Building a successful online presence for libraries

The vision is pretty clear – people have gone online. They have become accustomed to beautiful products like Spotify or iTunes which use a tremendous amount of skill and engineering to mask complexity and offer a simple, seamless experience which drives repeated use. If libraries are to compete in a connected culture, we need one of those – a consistent online presence for libraries.

Over the years, I have been involved in at least 5 different projects to set up a ‘single digital presence for libraries’ – a unifying platform which gives online consumers a single point of entry to the wonderful world of libraries.

And each of these initiatives has failed. Some failed fast – in one case, not even making it to launch. Others took a while, even lasting a number of years through ongoing subsidy. The unifying factor was that each had forgotten to take care of at least one element from the list below.

The ingredients you’ll need

Drawing on examples of successful digital libraries (like ‘Trove‘, ‘Digital NZ‘ or the ‘Peoples Collection Wales‘), you’ll need every single one of the following locked in place for yours to succeed:

  • Marketing
      – a grown-up, large-scale ongoing marketing budget supported by clear segmentation, a strong brand and ongoing investment over a period of 3-5 years;

  • UX design
      – a modern, mobile-first attractive interface informed by leading practice in user experience design (and surrendering all decisions about presentation to UX professionals – which means nothing that looks like a field from a Collections Management System or Catalogue!);

  • Quality content
      – curated/editorialised content, sourced through real-world partnerships with real-world people who know and love their collections (which means nothing squeezed through an API or rendered through a 3rd party ‘data model’). Getting quality content means long-term, qualitative and reciprocal relationships between real humans;

  • Meaningful interactions
      – any online platform or service has to deliver rich, meaningful and ideally emotional experiences that people can’t get anywhere else. UX design which leads the user to a record and then leaves them there does not make for a fulfilling, meaningful interaction. It has to be the prompt for a string of creative or social interactions with little or no barrier to exchange (including the barrier of rights management);

  • A reason for existing
      – if your rationale is ‘because we’ve got all this stuff’ or ‘because a politician had dinner with someone in the tech sector who said we needed one’, your platform will not succeed. If your rationale is soft diplomacy, tourism, national identity, strong pre-existing user community or real evidence of need, then it is more likely to (though still no guarantees);

  • Value add
      – any single digital presence for libraries needs to deliver real impact in two directions – driving visitors/users to the library (conversion) and delivering unique, compelling experiences for the end-user (attention). It needs to be able to evidence when this has happened;

  • Technology
      – not only the codebase at launch, but an ongoing commitment to refreshing the technological infrastructure, re-factoring every 3-5 years and building your platform as an actual platform (or better still, re-purposing an existing platform);

  • Management
      – a viable organisational structure with skilled, committed people whose job it is to maintain, improve and develop the platform, engage with users and create a plan for long-term sustainability. Although this can work with volunteers, these people mostly need to be paid;

  • Leadership
      – someone influential who loves, owns and believes in the platform and is willing to defend it, fight for it, argue for it and sustain a clear vision for it over a long period;

  • Unity
      – a strong governance structure and a sense of unity of purpose between interested parties, many of whom will be in competition for resources;

  • A business model
      – a grown-up, real, evidenced business model based on generating value for an identified market from day 1 and a clear and genuine (ideally pre-existing) means of monetising this audience to secure an identified cash amount equal to or greater than the cost of running and staffing the service;

  • Buy-in
      -if individual staff in individual library services feel that the platform is ‘alien’ or a top-down imposition, or designed by Committee or generally anything other than directly useful to the people they meet and serve on a daily basis, then it is time to think again (they know their customers better than anyone);

  • End-user support
      – a staffed, responsive tech or user support service that is available 24/7;

  • This is really hard. I have seen single digital presence projects deliver excellent technology and content, but fail to implement a marketing strategy or a business plan. I have seen initiatives falter because the parties were too intent on fighting each other for credit. I have seen great brands built on air, with no real substance behind them. I have seen platforms built with immense political support, only for that support to evaporate 3 years later when the wind changes.

    In case it isn’t clear – I am still a believer. I think that a Spotify or iTunes for libraries, properly marketed at scale could transform public understanding of what public libraries can offer. I am mainly sharing this in the hope that someone out there will be able to find a way to make this work!

2 thoughts on “Building a successful online presence for libraries

  • Made this point on Twitter but that character limit is too small to be clear!

    The phrase ‘Open’ is of course commonly misused. But in this case I think, given that you mention 5 attempts at creating a single digital presence, the relevance of Open would be the following:

    – Were the processes documented openly (i.e. documents still available) to inform future attempts.
    – Was code produced for these? If so if it’s open source can it be re-used in future projects?
    – What about the underlying data – can this be re-used?

    It may not be the case but there’s a feeling of starting again afresh in each of these projects? The fact that you don’t mention what the 5 are limits how much we can learn from them (perfectly understandable though – it’s not necessarily the focus of your post).

    But the point is that mistakes and failures are fine and can lead to innovation. In the open source community you’ll see countless examples of failed projects but also countless examples where those failures have been explicitly built upon to create new projects. The source control terms ‘branching’ (creating a copy of a code repository to work on) and ‘forking’ (creating a copy to follow an independent route) can be applied as principles to projects.

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