Sunday, 24 July 2016

Visible security

A long, long time ago, back when we first put the People's Network into Rochdale's libraries, I got worried about the physical security of all the kit we were putting out there. A few months before we'd had a break-in at Langley Library (back when it was in a stand-alone building next to the bus stop): somebody had drilled through a wall panel into the stock room and pinched a couple of the "homework" PCs we had in the children's library. So I worried about it a bit.

To my mind there's two types of security:
  • Rendering something for all intents and purposes non-existent to anybody who isn't authorised to know about it.
  • Something in your face that says: "We both know there's something here but it would be a pain in the arse for you to try and have away with it.
In a library context where we were wanting everyone to know there were PCs for public use invisibility wasn't an option so we needed something conspicuous to put off the scallies and sneak thieves.

Somebody, I can't remember who, pointed me in the direction of a chap called Peter Radcliffe, trading locally as Nexus Computers who sold computer safes. At the time Peter was selling metal computer safes. There was nothing subtle about these: they were made of plate metal and the fittings used to fix them to the furniture were uncompromisingly industrial. They did the job brilliantly. Only one thing bothered me.

Back in those days computers came in three colours: "white" (beige), grey (beige) and beige (grey). Dead boring. About this time Rochdale was in the early stages of a complete refurbishment of nearly all its libraries. The aim was to make them lighter, brighter and more colourful and I wasn't much keen on installing a lot of battleship grey boxes into this bright new landscape. So I asked Peter if they were available in any other colours. He came back with a paint sheet from the metal-bashing shop he was working with.

"I'll have that," I said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. In gloss finish."
"You're mental!"
"Can you do it?"
"The customer is always right. We can do it if you really want it. Are you really sure? Really?"
"Yes, please."

The colour? It was

  Signal Violet 
a bank of PCs at Alkrington Library And so it came to be.

I got a bit of stick about it. Not least because I hadn't spent any time whatever consulting anyone about it (ordinarily I'd accept a good shin-kicking for that but I only had four months to do a complete implementation of the People's Network from scratch across the whole borough and we had just had the one and only planning meeting where we had spent three hours watching a debate about the position of a chair in a particular library). But I stuck to my guns. Still do, in fact:
  • This was aggressively-visible security.
  • It fitted in with the bright, colourful feel of the libraries.
  • They were an easy visual cue. We hadn't consciously gone in for any branding at that stage but it provided a consistent, obvious "Here be computers" message to the libraries' customers.
If I had my time again would I make that same decision? Dead right I would. And Peter still thinks I was barmy.


  1. It's gorgeous. I suppose they are long gone, and replaced with something "sensible"?

    After the first break-in, I put up signs saying "These computers are low specification machines". That seem to do the trick, too. I believe some of them are still around...

    You've been making me thinking about Robert and Sheila Harden and Project EARL recently. I was in Leeds at the meeting when it was voted out of existence. Strange and short-sighted as ought to know about organising knowledge and it could have become a national offer in the days before national offers.

    The cyberLibrary, Plymouth's own version run in partnership with other services across the region, still seems to be going strong. But the idea of libraries delivering what would now be called "curated content" (an updated version of book selection for reference libraries) never really seemed to take off. Teaching people to use PCs was where the money was, not using the skills library staff had, and have probably now lost.

  2. I was sad to see the demise of Project EARL, it had such promise. But then, it wasn't about keeping doors open and stamping books at counters so it wasn't a proper public library thing. Yet another of the opportunities squandered that got us where we are today.

    I could never get anyone except the Children's Librarian even remotely interested in curating digital materials (I notice that even now he tries to make sure that children's authors' web sites are included in the catalogue so that they're listed with their books when you search for them). You will know my view of our reference librarians' response to the Internet.

    Had UKOnline not provided a financial incentive to deliver some online basics tuition to the public I doubt how many libraries would have bothered; and much of what they did deliver was badly-supported and depended overly-much on the energy and enthusiasm of individuals. I have to fight back the bile when I read proclamations that "only trained library staff can deliver information literacy!"