The free provision of e-books for children by Oak National Academy has been branded a “wake up call” for the library sector, still awaiting its long-discussed shared website for all public libraries.
Dubbed the “single digital presence” (SDP) and first suggested in William Sieghart’s 2014 Independent Library Report, the project has been led by the British Library for three years. However, with collaboration needed from around 150 local authorities to make it work, the project has proved challenging.
The British Library published its first report on the matter in 2019, followed by further research and the building of a “conceptual prototype” which is now in the process of being turned into a live project.
However, following news this week that Oak National Academy has launched a new virtual library in partnership with the National Literacy Trust, some have expressed their frustration over the SDP's slow progress and warn other organisations could fill the gap.
Ian Anstice, who runs website Public Libraries News, told The Bookseller: "The announcement that an academy is supplying e-books rather than the public library service should be seen as a combined wake-up call and kick in the teeth to the sector. A national website is something that is highly possible and should have been done years ago. The fact that there is nothing, not even a nationally organised 'find your local library' webpage, is an embarrassment to a sector that is, after all, based on information provision."
Anstice said he understood the difficulty of meeting the concerns of so many library services but insisted the project needed to be given immediate priority. He said: "There is a widespread acceptance that we do not need another report or more research. We just need a website with stuff on it. The fact that we have had nothing during the lockdown, which — looked at dispassionately — is an opportunity that will never come again, should and does cause great anger. Let’s get this done before other services, other agencies, take other things off us that should so obviously be within our sphere.”
Former Waterstones boss turned library campaigner Tim Coates wrote a highly critical blog last year of library leadership, expressing his disappointment over the SDP's delays. He told The Bookseller: "I think the British Library and the Arts Council have struggled to define the role of the SDP—but it should provide universal public access to all material, whether print or digital. Then it would be a valuable support to branch libraries and be marketable to the public.
“To do that needs strong national leadership which is followed, supported and with funding sustained by local councils—and that is more easily said than done at present. Nevertheless it is much needed and we have to hope we will see some progress soon."
In response to Coates' blog, Jacob Fredrickson, the British Library's single digital presence project manager, defended the project in his own post for The Bookseller and stressed it goes beyond delivering one public library website to examine how libraries can use digital technology to modernise their services.
"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," he said in September.
Asked this week about the new criticism, the British Library pointed to the first lockdown launch of its new Living Knowledge Network platform, which aims to to open up digital events and resources for the whole sector. More than 100 library services have engaged with the programme alongside members of the public from 36 countries while the platform has offered webinars for staff and free screenings of public events. The Business and IP Centre Network has also offered 450 webinars for entrepreneurs and business owners.
A spokesperson for the British Library said: "Insights gained from this ongoing service, and from many other online experiments and innovations that have been made for and by libraries through the Covid crisis, have fed directly into our development work with Arts Council England and Carnegie UK Trust to shape a sustainable and technically viable proposition for a shared digital channel that can showcase content and services from the multiplicity of library authorities across the UK.
"This is an ambitious and complex project which aims to provide a range of assets and technical solutions suitable for different audiences at national and local level. It also involves collaboration with over 150 local authorities across the UK, each of whom have their own specific requirements and circumstances to consider when discussing a project of this nature.
"An alpha proposition is currently being developed by digital agency dxw, building on their work during the first lockdown, and we look forward to being able to share more once this latest phase of design work is complete."
During the pandemic, the popularity of library e-book lending has surged while the buildings have been closed or limited to services like click and collect. Isobel Hunter, c.e.o. of Libraries Connected, has praised that success and the popularity of library online events, and insisted it is right that the British Library takes its time with the digital project.
She said: "While we recognise that a national online presence for libraries would have been a valuable way to help libraries to promote their resources during this period, we know that previous attempts haven’t worked because of the huge variations in library services around the country. So it’s important that the British Library take the time to get this right so that it will succeed as the national promotional platform that libraries need."