Scenarios for the Future of Student Unions


I’ve just been talking with NUS Services (the commercial arm of the National Students Union essentially) about scenario planning and we spent a few minutes (literally) speculating about future scenarios. Here’s an amalgamation of a few suggestions, which I don’t think is too far off. If I get a chance I’ll try to flesh this out a little over the next few weeks.

If you are unfamiliar with scenario planning each axis represents a critical uncertainty (a trend whose direction is unclear at this stage). In this case one axis is built around a general societal attitude while the other is built around how education (learning) and information (anything) is delivered. At the moment the dominant attitude is individualism and education/information is slowly shifting towards the digital and remote.

Quote of the Week

I cut this out of the FT on a plane recently but I can’t quite remember where it’s from. I’m pretty sure it’s the back page column by Harry Eyres.

” We are much more vulnerable now than we were during the Second World War. When I grew up we had the skills to be self-sufficient; we made our own clothes and fished, we never felt poor. Now you don’t need a nuclear bomb to finish off a country; you just cut the power off for a week.”

Totally right. Think about the consequences of no power for a week. ATMs wouldn’t work so you couldn’t get any cash out. No money equals no purchases. You couldn’t re-charge a phone; use email or the internet (so no digital cash) and credit cards wouldn’t work either (electronic). The fridge would go off and so too would the freezer so no fresh food. Doors and lifts in shops and offices wouldn’t work (largely electric). Hospitals would grind to a halt. So would tubes and trains. The TV would be off, electric cars would be stuffed, traffic lights would go out and so too would most heating systems. Add to this list kettles, ovens, CCTV, e-books, digital files, domestic lighting, alarms, GPS, RFID:it’s almost endless.

Our lifestyles are now hugely dependent on electricity but outside of essential government services almost nobody has any kind of backup in place — except of course people aged 75+ who have never totally embraced the digital era and can remember how to do things the old fashioned way.

Library Letters

I’m sitting in the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow tucking into some scrambled eggs and a copy of The Week. On the letters page there’s an exchange between the director of community services at Lancashire County Council and a man from West Yorkshire. The letters originally appeared in The Guardian newspaper. I have edited both letters slightly for copyright reasons.

“ Libraries are not about borrowing books. They are not about housing books. They are one of the vehicles for local councils to deliver community cohesion, social inclusion, community engagement, and equality and diversity. Libraries are a place where you can access the internet. They are venues for homework clubs, mother and toddler groups, local councillors’ surgeries and benefit advice sessions. They work with schools to promote life skills, with HM Prison Service to promote literacy and numeracy and with social services to safeguard adults and children. Public libraries are local community centres that attract all ages and all sections of society.
If libraries didn’t exist we would have to invent them.”

The response:

“ My local library was the first Carnegie library to be built in England but it is now effectively unusable by anyone wanting to put it to its original purpose. Whole rows of bookshelves have disappeared to make room for computer terminals where bored teens surf away their days. Another space has been cleared to make space for infant schools. Large groups of excited children come in to talk loudly and fight over the very same books that they have back at their classrooms. Other areas are furnished with comfy sofas and coffee tables where people eat their lunch and make mobile phone calls. This what people like Mr X have invented. It might be a community centre but it’s not a library.”

So here’s my question. Can you have a library without books? I think not. It would be called Starbucks.

Report on the Modernisation of Public Libraries

On the way to Liverpool via Hong Kong (like you do) so I’ve had a chance to catch up with a bit of reading.

Here’s my take on the DCMS report on the modernisation of public libraries. First of all why does this report have to be such a celebration of the negative? Clearly there are problems but a document like this is not exactly going to attract future library professionals. Secondly, why do we need another ‘consultation document’? Surely enough is already known to allow for the creation of draft policy. And get to the point too. Eighty pages with colour photographs are unnecessary. Fire the designers and put what needs to be said on a single sheet of paper.

Overall, this is an uninspiring report. If what you’re after is a clear view on where things are heading, read the recent report by the Scottish National Library instead.Nevertheless, there are a handful of good ideas buried in the report. Here are 10 that caught my eye and could form the basis of future public library strategy.

1. The mission of public libraries is to inform and empower. The modernisation of libraries should be focussed on the promotion of reading and the celebration of physical books and local history. This is not to say that digital content is not important, but if public libraries focus too much on the digital they will end up fighting a losing battle with the likes of Google, Apple and Starbucks. And don’t make the mistake of getting rid of the librarians either. In a world of infinite content we need trusted information sources and trusted information sifters more, not less.

2. Put new libraries in the places that people go to nowadays — supermarkets, hospitals, job centres, leisure centres, post offices, schools, train stations etc.There should also be much more co-ordination with other community services. Every government department should have a presence in every local library.

3. A universal library card is a very good idea. When you are born you should get a library card and you should have to opt out of the system if you don’t want it.

4. There needs to be a national library database but I am unconvinced by the idea of allowing people to take a book out of one library and return it to another. The idea would be complex and expensive and would undermine the idea of building local libraries and local communities.

5. Stop trying to please all of the people all of the time. Young children and seniors are the key target markets for local public libraries. Secondary audiences might be kids wanting to do their homework, people wanting to interact with government services and people running their own businesses. As for teens forget them. They have already been lost, although they might come back when they get older.

6. There needs to be a new library act and a national library strategy but strategy should be adjusted at the local level to take into account local circumstances. For example, a small rural library is likely to be different to a large metropolitan library.

7. There’s a problem with library staffing but this might turn out to be temporary.Firstly we might see a bookshop diaspora and secondly there is an untapped army of senior citizens just waiting to be asked if they’d like to help out at the local library.

8. Take on board a few ideas from book retailers. Ensure that the book stock is rotated frequently or is freshened up by specific promotions (cookbook month, crime month and so on). As for libraries selling books this is a good idea but it alone won’t save the local library. Adding cafes is also a good idea but this alone won’t solve anything.

9. Do not make libraries loud. A key strength of libraries is their quietness. Allow conversation in some areas but remember that some people are trying to escape the frenetic pace of the modern era. In a similar vein remember that the more the world accelerates and becomes digitalised the more some people will want somewhere to go where they can feel a sense of physical connection to others.

10. The idea that there should be more integration with local schools and the national curriculum is a no brainer. Just do it.

Best quote in the report? Public libraries are :“one of the few remaining community facilities. Where else is there free and safe community access”?

Future of Libraries


I’ve been ploughing through the DCMS report (UK) on public libraries. Talk about joined up gobbledegook. I’ve never seen so many “outcomes”, “deliverables” and “access” in my life. Actually that’s not quite true. I once got involved with a UK government report looking at creativity in education and the final report was similarly unreadable.

The process behind the report was similarly superficial too. Just ask a bunch of people whose egos will respond to being asked, add some sexy design and, hey presto, a report that looks great at first glance but has absolutely no substance whatsoever. Of course this isn’t actually a problem because it’s the “reaching out” — the consultation with “stakeholders” that really counts. Nobody will read the whole report anyway.

The Future of National Libraries


Ellen at the State Library of NSW has sent me a link to a paper from the National Library of Scotland (NLS) that considers the influences that will shape the development of the NLS over the next 20 years. I really should be reading a modernisation review of public libraries from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (UK) sent to me by Andrew in England, but somehow this paper caught my eye. As a result I printed out all 85 pages and started reading it on a long train journey last night. Here’s my take on the report.

First of all it is important to note that this is a think piece is about national libraries, which is not wholly the same as either research libraries or public libraries although the overlap is considerable. It is also a linear futures thinking piece as opposed to a more multi-polar scenarios document.

First of all their key drivers of change:

1. Changing patterns of publishing
2. Shifting customer needs and behaviour
3. New competition
4. The political environment
5. Internal organisational issues

The paper looks at each of these drivers and considers likely impact. Interesting, both sustainability and digitalisation were considered as givens and it is made clear that the responsibility for digital literacy lies with the education sector not national libraries.

I partly agree with this last point and on balance I also agree that digitalisation should be a theme running throughout all the thinking. However, I also believe that they might be missing something. If you were to look at the future of national libraries from a scenarios perspective you would have one scenario where the thinking around sustainability and digitalisation is turned on its head. Anyway, here’s what they say (my words) about demographics (shifting customer needs), competition, government and internal issues.


Declining number of younger users
Rising number of older people, especially very old people (e.g. number of over 75s in Scotland are expected to rise by 81% by 2031). This means that even by 2030 there will be significant numbers of digital immigrants around, many of whom will still prefer paper formats.
Booming interest in family history (partly, I assume, due to ageing and globalisation)
Greater diversity in terms of student types
Younger users seeing “little need or desire to visit the physical library” (I’ll come back to this point at the end).


Commercial information suppliers will continue to compete with NLS
Connectivity and digitalisation mean increased opportunities for collaboration. Likely mergers between institutions and organisations in the ‘cultural resources’ or ‘memory institutions’ space (i.e. libraries, art galleries, museums, film archives, sound archives etc). This will be driven largely by the digitalisation of materials, which will lead to an ever-greater integration of the content owing institutions themselves. I think this is a very important point. We will experience a blurring between what art galleries, museums and libraries do or represent and national libraries will shift from collecting books to collecting all kinds of items relating to cultural and intellectual heritage.


We should assume that governments will continue to seek cost savings and this will force libraries to develop new income streams. This will also lead to the development of more paid-for services. This is unlikely to result in a total paradigm shift from free to fee but there will be a significant move towards payment for premium services. The rise of e-books and online information will also drive the trend towards hybrid charging models because of the easy availability of mobile and online micro- payments.

Internal organisational issues

A big issue is recruiting younger people into the profession, although it seems to me that the idea of professional librarianship will slowly fade away. The model of the future will be around information professionals and this will encompass a variety of skills ranging from IT and fundraising to management, marketing and even early years education and aged-care specialists.

Other points of interest

Libraries will shift from passive collators to active co-creators of information. Customers will demand more personalisation around ‘their’ information.There will be more do-it-yourself and self-service options. There will be greater automation due to the explosion of content national libraries can no longer collect everything — the shift will be towards selection or edited collections.

OK, so what has the paper missed?

First of all there seems to be little or no discussion of the physical space. Indeed, one author says: “:it becomes increasingly unlikely that users will ever visit the physical premises and they will increasingly have an expectation that services will be delivered directly to their devices wherever they are.” True. This will happen. But some people will still value the physical space in much the same way that some people will still value paper over pixels.

Another issue that is not really discussed relates to information trust. If there is an explosion of content one of the consequences is a declining level of quality. If people have shorter attention spans and information quality is declining them surely what some people will need is someone to talk to whom they trust. Technology can do this up to a point but I think people in combination with technology do it much better.
And this leads me onto my final point, which is that the authors are following the technology ahead of the psychology. Libraries are not just about books. They are also about people.

Read the whole paper yourself here:

Creativity and Depression

Have you ever wondered why depression is commonly associated with creative genius? According to Paul Wolf, a clinical pathologist at the University of California. Einstein, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Ravel, Goya, Michelangelo and Warhol all suffered from diseases that are now thought to have contributed to their greatness. Melancholy, in particular, seems to be common amongst great sculptors, painters, writers and composers and Asperger’s syndrome has been linked with extreme perseverance, perfectionism and a disregard for the opinions of one’s peers — exactly the behaviour one needs to create masterpieces that defy prevailing logic or make no immediate or logical sense to the outside world.

The idea of artistic genius being related to madness goes back centuries but recent discoveries in neuroscience are beginning to explain why this might be the case. Ravel wasn’t mad in today’s terms but he was almost certainly suffering from Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) when he composed ‘Bolero’ at the age of 53. FTD is a disease whereby the frontal lobe of the brain, and possibly the temporal lobe of the brain, shrinks. The brain is made up of various areas and networks, which control or inhibit other areas, so when one area or circuit is damaged other areas or circuits can come to the fore. Indeed, when certain circuits are injured or damaged beyond repair the result can be a re-wiring of the brain whereby other brain functions become stronger. A parallel here, perhaps, is blindness. If sight is removed other senses such as smell or hearing can become stronger, so perhaps release of artistic talent is in some way dependent in some people on the loss of one or more of the senses, which is in turn related in some way to the release of inhibitions. I have no experience of this but from a purely personal standpoint I do seem to be able to think better when I remove certain stimuli and it is perhaps no accident that some people close their eyes when they are thinking because this taps into certain parts of their brains.

In Ravel’s case brain disease meant that he had difficulty writing musical scores and there are examples of other artists that either lose the urge or the skill to paint or to compose when the right side of the posterior brain is damaged. Conversely, there are examples where severe brain damage is a catalyst for creativity. One such case involved a scientist called Dr Anne Adams who suffered from a condition identical to that of Ravel. In her late middle age Dr Adams gave up science and began painting. And at the age of 53 she started to paint the Bolero.

Now I’m obviously not saying that organisations should go in search of employees with bi-polar disorder, autism or dyslexia but I am saying that as societies we should be less negative about some of these conditions because as well as pain they can bring forth great things. The general point here is that individuals and organisations put too much emphasis on finding the right sort of person and discount anyone that does not fit their mental model of what an ideal

Shop of the Month

This will be a Harvard Business Review case study in a few years time – one on innovation and adding value to a well-established commodity market.

There’s a retail brand in Australia called Smiggle, owned by the Just Group (fashion primarily). They do stationary, erasers, that kind of stuff. Every nine-year old child I know in Australia is addicted to the brand. Very well designed products, great stores, good website and – most interestingly of all perhaps, they leverage colour and smell as part of the brand experience.

I think this is a global brand in the making.