Mar 11

Sutton Bookshare is not a library

Sutton Bookshare is a project that I’ve been designing for Sutton Council. It’s a website that lets local residents list their books on a website and then share with each other.

Bookshare is part of a wider project called Sutton Open Library that’s about opening up the library service to innovation. The whole project is funded through a grant from NESTA (a charity distributing lottery money) under their Make It Local funding scheme.

As well as the book sharing website, Sutton Open Library also opens up the main library service’s database so that independent software developers can access it and build their own apps for it.

Is Sutton Bookshare an attempt to cover for library cutbacks?

Many people have asked this question. It’s a fair question to ask.

While I work temporarily as a contractor for Sutton Council I do not speak for the council. So these are my personal views.

It would be very hard to see how Sutton Bookshare could substitute for any significant part of the library service. It has certainly not been designed with that aim in mind. In fact, the whole design direction of the project has been led by the principle that Sutton Bookshare is not a library. Every time I start transplanting library concepts into Bookshare I remind myself that Bookshare is unique and different and needs to work in a very distinct way.

One of the aims of Sutton Bookshare has been to make books that aren’t available in the library available for people to borrow. Most of my own books aren’t in the library service, so if you’re interested in design theory, urbanism and software development you now have access to books that you didn’t have previously.

Another aim of Sutton Bookshare is to build and reinforce personal relationships and social networks. Libraries can do this to an extent through clubs and other activities but the core library services are about borrowing items from the library, not other people. When you lend or borrow something in Sutton Bookshare you don’t just exchange a book, you get to meet someone who lives or works locally and almost by definition has a shared interest with you.

Sutton Bookshare also improves the library service. When you look at the page for a book in Bookshare you get a direct link to that book’s page on the main library service’s catalogue. This gives you options: Borrow it in Bookshare or borrow it from the library. For many people it will be more convenient to borrow it from the library. Bookshare provides another way to find books that are in the main library service.

What Sutton Bookshare doesn’t do

Sutton Bookshare isn’t a library.

Bookshare only lets you borrow books, hence the name. No CDs or DVDs.

Bookshare doesn’t give you a desk where you can sit down and work for a few hours in a quiet atmosphere.

Bookshare won’t let you catch up on the day’s newspapers or recent magazines.

You can borrow my books but you can’t pitch up in my living room for the afternoon. Sorry about that.

Open data makes the libraries better

The open data side of the Sutton Open Library project is all about improving the library service. We’re doing this by giving software developers the opportunity to build apps that help people find books more easily. This is nothing to do with cutting back the library service. It’s about making the library service better. Sutton Council has been fortunate to be able to attract outside funding for this work that will not just pay off in Sutton but will help to set standards and make similar work easier in other councils.

All software developed under this project is free and open source. Anyone can use or modify it themselves for any purpose. The code is here on Github.

So what about the cutbacks then?

Like all councils, Sutton Council is reviewing its services in the light of funding cuts from central government. This includes the library service. If you’re a local resident and you want to get involved in the discussions about the future of the library service you can start here on the Speak Out Sutton website, the council’s consultation site. I have no more information about this process or influence on it than any other local resident.

But it’s my view that the scale and nature of Sutton Bookshare makes it a useful supplement for the library service but not a substitute for any part of it. My hope is that Bookshare becomes a useful thing in its own right. It’s more like a club than a public service, albeit one that’s organised by the council rather than independently. I also hope that the open data work on this project will make libraries more accessibile than they are at the moment.

A postscript for Amanda Craig

I’ve just listened to the discussion on BBC Radio 4′s PM programme with Sutton Council’s Daniel Ratchford and the author Amanda Craig.

Amanda seems to hold some odd views about books.

The first is that books are far too precious to lend. While I’d agree that books are definitely valuable in the sense that they’re useful and enjoyable, they don’t do any good sitting on your shelves. So I’ve listed 130 of my own books and while I’d definitely like them back, if I lose the occasional one then I can stand the loss. I offer things to share because I know that most people are honest and responsible. If you believed otherwise you probably wouldn’t engage in almost any kind of relationship, personal or commercial.

Amanda also thinks that sharing books is tantamount to stealing from authors. This is because when you borrow a book from a library the author gets a small payment (the Public Lending Right) but when you share a book with a friend the author gets nothing.

I think this is terribly narrow-minded.

Sharing books on a relatively small scale doesn’t threaten authors. People stopping reading books threatens authors. Sutton Bookshare is a small project that in its own way will help people discover and read new books. Authors will benefit because those same people will be far more likely to visit a public library or buy books subsequently. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that someone might borrow one book by an author on Bookshare and then buy another.

When you’re looking at a book page on Sutton Bookshare you’re also three clicks away from buying that book on Amazon. Bookshare links directly to Amazon’s search for that book.

The threat to authors comes largely from other things. It comes from the time people choose to spend doing things other than reading books because they now have more options. Watch YouTube or read? Fool around on Facebook or read? Play computer games or read? Listen to internet radio or read?

A project like Sutton Bookshare and Sutton Open Library is the wrong target. We’re getting people hooked on books not taking money out of authors’ pockets. Authors, libraries and of course readers will benefit.

I’ve always spent a lot of money on books. I probably always will because it’s very unlikely to be convenient or even possible for me to get all the books I want through borrowing from people or libraries. Authors should be scared of Facebook and World of Warcraft not book sharing.

Aug 10

Sutton pedestrian crossings proposed for removal by TfL

Transport for London are proposing to review and possibly remove 145 traffic lights and pedestrian crossings across London.

Here’s a map I’ve made of the five crossings in the London Borough of Sutton that are under review.

Download the map data as KML for Google Earth etc.

Councillor Lester Holloway is campaigning to retain the crossing at Collingwood Road / Bushey Road as has been reported in the Sutton Guardian and on his blog.

Dec 09

What’s the point of a tweeting mobile library?

@SutMobLib Twitter screenshot

Last week I launched @SutMobLib, a Twitter account that tweets the location of Sutton’s mobile library in real time. No, I’m not sitting here all day sending messages. A program does that automatically. Every time the library gets to a new stop it posts up its location.

Continue reading →

Sep 09

Guerrilla noticeboarding with Barcode Posters

Guerrilla Noticeboarding

Here’s what we got up to with an underused council noticeboard, some RSS feeds, a barcode-reading iPhone and a little bit of hackery.

Aug 09

Worst practice: 10 ways that Sutton Council’s website (still) drives me nuts

UPDATE 1 March 2010: Let’s see how the site’s doing seven months after I originally published this article.

Someone famous once said that the true definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to be different. Well I keep going back to the Sutton Council website and nine months after launch it’s still not any better. Arguably it’s worse.

Continue reading →

Jun 09

Lib Dems’ leaflets: Legal, indecent, dishonest, untruthful

Today the Sutton Guardian has run a story in which I and Bob Steel from the Sutton Green Party accuse MPs Paul Burstow, Tom Brake and the Sutton Lib Dems of distributing deceitful and misleading leaflets about today’s European Parliament election. I stand by that accusation and presume that the Greens do likewise. For the avoidance of any doubt I am not connected with the Greens or any other political party. Continue reading →

May 09

Is Sutton Council too white?

The Sutton Minority Ethnic Forum is running a project called the Shadow Councillor Scheme, which lets people who may be interested in becoming councillors find out more by closely following a councillor for a month. While everyone is welcome to apply to the project, the council says that:

We are particularly hoping to attract interest from Sutton’s minority groups to help improve the political representation of the borough’s minority ethnic communities.

There seem to be two assumptions in this statement. The first is that there aren’t enough ethnic minority councillors (hereafter “ME”) and the second that the ethnic composition of the council actually matters. Continue reading →