My reflections on a hackathon for libraries


Earlier this month I was a mentor at a Product Forge hackathon. Product Forge hackathons bring together designers, developers and entrepreneurs over 3 days to develop new ideas, overcome challenges and make new connections. Professionals, students, graduates and freelancers formed small cross-functional teams to to look at the topic of libraries and to consider what the libraries of the future might be. They worked on a product prototype over the 3 days with support from industry experts at the Scottish Libraries and Information Council and the Carnegie UK Trust. In the past, hacks for public services haven’t always worked as well as they might have because there were no strong links between practitioners, technologists and creatives. Essentially you’d have a room full of super talented makers with no insight into the real gnarly problems out there in services. Until this year with Product Forge’s dedicated support and method of organising hacks for public services (start with the service then organise the makers) my benchmark for a hack was the NHS Hack Scotland weekend back in the heady days of 2013. Between then and now I had been a little concerned about public sector hack fatigue because you couldn’t throw a rock in Scotland’s central belt without hitting a hack (or indeed a ‘hack’ or ‘jam‘) and I was hearing from some folk in the tech community at least that it was starting to just feel like being asked to work for free. And that’s not a good feeling. Anyway, Product Forge is where it’s at and I hope more public services (I include charities and social enterprises in that term) will approach Product Forge if they need help getting a hack together. Here are some of my reflections from the Future Libraries hack. I’m going high level here. If you want details about the event overall, check out this short film of the highlights.

Discussion about what is digital exclusion, skill and literacy really is

 I talked to some folk about the level of commentary and research coming out lately that I’m not entirely comfortable with because it links lack of digital skill and literacy with a very narrow set of expectations around how computers and the Internet ‘should’ be used. Read: If you can’t use a keyboard or the Office suite you may be considered unskilled or digitally excluded. I need to call bullshit. I have been writing something for months about this particular hive of bees in my bonnet and I just can’t get it out because more and more research about ‘digital exclusion’ keeps appearing. So hold tight.

Really great interaction between library staff and participants

This helped participants understand the lack of technology resource some people have. While teams were getting the details of their ideas together there were some assumptions about how some citizens might be able to access a web based service or app when they are away from the library. I distinctly remember meeting a librarian at SCVO’s #DigiScotFest in 2014 who said, ‘Libraries are digital A&Es’ and that is still very much the case. Back in 2014 the digital by default revolution was in full swing and libraries were getting hammered with jobseekers and other benefits claimants who were trying to wrap their heads around using all these new digital services. Fast forward two and a bit years and libraries are still feeling the pressure, however, even with a demonstrable increase in mobile internet access amongst those with limited resources, folk are still flocking to libraries to be able to interact with some government services. This is related to my point above and again, I’ll be writing something about what I think is going on but (spoiler alert!) I suspect the same assumptions about how digital services ‘should’ be accessed and used are actually creating the exclusion we’re all clucking our tongues about. Maybe we should stop othering folk considered to be ‘disadvantaged’ and have a look at the quality of the spectrum of user journeys through the digital services of governments.

A seemingly wacky set of digital activities and assets in libraries

I asked one librarian what he would change first if he had a boat load of money and it could only be spent improving his library. He said, ‘It’s such a small thing but I’d put in the ability for people to access wireless printing.’ He told me a story about all the people who come to print documents from their mobile devices and having to tell them they can only print by logging into a terminal. On the face of it this kind of situation seems nuts when held up against the roll out of 3D printers in every Scottish library service. While the aim of 3D printers and makerspaces in libraries is to appeal to new audiences, it would be cool to know that the more basic needs of existing audiences are also priorities. The latest episode of the Freakonomics podcast, In Praise of Maintenance, asks ‘Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?’ It is a must listen for those of us grappling with modernising and future proofing public services.

Libraries rule

One of the librarians I talked to over the weekend just couldn’t believe folk were taking the time to participate in the event and that people were actually interested in libraries all the way from strategy to delivery. Some people were totally surprised to find out about all the things libraries do and what they offer beyond lending. It is an affliction of public servants that they don’t usually recognise how interesting and important their work is and most librarians I met last weekend were firmly in that camp. Product Forge is lighting my fire for stacks of reasons but one of the biggest is it is bringing people together who would otherwise never reasonably meet. Not only are these people meeting but they are carrying out deep interactions that result in valuable relationships. I know from experience that working in public service is an isolating experience and, in my case, was also a deskilling experience. Folk need a nudge to get out, look at the landscape and mix with people who are not strictly working in their same field or discipline. None of us who work to serve the public should be working in isolation and we should all definitely be working better with citizens so thanks to Product Forge, SLIC and Carnegie Trust for helping with the nudge.

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Ross Clark 4 Years Ago
Another excellent blog, thanks for sharing Leah. Interesting perspective on the shift in thinking that Hackathons are starting to feel like 'work for free' for the participants - hadn't appreciated the field is so saturated.
Leah Lockhart 4 Years ago in reply to Ross Clark .
Hey Ross! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think the 'work for free' feel can come when there are a lot of hacks going on over a relatively short period. IMHO there was a time a couple/few years ago in public services when hacks were a cool thing to do and they might not have been set up all that well. For example, hacks with product or service ideas pre-defined by the host organisation tend to feel icky, prizes that do not demonstrate any real value exchange between the team and the organisation isn't great- that kind of thing. I suspect a lot of that sort of thing happened because risk averse organisations were trying to do something (hackathons) that traditionally has totally unknown outcomes. This is why I think Product Forge getting on board is so important- they are from the tech community so can set up a hack the way it should be, get the right support and information in place *and* link technologists with service providers. The field isn't so saturated any more so it's a great time for Product Forge to come in to provide good support. You should set up a hack, Ross!