Sunday, 13 May 2012

The public library and the forum

It is amusing when people use buzzwords to describe what they think is a new concept. And isn't. Gamification is one such word, the concept, theory and application of which goes back into the 90s and before.

Social media is another. There were services before Facebook, Twitter and the rest - well before. Forums, in particular, were one method for people to build up a profile, add content, discuss, and so forth. This short post discusses a recent public library campaign, and the use of such a forum - which has now been operating for over a decade - in the campaign.

Lochwinnoch is a commuter village, about 20 miles southwest of Glasgow in Renfrewshire, Scotland. I bought my first house and lived there, a decade or so ago. On the social side, I ended up moderating the forum on the village website, and was elected onto the Community Council until we moved to the Outer Hebrides. I'm still in contact with a fair few people there, and hang out on the forum under the moniker of Groundhog Day (long but irrelevant story).

It's a pretty town, with some good places to eat and drink, and a loch for doing sporty things in. It's worth a visit.

And if you visit, you'll find that it still has a public library.

Lochwinnoch community library

In 2010, Renfrewshire Council decided that they wanted to move the library - or rather, the contents of it. The problem is, those contents were to be reduced drastically to just a few paperbacks and moved into the village hall, evicting the after-school club that used the space. This forum thread was the first warning and debate about it.

As you can see, it was pretty muddled as to what was happening; the council also wanted to close The Annex, an old sports building that had been neglected for decades and was obviously in an advanced state of disrepair. Much of the arguing throughout the campaign took place on the town website forum.

This is a famous/notorious bear pit for debate, and for a town of the size of Lochwinnoch generates a huge amount of online traffic. Over the last decade, the forum has been a rather incident-happy place, reflecting the busy nature of the town. It's retrospectively moderated by a few people, mostly the senior couple (Barbara and Graeme) who set it up, with the usual courses of action for dealing with rogue poster being posts edited, deleted, then users banned. They do a good, and a fair, job of surgically removing clearly libelous material from the forum.

Though, as with all forums, it's impossible to keep everyone happy. Some people complain bitterly because they have been censored or blocked. And a vocal minority in Lochwinnoch who don't use it, hate it, often because it offers a means of mass dissemination and debate that they cannot control, or be the centre of. In rural communities, gossip and news acts often acts as a second currency, and forums disrupt this localised "soft information" economy. The owners/moderators of the forum and website have seen their fair share of legal threats - all of which have failed, due to a lack of substance in any of the allegations.

The forum is also notorious for attracting people who debate or argue under multiple identities for whatever reason, or for residents who hate each other and argue across many topics, over many years. Here's a good example. Ironically, it was due to the forum that the website won the "Best community website in Scotland" award so many times in the last decade - to the extent that the award was discontinued. A pity, as the annual ceremonies were great. The multiple forum personality thing was itself debated by, ironically, several residents using multiple personalities.

A campaign group sprang up pretty quickly, complete with a "Keep Lochwinnoch Library in the Library" facebook group. They also made a pretty good video which detailed the nonsensical economics behind the argument for moving the library, and some of the aspects of their campaign:

As mentioned in the video, even at an early stage, there was some uncertainty on the ownership of the building...

14 official threads for information were started on the forum. However, most of the debates, arguing and sockpuppeting took place on several other forum threads. And while some people stuck to the facts e.g. for example one pointing out that 22,000 visitors to the library broke down to almost 2000 a month, from a population of only 2500, most of the rest argued.

People, forum users and non-forum users, wrote letters and campaigned.

The response of local councillors to residents complaints about the library closing was ... not good. Not helped by councillors accidentally sending fruity emails to the wrong people. One of the local councillors returned to the village to do a presentation, putting the councils point of view with possibly the most selective bunch of statistics any of the audience had seen. This was quickly rebuffed by the local campaigners showing that the library was actually well used.

When the council indicated that they could maybe offload the library onto a community group, one such group put forward an alternative proposal, though not without controversy as to the feasibility. Alasdair Gray did a reading. A poster was made for downloading. Sockpuppeting and abuse degenerated (as it oft does) with legal threats against the forum owner - which (as usual)* did not come to anything. Another resident suggested withholding council tax. Lots of residents started taking out their maximum allocation of eight items. Letter writing to councillors became frenetic. The council held a "consultation" which was widely agreed to be a bit of a sham.

Meanwhile, the cash strapped council spent money elsewhere and tried to save money by replacing teachers with non-qualified people standing in front of a classroom. Seriously.

And, as per usual for online rural Scotland, the debate also became an arguing ground between Labour and SNP supporters.

And argumentative forum debates continued. Where it really took off were a number of residents arguing that the library should be moved, or closed, or - and this point was crucial - the existing library building being vacated. For some odd reason. "Numerous" anti-library residents joined the forum and argued against retaining the library building, often using the same style of writing, grammar or spelling mistakes.

SOTTS Sock Puppet Style! 65/365

Strange, that. As it turned out (there are ways that forum moderators can check this kind of thing) the number of real people arguing against the library staying in the library was in the single digits.

The low single digits.

In fact it seemed to be centred mostly (not totally) around one couple, who wouldn't attend any of the protest meetings (repeatedly saying "too busy") but who had the time to type several hundred posts. The couple ran a dog obedience training class and, as one of them posted on his facebook profile, were looking to expand into new premises, when such premises became available. Who knows why they wanted the library moved out of the library building. Guess we'll never know, as most of their forum accounts were deactivated, and the remainder have been silent for a while. The behavior of the anti-librarian posters was best summarised in this post (Mickey Recounts is an anagram and also a sockpuppeter).

How did the library campaign end? Sort of well. And sort of not. It turned out that one eagle eyed resident spotted that the council could not dispose of the building and kick the library out. Cut to June 2011, and the councillor who did the presentation with the dodgy statistics sends this letter to residents.

And the council reduced costs anyway, as they "retired" two of the three librarians, leaving just Margaret as the lone qualified librarian in the building.

To quote Lesley from one of the forum threads:
I think that finally we can draw a line under the library issue now. We have 2 Labour and 1 SNP councillors and a council with a Labour majority. The Labour candidates said it was in their manifesto to leave our library where it is and even the SNP said at the meeting called by Lochinnoch Elderly Forum that they would not revisit the issue and the library would remain in the library building.

The whole thing was unnecessary, though. And I don't believe for a second that it's truly or permanently over. When the council next needs to reduce its budgetary spend - something that comes up every year - it's quite possible that funding for books, for the last remaining member of staff, for opening hours, will be squeezed. That's part of the problem with library campaigning; even if you win, it's often a stay of execution. If you do manage to save your local public library, you have to use it and make sure it isn't eventually killed, more slowly, in death by a thousand cuts.

Why is this a strange case? Because the case for moving the library was so badly made as to be bogus. And the real reason for the move was never clear. It's possible that a developer had their eye on the library building and would have paid the council well for it. Or a business wanted it for their own purpose. Or some other reason, as the official one - of saving council money - was just false.

If you're in Lochwinnoch, drop in to the library. It's really nice inside; lots of things to browse; there are PCs for use, and some interesting local history material. Long may it stay open, be used, and be well used at that.

* - There have been several legal threats against the forum over the last decade, and it's gotten to the point where the website maintainers - who do this for the community without payment - are bored with silly and empty threats. None have been credible. All have been from people aggrieved that someone has posted something they don't agree with. Everyone has options; agree with something, disagree with something, ignore it, or start their own blog or forum.

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