An 18 month, £260,000 project led by the British LIbrary could result in the creation of a single digital presence for all UK public libraries.
Back in 2014, one of the key recommendations of William Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England was:
The provision of a national digital resource for libraries,to be delivered in partnership with local authorities.
Funded by £236,384 from Arts Council England and £30,000 from the Carnegie UK Trust, the new scoping project will undertake market analysis, stakeholder interviews, workshops and other research.
It will liaise with organisations from across the UK, assessing the potential and scope for a nationwide platform providing access to local collections and services. Brian Ashley, director of libraries for Arts Council England, said:
Inhabiting the mobile, digital space, complementing and energising the existing library offer, is central to the future strength and relevance of libraries. As the development agency for libraries, the Arts Council is very excited by the prospect of it becoming a reality.
A draft report of options and emerging findings as well as recommendations on how they might be taken forward will be published within the first year of the project. Emerging findings from the project will be shared in autumn 2018, with the final report published in 2019.
So that can we expect this latest initiative to conclude/recommend? Well, there are a couple of reports out there already, books from which the new exercise might take a leaf.
The 2014 Independent LIbrary Report argued that libraries have a crucial role to play as community hubs that are essential for the well-being of the nation, but noted:
At the moment, at least 20% of the population have no digital technology at home, and far more fail to understand how to make the most of what they do have. The need to create digital literacy – and in an ideal world, digital fluency – is particularly helped by the professionalism and experience of the library workforce, who should be recognised for the significant role they play in modern society at present, and also be augmented by the recruitment and training of equally high calibre personnel for the future.
Central government, by investing in digital resources across the library network, could show that it understands how crucial the service is to both the welfare and the advancement of the nation…We would like to see sharing of digital networks.
The report called on government to ensure that all public libraries in England are able to offer the public free access to WiFi, computer facilities and sufficient workforce training to support its use:
This will allow them the freedom and flexibility to be responsive to the needs of their local communities in line with wider technological advances. It would also help libraries to innovate, to share or jointly adopt services more efficiently as well as giving them the opportunity to generate income from non-core services. WiFi will enable libraries to bid for income generating projects and to assist co-location of services.
Many people expect WiFi to be accessible at all times and the lack of its availability in some libraries has been a barrier to the public using its facilities especially amongst the younger generation. By not providing WiFi and high quality computer facilities, libraries often present a negative image of being old fashioned places that have little relevance in today’s society.
But just guaranteeing WiFi wouldn’t be enough, the report added:
Current fixed terminals do not offer enough flexibility for libraries to cope with changing demand. By providing computer facilities whether they are tablets, mobiles, laptops or other devices, libraries will be able to meet user needs and free up more space to facilitate a wider range of services. It will also encourage a wider demographic into the library. Equipment should be able to be used by everyone with assistive reading technologies and accessible keyboards where required.
The new scoping project will also build on the work of the Single Digital Libraries Presence Steering Group, which has developed a range of early ideas on a universal online platform for the UK’s public libraries, which stated:
A single digital presence for public libraries would provide a mobile, digital space that complements and energises the existing library offer. It will allow the public library service to develop with con dence and it will provide the opportunity to connect libraries’ digital offer to other cultural and knowledge organisations as well as other local services. In this way a single digital presence will also take forward the agenda of local government and facilitate a strategic, long-term approach to transforming the library service and help councils meet their wider objectives in new ways.
The creation of a single digital presence – an interactive, personalised platform – is a critical digital issue. It provides the opportunity to refresh the library offer – update their social contract with the public – and revitalise the library brand. The goal? A high quality, user-centred, ef cient and responsive service, enabling access to a broad range of services and information wherever and whenever people want them.
But the report acknowledged the scale of the challenge ahead:
Many countries have developed an online interface for a range of library services. Whilst there are some excellent examples, no one has yet cracked the creation of an interactive and engaging platform. Furthermore, it is clear that success is most likely if the needs of the user and public value are placed at the centre of any initiative. Another challenge lies in the time and cost involved in developing a platform.
An important initiative, unfortunately timed to concide with Brexit, which is rather likely to be stealing almost all government IT attention by the time this exercise comes to report. But finding future roles for the library is something that is essential for the nation, Brexit or no Brexit. Let’s hope this does get the attention – and funding – that it deserves.
Image credit - Freeimages.com/Gary Tamin