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Librarians call for £20 million digital investment



Report from Society of Chief Librarians says new national infrastructure is needed to support best practice and provide savings

England's library authorities badly need to invest about £20 million over three years to replace an outdated IT infrastructure, according to the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL).

In a newly published report, Essential Digital Infrastructure for Public Libraries in England, the SCL that says that existing IT has severe shortcomings that is holding them back from making the most of digital technology.

It calls for a large scale investment in a shared infrastructure, including the development of shared data standards and application programme interfaces (APIs) to support a more coherent service nationally.

The main thrust of the report, which was prepared by BiblioCommons with funding from the Arts Council of England, is that library authorities' IT has developed in silos and that it needs a standards based digital platform and co-production of services to ensure they remain relevant and promote literacy, social and digital inclusion.

Collaboration extent

Generally, the extent of library authorities' online collaboration with others is to make use of regional inter-library lending systems. The public are unable to access these directly and there is no national central catalogue.

Many problems derive from the use of library management systems that were not designed to deliver new digital services, and that efforts to do so are often wasted.

Examples of the shortcomings are that different groups of libraries cannot use each other's templates, cannot show ebooks in central catalogues, few offer online events calendars and many of their websites can be difficult to find within local authority sites and to navigate.

The report proposes a number of technical solutions:

  • Building automation middleware that uses open standards to normalise the business logic and data of legacy software, allowing them to operate new applications.
  • A national aggregation service for the titles in library authorities' collections.
  • Standards based APIs to support collaboration among libraries, and with partners and vendors.
  • A suite of core applications using modular architecture, similar to those used by online retailers.

“Given the maturity of these service models in other markets and the depth of experience of existing vendors, we believe it will be possible to achieve fundamental, systemic change within two years of

selecting a provider,” the report says.

One place

Elizabeth Elford, advocacy manager for the SCL, told UKAuthority: “At a very basic level, something like this could take all the different websites and platforms used at the moment and provide for one place where they could all be accessed. All of the information could be found at that one place.”

She said that at the moment there is no clear view on the potential sources of funding, and that the SCL is yet to draw up a business case for the investment. She also acknowledged that the financial outlook for the public sector makes this difficult.

But one of the organisation's partners, the Libraries Taksforce, is beginning to identify potential sources of funds, the SCL has the principles in place, and there is potential for considerable savings.

“I think it's obvious that librarians are struggling, as with all public services, but improving this would allow library services to save money and could mean more people would use them as they would open up.

“SCL is focusing on how to improve libraries and digital is an important part of it.”

The report says there have been estimates that if the £20 million is invested it would lay the ground for savings, achievable within three years, of £2 million per year that are cashable and £6m million per year non-cashable.

It also says the move would be much cheaper than renovating the branch networks for libraries, the cost of which was estimated at about £950 million in 2006.

Taskforce support

The Libraries Taskforce comprises local authorities and professional bodies and has received funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport for the next four years.

Its chief executive, Kathy Settle, said: “People are increasingly using digital channels to carry out day-to-day tasks and to discover and explore new information and connections. As such, they expect to see a strong online library service that seamlessly joins up with the services provided in the physical library space.

“This report is an important first step in understanding what is needed and what could be achieved through a unifying digital presence for libraries.”

Image: Birkenhead Library by Oohah, CC 4.0 International through Wikimedia


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