Hacking a new look for Scotland’s libraries

October 14, 2016

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by Gina Wilson, Carnegie UK Trust

Libraries are trusted resources. They’re free; safe; easy to access and located in the heart of communities. But in a rapidly evolving digital world, will libraries still have an important role to play?

I say yes!

Libraries were early pioneers in providing IT access and offering digital training. Since PCs and free internet access were introduced back in 2000, libraries have been developing their digital offer in line with advances in technology and user demand.

Libraries across the country, and indeed internationally, are taking their offering beyond books, offering digital access and supporting digital inclusion across our communities. Connectivity and equality of opportunity is a major part of the library offer and almost all libraries in Scotland are WiFi enabled.

Libraries offer classes on a range of new technologies and online services, device demos and social media workshops. You’ll find classes to help boost digital skills and encourage job applications – through to digital toyboxes, pioneered in some Edinburgh libraries, to encourage young people to learn more about emerging technologies.

In the past month, all library services across Scotland have introduced 3D printers to open up opportunities for digital creativity and drive enterprise options across our communities. Some libraries have already established makerspaces – spaces within libraries which encourage creative design and development. Many combine 3D printers with other tech such as digital cutters and electronic knitting machines, creating innovative community hubs. In the coming months, libraries will also be increasing coding clubs for young people.

Virtual visits to online library services have increased significantly over the past 5 years, pointing to a growing demand and expectation for digital library services. Libraries subscribe to a number of digital resources including ebooks, emagazines, eaudio services, and a range of online reference services, such as encyclopaedias. Many libraries also have their own digitised collections, accessible from individual library websites.

Digital innovation is at the heart of Scotland’s national strategy for public libraries. It will underpin much of what libraries do to deliver excellent public services and promote literacy and learning, social and economic wellbeing, and culture and creativity.

As many will know, the ‘Carnegie’ name is synonymous with public libraries. Between 1883 and 1929, over 2,500 libraries were built across the world with money donated by Scots-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The Trust’s work with libraries now focuses on the digital age. Our Future Libraries Hackathon event, running from 13th – 16th October in Edinburgh, is aimed at encouraging creative minds across the business and technology sectors to develop new ideas to help the library service re-imagine its role and functions.

It’s the first event of its kind in the UK and we’re hoping for some exciting ideas. Those who take part will create prototypes of products and services libraries could offer, as well as look at how library spaces could be used differently in future.

Librarians are information professionals; digital is information-rich and therefore a natural fit. ‘Appiness’, a programme in which library staff promote high quality educational apps to children and their parents or carers is a great example of this blend. Libraries share learning well between each other and are well placed to test what works and scale up.

Of course the role of libraries is evolving and like any public service, libraries need to let people know what they’re offering. Research by the Trust in 2012 found that over 60% of people in Scotland had used a library in the previous 12 months. Unless people realise the extent to which libraries are adapting their services, there may be untapped potential to bring new users into the library.

With budgets limited, every resource, idea and outcome matters. There are lots of other players in the digital field – how should libraries carve out a niche? Perhaps we come back to where we started. Libraries are trusted spaces, embedded within communities and have a good understanding of people’s needs and interests.

Through our Hackathon, we want to harness the creativity of Scotland’s digital developers and imagine new ideas to shape the future of our nation’s libraries. Who knows, one of the ideas developed over the next few days might even appear in a library near you.

Find out more about the Future Libraries Hackathon event here.

Share your ideas about future library services you’d like to see by tweeting #FutureLibPF.