6 minute read

I was watching the British Library Labs symposium and was interested to see an update on the Single Digital Presence (SDP) work for public libraries. Check out the video of the library labs symposium on YouTube. It’s all ace, but the SDP update is 2 hours into the streaming event.

The Bookseller also published an update from the team, transforming the digital offer for public libraries, and research partners DXW published a case study on creating a national digital presence for public libraries

The updates all show that the project includes a wider focus on digital transformation, rather than simply a single software platform.

Having thought a little about digital transformation, I think there’s a number of things worth considering for library digital services.

Fix before building

I try to advocate for the Local Government Digital Declaration.

We will ‘fix our plumbing’ to break our dependence on inflexible and expensive technology that doesn’t join up effectively

Local Digital Declaration

It includes fixing issues that cause problems and hamper projects. These could be related to data and software, but also culture and skills.

The recent Bookseller piece included a fairly reserved comment on the current state of library digital presences.

many familiar with the sector will recognise that the quality and consistency of libraries’ digital offerings could be improved

Jacob Fredrickson, Single Digital Presence project manager

But what in particular is broken? Yes, the websites and services have poor usability, accessibility, and aren’t pleasant to use. But those are symptoms, not underlying problems.

In November I was approached by a web developer. Enthusiastic about libraries in their local area they wanted to create a new and more accessible way of browsing the library catalogue (no, it wasn’t me!). They had asked their library service, via freedom of information, for data on the titles in the catalogue, in spreadsheet format.

This isn’t an odd request. It should be a situation that we jump at the chance of fulfilling. People creating software for interacting with their library? Great, get them access to that data!

Unfortunately the library service replied that it wouldn’t be possible to provide the data within the £600 freedom of information limit. On appeal, arguing that it should be easily achievable from digital records, the service then insisted they were exempt from the request as the online catalogue already provided search facilities.

It would be easy to be critical of the service. To say they were either overly protective of the data, or even intentionally obstructive. But I think they can be taken at face value. They likely don’t have the required knowledge to do it, and would have to go to the supplier, costing over £600. But the member of the public is sent away disappointed with poor service.

That’s (partly) what is broken. The library catalogue is the primary data held by a library management system, it shouldn’t be a problem to extract catalogue data. The problem is the skills and training for staff to be able to do it, and the lack of options for third parties to directly integrate with the system.

If there isn’t basic capability in library system administration, what likelihood is there for digital service skills like content design and user experience?

There are encouraging words from the British Library showing they appreciate this, and are looking at helping library services. But there will only be so much they can be responsible for.

we think that there is scope to develop patterns and designs that local libraries can use and re-work to improve their own websites and digital presences

Jacob Fredrickson, Single Digital Presence project manager

Everyone needs to be involved

Digital projects are never delivered to organisations with immediate success. Whether it’s an Intranet, a new Document Management System, or whatever. After implementation they need to be understood, adopted, and used effectively.

The tech industry can be guilty of selling software as a fix for a problem, when it is a tool to be used by people. But on the other side, organisations (e.g. libraries) can buy software without considering the time and investment they need to put in. Funding rarely appreciates that whatever it costs to implement, you’ll need a lot more after that.

It’s understandable for voices across the sector to demand ‘where’s the single digital presence?’, but it’s as relevant to ask library services how they are preparing for it. For all the work being done by the British Library to research and advise, far more will be needed from each library service to make it a success.

We need multiple digital presences

Single Digital Presence clearly expresses the a web platform for someone to go to one place to see information about multiple services, catalogues, resources, etc.

However, in the ideal situation we would have multiple digital presences. Or more accurately: multiple single digital presences. Want an app to quickly reserve library books? Sure, search the app store, check the reviews, and choose one. What if the Reading Agency want to put a search for UK libraries on their website? Great, that sounds like a good place for it. Delivery of those websites and apps should be out of the hands of library services.

True digital transformation will mean giving up control. The library website won’t necessarily be the place people go to find out about their libraries. The official library catalogue site won’t be where users reserve and renew their loans. They may choose the alternative site that allows them to tick the auto-renew option, and provides additional features that they want.

Work in the open

There is very little in the public library world that requires secrecy. The personal data of staff and the public being primary exceptions.

Public organisations are quite locked down, often because they handle sensitive data. But it can mean all information and data becomes locked down and fiercely guarded. That reduces understanding of data privacy and management, rather than enhancing it.

It’s very hard to change this culture, but there are great examples of working in the open. Check out HackIT, the website of the technology, digital and data teams of Hackney Council. There are details of the projects they are working on, how they work, and service design principles. Most impressively, various personal weeknotes, which are the regular postings of what individuals have been doing.

And why not? It will improve their own work, and inform the public who may be interested. It will also give them a greater understanding of where the open/private divide is in the data and information they handle.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Working last year with library staff and the DCMS on the library open data schemas I was nervous that surely this must have all been done before. You know that comic about standards and inadvertantly creating competing ones? That was on my mind. As it was, for data schemas like public library membership, and footfall, no, it hadn’t been done. And hopefully that work can be utilised in projects like the single digital presence.

A comic showing how standards proliferate. Situation: there are 14 competing standards. 14! Ridiculous we need to create one universal standard that covers everyones use cases. (Soon) Situation: there are 15 competing standards.
How standards proliferate

That principle of adopting standards, plus building upon past work is an important one. I recently rediscovered a blog post by Nick Poole about his learnings from 5 attempts to create a Single Digital Presence, called building a successful online presence for libraries. This is essential reading for making a success of such a project (more so than this meandering one).

But one thing it didn’t delve into was how (if at all) those projects were linked. There is benefit in a ‘failed’ project if it moves the current situation along. Have they done some groundwork of interoperability between systems, some standards for sharing data, and documented the work so it can be picked up the next time?

Other than thinking I know what a couple of the projects were, I don’t have any other details. But if they had been developed in the open then more information would be available about them. As it is, it doesn’t look like they were.