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Discovering digital libraries

By Ian Anstice


English public librarians don’t get out much. Sure, we’re often dealing with the public every open hour or talking with our teams but, well, we normally just don’t meet librarians from neighbouring authorities, let alone from around the country. Most branch staff stay in their own building and may never talk to anyone from another authority other than on the phone arranging for a book for a customer. So, it was a delight for me to be invited by Oxford University Press (OUP) to an afternoon to meet with nineteen other library professionals, ranging from part-time library staff to at least one head of service. It was also wonderful that the session was in the publishers’ beautiful headquarters in the famous historic town of Oxford, which has to be one of my favourite places in world and, not coincidentally, one of the most book-friendly too.

So why the nice day out? Well, the meeting was the first one for public librarians in the UK of the OUP Library Advisory Council. The clever purpose of this impressive sounding group is to get together library staff who use and promote online resources so that we can share ideas and learn more about how the publisher can help libraries and their users. I am delighted to say that from the start – and to the great credit of our hosts – it was clear that this was not just going to be a thinly veiled sales day but rather a real chance for us all to hear about what best practice was going on and how we could adapt it for our own purposes.

The importance of online services to public libraries was clear in every presentation and in every conversation. People are more and more using their computer as their source of knowledge for factual information and for what is going on locally and libraries, used for so long to fulfilling that function, need to get with the programme. Further to this, social media is being used by many as a primary way of getting answers. People get their news about what is going on from Facebook and Twitter and will often ask questions online that are then answered by their friends or followers. I recently came across an example of this myself when I tweeted asking for anyone’s experience of using lego in libraries: I got ten replies including from practitioners who have won awards for their work in the United States and Australia. The challenge for public librarians is therefore about how to meet this challenge and how best to serve the public in a world where answers are obtainable without even opening up a new window on the computer. It’s also important for us to provide a professionally-resourced, factually-based, and entirely neutral service to counteract what can often be the biased (and sometimes inaccurate) views expressed by others in social media.

Kids having fun at Cockburn Libraries during the school holidays. Photo by Cockburn Libraries. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via cockburnlibraries Flickr.

Kids having fun at Cockburn Libraries during the school holidays. Photo by Cockburn Libraries. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via cockburnlibraries Flickr.

How librarians are meeting this challenge is truly inspiring. One city mayor realised early on that libraries are instrumental in improving literacy and sense of community and invested in a special website where e-books, online services, reviews and events all came together. Another library service goes out to schools to let them know about how useful their website (including a fair number of OUP resources) can be for their students, with the visits being such a success that they’re being invited back to deliver classes. Yet another city’s library twitter account is now really embedded in the local community, sharing information on local events, linking to old photographs of the town and chatting to users who need never leave their mobile phone to access their library. It’s even be used as some sort of instant messaging service with the library being tweeted about the wifi having just stopped working elsewhere in the building.

Lots of great ideas then, which got me thinking (perhaps counterintuitively) during the day about how important surrounding and buildings still are in this digital age. The OUP offices in Great Clarendon Street are beautiful and spacious, mixing the old and the new with some skill. In this environment, all of us felt comfortable and happy to talk about our and each other’s experiences. The building had all of the facilities — space, light, refreshments, wifi — that we needed. The same can also of course be equally said of a good public library for our users. Such a library provides the space for people to meet, read, and study with no need to worry about anything else that is going on and with no need to pay. Even for the digital elite, such meeting spaces are not without importance and for those with no online presence, with little money, or even just for those who downright love the printed word the public library building can be absolutely essential. The online resources are an extension of this, promote it and enhance it, but do not totally replace it. This is why the OUP has a headquarters and why there will always be public library buildings.

My thanks therefore to OUP for putting on such a good day, and to all of my highly skilled and motivated colleagues who made the day so useful. I travelled back on the train thinking about how to share what I had learned with my colleagues and how to use the examples and resources to improve the service that I provided. In such ways, the library gets more value for the money it pays for online resources but also, more to the point, the public gets served better and the library continues to be so well-used by everyone, including by those who use Facebook and Twitter.

Ian Anstice is a full-time public librarian working in the North West of England. He also finds the time to run the Public Libraries News website which provides a free summary of international and national coverage of the sector.

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