Can digital save our libraries?

Posted on June 30, 2011


I’ve been throwing some ideas around with a colleague from another local authority as part of a wider ‘channel shift’ project that’s being led by the Improvement Service.  I’m on a sub group assessing if we can use social media to move customers to less expensive forms of contact and reduce avoidable contact.  So in our wisdom we decided to look at using social media to engage with citizens and talk about library services. This may seem short sighted, as surely we want more people to go into our libraries and not less, but stick with me.

We thought that libraries would be a good place to start as there was so much colour we could put around the service and I’ve had a lot of engagement on our facebook and twitter accounts when we talk about books so we know that it’s something that people online like to discuss.

We’ve both met with our library services who were really enthusiastic about getting involved, especially as most had been at CILIPs and had brought back lots of ideas.

I believe one of our roles as a local authority is to act as enablers in the community. We should be creating opportunities for our citizens to improve their quality of life and libraries can be used to reach out to the digitally excluded and bring them in as they are a neutral meeting ground, and not always viewed as a ‘cooncil’ service. We thought about using libraries as a place where we could hold ‘twinics’ or social media surgeries where we assist people with the basics of getting their own social media presence up and running as well as understanding how to use it to get the most out of it.

For those that are online already we could be reaching out to them on their terms, where they are, and letting them know what services are available online, and there are tons of of them. From downloading audiobooks, to family history databases to online renewal to dvd rental and more.

To promote library services to people already online we thought about having a tweeting mobile librarian using location  #tags so that people with a search on for their own areas will find it. We’d also have a central library twitter account that would tweet out the events happening locally again hashtagging the town or village name it was taking place at.

We’re also going to get up facebook pages for our book festival and Young People’s library service.

We also think that this has all come at the right time for councils with a strong or emerging social media presence.  Libraries have shifted and have a wide range of online services, and social media allows us to reach out to those who are online but not engaged with the service yet.  While researching this post @lelil very helpfully sent me her thoughts on saving library websites. And she is right, we need to vastly improve the online offering but even if they are improved how do we get them to come. Social media is that route.

The conclusion we’ve arrived at is that we won’t get immediate channel shift of users from expensive forms of contact (face to face) to the least expensive (online) by using libraries but maybe that’s not what we actually want to do.  But we can use  social media to engage the unengaged (people who think that the library service has nothing to offer them) and disengaged (people have have fallen away from using libraries)  and get them using the service in a way that suits them,  by increasing virtual footfall because that’s where they are already.

We then might be able to assist and enable others to become digitally engaged and once they all start feeling comfortable with using library services online they will feel confident about using other council services online too.So win a roundabout kind of way we will achieve our aim of getting more people to have a digital first approach with the council but only by making it relevant, easy and worthwhile first.

Oh, and we might save a few libraries along the way too as they become more relevant in a digital age.

I’d really love to know what others think of this and what is happening in other areas.