The link below is to an article that takes a look at how public libraries are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
For generations, libraries have helped people explore knowledge, information and culture. The invention of the public library meant more and more people got to use these collections and services.
In the digital age, a public library can connect even the most remote community to networks of knowledge and information. Today’s public libraries work to engage marginalised communities as users; pioneering projects like Townsville’s Murri Book Club explore ways to make the library meaningful to Indigenous people.
Despite all this, there is one area in which public libraries are underused. Libraries can also help us plan for the future.
Long-term planning is always challenging. It’s simply impossible to gather data from events that haven’t happened yet.
Sometimes we may detect trends, but these can fall apart under what some foresight experts call “TUNA conditions”, when we face Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty or Ambiguity.
Think of someone trying to predict that experiments with debt on Wall Street would lead to the global financial crisis and the political ripples that have followed. Think of trying, today, to foretell all the long-term consequences of climate change.
Enter scenario planning
That means we’ve had to find new ways to look at the unpredictable future. Big business has used scenario planning since the 1960s, when Pierre Wack pioneered the approach for Shell.
In scenario planning, people come together to imagine future settings that challenge how we currently think. You don’t judge a scenario’s value by whether it’s likely to happen: its value lies in helping us to rethink our assumptions about the future.
Shell’s scenarios became famous in the 1970s when the company successfully anticipated the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War. Shell hadn’t predicted the conflict, but had imagined scenarios where Middle Eastern oil producers worked as a cartel to control global supply. When those countries did start an oil embargo, scenario planning meant Shell had already thought through this possibility ahead of its competitors.
Today, experts thinking about the future acknowledge the need for engagement from the bottom up as well as top down. For example, the European Union’s new proposal for “mission-oriented innovation” aims to get all of us focused on solving society’s problems. In turbulent times, it’s important that at every level of society we strengthen our ability to imagine the future that awaits us – and our own future choices.
What is libraries’ role in this?
This chimes with the finding of research at the University of Southern Queensland, in support of a new vision for public libraries, that public libraries are a grassroots connector of people, ideas and resources:
Public library services are built on relationships, not just transactions; they are entwined with the specific and deeply local context of everyday life in the communities they serve.
Locally held scenario planning sessions, convened by communities at their public library, would make use of the library’s existing capacity to connect people – but this time with the goal of helping us reimagine the future.
Librarians would work with their local council to identify issues that call for a long-term perspective. Should we invest in “smart” tech for our small country towns? How much should we rely on recycled water or desalination in the big coastal cities?
Librarians would provide background research and host community workshops to develop local scenarios. People would start to have deeper, richer discussions about the future: there’s a reason scenarios have been called “the art of strategic conversation”.
The scenario process depends on bringing together a group of individuals in a trusted space, with enough information to give the scenarios detail and flavour. In a local community, the public library is that place of trust and information.
Much as public librarians use their skills to help with job seeking or support people’s health and well-being, as scenario planners they would apply their talents to a new domain.
Conversations that could transform politics
Playful events we have run in collaboration with Ann Arbor Public Library in Michigan, to capture the attention of children as well as adults, have begun to engage local people with the notion of the long-term future. The next step is to develop a more rigorous and substantive conversation.
If public libraries were supported to deliver strategic foresight to their communities, politics could transform. The electorate would be better informed, thinking deeper and further ahead about political issues. Councils could take decisions with confidence that the community had been consulted about the long-term consequences.
Scenarios would offer a playbook of potential futures, already imagined and rehearsed. Every Australian could have access to the kind of foresight tools that have been informing the decisions of government and big business for the past half century.
Imagine the conversations we, as a country, would be having about our future if we democratised those tools via the local library.
In 2017, archaeologists discovered the ruins of the oldest public library in Cologne, Germany. The building may have housed up to 20,000 scrolls, and dates back to the Roman era in the second century. When literacy was restricted to a tiny elite, this library was open to the public. Located in the centre of the city in the marketplace, it sat at the heart of public life.
We may romanticise the library filled with ancient books; an institution dedicated to the interior life of the mind. But the Cologne discovery tells us something else. It suggests libraries may have meant something more to cities and their inhabitants than being just repositories of the printed word.
Contemporary public libraries tell us this too. Membership has generally declined or flat-lined, but people are now using libraries for more than borrowing books. Children come to play video games or complete homework assignments together. People go to hear lectures and musical performances, or attend craft workshops and book clubs.
Libraries have become vital for the marginalised, such as the homeless, to access essential government services such as Centrelink, and to stay connected. They have become defacto providers of basic digital literacy training – such as how to use an iPad or access an eGov account. Others cater to tech-enthusiasts offering advanced courses on coding or robotics in purpose-built spaces and laboratories.
Yet the future of Australia’s public libraries is unfolding according to a contradictory, double narrative. One-off funding for “feature” libraries built by star architects exists in parallel with cuts and closures of libraries on the margins. In Victoria’s city of Geelong, for example, three regional libraries on the city’s periphery faced closure scarcely a year after the opening of the A$45m Geelong Library and Heritage Centre.
Part of the reason for this is that the expanded contribution of libraries to our communities and cities isn’t recognised at higher levels of government.
How libraries are changing
In the early 2000s, as archives shifted online, futurists predicted an imminent death to public libraries. But the threat of obsolescence made libraries take proactive steps to remain relevant in a digital world. They thought creatively about how to translate services they have always offered – universal access to information – into new formats.
Libraries digitised their collections and networked their catalogues, exponentially extending the range of materials users could access. They introduced e-books and e-readers to read them with. They mounted screens to watch movies or to play video games.
They also installed computers crucial to that 14% of the population who don’t have access to the internet at home. And they wired up their spaces with free WiFi, retrofitting extra power-points so users could plug in their own devices.
Besides offering new technologies and services, libraries offer people a welcoming, safe space to gather without the pressure to spend money. Investing in attractive, versatile furnishings, they have actively encouraged people to dwell in their spaces, whether this is to read a newspaper, complete a job application online, or to study.
In an age where communication technologies create both efficiency as well as forms of isolation, such spaces assume a renewed social importance.
How libraries shape the city
As vital as libraries are to individuals, their value is also connected to broader civic agendas. Libraries have deliberately sought to change perceptions of themselves from spaces of collection to spaces of creation. Some, such as the State Library of Victoria, see themselves facilitating creativity not only in an artistic sense, but also as entrepreneurial hubs for start-ups and budding innovators.
Public libraries have promoted their relevance to cities by strategically aligning themselves with government visions of economic growth. For instance, the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre was a signature investment in Geelong’s Digital Strategy, promoted as a “platform” to build “digital capacity” and a visible symbol of the city’s transition to a digital future.
Others, such as Dandenong library in Victoria, attract high levels of funding as part of urban renewal projects aimed at revitalising declining urban precincts.
These high-profile libraries, usually in urban centres, overshadow the uncertain fate of smaller libraries on the periphery, fighting to stay viable due to insufficient funding.
This contradiction is occurring because provisioning for libraries is not embedded at high levels of urban planning and policy making. There is no nationally consistent model for allocating funds between the states and local government. Nor is there a consistent framework across Australia for evaluating library performance.
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Critically and most revealingly, libraries are evaluated based on traditional metrics, such as loan and membership numbers, capturing only a fraction of the full value they contribute to our individual and collective life. Failure to recognise this by governments and policymakers puts at risk the diverse and nuanced ways libraries might shape Australia’s future.
The link below is to an article reporting on the best Man Booker Prize winner as voted by the public.
Whether government should fund public interest journalism in Australia is a question a Senate select committee is currently being asked to consider. It’s a question that’s both simple and hard, as it raises all sorts of issues about the relationship between government, the media and consumers.
There’s an important reason for asking. There is now clear evidence that the market is failing us. There are gaps in coverage and no sign that they are going to be filled anytime soon.
Courts, local councils, state institutions, and even state parliaments are now missing out on proper coverage. The arts are under-covered. The regions are not properly represented, either to themselves or to the rest of Australia. Entire communities are missing out on local news services.
A cynic might say that some of these were never covered all that well by the news media. However, it’s certainly true that things have become much worse. This is mostly a result of digital disruption and the breaking of the model in which advertising paid for editorial content.
The ads have moved online, to Google and Facebook – which do not have an imperative to serve local communities, at least not with news and certainly not with public interest journalism.
There are several ideas about how to tackle this. These include creating a form of charitable status for news organisations, as well as tax incentives to encourage greater philanthropy. Together these could help sustain existing media players or encourage start-ups. They might help create a culture in which people donate to fund journalistic investigations.
Another way might be to provide publicly funded grants for journalism.
The Public Interest Journalism Foundation, of which I’m a board member, has made a submission to the Senate inquiry calling for an Independent Production Fund for public interest journalism. Its principal function would be to help make important journalism happen.
Along the way, it might encourage experimentation and new forms of storytelling, while fostering coverage of neglected topics or regions.
Imagine if a freelance reporter – or even one working for a larger media company – could apply to the fund for financial support to develop an important story. Imagine if the fund was focused on supporting the type of journalism that was in the public’s interest.
Immediately this might conjure an image of undue government control, or of Big Brother intervening in the editorial process. Or you might ask: what government would hand out funds to a journalist working on a story about, say, government corruption?
The answer is it’s happening already. The government already funds journalism at SBS and the ABC. It does this through triennial funding and in a way that ensures the national broadcasters retain editorial control. A raft of conventions and a healthy editorial culture ensure both organisations are free to report critically on the federal government and any other institution.
And the government already does it through bodies like Screen Australia, which funds films and documentaries. It doesn’t set editorial parameters on those funds by insisting that certain things get taken out or left in.
But all of these examples are for screen-based journalism, not text – or what used to be called print – reporting.
Print media companies have not generally received grants to support journalism, although there are exceptions such as The Australian newspaper, which once accepted subsidies to fund its Australian Literary Review. Other literary/journalism publications, such as Meanjin, have also been supported over the years through government grants.
So, the concept has already been tried. Now might be the time to expand it to cover several forms of journalism, across all mediums and specifically for public interest reporting.
Perhaps this could be funded by revenue derived from taxing media conglomerates like Google and Facebook? After all, they’re the companies that have contributed to the problem by taking away advertising revenue without any concomitant requirement to provide news for consumers. Nor are they currently compelled to pay much taxation in the jurisdictions in which they operate.
I’d like to see a production fund with a clear vision and a sense of adventure about what it can achieve. It doesn’t need to be weighed down by corporate structures or old costly modes of production.
This could fund projects from across public, commercial and community media, and it could play an important role in nurturing young investigative reporters, audio storytellers and videographers – many of whom are now missing out on the opportunities and mentoring that were traditionally provided by established media companies.
Imagine if an Independent Production Fund encouraged reportage on important issues that are not well-served by the established media, and if the national broadcasters and commercial media companies opened their doors to publishing the content created.
As a journalism educator, I know how much a keen graduate can do with a cheap video camera, some off-the-shelf editing gear, and a small grant to kick-start a great idea. As a member of the New Beats project tracking the progress of Australia’s many redundant journalists, I know how much older reporters still have to contribute and how financial support can make great things happen.
So yes, there is a role for governments to play, and providing small grants to encourage public interest journalism has definitely got merit.
Independent journalism’s importance to healthy democracies is undisputed. In a time of rising autocratic tendencies around the world, this independent check on power is more needed than ever. This is well illustrated by US President Donald Trump’s disrespect for the balance-of-power doctrine in general and for the US judiciary in particular.
So, it’s not a coincidence that the Australian Senate has set up an inquiry into the future of public interest journalism. This was prompted by the latest round of redundancies at Fairfax. To this should be added Network Ten’s precarious financial situation.
But what is “public interest journalism”? From a journalistic point of view, this covers topics that are vital for citizens to make informed decisions and choices. There is a clear distinction between what the public is interested in, which includes gossip, celebrities and lifestyle topics, compared to what is important to the health of our democracy.
The Ethical Journalism Network puts it thus:
The public interest is about what matters to everyone in society. It is about the common good, the general welfare and the security and wellbeing of everyone in the community.
As I have argued before, without this kind of journalism a lot of corruption, maladministration and abuse of power would not be known to the public. We would then risk sliding further down the slippery slope towards autocracy.
So, what can and should governments do? Many submissions to the Senate inquiry will argue that it’s time for governments to step up support for public interest journalism.
Fortunately, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. There are plenty of models around the globe where governments are supporting public interest journalism at arm’s length.
It’s important to point out that a significant amount of research clearly shows that in mature liberal democracies government funding for such journalism does not equal government influence over reporting.
The first and most obvious thing to do is finance Australia’s public broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, to a level that enables them to consistently produce public interest journalism. The minimum is to restore, and index up, the funding to the 2013 level before the current severe cuts instigated by the Abbott government.
Public broadcasting is a tried and tested source of public interest journalism. It will be a repository for such content until market-financed journalism has transitioned to new business models. Australia has a national and global responsibility to fund the ABC and SBS, as there are only about ten properly funded public broadcasters globally.
The rest of the sustainable funding models will, most likely, be a combination of government, market and private altruistic funding. There are a number of international models:
The most obvious indirect funding model is to exempt public interest journalism companies from GST and payroll taxes.
A second option is to make donations to such journalistic organisations tax-deductible to encourage private altruism.
Another option is to introduce a version of the “low-profit limited liability corporations” (L3Cs) that exist in some states in the US and the UK (community interest company). L3Cs are businesses that produce a social good. Investments in such companies receive various tax breaks.
A fourth option is to introduce a government-funded base operational fund open to public interest journalism ventures. This could include a special grant for start-up companies.
All of the above already exist in a number of countries with a long tradition of funding public interest journalism. Here it’s important to point out that Australia, for more than 100 years, supported such journalism via printing and distribution subsidies.
Another option drawing on international experience is an Australia Council-like fund that could contribute to journalism residencies at universities. This would create a win-win situation in which experienced journalists would work with students to create public interest journalism.
Finally, and most importantly, a sustainable funding model must involve Google and Facebook in some way. As Ben Eltham has eloquently argued in The Conversation, Google and Facebook have hoovered up the advertising money that used to fund public interest journalism. They have effectively created a global media oligopoly partly based on journalism they are not paying for.
A levy on Google and Facebook advertising revenue would be a very important funding source for public interest journalism. The bonus is that this would encourage the social media giants to acknowledge that they are publishers rather than just platforms.
Engaging with the two global media companies illustrates the core challenge for domestic policymakers: media policy that used to be predominantly national is increasingly global. Domestic policy may prove to be a blunt policy tool in meeting the challenge of supporting public interest journalism.
The conclusion from this international survey is that, historically, market forces on their own never have been able to carry public interest journalism. Now more than ever governments need to help carry it across the morass that is the current transformation of the industry.
The Senate inquiry reports in early December 2017. It would be a tragedy for democratic accountability in Australia if government inaction is the outcome.
Public interest journalism could be considered the antithesis of media’s darker side, which includes fake news, propaganda, censorship and voyeurism.
The outcomes of public interest reporting can expose corruption, launch royal commissions, remove improper politicians from office, and jail wrongdoers.
Think of recent stories like ABC Four Corners’ exposure of the treatment of young people at Don Dale Detention Centre; The Sydney Morning Herald’s revelatory stories on now-convicted MP Eddie Obeid; or The Newcastle Herald’s exposure of child sex abuse by priests. All of these led to public hearings. Then there was last week’s collaboration between Fairfax Media and the ABC, revealing the extent of Chinese money and influence in Australian politics.
For these reasons, this form of reporting headlines the Senate select committee’s Future of Public Interest Journalism inquiry. The closing date for public submissions is June 15.
Yet, public interest journalism is not universally defined. One common understanding among media practitioners and academics is that it refers to a journalist pursuing information that the public has a right to know.
Often implied in this definition is that, if it were not for the reporter, undisclosed information affecting the public that governments, companies and other powerful interests hold would remain hidden.
In this way, public interest reporting is often equated with watchdog or investigative reporting. But it can include other factual stories that serve the public interest, whether by providing a platform for debate or informing the electorate.
This is not stories that are simply “interesting to the public” (read here: stories about the Kardashians) – that is, entertaining, but with no civic value. These profit-oriented stories have filled certain tabloids and glossy magazines for years. Today they serve as clickbait to attract eyeballs and advertisers in the digital space, and are often found under traditional media banners.
The former editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, uses the analogy of a public figure such as a cricketer to make the point that not all revelations or “truths” are worth pursuing, and particularly not in the name of the “public interest”. Rusbridger suggests the “quality” of the target and its relationship to the public interest differentiate a story from mere smear or exposure journalism. He says:
What’s the public interest in a cricketer having a love romp in a hotel room … But if elected representatives are arguing a case in Parliament but not revealing that they are being paid to do so, then that strikes at the heart of democracy. That’s public interest; this is an easy distinction.
From this example, it is clear that context matters. As author of Understanding Journalism, Lynette Sheridan Burns reminds us that other social concerns might need to be weighed up alongside public interest storytelling. These might include an individual’s right to privacy, legal considerations, and the potential for other harms such as national security risks.
Through the liberal democratic lens of understanding the role of news media, diverse and plural voices are generally seen as enriching public discourse. This provides a range of perspectives to contest ideas and inform citizens. Ultimately, it informs their electoral choices.
Herein lies a key motivation for calling the 2017 inquiry hearings. With thousands of editorial jobs cut in the past five years at Australia’s major news media outlets – Fairfax Media, ABC, News Corp, Channel Ten – and the closure of many regional bureaus and mastheads, there is real concern about the state of public interest journalism.
Put simply, are there enough trained journalists to provide independent journalism that matters? Are Australia’s regions as well served with diverse and independent reporting as the major cities? These questions speak to the first and fourth of the inquiry’s six terms of reference.
The other questions for the committee broadly relate to the viral spread of misinformation, and to safeguards against market power in the media landscape in the name of public interest journalism.
Interestingly, rather than directly tackle what the government’s proposed removal of media competition safeguards might mean for Australian audiences’ interests, the committee is directed to examine the market impacts of new players. That is, what impact social media and search engines have on the “Australian media landscape”.
The complete absence of “audience” and an emphasis on “markets” in the terms of reference could be seen as a win for the persistent lobbying of Australia’s most powerful commercial media companies.
In a rare display of unified power, 25 heads of Australia’s major commercial media outlets met the prime minister in Canberra last month to urge the parliament to pass media reforms. To improve their commercial viability, media companies are seeking to scrap the 75% reach provision (preventing 100% market share) and two-out-of-three ownership rule.
Notwithstanding new international entrants into Australian markets such as Buzzfeed, The Guardian and Daily Mail, such law changes, I have previously argued, would likely result in concentrating proprietorial power of the biggest media operators in Australia’s most dominant news media markets: radio, television and print.
The committee’s inquiries into “fake news, propaganda, and public disinformation” are important issues to consider, but we should remember that these concerns have existed alongside public interest journalism for more than a century.
From the sensationalist, fear-mongering “yellow journalism” of the penny press in the late 1800s, to the media propaganda arising out of the world wars of the 20th century, there is nothing new about fake news and disinformation. What is unprecedented, however, is its speed and global spread in the digital sphere.
Inaccurate reporting, whether deliberately fake or just sloppy, has consequences for news media’s capacity to serve a well-informed citizenry that underpins a healthy democracy. For example, a recent US Pew Research study found 88% of Americans believe fake news confuses the public about basic facts.
These are problems for all to tackle – search engines, internet service providers, commercial media outlets, public broadcasters and social media. As is occurring overseas, this might involve media outlets and others working together to provide news literacy tools to help the public recognise fact from fiction. Any successful approach must address sources, messengers and audiences of fake news, not just target Facebook and Google.
When the committee reports in December, let’s hope it offers ways to strengthen public interest journalism by placing Australian audiences’ interests ahead of all others.
The link below is to an article that reports on one of the first (if not the first) times a public figure was sworn into office using an ebook reader (in this case a Kindle).
What are libraries for? To the generations that have grown up with free access to local public libraries, this may seem like a stupid question. The recent library closures in UK have generated heated debate. Should we forget about libraries now that we have the iPad and Amazon Kindle? Should we force our children to look things up in printed encyclopaedias when it’s so much easier to search for things on the Internet? Should we continue to pay for a building full of books?
According to author and motivational speaker Seth Godin, libraries were initially just “warehouses for books worth sharing“. This at a time when books cost “about as much as a small house”. We’ve come a long way from that. Books have been accessible priced, widely available and part of our everyday lives for centuries. There are, of course, regions of the world where books are…
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The link below is to an article that reports on a digital public library, BiblioTech library in Bexar County, Texas, USA.