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The British Library LibraryOn team ran a survey on digital grants to get an idea of current digital needs.

Next year we’ll be awarding 20-50 capital grants to public library services in England. We anticipate individual grants ranging from around £10,000 to £70,000, but this will be confirmed based on feedback. Details will be published in early 2023, with applications opening in the spring and activity to be completed by the end of next year.

The grant programme complements the national development of the LibraryOn platform, and aims to improve the online presence of local libraries and increase digital capability. We envisage the grants being used on the implementation and testing of new digital products and services, or enhancing existing offers.

Digital survey

This is now closed. It asked what services would use a digital grant for, and what they felt would be most useful.

It would be interesting to hear the ideas for digital projects. In the spirit of ideas, here are 5 on my wish list.

1. Mobile library notifications

If you follow mobile libraries on social media (as you should!) you’ll know they often cancel services. Not mega often, but enough to be a problem. Mobile libraries are affected by weather, faults, and staffing issues.

What happens when a mobile library stop or route is cancelled? Every effort is made to contact regular users, such as phoning them. But there will still be people missed who don’t use that service regularly. Phoning round users for a set of stops takes time, and isn’t always possible. In some cases the library system doesn’t record that information, so manual lists of users per stop need to be maintained, a data protection issue itself.

Often it’s the mobile library driver that knows their regulars, and will go the extra mile to contact them. But what if they are unavailable?

This is good digital transformation territory. Library services could implement a notification system that allows users to choose their preferred communication for when a stop, or route is cancelled. The notifications could be delivered via email, SMS, push notifications, phone call, or even voice assistant (e.g. Alexa). The library service could also set up a web page to show the current status of mobile libraries, and to subscribe to notifications.

2. An open public library catalogue API

Public library systems in the UK lack public APIs (application programming interfaces). These are how software developers access the data and processes in a system, to use in their own applications. It’s not that the library systems don’t have APIs. They do - they’re just locked down.

It would be amazing if a library service could set up a public API to enable applications to integrate with library systems. Create the API, create documentation for it, and promote it widely. Encourage people to trial new things, such as:

  • Creating new ways of browsing the catalogue
  • Allowing people to manage and auto-renew their loans
  • Integrating library activity with social media (e.g. status notifications when you check out a book)
  • Enabling voice assistants (e.g. “Alexa, renew my books”)

All things that would increase user choice in digital services, and promote libraries.

3. Mobile library tracking

With recent snowy and icy weather I was reminded of the Trunk Road Gritter Tracker, a Scottish Government map of road gritters. It shows where they are, and where they’ve been.

This is familiar technology for users. Every time I catch my local bus I check the live map to see how it’s doing (probably delayed leaving Bath). I can leave the house when the bus is 3 minutes away, and avoid waiting ages in the freezing cold. That’s good for me as I hate coats and refuse to wear one.

This isn’t dissimilar to the notification idea, but mobile libraries aren’t going to use a cancellation process when running 5 minutes late.

So let’s have a map of mobile libraries and a dashboard showing when they’re due to arrive at each stop. It could also provide insight into:

  • Additional stops that could be added to routes
  • Inefficiencies in the route network
  • Routes that collide with ones from other services, which could be shared

4. Library branch information in catalogue results

Library branch information on websites is pretty good these days. You can often search for your library by postcode, see them on maps, and get opening hours.

This all unravels when you move to the library catalogue. You know your local library, when it’s open, and how to get there. But the book you want isn’t there - the catalogue says it’s in a different library, but there are no opening hours or location information. You could have it transferred, but at cost, apparently taking weeks, and you need it for a book group on Monday.

So back to the library search on the main library website. Except now postcode searching isn’t useful. You need to match the name of the library to the one listed in the catalogue, but they’re named differently. Your library service shares a catalogue with loads of others, which is great, except you have no idea whether the library is 2 miles away, or 200.

All of this is due to the library catalogue being separate to the library website, and the two hate each other. But they’re all just data and systems, there’s no reason not to have a good user interface that combines the two.

I’d love to see a library service present detailed library branch information within catalogue results. If a book is due back in ten days but the library is closed for 4 days after that, it’s not useful to show the due date for that copy. Users should see when the copy will be available in that branch - that requires opening hours data.

5. Website carbon reduction

I’ve been implementing the Website Carbon Calculator badge into Libraries Hacked projects, to measure each site’s carbon footprint per visit. You should be able to see it on this blog.

Carbon counting has flaws, but the principles are sound. Digital energy usage is huge and increasing. Library websites receive huge amounts of visitors, and are a significant part of the carbon footprint of a library service. So why not measure it, and try to reduce it?

If a service could measure the digital impact of their website and fund developments to reduce it, that could be a significant benefit. Given that many of those platforms are also used by other libraries, it could also hugely reduce the carbon footprint of the sector as a whole.

It would be a great example to present to the #GreenLibraries conference.