story from Christina Wheatley who has used the internet to grow the reputation, business and influence of her social enterprise, Edible Avondale SE1, which teaches groups of young people food growing and DIY skills in the South Bermondsey area of Southwark. A real inspiration to small business owners across the UK!

Or what about Arthur and Sue? A heartwarming father and daughter who use the internet to stay in touch since Sue and her family moved to Cornwall. Arthur says that “Technology makes it feel like [they] are together.” And not forgetting Rob Smedley from the Edlington Hilltop UK online centre near Doncaster. Rob used his newfound digital skills to beat the “wilderness” of unemployment and move into full time work, helping others to get online and find work too.

There are so many inspirational people fronting this year’s campaign. If you haven’t heard their stories yet, please do take a look across on the Get Online Week website.

All fun and games

Don’t forget to use the brand new Get Online Week game to engage all the new learners coming along to your events. It’s been developed especially for people with little or no internet skills or experience – though it can be fun for those who are a bit more advanced too – and it’s a really enjoyable way to get a taste of some of the things that being online can help with. Check it out using the “Play the game” button on the Learn My Way homepage.

And finally

I’m so pleased that Matt Hancock MP, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, paid a visit to a drop in session at St Vincent’s Close Sheltered Housing in Girton today to get the campaign off to a flying start. Seeing such a high profile person supporting Get Online Week is truly encouraging and such a huge testament to how much the campaign has grown in the past ten years. I hope you enjoyed the visit Minister.

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Matt Hancock MP chatting to one of the learners at the Get Online Week event this morning

 

My favourite bit of Get Online Week, along with my event visits (I’m really looking forward to them all this year), is seeing the campaign activity happening across the UK on social media. The Tinder Foundation team will be posting about their visits using the hashtag #GOLW16 and I’d love for you to do it too. Facebook; Instagram; Twitter; I want to see campaign activity across them all. #GOLW16 – let’s do it! And keep an eye out because we’ll be sharing and reposting as much as we can throughout the week.

Have a great Get Online Week everyone!

Working together to achieve more: TalkTalk and Tinder Foundation

TalkTalk have long been a partner of Tinder Foundation, and one we’ve always been very proud to work with. Chief Executive Dido Harding has been a vocal supporter of digital inclusion, and the work of Tinder Foundation, and I’ve always welcomed the advice she has provided us as we’ve grown as an organisation and expanded our work to support almost 2 million people to improve their digital skills.

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Recently, we’ve been building a strategic partnership with TalkTalk that we think will have a real impact on supporting digitally excluded people to improve their skills, and particularly help them to keep themselves safe online.

Through the UK online centres network, we’ve supported over 250,000 people to improve their digital skills just this year, and so we’ve got a pretty good understanding of what people are worried about, what’s holding them back, and the barriers and concerns we need to tackle. We see so many people who are really worried about being able to keep themselves safe online, and who are being held back from experiencing all of the positives about the online world due to their concerns about online safety and security.

Next week is Get Online Week, and there will be thousands of organisations all over the country supporting people to improve their basic digital skills through tackling some of the barriers people face to getting online, and by showing them how the internet can be made relevant for them. We’re delighted that, thanks to our partnership with TalkTalk, we’re able to provide these organisations with a new online learning tool that will help them to break down some of these barriers, and to help people learn how to keep themselves safe and secure online.

The course will be hosted on our Learn My Way platform, recently relaunched, which contains a whole host of courses to help people get to grips with the skills they need to get on in a digital world. The website, and all of the courses on it (including this one) have been designed in consultation with the people who will benefit from it, and the new internet safety course is a great addition to it.

This is just one small bit of a wider partnership with TalkTalk, which will ensure we can reach many more people, and support them to use the internet safely, without worry. As a small charity with big ambitions, the support of an organisation like TalkTalk is crucial to helping us to expand our impact, and so we’re delighted to continue working with them to develop new solutions.

Government plans to make the UK one of the most digitally-skilled nations

Amid all of the noise this weekend – ahead of the Conservative Party Conference – about Brexit and grammar schools, the Government has quietly leaked a new policy that seeks to make the UK one of the most digitally-skilled nations. This will mean that there will be “publicly-funded basic digital skills training being offered free of charge to adults in England who need it”.

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This makes asking for free, publicly-funded basic skills learning a right for any adult who needs them, and this will be enshrined in the upcoming Digital Economy Bill.

Wow. Great news. There are 12.6 million people in the UK who don’t have the basic digital skills they need to function in a digital world. This means they’re missing out on jobs, flexible and convenient digitised public services, and personal savings of over £700 a year. And, it’s not just the people who are missing out – it’s the country too, with the Commons Science and Technology Committee saying that poor basic digital skills mean the country is missing out on £63 billion a year in lost GDP.

It’s music to my ears to hear a policy statement that says not being able to use the internet is as important as lacking basic skills in English and Maths. A real policy for the 21st century.

However, is this just ‘business as usual’? This new entitlement will be paid for by the existing Adult Education Budget which is all already allocated, mostly to Further Education Colleges.

Will FE respond appropriately or they will just tweak their plans enough to show willing and carry on as they’ve always done?

The people who lack basic digital skills are the same people who also lack jobs or have low skilled jobs; they lack good qualifications, and are living on low incomes. These people need to be at the forefront of the plan.

Let’s not kill this policy with traditional and expensive classroom learning in formal institutions. Let’s accelerate this policy using brilliant online learning like Learn My Way. Online learning drives up quality through a guarantee for user focus, excellence, and the right content for the right outcomes. Online learning can also drive down costs as it can be scaled easily and quickly. Online learning can empower people themselves to self-serve and take control to improve their own basic digital skills (assuming they have a little skill to start with).

And online learning can provide a universal curriculum for hyperlocal community-based providers who can blend it with great, personalised, informal and local support.

Online learning can deliver high quality at scale, and should form an essential element in the Government’s plan for a 100% digitally skilled nation.

This new policy is really great news. I’m delighted.

I just hope that we don’t miss the huge potential impact a well implemented policy can have on millions of people’s lives. I’m sure we will know more over the coming weeks.

DCMS press release is here.

Digital: fuel for political engagement

So the big, but not all that surprising, news this weekend was the result of the Labour leadership election, which was won by Jeremy Corbyn. The support that Corbyn has built over the past year, particularly from grassroots supporters, has been impressive and the test now will be whether this can be translated into political activity in constituencies. I’m keen to see how much of this activity will be digital, and whether it will make any difference to the way we do politics in this country.

I’ve written before about having a vested interest in the impact digital technology can have on the political process, having been a Commissioner on John Bercow’s Commission on Digital Democracy. The work of the commission left me inspired but ultimately depressed – although it became clear that technology has huge potential to disrupt our political system, and engage many more people, I’m unconvinced of how much will change in our current system constrained by many things, including, the incentives to support one of just two parties.

Digital exclusion

Right now, it feels like there’s a movement of motivated young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn – this means young people are becoming more engaged in politics which can only be a good thing. It also means that Mr Corbyn has put emphasis on things that interest the younger generation, including the digital skills agenda, evidenced by the recently released Digital Democracy Manifesto, which pledges a £25bn investment in high-speed internet, digital citizen passports and open source software.

I responded to the manifesto with my own thoughts on Politics Home saying that it’s a great step forward but highlighting that Mr Corbyn had missed a couple of important steps that I think need to come first: a clear commitment to ensuring excluded people have the skills they need to really benefit from technology, and a plan to inspire millions to take up the tools he’s promoting as game changers. I’d encourage Jeremy to read the report published by the Commission, Open up!, which not only talks about how we can make better use of technology to affect the democratic process, but importantly how we can engage those who are harder to reach, and less likely to be engaged with politics.

People who are digitally excluded tend to be older and poorer, and although older people tend to engage more with democracy (eg. vote), poorer people are much less likely to be both politically and digitally engaged. Data also shows that people on lower income, tend to explore and experiment less online. These are the kind of people that Mr Corbyn and the Labour Party are hoping to reach, and there’s a real opportunity for the party to use digital not just to engage people who are already digitally savvy, but those that aren’t as well.

Podemos

There’s a really interesting example of how digital has affected the democratic process in Spain, and I think we should be taking lessons from it. Podemos is a left wing political party and although they’re just a baby (they were founded in March 2014), they’re the second largest political party in Spain by number of members (433,164) and the third largest in the Spanish parliament with 69 out of 350 seats.

Podemos’ views really align with those of Tinder Foundation – they seek to address the problems of inequality, unemployment and economic malaise – and they’re very engaged in digital, believing it can help to tackle social challenges.

It would be great to see a UK political party putting the focus on digital and it’s potential to tackle social challenges. Podemos proves that in Spain at least you can be a successful party rooted in transparency, and digital is the fuel for political engagement.

So why am I still depressed? Sometimes when I look at politics in the UK I wonder to myself whether we have the right political motivations and structure to really change things? Does a two party system deliver us the best options? Do our politicians know what the real issues are that are affecting people across the country, and do they know how to handle them?

I’d love digital to be the silver bullet to cure our political worries, but, as always, it’s the people who need to want to change. I think digital can really help to give power to the people – all of the people – and hopefully, through Jeremy Corbyn’s “new kind of politics” which appears to be attracting new people, we can begin to see some of the impacts of this.

Learn My Way: the next step on our journey

Simpler, prettier, and even more fabulous! Can you tell I’m excited? After a lot of time, hard work, and lots of time spent with users, today sees the launch of our new-look Learn My Way – and it’s the biggest (and best) update to our online learning platform in over five years.

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Throughout this deployment we’ve kept two things in mind: simplicity and the user experience.

We’ve long known that many people in the UK have low levels of literacy and numeracy skills, as well as basic digital skills. In fact I recently read some stats which said the 43% of adults aged 16-65 lack the literacy skills that are expected of a 16-year-old, and, 15% of adults are at or below the literacy skills that are expected of an 11-year-old. With these kind of stats in mind, we wanted to make sure that Learn My Way was as simple as possible, so people with low literacy skills – who are most likely to also be the people with low digital skills – weren’t scared off by words and buttons they didn’t understand.

There are 12.6 million people in the UK who lack basic digital skills – with almost 6 million people having never been online – so something that is visually appealing and easy-to-use to me (and people like me), could be the most difficult and frightening thing in the world to those 12.6 million people.

I personally always thought Learn My Way was a simple online platform. Looking at the new website I can see the improvements. It’s now easier and more user-friendly than ever before and the range of courses ensure that we’re able to help everyone who needs it – from jobseekers, and people concerned about their health, to those looking to follow hobbies online.

At our event for libraries and digital inclusion yesterday, one Library Manager said to me “staff can’t say to me they don’t have time to support digitally excluded people, and then spend time making lesson plans! They can just use Learn My Way – not only is it quick and easy to get started, but it also builds independence as the people learning are in control of what they do, and how fast or slow they want to learn.”

Learn My Way is user-focused, and the courses are all mapped to the basic digital skills framework led by Go ON UK with the London School of Economics, Oxford Internet Institute, Tinder Foundation and others. We want people to learn what they want, or need, to learn when they want, or need, to learn it. But at the same time, we don’t want to stop there if we can provide progression from the very, very basics up to job seeking, money skills, and health literacy. Doing it in a simple and pretty way is difficult, but exciting too.

And it’s not just about the learners

I’d describe the new Learn My Way as a bit like a swan. On the outside it’s shiny, simple, and beautiful, but under the water line – away from the eye – it’s working very hard. The learning platform produces sophisticated data to not only track the progress of the learners but to demonstrate the impact that they’re having on people’s lives to Trustees, funders and more. This data is available for anyone in the UK online centres network using Learn My Way.

If you work in your community, and are not part of the UK online centres network already, it is free and simple for any organisation small or large to get involved, please do get in touch to find out more about how we can help you.

Take a look for yourself

I’m so proud of our new-look Learn My Way and I hope that everyone who starts/continues using it will love it just as much as I do. Well done to everyone involved in the process, from the Tinder Foundation team members to the people in communities who were kind enough to help us with requirements and testing.

If you haven’t done so already, take a look at the new website on www.learnmyway.com – I promise you won’t be disappointed.