What is the role of libraries in the digital world?

September 24, 2015 | Digital Inclusion, Latest News, Libraries, Projects | 0 comments | Author:

As part of our work with Curious Minds in developing the digital capacity of library workers across the North West, the posing of this question has been central to many of the activities and workshops that we have been delivering – from coding to filmmaking, blogging to tablet photography, planning digital workshops to exploring creative apps, and a whole other load of techie shenanigans! So, just what is the role of libraries in our digital world?

Library Workers from the North West exploring digital film production and post-production.
Library Workers from the North West exploring digital film production and post-production.
It is undeniable that libraries have transformed over the last few years, and are in fact, still engaging in a process of evolution. Gone are the days – if, in fact there ever were such days – when libraries were purely about reading or accessing books in physical forms. Today’s libraries are versatile, multi-purpose spaces that do still offer people the opportunity to access a vast amount of physical reading materials, but now also provide a whole host of other services including access to the Internet and digital devices, supporting people in searching for jobs or applying for benefits online, offering learning opportunities in informal settings, providing access to our region’s rich archives, offering spaces for meetings and gatherings for the public, community groups and organisations alike and so much more. Representing this evolution, Wigan Central Library is now part of the Wigan Life Centre Campus, offering everything from reading groups to photography clubs and Oldham Library and Lifelong Learning Centre not only has an expansive catalogue of physical and electronic literature, but also boasts a 80-seat performance space and runs regular Work Club activities.

In spite of their multifaceted scope, as a thought-piece from The Guardian stated, “Everyone should be able to access public library spaces, which are the last bastions of free knowledge” and it is our opinion that this should still hold true in the digital age. We’re currently looking towards JISC’s notion of digital literacies to provide a starting point or indeed a way of mapping out what types of digital activities libraries should provide. JISC suggests that there are 5 key capabilities that learners need in order to live, learn and work in a digital society:

  • ICT proficiency (i.e. being able to use different hardware and software)
  • Information data and media literacies (i.e. sourcing, critiquing and managing digital information and media)
  • Digital learning and self-development (i.e. understanding how to learn via digital tools and engage in self-directed learning)
  • Digital creation, innovation and scholarship (i.e. being able to produce digital content, to contribute to digital knowledge/research sources and to think outside the box)
  • Communication, collaboration and participation (i.e. using digital tools to work and connect with others and to be able contribute to group tasks)
JISC: The capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society.
These capabilities support people’s overall digital identity and well-being, and from the basis of our knowledge of what libraries have been offering us for many years now, they can be considered as hubs in which many of these capacities have been engaged with, developed and nurtured in the non-digital realms. So perhaps the answer is not to reinvent the wheel, but perhaps to digitize it?

From the sessions that have been delivered, an abundance of ideas about how these digital literacies can be embedded into creative and curious activities have emerged. For example, using digital video and audio to record book reviews for the Summer Reading Challenge and linking these to the specific books via QR code stickers was one idea proposed within the sessions. Another proposal was to engage young people as digital ambassadors for libraries, hooking other young people into the library service via social media tools and informing the digital offer of libraries moving forward. In the planning digital workshops session, two library workers joined forces to develop a stonking-ly good session plan on tablet photography. The activity explored basic photography principles using tablet technology, how to edit photographs using Pixlr, the implications of digital image manipulation on the authenticity of what we ‘see’ in terms of information literacy and body image, and peer review and presentation skills… all within a 20-minute pop-up session! Bloomin’ good work guys!

Library Workers from Blackpool participating in a multimedia blogging workshop.
This is not to say that the current journey which libraries are on is an easy one, with no problems to address and overcome along the way. In actual fact, the truth is far from it. Our libraries are under significant pressures that include staffing, resourcing, reduction in hours, and reduction in budgets amongst other things, but what we found during our time with the people who work within these settings is a massive aptitude and desire to embrace digital change, to move forward and most importantly, to innovate. After a coding masterclass from Liz Smart from Code Club North West, one library worker stated “It’s a really interesting concept to develop coding sessions for kids…one we will be exploring”, and another attendee of a digital audio workshop suggested that this type of activity was “not something we’ve done before, but we can give it a go!”.

So, whatever the digital role of libraries is or becomes, we are sure that the people who work within these amazing (and vital) public assets are the right folk to meet such challenges… and like they say,where there’s will, there’s a way”!


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