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Public library content in an age of impact

04 February 2020  
Posted by: Rob Mackinlay
Public library content in an age of impact

Public library content in an age of impact

The range of activities, services and impacts a modern library service provides has grown significantly and undeniably in recent years. Alongside this, how we understand the results and the effects of what libraries deliver has shifted away from transactional measures. Now we move towards building greater understanding and evidence of outcomes and impacts – positioning ourselves to funders and decision-makers as the perfect partners for delivering social impact. And this is right. This is what we should be. However, amid this drive to redefine our place and perception it is easy to overlook the impacts of our core business of resource provision. (This article is one of many in the CILIP 2020 Buyers' Guide)

Content and its potential
Reading and information create significant social, personal and wellbeing benefit. They help people to feel better about their lives, to understand their world and their place in it and to navigate their way to better opportunities. This is real impact. Despite ongoing decline, accessing resources remains the single most popular driver of library use; so the scale of that impact is huge and the potential is ever greater. However, the impact our content has is only as good as the content itself. Even for those of us whose resource budgets have remained fairly stable, the rising cost of materials and a need to provide an increasing range of physical and digital formats means a real-terms decrease. Limited money needs to go even further than ever before, and so the work and expertise of stock and content specialists who are in touch with the needs of individuals and communities become ever more vital.

Where we are now
What needs to happen needs to happen efficiently. This means enabling expenditure to be focussed on the content itself, rather than the costs of getting it onto our (physical and virtual) shelves. This need not mean a lower quality service; slimmer, more effective processes of supply can create a more responsive and flexible experience for end users. Acquisitions and supply process are streamlined by advances such as EDI (electronic data interchange) and direct delivery to libraries. Very few public library services now have the luxury of dedicated, in-house cataloguers. Reliable and useable records come ready- formed, fed directly into catalogues by specialist suppliers, with any amending of records kept to an absolute minimum. Arrangements such as these mean less back-office handling and lower costs and, moreover, quicker supply and a better customer experience. Increasingly, library services are taking a consortium approach to the acquisition of content. Consortia vary hugely across the sector in terms of size and scope, with some focussing purely on the procurement and management of stock supply contracts and others working together though shared systems to provide a more co-ordinated customer provision across a geographical area. In addition to the increased negotiating power, a further benefit of consortium working is the creation of networks that enable mutual support and the sharing of expertise and good practice.

Selection challenge
Many library services have sought efficiency through supplier selection of stock and content, whereby selections are carried out by the suppliers, working to specifications provided by the library Paul Howarth, Head of Content and Product Development, Suffolk Libraries. service. The key to effective supplier selection lies in the quality of these specifications and in the continuous monitoring of the content provided against them. It is arguable that the capacity required to manage and monitor this properly is not too far removed from that required to carry out the selection itself. In Suffolk Libraries we have actively moved away from supplier selection, preferring to maintain control and flexibility. Although initially this may seem counter-intuitive, it allows much more locally-shaped, responsive selection.

Test digital limits
One obvious recent change in library resource provision is the growth of digital resources. After an uncertain start, with publishers and suppliers unsure how to shape a workable library model, the steady growth in library eBook use continues, even when current reports show the format to have peaked in retail settings. Libraries have limited options in relation to digital resource provision in terms of range of formats and content and, where opportunities are available, squeezed budgets offer little room for taking risks. However, in order stay relevant, we need to be looking forward, anticipating demand and horizon-scanning the market place for new products. Suffolk Libraries aims to be an early adopter for new library products and formats. Where opportunities appear we intentionally push ourselves to give things a go. Suffolk Libraries was the first UK library service to offer music streaming and downloads and recently we became the second to provide film streaming through the Kanopy platform.

Chasing results
A broader, knottier challenge facing content and collection managers in public libraries lies in balancing the need to meet demand for popular material with that of providing broad subject coverage and a collection that represents a diverse audience. This is not a new dilemma, but as budgets come under increasing pressure this balance is ever more difficult to strike. In a climate where everything has to ‘earn its keep’, the easy response is to chase issue figures, focussing on the high turnover, big hitting titles. But in doing that we lose something of our true value and impact – the provision of breadth and depth. As pressure increases it is ever more import that we have control over how our limited budget is spent. We need to be making smart, informed choices that gel with local communities, that satisfy our loyal, existing borrowers and also may resound with new and diverse audiences.

Evidence-base isn’t enough
Library stock selection is an art. But it’s also a science, and whether you use stock evidence tools, such as Collection HQ, data from the library management system or more intuitive professional insight and knowledge to inform selection (and in reality it’s likely to be a bit of all three), decisions need to be based on evidence. However, most of our approaches focus on existing data and patterns of use, i.e. what has already happened. And while there is clear need to understand past performance and current trends, there is a risk here of perpetuating patterns of decline. We all know the adage that if you keep on doing the same things you keep on getting the same results. So, this analysis based approach to content selection needs to step outside of itself, to look forwards and outwards instead of just backwards and in. A major focus of my team’s work is in gaining understanding of our wider communities and population, looking for the demographic and geographic trends of need, now and in the future. Libraries are starting to think this way in terms of service development, but we are perhaps slower to make this connection in terms of content selection. Content cannot be looked at in isolation of all the other innovative work libraries are doing. It needs to be a part of it. It needs to be leading it.

Align content and strategy
In the first half of this financial year Suffolk libraries have seen an overall increase of 10 per cent in the use of library content, when measured across all physical and digital formats and media. Although staying off the decline in physical lending remains a challenge, this positive picture of overall growth suggests that, where content selection and strategy is aligned with wider strategies around impact and community need, there remains a strong future for libraries in their core function of resource provision.

Contributor: Paul Howarth, Head of Content and Product Development, Suffolk Libraries
Published: 4 February 2020

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