Chair: David Hanna
I think we might start the last session of this conference and the one thing standing between you and the drinks session at 5 o’clock. I’m pleased to say that I can’t think of anyone I’d rather listen to speaking in that context than Charles Leadbeater. He’s one of the world’s leading authorities on innovation and creativity in organisations and he’s advised an astonishing array of organisations and companies, everything from the BBC, Channel 4, through Microsoft and BP to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which surprised me a little so I asked him about that and he said it didn’t work all that well. So we might want to explore that one in the questions.
Charles is genuinely an engaging thinker about the nature of the world in which we operate and therefore the nature of the world in which the library needs to connect. For his sins he is responsible for bringing us Bridget Jones’s Diary and you can ask him about that one as well. But he casts himself around and one of the major topics he’s – one of the major tasks - he’s working on at the moment is a project with the Demos Foundation in the UK, funded by the British Government and a number of others, called the Atlas of Ideas, looking at innovation systems and the emergence of China, India and Korea and what that means for the UK. But it’s actually going to mean a heck of a lot for the rest of us so we’re planning on, in the spirit of sharing information, piggy-backing on that if we can.
Without further ado, I would like call on Charles to address us.
Speaker: Charles Leadbeater
Well, thank you very much, David. Thank you very much to everyone in the State Library for inviting me to come out. Melbourne is one of my favourite cities so it’s always a tremendous pleasure to come here. I should explain that my mother wrote my CV so that explains that. And what it didn’t say is that I used to be a journalist and I worked for about 10 years on The Financial Times and then went to The Independent where I helped Helen Fielding devise Bridget Jones’s Diary. And by the end I had this title, I was on the eighteenth floor of Canary Wharf and I had this title, I was Executive Assistant Deputy Editor. And if you’ve ever been in an organisation with anyone with that kind of title you know that meant I was in charge of chairs. Anyone who wanted a new chair, they came to me. And basically my story was that the more senior I got the longer the title, the more boring my job got and the more boring I got.
So about 10 years ago I just decided that I’d had enough and by that stage newspapers which I joined – and they were still – actually, The Financial Times when I joined it was printed on old printing presses with very old technology, very romantic in a way. They’d just become ‘just in time’ production processes. We had just enough journalists to produce just enough copy for each night but very little left over. And I was fed up really of just sort of running this machine ever harder and doing less and less of what I thought journalism was really about. So I started working for myself and scouting out ideas and I’ve been doing that now for 10 years.
So - and in the course of that I’ve touched on libraries and I did a big report for the UK Government about the future of libraries. And libraries actually have played a really important role in my life. I grew up in a town called Basingstoke in Hampshire, and Basingstoke makes Perth look vibrant. There was – there was one, it wasn’t even a bookshop. There was a stationers called WH Smith, which was the only place you could buy books and the only other place you could go was the library. And it happened to be quite a large library and I would go every Saturday morning with my parents and I would get my books from the children’s bit and they would take a lot longer looking at books and I would just wander round the library. And I would gravitate each week to the philosophy section, I had no idea why, and I would just get the books down and look at them and sort of play with them and then put them back. I revised for exams in the library, I wrote my application to university in the library, checking at the last minute the correct spelling of the college that I was applying to, which I luckily got right.
And then, indeed, I went to university and at university I then arrived in this place that was amazing. My college had a library that was bigger than Basingstoke’s for an entire town and it was just a college. And then I had a choice of six or seven libraries of various eras, one, the oldest in Britain, that I could go and work in and it was just like living in a cornucopia really. And so libraries for me have been very, very important and so it is concerning and perplexing and in a vague sense I have got a sense of betrayal that my kids don’t go to libraries. They read books, they go on the Internet, they have more books than I ever had but for some reasons they just don’t go. Libraries don’t figure in their lives in any kind of way, in the way that they did in my life. And what worries me about that is that if we neglect the public platforms of shared knowledge which underpin our society and culture then we endanger something very, very vital and the situation of libraries is absolutely critical to that.
So I did this review of libraries for the government and actually came to Melbourne in the course of that and met Barbara Horn and talked to Barb and others about plans for the City Library, and actually at lunchtime I went down to look at what the outcome of those plans was. And it was very interesting to compare the discussions this morning with what I saw and observed in that library at lunchtime. It’s a fantastically successful place it seems to me. Libraries are amazing because no one asks you what you’re doing when you walk in and no one tries to sell you anything. Now that’s a really odd experience in a largely consumer society where, largely, when you walk into buildings someone says, ‘Excuse me, can I help you?’ Actually, you can just walk in. So it’s open, highly diverse. There were people eating, someone playing the piano, some people reading, others studying, many on the computer: so a huge diversity of activity.
And a word that kept coming back, and, interestingly, Matthew used it a lot in his talk, was that they were participating. They weren’t just consumers and they weren’t working. They were doing something in between consumption and work and it was to do with participation, contribution, action. And it made me think about the word wisdom, which I know was used earlier and a lot of you I think probably like. It didn’t strike me as this was a place where the word wisdom made sense actually. Or, if it was wisdom, it was collective wisdom or collaborative wisdom. They didn’t go there for the wisdom of librarians, they went there to do things themselves. They went there for self-help; the library is a space in which they could use tools, not just receive a service. Libraries I think are spaces for self-organisation. That’s when they really, really work. They’re not actually services. The best experience of going to a library is when you don’t use a service because you can find exactly what you need without having to ask someone.
So the outcome of my review of libraries for the UK Government was that there just aren’t enough like Melbourne City Library and my conclusion was that public libraries, at least in the UK, are institutions that are stuck and librarians as a profession are stuck. Now the good news is that you’re not alone because lots of public professions I think are stuck. I think social workers are stuck, I think teachers are stuck, I think a lot of public service managers are stuck and I think a lot of our public institutions are stuck. But the problem is that the longer you remain stuck the more that it becomes like a chronic condition and you know that when you’ve got a chronic condition you become prone to crises and when you get a crisis it’s very difficult to recover. And the other problem is that turning around a public service, unsticking it, takes, in my view, between five and 10 years and it takes real leadership to take big risks. So unless you start now the trend that we hear about this morning from Matthew and Mary – this afternoon from Matthew and Mary Jane, trends in podcasting and all the rest of it, they are just going to carry on and on and on and the time for you to act is going to get shorter and shorter and shorter.
So I’m going to say a little bit about what all that means for the role of libraries in an economy and a society that’s creative, and I just want to say a little bit about the role of libraries in a society that’s becoming in ways more creative. The best writer on creativity, in my experience, is a Hungarian American called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who’s written a series of books about creativity, and he says if you want to know what creativity is then you have to look at where it takes place. And I was invited to talk about libraries and the creative economy. People have talked, Richard Florida has talked, about the creative class. Other people have talked about the creative industries, which are a much narrower idea. I think really the best way to think about libraries is not in the context of either of those really but in their role in creating a creative society. That’s what our goal should be: a society of creativity in which creativity is something that’s open to all. That is I think part of the mission of libraries.
And I just want to tell two stories really about what creativity might be and what libraries and the role of librarians or people running libraries might be. I think we’re used to a very traditional story about creativity, and that is that creativity really comes from special people who work in special places. And it came home to me very powerfully listening to Joel the association of knowledge with priestly activities in monasteries, that historic association. And all throughout society we see secular priesthoods. I think teachers are a secular priesthood, doctors are a secular priesthood, and they are all organised around protecting knowledge. And doing so in special places where they dominate the language, the rituals, the conventions. Hospitals are very like kind of modern monasteries in a very funny kind of way. And so throughout society you see this replaying of that kind of monastic thing. Cut people off from the world, free form market pressures, create some gateways in which ideas will flow out to society, to consumers who are less passive, less knowledgeable, waiting.
And the underlying ideas are that there is knowledge over here that can be codified and then sent and ultimately received by people over here. And underlying that, in our notions of creativity, are that authors know what their inventions are for; that’s why they patent them. And that’s what a patent does. The author says, ‘This is what this invention is for’ and so that the author, the creator of the idea, knows what it’s for and so as a result the consumer only has a yes/no choice, ‘Do I like this or not?’, because the author has already decided what the invention is for. So you see this reflected then, this idea of this very – creativity as a very closed pipeline process in lots of organisations. In big research labs like the Thomas J Watson labs and the Bell labs or Phillips’ lab in Eindhoven, which I visited, specialist activities in companies, research universities and so on and so forth. You want creativity: special people, special places.
So that’s one account but I think it’s increasingly breaking down, this account of special people and special places, and it’s breaking down for many of the reasons that Matthew talked about this afternoon. And the best way to convey some of that is just to give you perhaps some anecdotes and metaphors. The best way I think to sum up what Matthew is talking about is that people don’t want just to be spectators, they want to be players. The audience does not want to sit in rows, it wants to take to the stage. In profession after profession after profession this is now true; that the spectators want to be players. They want to take to the pitch at least some of the time. That does not mean that the professional players need to exit the pitch, and often the professionals will be the best resourced and the best trained and the most knowledgeable. But they will now exist in domain after domain in a much larger space with many, many more players.
So Linda talked about astronomy and this virtual observatory linking a hundred different researches. There’s another trend in astronomy that’s been incredibly powerful over the last 30 years, which is the resurgence of amateur astronomy. So basically astronomy starts as an amateur activity and in the late 19th and then into the 20th century it becomes a public activity, largely publicly funded and with professionals dominating. And I’m of a generation that can remember the moon shots and when the moon shots took place we would always go over to Jodrell Bank and there was Jodrell Bank and would swing round a huge telescope and it was massive. And only Jodrell Bank could see far away. Well, thanks to very cheap Dobsonian digital telescopes, light sensitive transistors which replace old ways of sensing light and the internet, six amateur astronomers linked together can do what Jodrell Bank used to do 20 years ago. And so, as well as the professionals moving on, this whole amateur world of astronomy has now exploded and groups of amateurs can now do what only professionals used to be able to do.
In my own profession, former profession, journalism, people have talked a lot about blogging already but it’s really striking. When I was a journalist the whole point was not to have anything to do with the readers. The last thing you wanted to do was actually meet someone who read your newspaper and might then tell you what they read because you might, horror of horror, find out they don’t read the stuff you write, which is the – you know, who wants to hear that? We would allow readers into the newspaper in these two tiny, tiny places. They could write a letter and if they wrote a letter, generally speaking, we would cut it in half, condescend to them and publish if they were especially nice to us. And anything controversial of course we wouldn’t publish. Or if they’d slept with the editor’s wife at some point in the past they could write on the op ed page. Two places.
So now 80,000 blogs a day. The readers, shock horror, want to become writers and publishers. At least some of them do some of the time. That does not mean they want to become journalists but they do want to have a voice in the conversation. And much of it is drivel but much of what we count as drivel might be quite interesting just to very small audiences who they want to have a conversation with. So this is a huge challenge for newspapers. How does a big newspaper become conversational with its readers? As conversational as a local newspaper? And it’s also having a really powerful effect that’s going to carry on coming and coming and coming. So July the 7th last year when London was bombed by terrorist bombs: four hours the BBC gets 20,000 emails from citizen journalists, 200 photographs and about six pieces of video. And the evening news that night, going out to millions of people, leads with video taken by a camera phone by someone who was a viewer but who has now become a contributor. This has a huge implication for the BBC’s relationship with the people it counts as its viewers and licence fee payers because they become contributors, participants, possibly investors, members maybe but not just consumers.
So no one has yet mentioned Wikipedia, and I’m sure you all know Wikipedia. Wikipedia, started by Jimmy Wales, has had its problems but I think has dealt with them more openly than any newspaper would. Wikipedia now gets more web traffic than thenewyorktimes.com. So the biggest, best information brand in the United States gets less web traffic than a self-help encyclopedia set up four years ago. How many employees does it have? One, which is employed last year. So something very important is going on and that should be a challenge to all of us in this room because if Wikipedia can do that with one employee why aren’t we doing it in the library space? Or, move on, what’s the biggest challenge to Microsoft? It’s Linux, an open source software. Why? Because no one can buy it: it can’t be acquired, it can’t be run out of business. And open source software runs most of the internet. Without open source, we wouldn’t have the internet.
Computer games, which Mathew mentioned: why are computer games growing like that whereas films are growing much more slowly? Well, most of the content of computer games is actually created by the players. Ninety per cent of the content of the online sims is created by the players. So there’s a tool in the online sims that you can use to draw in the edging of a rug in your living room in your house. Four hundred thousand people have downloaded this tool. So this is a huge challenge to our education system. How could you devise a tool that 400,000 young people wanted to download that taught them quadratic equations? Well, the answer is they don’t want to be treated like consumers. They want to be treated like players, participants and contributors. And it has really powerful economics. You need a game of a million players. You only need one per cent of the players to be developers contributing ideas and you’ve got a development workforce of 10,000 people working for free. That is the economics of computer games. I went in China to see the biggest online computer gaming company in China, called Shanda. It services 170 million people with 600 employees. So the logic and economics of these things are very powerful.
Who here has heard of eBay? Put your hands up. Let’s see. And everyone titters, what a stupid question. 1995: 122 people trading on eBay. 2005: 122 million. How did that happen? Well, one of the answers is that eBay gives people tools so they do it themselves. eBay is not a service. eBay is a platform and a set of tools and you decide what to sell, you decide the price through an auction, you decide how to advertise it, how to ship it, how to pay for it. It’s a self-help platform. It’s a kind of managed commons that eBay charges you a fee to use but actually most of it is done by you. It’s a company built on a very, very large community, a community-based company if you like.
So what we’re going to see are more and more of these mass participative forms of collaborative creativity. And just think about the models that they imply. These are not value chains, they’re not pipelines. Think about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is built up by lots and lots of people adding small bits of information and choosing where to put it. It’s more like a bird's nest. Just draw it in your mind. What is it like? It’s like a bird's nest with little pieces of straws of information all adding up to create a nest. Except this is a nest that builds itself; there’s no bird building it. So these models are much more like swarms or communities or movement or mutuals but they’re not like value chains. They’re not delivering things down a pipeline to waiting people. And this era scrambles up all the categories that we’ve grown used to using to understand our world. This is an era in which the consumers some of the time want to be producers. And if the consumers can be producers then that means that demand can create it’s own supply, which is part of Matthew’s point about user-created content. And it also means that this neat way that we divide the world up between professionals over here and amateurs over here means that between the professional and the amateur there are all sorts of gradations of skill, knowledge, commitment and engagement.
I think in field after field now there are people called Pro-Ams who are amateurs but do things to very, very high standards, who want to treat their leisure almost as a form of work because they want things that are engaging, active and challenging. And it means that fundamentally we need to think about the value that’s created not as a service, or not just as a service, but providing people with tools and platforms where they can collaborate to create value together. And the public sector - this should be meat and drink because actually the public sector has always done this. City maps are a fantastic example. The city map creates a picture of an objectified public space. It’s a public system. But in the hands of an individual it becomes a tool for private purposes. The postal system is a public system but the stamp is private tool and the letter his private tool. So what you see with the creation of postal systems is simultaneously this system for numbering houses, addresses, linking people to them; a huge sort of systematisation and standardisation of our public realm. But it allows a huge explosion of private communication through letter writing. Florence Nightingale achieved her ends by writing thousands and thousands of letters.
So time and again you see that the public sector works best not when it’s just delivering a service but when it’s giving people tools and platforms where they can solve problems themselves. So these models come from multiplying sources of ideas, from consumers who are increasingly innovators and contributors and the assumptions underlying this kind of model are that innovation is very social, it’s dynamic, authorship is often joint. Linux is not the product of a single author; Linux is the product of joint authorship. So is Wikipedia. Knowledge is not created by send and receive, it’s created by constant interaction and innovation is often a kind of mass activity. And, as I said, you can see all these kinds of applications.
Now, where do libraries stand? Well, libraries of course are, in many ways, of this open, communal world. The atmosphere you see down in that library in Flinders Lane is very like the atmosphere of these communities: open, very diverse, people using tools for their own ends, a common resource but used for very private purposes, a public platform; very peer-to-peer because you’re really using things that other people have used. And so in many ways libraries foreshadow and are part of, should be part of, this world that we’re seeing created except there’s something that seems to stop us getting into it, that this world is moving too fast for us in some kind of way. And so libraries are also I think – have another foot in this world of special people and special places. Libraries are defined by funny routines, by a profession that has its own kind of rituals and language. They’re off-putting. They’re quiet, which is good but sometimes not so good. So in a way libraries are inflexible, fixed assets.
I was struck by Joel talking about the Carnegie libraries. It’s a fantastic innovation, the Carnegie libraries, he was absolutely right. But, actually, one of the problems in the UK is we’ve got too many Carnegie libraries and they’re in the right places for a 19th century society but not in the right places for a 21st-century society. And one of our biggest problems is: how do you get rid of inflexible, ill-designed resources and transform them into new resources?
So the library is kind of posed with a foot in both camps. Part of its culture is open, democratic, participative and part, I think, quite closed, inward looking and defensive, and I would say that this is reflected in a lot of the language that I’ve heard today. But librarians want to talk the language of participation and openness but actually you’re torn back to language of guardianship. And so words I’ve heard are: guardian, protectors, conservers, gate keepers. I think you’ve got to get rid of all of that. It’s just going to go, that whole sense that you can be guardians of knowledge. People will be guardians of knowledge themselves. They might want advice, help, and actually you need to think of a whole set of other words about librarians and libraries which are relaxing, exciting, welcoming, friendly, conversational, social, flirtatious. A whole set of things that people go to libraries for. They do not just go for the wisdom of librarians.
So now the good news is that there are lots and lots of organisations posed in this space. The BBC, which I’ve advised and helped, is absolutely in this space and Mary Jane’s presentation about the ABC echoed that. The BBC is a classic special people, special places organisations. Hire bright people, cut them off from market pressures, put them in special conditions: they create great content that people want to watch. Well, at least, they did when bandwidth was limited and there was only one thing on at nine o’clock at night but these days there’s lots of things on.
And so the future of the BBC is going to be about creating services that draw people in but then amplifying the impact by creating communities, tools, forms of collaboration, so that people can start doing things themselves; not just back up to the BBC but amongst themselves. So you see that in the news and discussion group around news stories, around the communities, around particular interests. One of my favourite BBC projects is the BBC Neighbourhood Gardener scheme, which is ‘You’ve seen a gardening program on TV, you want some local help, here’s the local neighbourhood gardener who can retrain and will help you’ and it creates social capital and bonding. So in other words, the BBC has to be service with a platform and tools that leads to collaboration and conversation, which cements more social capital. If it just tries to be a service delivering personalised on-demand services it will not survive as a public sector broadcaster. Absolutely no doubt about it, the licence fee will just go. And if that happens that will be a disaster for British society and it will be a disaster, in some ways, more widely as well.
You see it – I went to Philips. Philips has a huge research establishment in Eindhoven. It’s where they invented the Philips light bulb, which is still at the heart of Philips’ wealth as a company, and it’s an amazing place surrounded by barbed wire. And there’s a security box, you have to go through a most amazing security to get in because this was a special place for special people and other people weren’t allowed in. You had to keep the knowledge inside. Finally, too late, they’ve understood that actually to create knowledge you need interaction. You need people coming and going, you need small companies in there as well. Customers, importantly, need to come in. So finally they’re taking the barbed wire down and they’re getting rid of security and opening up as a platform for regional innovation. So time and again you’ll see in profession after profession people, journalists, doctors, teachers, social workers, challenged by this sense of their professional identity, their knowledge monopoly being challenged by people who’ve now got access to new source of information and advice.
Well, how should libraries move forward? Well, I think you see quite a lot of the first ‘reform of the traditional’ model. Let’s create some new services, let’s go digital, put some computers in. Let’s add a café because people like that. Smarten up the building. So close your Carnegie library and create something called an ‘ideas store’ with a fancy new architect, change location, new names, new brands and so on and so forth. I think that can do a bit to stem decline but I’m not sure that it’s the kind of re-modeling, re-thinking that’s really required. I think there’s a step on from that that you see, which is people then searching for new hybrids. Why do libraries have to be in libraries? Maybe libraries can be in children’s centres. Or maybe libraries can join up with schools in new combinations. Or maybe we can have a much more collaborative approach with other services. And we heard quite a bit of that and I think there’s a huge amount of that that can be done as well.
One of the things that struck me most forcefully about UK libraries, and I’m not sure whether this is true in Australia but in UK libraries, is there is just massive duplication and waste. We have 143 library authorities, all doing basically the same jobs. And they complain constantly about lack of resources but actually never think really about how they can combine and so we have a library network that never works as a network. It never, ever combines to make a national offer. We never, ever make an offer to the nation, ‘The library can do this for you’. It’s only ever very particular and thus very patchy. Some places very good, other places not very good.
So I think these are fine as far as they go. They’re about saving the established models, reforming current institutions, and you see similar efforts around hospitals and around schools. But just use an analogy just for a moment from health to think about what might be required. The biggest challenge facing health in the UK is not in hospitals. The biggest challenge is diabetes. Diabetes costs the NHS £5 million a day. By the time a diabetic gets to hospital it’s too late. Where you need to start dealing with diabetes is out there in homes and kitchens and supermarkets and people’s lifestyles and diets, helping themselves manage and also helping them prevent. So the average diabetic spends three hours a year with doctor, spends 8000 hours a year self-managing. The big gain is in the self-management not in the professional service. If we can improve self-management then you get a big potential saving to the NHS.
So the answer is that the front line of health care is not in hospitals. The front line is out there. And that’s where the resources, the knowledge, the tools, they need to be distributed, close to people, in the vernacular not in professional language. So once you build a hospital it’s absolutely clear what you’ve got to do to run it efficiently: you’ve got to fill it up. You’ve got to have the beds used as much as possible but the sign of a healthy society is an empty hospital. But somehow all of our health debate is about how we fill hospitals. So this is the kind of mess that we can get into if we don’t think about outcomes and means to achieve them but instead think first about institutions and how we save them. So my plea to you would be to think mostly about outcomes. What is it that you want to achieve? Is it a society that reads, that shares? And if it is then think about the best way to achieve that, don’t think about defending current institutions and professions.
So I think that you need some new models for public services which are radical and different, which go beyond even what Singapore has done, which I think is all actually quite familiar in many ways. And those models should enact very basic library principles about democratic rights to information, knowledge, sharing, common resources for private uses. But it’s going to require very, very different organisational models. So these are, I think some of the design principles that you would have to use. I think that you would have to see the people who use your services not as users or consumers but as co-producers and co-designers, that it’s not a service you’re delivering to them. You’re giving them tools and a platform in which they can create things themselves. So distributed tools matter as well. Distributing tools, finance; allowing those to follow choices not forcing people into the boxes that we’ve already put services in. Highly collaborative and peer-to-peer. Mathew talked a lot about peer-to-peer.
Actually, the strength of these new collaborative models is that they are highly peer-to-peer. They mobilise peer knowledge, which tends to be cheaper and more accessible and often more trusted than professional knowledge. That means new roles for professionals, new definitions of their roles, new relationships with users, new kinds of training. Personalised services, which I think often implies not just a menu of choice but actually quite a conversational approach. If there’s one word that I think sums up what creativity is about it is conversation. Most creative activity comes from conversation, it comes from people sharing ideas, and so one of the things that I think is shocking for someone of my generation going into a modern university library. I now teach at Oxford and I went into the library of the place where I teach and lots of people and it’s like shocking that they’re talking in a library. But actually maybe libraries should be places of conversation. That might be their important role in the knowledge economy; that they’re places where people can share and debate ideas. And these things only work if they’re designed to evolve, if they’re modular and evolutionary.
So what might all of that mean? Well, it might mean that some – well, let me ask you a question. Who here at home has more than 20 books? Well, you see if they were all digital computer files we’d all be sharing them but because they’re bulky we don’t. But the library of the future might be allowing people to share one another’s private collections. So not thinking of it as a sort of central store but thinking of our private collections as being part of a collaborative resource. It could certainly mean using libraries as a base for kinds of Wikipedia or kinds of collective blogging or kinds of collective sharing of ideas and using the library as a physical space where that happens. I like the idea of people needing mediators and guides; people who help them think sideways. I think one of the problems that we have is that we think straight ahead often but don’t think sideways. Whether librarians, as currently trained, are the best people to turn to and whether they are people that other people will turn to for that kind of thinking sideways I’m not sure.
So one thing – and let me just leave you with this final thought. It’s not about technology. A lot of people have mentioned Google today and the challenge that Google represents as a kind of technological challenge about search and access and the Internet and so on and so forth. But to understand the challenge that Google represents and why it’s such a challenge, actually what you’ve got to look at is Google as an organisation. How the hell do they come up with those ideas so fast? And so I spent a day with one of the senior staff at Google. He’s employee number seven and he’s about 20 years younger than me and he’s probably – and his fortune is probably measured in similar billions of dollars.
And you have to take this story with a big pinch of salt because half of it’s bound to be bullshit but the story is every Friday all 7000 Google employees go to a Google company meeting at which they can ask any question they like of the Financial Officer, the Chief Executive Officer or the Chairman. Anyone can start a new project they like on anything without asking any permission of anyone until it attracts more than two people and you have to post the project on a website so that anyone can see what you’re doing and anyone can join in. But the initiative to start a project is entirely in the hands of people. They’re expected to do it. It’s part of their job to take initiatives to try new things out. At the end of each week everyone files. The only reporting system is that everyone files five bullet points of what they did this week and what they’re going to do next week and anyone can search that for the CEO, the Finance Office or the most lowly employee.
In other words, it’s a culture which is incredibly flat, very egalitarian, very nimble, very informal and very entrepreneurial. So you’re not up against the technology, you’re up against that. And what you’ve got to imagine is that public libraries could be as entrepreneurial, creative, open, dynamic and exciting. And they could be because all of the evidence of Wikipedia, Linux, and even of MySpace, is that actually people like collaboration, participation, sharing knowledge, common platforms, ease of access: all the values that libraries stand for they like. And they like getting more of it through this technology and our task is to try and create a public culture which is as dynamic and open as these private cultures are being and exploiting it and applying it and using it with people to create new value.
Just let me leave you with one final, final thought because there was a question earlier about the significance of all of this to the developing world. And the significance of this is very, very clear, which is just think about it in these very simple terms, that over the next 10 to 15 years just in Asia between 500 million and a billion people will probably be lifted out of poverty and become kind of middle class in India and China. And Microsoft sees each of those as a potential customer, and Microsoft wants each of them to buy a licence, and Murdoch wants each of them to buy a subscription.
And if you’re the Chinese Government or the Indian Government you’re thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, there must be some cheaper way of doing this,’ and the cheaper way of doing it is through open source, collaborative, shared platforms, which is why Microsoft is going to such lengths to run Linux out of business. Because if Linux succeeds then Microsoft’s options in China and India are much more limited. So at a global level, if we’re going to create a more integrated, genuinely equal society, actually access to knowledge becomes critical. And if we give up in the developed world on public platforms for knowledge embedded in libraries, if we let them wither, that idea will wither globally as well.
And so libraries have to join with broadcasters and arts organisations and universities to defend the space for public knowledge. Because without it actually we’ll sell ourselves to Monsanto and Microsoft and others who will want us to pay for it and, as a result, innovation will, I think, be harder, be slowed down, and will be less of an option for few people. Thanks very much.
Transcript from the Libraries & the Creative Economy session of the Library of the 21st Century Symposium, State Library of Victoria, Thursday 23 February, 2006.