Saturday 4 June 2016

Idea Spotlight User Community

An unexpected and unsolicited email arrives from The British Library, of which I am a member and regular user. It makes the heart sink and the blood boil - a terrible combination. I shall spare the blushes of the manager responsible for perpetrating the communication and preserve his (or her) anonymity.
'Hello' it begins by way of weirdly informal salutation, combining the impersonal and the matey, before inexplicably adopting the royal 'we':
We are contacting you from the British Library to inform you about an initiative to develop our services.  The purpose of the email is not to market or sell any of our services but to give you, as a user, an opportunity to submit ideas about what new services you would like us to offer by inviting you to join The ‘Idea Spotlight User Community’.

The 'Idea Spotlight User Community' - or I-SUC as I like to think of it - immediately puts one on guard, That second sentence, in all its defensive clarification and wayward syntax, is a foretaste of what is to come.

What is it, this Community I have been invited to join? My correspondent wastes no time in clarifying:

The Community is part of a project which aims to make our site at St Pancras in London one of the UK’s most open, creative and innovative public spaces for the 21st century and our initial focus will be services that we offer at our St Pancras site.  
The style is consistent in its repetition, redundancy and opacity. I'd like to know what other public spaces vie for pole position as open, creative and innovative. Heathrow Terminal 4? Trafalgar Square? Birmingham New Street station? How are their relative claims for supremacy evaluated? The presumption is that the site at St Pancras, or the St Pancras site, is currently punching below its weight when it comes to openness, creativity and innovation - but who has made that severe judgement? What line of reason led to such a highly debatable assertion? Where is the evidence?

This is all about further commercial commodification of this airy and noble space. There will be no end of trailblazing initiatives, each one better then the next. Costa coffee outlets? Paninis 'n' wraps? Cupcakes to die for? Late-nite opening for brainy singletons? Radiohead piped into the elevators?.

The once useful and interesting bookshop now sells no end of ghastly BL branded tat, the type of thing flogged in Oxford Street souvenir shops - is there no end to the kind of dreary initiatives aimed at creating vibrant public spaces? It's a library, not a sports bar.

After this opening, the language begins to fail entirely:
The Community is an ‘idea management platform’ which will enable you to submit ideas in response to specific questions and challenges to comment on other people’s ideas.  Ideas will be reviewed by us periodically and a decision taken on whether to take the ideas forward.  The process will be transparent and, [sicwe will give a clear explanation in the case of any ideas that we do not take forward.
The word 'ideas' is repeated six times, in case we're slow to cotton on. This 'platform' is really nothing more or less than what used to be known as a Suggestion Box, a humdrum feature of most companies in the pre-digital age. Nothing new there, apart from the fizz-buzz lexicon. There's more:

The platform will be officially launched in min-June [sic]  2016 but we are inviting some of our users are [sic] to join now and contribute prior to the main launch.  

The first 2 [sic] challenges we are posting are:
·        ‘Making the most of your first visit to the British Library’.  This will invite suggestions on how someone’s first experience of the BL could be enhanced.
·        ‘Meeting people at the British Library’.  This seeks to explore the assumption that people want to meet people that [sic] are researching similar topics by asking them what we can do to facilitate meetings and interactions.
We believe that we will get some great and unexpected ideas and know that we will learn much more about how we can develop services that our customers will find valuable. 
There you go - 'customers' and all that this dread word implies. I am not a customer, at least not in this context, because this vitally important institution is not a shop. I have for years been a regular user of the British Library's services and have benefited hugely from being able to access the vast collections at St Pancras and (until recently) Colindale. The staff at both locations have always been helpful, attentive and good-humoured in my experience (although things seem to have slipped in recent years - fewer librarians for a start, and the closure of Colindale and the relocation of its newspaper archive to a remote and inaccessible part of Yorkshire is terrible).

That the I-SUC platform 'seeks to explore the assumption' that researchers want to meet other researchers' is typical of the lame-brained thinking behind this initiative. Researchers are always ferocious networkers and communicate freely with others in their field, often using the modern internet highway. Meeting one another is less of a priority - that's pretty much what conferences are for. What the BL can do to facilitate meetings and interactions is keep the place operating as a library and not a drop-in centre.

Over the past five years or so the public spaces at the British Library have become increasingly crowded with non-members (i.e. people, mostly school-age, without raiders' passes enabling to access the collections), who use the desks and tables scattered around each floor to hang out. Many of them are doing homework (when not texting and taking Selfies) and, while I don't begrudge them doing so in this great building I can't help feeling that it's counterproductive (and annoying for regular users when it comes to finding a quiet place to make a phone call, or have a cup of coffee or explore the assumption' that researchers want to meet other researchers. 

To my British Library correspondent I say:

- you represent a great and valued institution, so you might at least proof-read your communications before sending them out or get a literate colleague to do so. The content of the I-SUC landing page  is worth careful consideration.

- if you wish to enlist British Library users in your research, and expect them to dedicate their time and goodwill and expertise to your project, you might have the courtesy to address them by name when sending them unsolicited emails. 

- consider just how much people hate the kind of lexicon you employ in your email - 'ensure', 'enhance', 'facilitate' and so on - the stagnant management-speak that ruins everything it describes. It is a betrayal of language.

- be confident. Consult by all means but don't set up something as dubious-sounding as I-SUC in order to tick consultative boxes that will at some later stage be used to justify unpopular or questionable developments.

The British Library is a national and international asset, not part of the Tussauds Group, not 'an ace caff with quite a lot of books attached', not some fuddy-duddy throwback in need of revitalisation. It is a resource used by serious people for serious reasons. It is part of the pulse of our culture.

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