The role of technology in creating sustainable, community-centric library services

Ben Sullivan from Axiell explores how, in the face of economic challenges, today’s libraries can use technology to expand the delivery of library services to the community and make the most of volunteer resources.  

The Government’s Libraries Taskforce document, Libraries Deliver, highlights how more than half of the UK population has a current library card. Public libraries, the consultation paper states, are in fact one of our most popular and trusted public services.

Yet, as anyone working in our sector knows, there’s significant pressure to cut costs, while delivering services that today’s citizens need and value.

In a recent Guardian newspaper article, the chief executive of CILIP, Nick Poole, is quoted as saying: “In an age where there is a great need to arm the population with information and opportunities….it’s time to stop talking about the dismantling of library services and instead to demand action.”

The key question, then, is what action do we need to take to ensure that libraries continue to be relevant in today’s modern society?

A vision for the UK’s public libraries

Earlier this year, Axiell set about finding the answer. Our newly-published report, A review of UK libraries in 2017, presents the findings of research carried out with 150 professionals working in UK public libraries, plus 1,000 library users.

One thing is clear: libraries matter and people value the services that libraries provide. But there are also challenges.

In 2016, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) released figures that highlighted the UK’s public libraries sector took a £25m hit to its budgets in the financial year to March 2016.

Technology has also changed the way people choose to connect to information and culture. For many, libraries simply don’t fit into their lifestyle or hinder their quest for knowledge. Why be beholden to limited opening times if you can search online at any moment of the day?

To become a sustainable, community-centric service, libraries must evolve to offer something that is attractive and distinct in the face of such competition, whether that’s online or in a physical location.

Engaging communities outside of the library building

In our Axiell study, 98% of library professionals agree it is important that library staff actively engage with local communities and become a key place of congregation to develop reading, learning and creativity.

They also know that services need to evolve beyond the library’s traditional role, with only 4% strongly agreeing that libraries should focus only on literacy and reading. And the good news is that many libraries are already expanding their services beyond the library’s four walls.

Only two per cent of libraries do not engage with the community outside of the
physical library space, with large numbers using school visits, local events and other
community services to extend their presence.

Community engagement

But there are some big challenges. Our survey of 150 UK-based library professionals found the biggest challenges are staffing the services (91%), funding to take the library out to the community (78%), and not having the right technology (53%).

Volunteers and the role of the librarian

Only three per cent of library staff questioned in our Axiell research agreed that having trained staff made no difference to the successful and sustainable running of a community library. The majority (71%) agreed that a community library could not be sustainable without the involvement of a trained librarian – deemed as critical.

It’s not a surprise that library professionals believe they offer vital experience and expertise that others cannot. Yet they also understand the value of volunteers and 83 per cent of public libraries are already integrating non-paid workers into their institution.

These volunteers are not only a support for library professionals, but help to make the library more diverse and reflective of the local community, as Anthony Hopkins, Head of Library, Heritage & Adult Education Service at Merton Council, comments: “Volunteers help make the library more diverse and reflective of the community, they will be your most passionate advocates, helping to bring the community together.”

Library volunteers

Yet while the introduction of volunteers is playing an intrinsic role in helping libraries to overcome the impact of budget cuts, this can also bring a new set of challenges, notably in the time investment needed to recruit, manage and support them.

Technology as the enabler for sustainable services

The human element is no doubt critical to the future success of our libraries, through library professionals and volunteers who operate on the ‘front-line’ to deliver services that engage, inform and unite the local community.

But librarians and their teams have a very real and difficult task of simultaneously providing value to their patrons, and proving this value to budget holders and other stakeholders within the local authority.

Having the right tools and technologies in place to aid library staff has never been more important. These tools reduce administration workload so library staff can focus on delivering useful services to patrons. The tools empower volunteers and reduce their training needs. Importantly, these tools and technologies use data and analytics to enable managers to evidence the value the library provides.

Here are four considerations for technology that will help you to create sustainable, community-centric services:

1. Use simple and user-friendly tools 

Use tools that are simple and user-friendly to make it easy for volunteers to learn the system and for staff to teach them how to use it. This simplicity eases the burden on trained members of staff and will give volunteers a greater sense of empowerment by allowing them to be more involved in the running of the library.

2. Embrace digital and new technologies

Embrace digital and new technologies because of the inherent efficiencies that they can bring. Cloud computing, the Internet of Things and other technology trends are revolutionising every industry from heating control to the way you order a taxi, so why not libraries? Don’t be afraid to look at diversifying into revenue-generating services if they fit with the library’s mission; income generation will help budget holders easily identify value.

3. Make the most of big data and analytics

With the right tools you can make sense of your data in a meaningful way to show the value that your library is providing. Set some clear, measurable objectives and track your progress using the data you can access. Learn from your insights for continuous improvements and don’t be afraid to experiment. If you analyse your data in near real-time you can quickly amend your approach and work in a more agile way. Have a long term plan but don’t be afraid to challenge, review and tweak it.

4. Use cloud computing to help you take your library to the community 

Using mobile phones and tablets can be very handy when it comes to going out into the community to engage with patrons, whether it is for a home visit or a scheduled pop-up at an event. With mobile technology you can be much more flexible to the needs of the community, meeting them on their terms in places where they congregate, such as schools and shopping centres.

Is technology enabling you to create a new type of library service? We’re keen to hear how library professionals are transforming their approach to meet today’s challenges head-on, so let us know what you think below.


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