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Practical solutions for a single digital presence

30 July 2019  
Posted by: Rob Mackinlay
Practical solutions for a single digital presence

Practical solutions for a single digital presence

THE British Library (BL) does not have statutory responsibility for public library policy. So how did it end up scoping options for the much-anticipated “single digital presence” for public libraries? Liz White, Head of Strategy Development at the BL, said: “We have a proud tradition of joint working with public libraries, including a growing network of Business and Intellectual Property Centres across the UK, as well as more recent innovations such as the Living Knowledge Network, a UK-wide partnership of national and public libraries.” She adds that since 2013, the BL has administered the Public Lending Right in the UK and Ireland.

Liz says these relationships are a key part of the BL’s own mission and are why it was keen to accept the invitation from Arts Council England and Carnegie UK Trust to take on the task and build on existing thinking in the sector. However, she said that user expectations were changing rapidly and successful projects put users at the centre of their designs. As a result, the BL could not make assumptions about a “single digital presence”. Instead it started with the values of public libraries and also the value of having professional librarians. And working form there to reach the goal of increasing public library use both digitally and physically.

More testing
The report, Digital Transformation for UK Public Libraries: five approaches to a ‘single digital presence’ published on 6 June, explains how it selected five of the most likely ways to deliver 'a single digital presence'. It then goes further, whittling it down to three. And more work is being done: “We’re doing a second scoping piece at the moment, a bit more user testing of what people want and will provide some more actionable recommendations that can very much start to move this forward. The sector has been waiting quite a while now and we’re conscious of that.”

The aim of digital transformation
The direction of travel was set in 2014 by William Sieghart who recommended a “single digital presence” during his review of public libraries. He hoped this would ensure that public libraries became “society’s most exciting physical spaces, with unprecedented levels of digital content, engagement and opportunity.” Liz says that’s still the aim: “He talked about using digital to help libraries be a really exciting place on the high street. We want to see how we can use digital to support what public libraries and professionals do and to engage as many people as possible in that. In practical terms, we want to provide some actionable recommendations for the sector to take forward over the next few months, hopefully with things that can change sooner rather than later.”

Options to explore
The three options that were recommended for “further development” were:

1. UK-wide content discovery, which could see “a highly functional user-interface without majorly disrupting existing systems” with the potential for linking UK library resources to 1.5 billion English speakers around the world, while also increasing local value and accessibility.

2. The second is a digital space or community designed explicitly for library users to connect with each other. The report noted that millions of people use commercial platforms to discuss their reading or learning journeys, but there are very few of these spaces led or convened by public libraries (or the non-commercial sector) themselves. Libraries, by contrast, score highly in all parts of the world on measures of trust.” It said: “If a digital presence could be created that replicated even some of those values in the online realm and was built upon an ethos of professional librarianship, it could answer a genuine and demonstrable market failure”

3. One library brand. The report noted that there were examples elsewhere of a brand for public libraries that transcended an individual locality and asked an open question whether “public libraries [were] lacking a vital piece of communicative shorthand… in an extremely brand-focused culture” and whether options could be considered to balance local autonomy with shared values.

Other ways of answering the question
Of the five options laid out in the report two were considered to be more complex:

1. A national library management system, about which the report said: “We recommend that the sector monitors benefits for users and professionals realised by consortia models.”

2. Unified digital lending. The report identified a number of questions that would need to be resolved to protect rights holders and where purchased content would be accessible across authority boundaries. This meant that e-lending was felt to be hard to achieve on a UK-wide level at present and concluded: “Further development not recommended in this study, but to be kept under review.”

Choosing the options
“I’m aware that there have been various reports now and there is a real hunger in the sector to just get on and change things,” Liz says “So there’s a balance ­between trying to do something that’s fleet of foot and is also a genuine innovation.” The report looks at other visions, for example it says “trends may indicate an emerging role for public libraries as custodians of trusted and authoritative civic data… to offer UK citizens an access point to data repositories.” Liz said that they were aware of developments in Toronto,which she says: “is becoming a smart city and there have been some suggestions that the library itself should help look after the data coming from that smart city, but I think something like this would need fairly significant further thinking for a UK context which is why we didn’t really bring it out.” At the other end of the scale were less ambitious visions like a centralised payment platform. Liz said, “We wanted to talk to as broad a range of people as possible and when you do that, there’s a range of perspectives. For some it’s a better version of what you have already – like a faster horse, rather than a car – and so some people were talking about continuous improvement of things you could see already. Other people were talking about much more systemic innovation. We wanted to be open to wider possibilities and influences that can have a major impact on how libraries are used and valued – that more open systemic broader perspective.” However, she said that the frontline vision was helpful. “There was an example that I’ve used about publicising events. Lots of public libraries have world-class authors coming in and speaking for free and somebody had expressed frustration in a workshop that it was difficult for them to advertise this. Users in that local authority had to scroll through the local authority calendar, past refuse collection and council things. So there were lots of influential things that people told us that shaped the report and I’m sure there are ways to build in a centralised payment hub if that’s what an individual authority wanted to build in. With a lot of this, the technology is already out there.”

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The report points out that any option has to be supported by the more than 200 public library authorities operating across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Asked if the options in the report were influenced by this, Liz said: “No, we made recommendations based on what we genuinely thought was the right answer… we genuinely wanted to explore and unpack how digital could help support public libraries and how user centred design could help support the sector. And we’ve unpacked five different ways in which that could happen and they are modular – you don’t need all of them to provide something that would add value.” But she added: “Decisions about library services and funding and investment and commercial decisions are for local authorities and we are working with the Local Government Association through the Libraries Task Force and we’re talking to colleagues in the library part of local authorities all the time. We’re funded until September to carry out some more primary and secondary research, particularly in support of the recommendations, the three that we really thought would make the most positive difference and which offered the greatest cost/benefit ratios.”

What do we mean by “digital?”
Another risk is that to get buy-in, so many boxes have to be ticked for the 200 library services to agree that the end user is pushed to the back of the queue. But Liz is positive that the user will remain front and centre. “There are a growing number of examples now of public sector innovation and those are user-driven services that are being developed by people thinking about service design. So people are thinking more holistically, not just in local and central government, also in the charity sector and the private sector, and so we’ve been looking at what’s gone on there as well and speaking to people who have worked in those. I think things are changing and organisations are becoming more aware of the need to provide the sort of a service or offer that is working for users, and it doesn’t necessarily have to get stuck in the system somewhere. So I’m broadly optimistic. I think if you can make the case for what you are trying to do and what the impact and value would be then people will feel attracted to that.”

Data ethics
Whichever option, or combination of options, end up being selected, they will have the potential to meet a demand for ethical data use. The report said “there is a significant gap in the market for ethical, transparent and trusted services… Libraries are well placed to respond to this demand, setting a new standard for ethical data use.” Liz said: “If you’re joining things up or doing things at scale then you’d have data about types of use in the broadest anonymised sense. We haven’t gone into detail yet about what that should or shouldn’t look like. It goes back to the principles we wrote down originally and we’d want any use of data coming out of this to be used for public good and individual good and in line with the reputation of public libraries which is trusted and confidential, and so I would want anything that is using data to respect those things.” However, she said: “This is a sector-wide decision but that would be my strong recommendation. There’s a balance isn’t there, between having the right safeguarding of personal data which has to be absolutely sacrosanct and having an ethical data framework for ethical use. But you do see digital public services having some kind of open API that gives people the chance to innovate. But again I’d want it to be within an ethical framework for the sector which it had developed and was completely comfortable with, because the core values of public libraries are integral to their identity and value, and we don’t want to do anything that would go against these.”

Published: 30 July 2019

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