A quiet week, as befits one where almost all libraries were closed except for order and collect and PC use. Some great ideas though, including postcards to pin book packages, celebrity story-times plus also – my favourite – library zoom backgrounds. I’m therefore delighted that Barney Allan from DCA (their advert is below – thanks for the sponsorship, DCA!) send in an interesting piece. Read and have a think.

Advert for Niche Academy from DCA

A Digital Catch-22 for Libraries: Barney Allen from DCA on the problems with the library digital offer and worries over the “SDP”.

Libraries are seeing increased demand for digital services to reach users and meet their needs. Some have made good progress with digital loans, events and services. I work with service providers in these areas and it’s been good to see increased interest and take-up for our clients’ offerings.

I’m grateful for all this but more interested in a big anomaly here. Libraries say they are prioritising digital loans and services, diverting funds to e-content, striving to bridge the digital divide, promote digital literacy and other good things. Yet most UK library webpages, to quote one of our US partners,  ‘Look like someone threw up a bunch of code’. 

I’m interested to know why that is and if it can be fixed. Whenever I raise website issues with library people, they most often give me pitying head-shakes and say things like: ‘you don’t understand’ or ‘we’d get fired’ or even ‘but we have the Universal Offer’. It’s as if the impasse is absolute, the problems unsolvable and the finest minds in library leadership are resigned to a status quo of failure. It’s almost like it’s policy.

Digital circulations are still quite low – according to CIPFA – accounting for only a small percentage of total borrowings, which are themselves in steady decline. Measurement of anything in libraryland is always controversial and that’s probably fine too – maybe there are abundant unknowable benefits, it’s ‘not just about books’ after all, and who doesn’t have an aversion to capitalist KPIs? 

But data is well, data. If usage continues to decline, then funding is challenged and jobs are at risk, not to mention the whole edifice. Growing digital usage should be an escape route for libraries in danger. And if we can’t improve these dull, unnavigable websites, usage won’t go up, funding will go down and libraries will close. Most public library websites are entirely controlled by local authorities’ IT teams. They tend to prioritise practical things like clarity, utility and security to deliver services and protect data, which is fair enough. If I want to know the holiday bin collection rota or how to pay my council tax, I need no razzamatazz – just the facts, thank you.

But libraries seeking to establish a digital footprint in a teeming market have a different set of requirements. Whatever the goals – supporting reading and literacy, business, education, training, children and parents, inclusion, diversity, mental health, Covid – they all require the capacity to make us aware that these library treasures exist and engage us to the extent that we use them. If we can agree that online discoverability and engagement really are desirable if not essential qualities for library services now, how can we fix them if we can’t talk with the people who control them? Is there anyone else we can talk to?

On the fixing part, we can probably forget the current library leadership. Library strategy and leadership is in the hands of some powerful and well-funded agencies, including DCMS, The British Library, Arts Council England, CILIP, Libraries Connected, The Reading Agency, The Carnegie Trust and of course the local authorities. Big talk and mutual-admiration abound as does big spending on very little, here are just two examples:

  • Two out of three of the only blog pieces in the last 12 months on the DCMS library site were fanfares to imperial honours for librarians. So that’s alright then. 
  • The British Library has spent almost £1 million over the last six years producing world-beating reports on The Single Digital Presence,  the national digital library that remains conspicuous by its absence. 

So despite the plethora of management, reports and yes, money, UK digital library provision remains stunted and usage low.  And if it is to be a function of policy and leadership that libraries have unappealing websites that deliver unsatisfying experiences, there is probably nothing we can do about that.

Or is there? After all, locked-down libraries have smelt the digital coffee and some have achieved good things, albeit in a small way.  Users, God  help them, meanwhile may have had a look at their library websites and well, that’s all mostly. Could there be a workaround? Who else can we talk to? Some libraries already make good use of social media, and third party platforms to create and promote online events. Dave Rowe at Libraries Hacked has suggested libraries should be making new sites outside the arid local authority sandbox that are designed to serve the public rather than council and library management. Another way forward might be sponsorship. Whatever, the current toxic library mix of an absent leadership and a crippled web presence is preventing the sector from achieving it’s digital potential and failing the public. There has to be something we can do to unpick or go round this Catch-22. Next time we’ll have a look at the options in more detail.”

National news

  • Could libraries help us tackle loneliness? – Happiful. “A £3.5 million award to The Reading Agency has injected new life into libraries’ mental health and wellbeing programmes”
  • Covid: £2.25m National Library Wales jobs rescue package announced – BBC. “An extra £3.95m will go to National Museum Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru. The money will be provided over the current and next financial years. The Welsh Government has faced criticism for failing to increase its grant funding for the library, including an accusation from one senior source at the institution that ministers failed to “recognise the importance of our cultural institutions”.”
  • Covid: Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs to be given in old mobile library – BBC. “When the health board was searching for a suitable vehicle, Neath Port Talbot council donated a mobile library that had reached the end of its life transporting books”
  • Episode 82 Ian Anstice – Public Library News UK – Library Pros. Podcast. “Joining the podcast from across “The Pond” in Wales, UK is Ian Anstice, who publishes Public Libraries News, an online publication sharing what libraries are doing in the UK. Ian was so much fun to speak with. We talked about the origins of PLN as a blog and how it developed over time. We also talk about the forced evolution of digital programming because of the pandemic and whether it is sustainable or part of the “new normal” and how we quantify attendance and satisfaction.”

“Public libraries are also a vital component in tackling digital exclusion at all ages. There are around 2,900 public libraries in England, providing a trusted network of accessible locations offering free Wi-Fi, computers and other technology. The library staff, supported by volunteers, have been trained to enable them to provide library users with support in using digital skills. Libraries help tackle the combined barriers of skills, confidence and motivation by offering skills training, helping people to understand the benefits that using the internet and accessing online services can bring. Their vital role has been recognised during the current lockdown, with the new regulations enabling libraries to continue some services during this lockdown period including access to public PCs for essential purposes.”

Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

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