4 minute read

I’ve had a few conversations recently about library data project funding. Either as an individual/organisation, or with a library service.

In Libraries Hacked plans for 2021 I mentioned that sponsorship was one of my goals. Not for a big project, but making Libraries Hacked costs sustainable.

Wider funding has always seemed out of reach. Library-related funds (Arts Council, Carnegie, SLIC, etc) are restricted to library services, at most allowing others to be partners. Most Arts Council funds allow individuals to apply, except when applying for library projects. I think this is a shame and limits the potential ideas.

Regardless, I’ve been considering ideas for possible projects. Firstly, why not just carry on with non-funded prototype tools and apps (like Libraries at Home)?

Things need money to be good

Digital services cost money. A prototype can’t be widely used by the public or library services. They need investment and professional expertise.

  • Support. Does everything need 24/7 support? No - but problems should be resolved quickly. In the worst case scenario, with everything broken, is anyone available to sort it out?
  • Hosting. I run things with a ‘Development’ pricing tier. That means that people can use them, but they may be slow, or the amount of connections may be limited. Hosting is expensive.
  • Accessibility. It is hard to get websites right, and public sector ones need to be accessible to all. GOV UK guidelines on Accessibility Auditing advise that it can cost between £3,000 and £7,000. You can’t create a new digital service unless you can cover the accessibility costs, and you should want to!
  • Branding. There’s a good reason why the British Library have made branding part of their libraries Single Digital Presence work. Because it’s important that people recognise what your thing is about.
  • User experience. I’m not under any illusions that I’m good at user experience. It’s not always good to have the person who codes a thing deciding whether it makes sense to the public. It needs fresh and critical expertise from people who know process design.

OK, there’s loads more, the point is money.


Enough about money, project ideas?

1. Library data tools

What if we could streamline tedious data tasks? It may be an extreme example, but I worked at a Council that had a performance management system. Library staff manually keyed in library data (issues, visitors) once a month, for each library. Those boring bits of data would go into a boring system that would rarely be looked at. Every now and then fairly bored people would look at it. And sometimes that data would be extracted into Excel, and boring reports written.

We need tools that can take the data as it’s held in library systems. Then do instantly useful things with it. And when we have such a tool it should be shared with library services that use similar data (all of them).

And we shall call it library data tools. A prototype I’m working on takes postcodes of library members (held in all library management systems) and creates an interactive map to explore library membership. The map will display the percentage of the population who are library members in each area, with additional info such as deprivation measures. The idea is relatively simple: take data that all services can extract, and provide a tool that does something useful.

Plymouth library membership plotted on a map and shaded by concentration of members relative to population
Plotting the locations of Plymouth libraries members, constructed from postcode data. This shades the map to highlight membership concentrations. This particular example includes an area of Devon which has 19% membership of Plymouth libraries - useful for both services to know about!

2. Mobile library information

Many people know I’m obsessed with mobile libraries. It makes the current state of mobile library information frustrating.

If your library service has a mobile you will likely find the timetable information buried away in a PDF file. As this was often not accessible, some services have actually removed this information, but not replaced it.

Many mobile library users benefit from a personal service rather than a digital one. In most cases when a route is cancelled the service will phone regulars to make sure they’re informed, and renew their loans for them. But it’s not sustainable to have a service with no online information. It will be important to maintain the personal service, and make it digitally capable.

This is another relatively simple idea, but difficult to coordinate. Create a common format for storing mobile library data. Then a digital service that publishes this as information in multiple formats - a search facility, online calendars, a map, even print formats. Plus additional facilities like subscribing for notifications when the service is off the road.

Screenshot of a calendar application showing an entry for a mobile library stop
Mobile library stop timetables are data, and should be able to be shared in a variety of ways for the public to use.

3. Library open data

This idea was covered in a post titled A funding idea, and was a previous attempt at funding.

The idea was that a library service could release open data, with a series of published datasets. Rather than being for developers and analysts, it would be for the wider public. Information, insights, and visualisations would be available both online and in physical formats in libraries (postcards, newspapers, booklets). The project would engage the wider public with open data, and library data. It would help inform the public about what goes on in libraries.

The end

So, a few ideas. Are they good, bad, nonsense? There are loads of untapped projects in the digital/data space. Lots seem simple, but they need engagement and funding.

It was genuinely good to see the Arts Council providing £150k for library service digital products (ebooks). But it’s split between 150 services, £1,000 each. This is spreading money quite thinly, though it’s been pointed out that in relation to existing budgets this could have a big impact. But in addition to that funding it would be awesome to see the equivalent spend on national data projects for libraries.