Transforming the digital offer for public libraries

Transforming the digital offer for public libraries

As the national library of the United Kingdom, the British Library’s mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment.  This means making our own buildings and online offers engaging for everyone, as well as working in partnership across the library sector.  

Since the publication of our Living Knowledge vision in 2015, a key part of this work has been delivered through partnerships with public libraries across the UK, via our growing network of Business & IP Centres, the Living Knowledge Network and our administration of the Public Lending Right, a vital and enduring golden thread between authors and public library audiences. We were therefore delighted in 2017 to be asked by Arts Council England and Carnegie Trust UK to explore options for a “single digital presence” for UK public libraries.

From public access to computers to the loaning of e- and audio-books, public libraries are consistently evolving to meet the changing needs of users. However, many familiar with the sector will recognise that the quality and consistency of libraries’ digital offerings could be improved. The aim of our project then was to explore how to improve the digital services public libraries offer and, following the publication of our initial report in 2019, we have been exploring the technology and ways of working required to make this a reality.

We owe the name Single Digital Presence to William Sieghart, and his 2014 Independent review of public libraries. Single Digital Presence referred to an improved and consistent digital offer for public libraries, providing users a ‘way in’ to the library offer. 

This was our starting point, to explore what this purposely vague term could mean in practice. Our goal was not just to conceptualise what a website for public libraries might look like, but rather to think more deeply and strategically about how to improve the use of digital technology throughout the whole public library sector. 

We were disappointed to read Tim Coates’ recent piece in the Bookseller, which dismissed our project just as we are about to embark on a decisive phase, and we are keen to set the record straight as to the aims and outcomes of our work. 

Discovering what works

In 2018, we conducted an in-depth literature review, to understand what sort of interventions have worked well, as well as what hasn’t worked so well in this space. We spoke with colleagues all over the globe to understand what a national digital presence for libraries could be. 

We also spoke with as many colleagues as we could working in public libraries. We hosted a number of workshops to make sure that any future development is guided by the needs of library staff and the communities they serve. 

We published our first report in 2019, and we followed this with even more research, this time speaking with library users and those who have stopped using the library. In spring 2020, we used this work to build a conceptual prototype of what a national digital presence might look like. 

This work has enabled us to build a much clearer picture of what is needed. We believe that a national digital presence should help everyone discover the power of the public library by making access to knowledge easier and more enjoyable, and supporting every public library to deliver digital services of the highest quality. This is in support of public libraries’ enduring mission to facilitate a life-long love of learning, advance knowledge in every community and empower all to live happy and rewarding lives.

Our extensive research and engagement with the sector has suggested that this can be most successfully delivered by focusing on two areas. 

The first would be to build a national digital channel for public libraries. Unifying the public library offer in the United Kingdom for the first time, this channel could provide users with access to high quality digital content, regardless of postcode. This national channel could consolidate the existing amazing digital resources libraries already have in one place, making discovering and accessing digital content easier.

Secondly, we think that there is scope to develop patterns and designs that local libraries can use and re-work to improve their own websites and digital presences. We also want to explore in more detail other ways national coordination can improve local services, such as improving national and local data.

Our ambition is to radically improve every library’s digital presence and grow the profile of the public library in the process, ultimately leading to more visits on site and online.

Test, learn, transform

We’re now reaching a critical point in the project. This year, we’re turning our conceptual prototype into something live: testing a live prototype for a national digital channel for public libraries for the first time and envisioning a long term digital transformation strategy for the whole sector. By taking this holistic approach, we think there is scope to further reinforce the role of public libraries as an important public asset.

We look forward to working further with partners across the sector, including industry stakeholders and the library users of today and tomorrow, to develop a proposition that represents a wide-ranging and sustainable digital solution for our treasured public libraries - and which earns the vital support and funding that will make it a reality.

Jacob Fredrickson is the Single Digital Presence project manager at the British Library.