By Ciara Eastell, SCL President

I recently visited the Eden Project for the first time with my family. Before going, I used their website to check opening times; booked our tickets (to benefit from a 10% discount); took down travel directions and sat with my eldest daughter watching time lapse videos of various plants growing and explored an educational resource on how you create a habitat in your garden for insects. All round, the research before our visit helped us make the most of our experience and enabled my daughter and I to learn together. After the visit, I followed the Eden Project on Twitter and have become a member, turning our entrance fee into a Gift Aid donation.

How brilliant would it be to have something similar for public libraries? And how frustrating that a sector as large and well used as public libraries has not so far delivered a decent digital presence which engages people with all the collections, expertise and networks the library has to offer and encourages them to be even more engaged with their local library?

Today SCL, supported by The Reading Agency, publish a report produced by BiblioCommons examining the potential for public libraries across the country to develop a digital presence which could offer existing and potential users of libraries with a much richer, more engaging digital experience. The report represents the culmination of almost 12 months of research with existing library users, non-users, engagement with library staff (at technical, frontline and leadership levels) and discussions with key national organisations such as the British Library and the BBC.

The report adds to SCL’s growing portfolio of work to re-position digital services as a core element of a modern and attractive library service meeting the needs and expectations of local communities. It complements, for example, SCL’s digital leadership programme (which is just about to start with its third cohort of leaders); our sustained engagement with Government Digital Services to demonstrate libraries’ huge potential to deliver on the Assisted Digital and Digital Inclusion agendas and the Arts Council-managed work to ensure wi-fi availability in all libraries.

The report – and the wide ranging research that underpins it – highlights the impact a poor digital offering is having on those who already use libraries and those who could easily become regular users of libraries if they were more aware of what was available. It also highlights some of the reasons why the library sector has failed to develop at scale and with pace the type of digital offering many people increasingly expect from modern organisations – in short, BiblioCommons’ conclusion is the failure has arisen from a combination of having 151 different library websites; most library websites being deeply embedded and constrained by local authority websites and the way in which Library Management Systems have evolved over the past 20 years.

Working with BiblioCommons (who are based in Canada and who have typically worked with libraries in North America) has helped SCL see our existing digital presence – its constraints and its potential – with fresh eyes. For example, I think many of us have assumed – because traffic to library websites has grown so substantially over the past decade – that most library users are aware of the functionality that is already available on our library websites. The BiblioCommons work has shown us that this is not the case. Many library users are still going to great lengths to visit their library to undertake transactions which could easily be done online. BiblioCommons have also shown us how a digital presence could lever the huge latent support that people feel towards their library in new and imaginative ways and could be a significant way of providing a much richer engagement with readers and authors.

So where next? The BiblioCommons report is extensive and underpinned by detailed appendices – SCL, supported by The Reading Agency, welcomes engagement and feedback on these documents from library users, non-users and stakeholders. We will be meeting with suppliers of Library Management System providers soon to discuss the report in more detail and have established a Steering Group to manage next steps. Securing some initial investment is clearly an important next step and we will be working closely with the Taskforce team and Arts Council England to identify potential sources of funding. As an immediate next step, we are working with colleagues at JISC on an initial pilot for a single digital sign on for public libraries that could substantially improve the user experience of using existing digital collections.

We will keep you posted on progress with the digital presence during 2016. In the meantime, we welcome all feedback.