Great public library services

4 minute read

I spoke to someone recently about this data blog and they said ‘you seem frustrated’. I wasn’t sure if they were suggesting about data, or life in general. But there are definitely some frustrations in the public library open data world.

But there are also great things that have been going on in the past 5 years or so, directly from library services. Here are some awesome examples in library data and technology.

Newcastle open data

Newcastle library service began publishing open data in 2016, and have run two hackathons engaging the public with that data.

The libraries datasets are in available in a few places, giving them a wide audience. The Newcastle City Council website, as well as a ToonLibraries account on GitHub, and the Data Mill North open data portal.

I attended both the Wuthering Hacks, and the Datamorphosis hackathons that ran alongside the open data programme. They were events that paid attention to teaching and engaging the public. Not exclusive events for those who may already be familiar with library data, or have particular skills. And that’s as it should be, and a good reason to have more library open data and data events in libraries!

More details are available in Releasing and re-using library data, written by Aude Charillon. Fab stuff.

Suffolk kiosks

Library services use a Library Management System (LMS), and choose a Kiosk provider that integrates with that LMS for self-check out, check in, and renewing items. Those big kiosks can often go wrong, are bulky, and need support contracts with the provider.

Suffolk decided to go their own way and create their own software. This looks great, and runs on tablets within a stand that provides a barcode scanner. More information is available at this Suffolk Libraries Self Service Demo from 2018.

There should be more of this going on. The solution doesn’t need to be complex. Login, Issue, Return, and Renew. And most LMS solutions will have Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow integration with those processes. Suffolk and technology partner Dootrix were demoing this around the UK in the hope other services might join them. If those services used an alternative LMS, a connector could be developed.

I would have liked something like this to be coded in the open, as per Government Digital Service standards. But Suffolk Libraries are an independent charity rather than a public body, and will have different commercial considerations.

The utopia is to have public library services building and maintaining open source software, with a mix of in-service skills and external collaboration. That isn’t what this is, but it’s still an impressive example of how libraries can control their own software.

Leeds web accessibility

Leeds are well known for their digital inclusion programmes, such as 100% Digital Leeds. Note the top-quality accessibility statement on that site.

Less acknowledged is that they were one of the few library services to follow website accessibility requirements for public sector bodies. This included looking at the accessibility of all their websites, such as the online public catalogue.

And not just that, but there are many kinds of accessibility-aware aspects of their web presence. My favourite was seeing the ‘Access information’ provided for each library, which gives details about bus stops and how close they are.

The number 50 and 50a bus stop is situated on Town Street – approximately 150 metres from the Hub. The number 97 bus stop is situated on Broadgate Lane – approximately 150 metres from the Hub.

Leeds Libraries website bus details

The comprehensive nature of those information sections on each library really stood out. It’s clearly something they’ve put plenty of thought into, rather than only trying to comply with the legal requirements.

Plymouth data play

The Data Plymouth project is run by the Planning department in Plymouth. Not a department you might expect, except that Planning tend to have significant data requirements, particularly with geospatial data. DataPlay events provided talks on open data and technology, and explored new datasets. They also provided the opportunity for the public to propose projects and ideas that received a small amount of funding from the Council.

Plymouth libraries were always involved in these events, promoting and attending them. And Plymouth already had a significant engagement with the community in this area through their Coding and Digital Making events and clubs.

At DataPlay 9: Libraries and city challenges, the whole event became about libraries. This included looking at data in order to measure the impact of libraries, tell stories, and look at library use.

The pandemic has put a stop to lots of events like these. But it would be great to see more of these, where the public are able to come and chat and get involved in library data.

North Ayrshire open data role

I was amazed to see in 2019 that a library service (North Ayrshire) was recruiting for a role called ‘Open data development officer’. As far as I know, this was the first dedicated role in open data for public libraries. It’s not odd for Councils to have such roles. Many do, and many who have significantly cut funding to libraries have invested in open data roles and supporting technology. But it sits well within the existing remit of libraries.

It looked important enough for North Ayrshire Council to include it in an update on their 5-year plan. From a look at how this role has gone, it looks like it really delved into working with the community around signposting Council and other data available in the local area.

You can find out more at Open Data & Libraries - A PLIF Blog.

We recruited Scotland’s first Library Open Data Development Officer in partnership with Scottish Government’s Public Library Improvement Fund and the Scottish Library and Information Council raising awareness of open data and finding what data communities need to drive forward open government

North Ayrshire Council Plan 2019-2014 Progress Update