Sunday, 27 September 2015

A national digital platform for public libraries

I'm always a sucker for flattery so it was flattering to be asked to go along to one of the workshops that the Library Task Force has been running to talk around the proposed national digital platform for public libraries. The Society of Chief Librarians had commissioned Bibliocommons to draft a plan of action and we were using the draft as the basis for discussion. This document has been unofficially published on one of the library lists but my copy says "Not for publication" so I won't go into any details of it here. This absolutely wasn't the report to go to the sponsor, it was a work in progress showing some very interesting workings-out.

The discussion was useful, though I've no idea how or where it would progress.

One of the points made by representatives from Bibliocommons was that there is no point in building yet another portal. This is dead sensible: the history of libraries and the internet is littered with the corpses of dead library portals, Some good, some bad, many perfectly competent and a few perfectly splendid and all of them the product of many hours' hard work. How many can you remember? The reasons for their falling are many and various but at the end of the day what had been intended as important local reference materials became so much unsecured grey literature. So no portals is a good idea.

Libraries do have useful points of arrival online: their library catalogues. Even a small authority like Rochdale gets at least four thousand visits every month. Integrating a national digital platform into a busy local interface makes a heap of sense. This is the point at which detractors would point out that Bibliocommons have products that do just that so they're bound to say so aren't they? Which can be countered with the observation that their perspective makes it easy for them to latch onto something that should have been blindingly obvious to anybody. The questions are: how would this be done and where would the necessary investment come from?

There was some troubled discussion of "national." Any discussion of any national public library initiative has to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the fractured state of the national public library service. Even if the end product is free and somebody else is doing all the work, the likelihood is that there wouldn't be 100% coverage across England's public libraries: if it's optional then somebody will opt out. What would be the minimum take up that would enable a minimum viable product? Our workshop group could only flag up the question; we weren't in a position to provide any sensible answer.

For me, the other problem is the integration of the national product with the local interface. No doubt someone somewhere would be prepared to do the necessary for a fee, but where would the money come from and if it were available how would it be apportioned and accounted for? Already we're moving away from "If the end product is free..." How much local expertise could be available to do the work? Let's be honest: generally not that much; which isn't a reflection on the expertise of some very good people thinly-spread out there in libraries but an indictment of the lack of investment and development within too many library authorities. How many library authorities present themselves as "Countyshire Libraries" instead of "Countyshire Library Services," their names and their organisational structures reflecting the traditional custodianship of library buildings rather than services which are often entirely independent of the building. Similarly, if you were to divide the cost of the staff managing and staffing libraries by the number of physical visits to the library you'd probably get a high fraction of a penny; in most library authorities, if you were to divide the cost of the staff managing and supporting virtual library services by the number of virtual visits you'd go a good few decimal places before the answer wasn't zero. So we should be concerned about the local capacity to do much of the necessary development work. And that's before we get to the vexed local corporate branding vs. national initiative branding issue!

So by the end of the workshop I'd come to the conclusion that if it was free and somebody else was doing the work and if take up was adequate to make the product viable then the challenge would be integrating the national platform into the local offer within almost certainly diminishing resources. Which is a tad downbeat but not necessarily insurmountable. It'll be interesting to see if/how this progresses past this exploration stage,

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