Creating a Single Digital Presence for Public Libraries

August 30, 2017

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By Martyn Evans, Chief Executive, Carnegie UK Trust

Andrew Carnegie saw public libraries as creating opportunities for education and advancement through providing access to information and knowledge not otherwise available.  Free to everyone in the community, no matter who they were, no matter what their circumstances, public libraries enabled people to fulfil their potential.

Fast forward to today, the public library is having to position itself in a world where an incredible volume of information, knowledge, and culture can be accessed on demand, at any time of day and almost instantaneously. Given this context, it is critical that we explore the potential of public libraries’ digital offer – an offer which has yet to be fully realised.

The development of a single digital presence for public libraries provides the opportunity to refresh the library offer, update libraries’ social contract with the public and revitalise how we think about libraries today. The hoped for outcome of this work is a high quality, user-centred, efficient and responsive service, enabling access to a broad range of services and information wherever and whenever people want them.

Understandably there are those who will want clarity – who will want to know what, exactly, this platform will look like and what it will do. Yet, arguably, in order to succeed, the outcome of this endeavour must not be pinned down too tightly from the outset but emerge from a process of innovation, iteration and engagement. After all, public libraries across the UK are a trusted and valued resource at the heart of communities – and library users must play a central role in the design and development of any single digital presence.

There is no question that developing a single digital presence will be a challenge. Many countries have developed an online interface for a range of library services. There are some excellent examples but the creation of an interactive and engaging platform has, arguably, yet to be cracked. 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.

Yet it is in heart of these challenges that we find the opportunity: the opportunity to create an internationally leading platform based on user need and with a clear and realistic plan for long-term maintenance and ongoing development and support.

Public libraries have been a resounding success over the last 150 years. We need to secure and accelerate this success, to promote effectively what the library does and what it stands for. A single digital presence will enable this and ensure that libraries will continue to be relevant, useful and sought after as we move into the future.