Public places and digital spaces

June 6, 2019

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By Jake Millar, Single Digital Presence Project Officer, The British Library 

In a rapidly changing world, a thriving network of public libraries remains one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. But as the world goes increasingly digital, what kind of online experience do public libraries offer to their users, and how can it keep pace with the changing needs and expectations of those users?

Over the past 18 months the British Library has considered options for what a UK-wide online platform for public libraries could look like, what it could be used for, and how such an offering might fit into the current range of services. This research has been supported and funded by Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust, and builds on the work of previous reports and consultations.

We started without a fixed view of what the final recommendations and next steps would be, but with a clear statement that we wanted our approach to reflect the values of public libraries themselves: trusted, open, inclusive, non-commercial and representative of the diversity of the users we serve. We also wanted to make sure that any technological intervention should build upon and expand the capabilities of library staff rather than replacing them, and have the ultimate goal of increasing public library use both digitally and physically.

This project has engaged libraries across the UK, including the National Library of Scotland and the National Library of Wales. While directly contributing to the specific themes and options outlined in the paper, our interactions with these libraries have emphasised that any UK-wide digital initiative will need to reflect the diversity of all nations within the UK.

Our thinking has been shaped by the views and experiences of the library community, as well as related sectors such as publishing, who similarly provided valuable advice and guidance. We were also keen to hear from the public about how they use public libraries. As a result of this we organised consultative workshops at libraries in Aberystwyth, Glasgow, Boston Spa/Leeds and Barking and Dagenham. By adopting this approach we’ve not only explored what a UK-wide digital platform for libraries might look like, but thought more broadly about the role of libraries in an information-rich, digital first society.

Five options for a digital presence for public libraries

We believe that there are – in broad terms – five different concepts of a potential publicly-supported “digital transformation” for UK public libraries. At this stage we believe it is important to keep each option separate – they are very different in scale, business model and application – but these concepts are not mutually exclusive and could potentially co-exist, be combined, or evolve from one to another. None currently exists in the UK.

You can read the full report here, but the five options can be summarised as follows:

  1. Deep Shared Infrastructure – a common, centralised Library Management System, procured at a UK wide level and run as a single piece of technology serving all libraries. Examples of a shared system underpinning services include both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (as a single Library Authority) as well as a growing number of regional consortia.
  2. UK wide Content Discovery – an aggregator at UK national level of free-to-view digital content from libraries, archives and other public collections. Examples include Gallica in France, Trove in Australia, Finna in Finland and the Digital Public Library of America in the USA.
  3. Unified Digital Lending – a single, publicly-run service devoted to rights management and free digital ‘lending’ of books and other copyright content that would otherwise only be available on a commercial basis. An example is eReolen in Denmark.
  4. Safe Social Space – a user-led digital platform for the people who love libraries, replicating the community spaces they visit and work in, as a complementary alternative to the commercial social media services. No exact national equivalent currently exists, though emergent services such as Library Planet and Lit Hub offer analogies.
  5. One Library Brand –to create and promote a single ‘library brand’ at cross-UK scale: potentially for both the digital and physical realms and consistent with any of the above propositions.

These options suggest an integrated and sustainable digital library service, one that can grow with, and adapt to, future technological transformations, and one that enables library users to navigate the digital world in safety, and with confidence. With that in mind, each option is conceptually very different and likely to benefit from different approaches to business model, governance and design.

What’s next?

The British Library Single Digital Presence team will conduct further consultation across the UK over the coming months with library users and staff, which will inform thinking about the functionality and design a future digital platform might incorporate. We welcome your views on the Recommendations Paper and research updates will be provided via this blog as this project continues.

For questions please email: [email protected]