A Librarian’s Take on Digital Disruption
Truly we are in fast changing times where incredible things are now possible. Our lifespan has increased, our health is improved and wealth of the population continues to grow at great speed and access to information is at our fingertips. We should be feeling incredibly optimistic and energized by the remarkable that we learn about every day. But instead we see that in this ever changing world casualties abound and confusing challenges such as the rise of fake news, robots taking jobs, and people being left behind because of lack of literacy or lack of access to the internet whether through affordability or through lack of skill. Libraries as well as communities, businesses and other traditional industries are being challenged like never before. There is no ability to ride out the disruption and libraries have been one of the industries to quietly and successfully adapt. But is adaption enough now?.
I once heard a librarian discussing their 12-year old’s son frustration with heir Public Library website. He was researching a school assignment and the database he was using stated he needed to be in the library to use it. His frustrated cry ‘ But I AM in the library!’ reminds us all that the user experience of discovery on our websites and catalogues can be confusing and frustrating. What would our library’s digital offer look like if we started today, from scratch? What if we could forget the legacy systems and more importantly legacy rules and policies and design our services for today’s users. For our users they are ‘In the Library’ when using our digital platforms, digital libraries and digital content and yet for our staff and often our rules these users are not considered as ‘In the Library’. And there is often a hierarchy of status of how we regard our users — those who physically visit have the highest status. Those who ring in are answered but really couldn’t they have found their answer on the web. And this is not a criticism of our customer service because all staff are professional but I am talking about how we regard them. And web users are often not engaged with at all by staff as they only use our web platforms. They are the ones at our front door — our websites — and are waiting for us to connect with them more deeply and engage them more with our services.
Because this digital engagement (or website hits at the moment as not quite engagement) is growing, as Librarians, we need to be much more aware of the trends in the digital world. In Tim Goodwin’s book Digital Darwinism, digital fluency is defined as the ability to apply technology in creative and innovative ways to solve complex challenges. Libraries need to have an understanding of the trends to enable digital solutions to the challenges facing our industry. Some trends to note — It is likely that DVDs will die out. Voice activation for computers will become more prevalent, online shopping will continue to rise. Libraries need to be across these trends being driven by changing technology but we also need to understand how these technology driven changes affect behaviours and expectations of customers — who are also library users.
It is the end of business as usual. And here I am not saying we change our core work — keeper of stories, telling of stories and making of stories — and that is whether the stories are research, historical, true or fictional. But this is about our front facing business as usual. We have all seen at the coalface the change in the way people use our libraries and primarily it is about the experience. A meaningful experience in a meaningful space that invites people to stay awhile. We need to do this with technology and our digital spaces too — it is about the experience. The digital offer must be inviting to me personally as a user, it is the front door and leads me to places I want, need and can grow my engagement with the library. And it should remember me.
To explore better ways to serve our communities it starts with our operational structures not our technology!
Align library operational structures around people — not collections, around digital experiences not ICT, around community engagement not marketing. Changing our mental model from seeing the digital platforms as a tool and separating them from our physical offer is essential. Our websites should be our front door — to the library — an integrated digital and physical offer.
We also need to acknowledge the change in behaviour driven by new content providers and platforms. As Tom Goodwin so rightly points out Spotify is different to radio as it gives control to the subscriber — who can curate their own experience, share with others and have ultimate choice in listening. It has nothing to do with the technology infrastructure delivering the service. So changing our mindset is key and this needs to be reflected in our operational structures if we want to action this change.
Our phones now serve as the primary conduit of information but with services like Alexa and Siri a hybrid world is created. We can get help anywhere and if we add geolocation into the mix we can also connect with information at the local level. This means that our library digital experiences need to flow across devices, be ready for voice activation and for our services to be discoverable.
Think about the problems from a user point of view. I do not want to come to the library and find all the study and workspaces full. You have wasted my time — how can I know on my phone that there are spaces available, can I book one? We have push notifications from the library to the customer about our collection — sms notices etc but we have not extended this to our spaces and chairs. Some academic libraries are experimenting with ibeacon to allow students to know whether the library is full or not and some have taken the next step to allow study spaces to be booked online.
So obviously we all need to step up if we are to be across these trends and respond in a meaningful way. Its time to source your awesomeness. Its time for creative problem solving. All Library staff, no matter if you work in a one person library, public library, special library, academic library or large collecting institution must take ownership of your own digital skill sets — no matter what your actual work roles are. And this responsibility and need for new skills, new thinking never stops as the digital world continues to change, morph and take us on surprising new paths. It is important to remember that in times of peak complexity we have to be even more mindful of our user’s point of view.
Value is different in the digital age and we, as service providers, need to understand this. Mark Schaefer is a marketing guru that I follow and his article 30 Ways to Create Customer Value prompted reflection on how libraries create value for users and more importantly how in this discussion technology can add value -or not — to the customer’s journey through our services. I wrote more about this here. It is also a good lens to view our practices and rules with the new technology offer to see if there are any disconnects or deal breakers for the customer. So we could ask how do libraries save time? Our curated lists of resources could save our users’ search time. I have found that ‘Simplifies’ is a big value for users of content who often choose convenience over cost — Audible is much simpler to use than library eAudio content in most cases with one person telling me they could not even find the eAudio on the library website so gave up and went to Audible. Libraries need to keep ‘is it simple and easy to find’ in mind when it comes to eContent and our digital offers. Because for a big portion of our customers this would be a primary goal.
Also convenience trumps free. How convenient are we? Do our membership policies impede our online membership offer? It is important to realise that digital is not separate to everything else that exists in our library service. Implementing easier self check options and self check-in? then how do your policies support this technology or impede it. Do your policies and work practices actively work against self service? It cannot be just about the technology.
Our time is most valuable so time saving processes can trump privacy. Do we implement automatic check in to save our customers time. Unlike every other social platform I cannot stay logged into the library — why? While we have a strong ethic towards transparency and ethical use of customer centric data it is important for us to think strategically about how this data can be used — yes transparently — to improve the customer experience.
The current retail research into online shopping tells us that people are overwhelmed with choice so personalised curation and helping to make a decision quickly trumps access to everything. This is a very different mindset to libraries now who want the community to have more content and we have vast shelves with lots of books spine out which can feel overwhelming to someone who just wants a good book.
We need to explore improved digital solutions, challenge our vendors and work together to develop better options. Not in isolation of our traditional library rules and procedures around membership, which often predates the digital era with the intent of the rule never changed. What if we had personalised lending periods that the user could choose. In this world of choice and customer experience we need to consider the end to end user experience when purchasing access to digital content and simply say no if the user experience is poor. Because our members will not use it. So think about a blended user experience with the digital offer fully embedded into our physical offer — not separate and not different but part of a whole. Remember our user is in the library in their minds when on the website in our physical buildings or on our content provider platforms. And if your library has a tech guru who has written the middleware to make this happen make sure you share it.
Three States, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia have come together with Solus UK to develop a cloud based platform that will provide this functionality with working parties in each State informing the project. Key features of Project LUCI are:
- Seamless and secure integration with all content providers using webservers — in real time
- A single web login to access library collections statewide
- A digital library card and single search bar
- Personalised discovery layer once logged into the application
- Features that can be found in an Amazon book search — such as reviews and awards
What is in our existing toolkit to do all this? What is the librarian toolkit that can help us towards customer focused solutions?
- Empathy — it is about people, trends in behaviour — not about the technology. A selfie moment is not about the camera, the photo or the moment usually. It is about the need to build a social network to express who we are or who we want to be and to connect with a social network. So when you incorporate that selfie opportunity in your library remember the why — not just the how and the what. Empathy also means we need to use data ethically. Be clear, honest and transparent about what data we are keeping, who owns it — because it may not be the library -what we use it for and allow our users to modify and control their own data. We need to start demanding this from our vendors — because who is going to care about our customers if not us? Tom Goodwin in his book Digital Darwinism challenges all business to not think technology first but think about the problem from a customer point of view first and then find the technology to solve it. Applying creative solutions around what people want and question all the assumptions and rules of the past when we design these solutions. Because it is about empathy not the technology and libraries pride themselves on being about people but can be seduced by technology lust.
2. Curiosity — keep our curiosity alive. All library staff need to let go of the concept of being trained before having to incorporate the new into their daily practice. Embrace the embarrassing moment of not knowing and learning and not being good at something. If we keep our curiosity alive then we can excite our users to be curious to. Once we are confident to learn and adapt to being on a learning journey always we can let go of the need to be the expert and embrace the role of facilitator for our community — be they students, general public or special businesses. And even if we send staff to training without an accompanying curiosity to practice some of the learning there will be no resulting change in behaviour or confidence. Learning is driven by creative application and if we want to build an innovative, creative digital first culture we need to involve staff in the problem solving, give them the opportunity to undertake pilot projects to practice on to learn and to build confidence. Here is one library that has embraced being curious and just playing with the technology and then encouraging users of all ages to play and engage. Technology can be a great engagement tool. Remember to intentionally build library engagement through this play though. Ask the audience to become a member, ensure you have a collection to support the technology program.
3. Creativity. To be creative we need constraints so libraries are very lucky because we have constraints galore so it follows that we can be and are very creative. Budgets are limited, time is limited but these limitations can drive creativity. Dave Snowden in his keynote presentation at APLIC18 presented a new way to think about organisational change. Forget a change management plan as that will conjour up all the bad memories of previous change, often with failures embedded in them as we cannot get everything right. Instead lets acknowledge that in todays world we are on a continuous learning journey — focus on a pain point in your library user journey and get creative. Problem solve only from the user point of view. Do small pilot projects and then ask the question what did we learn — not what failed. To do this we must allocate time. And we do have time. Anyone who tells me they haven’t got time for creativity is telling me this isn’t important to them. And maybe the freeing up of time can be the problem you all creatively solve. Budgets are tight but you can allocate some funds to a small pilot that helps build a case for more funds or build a case for a grant. Try stuff and then learn.
4. Audacity: and no I do not mean the free audio software program! It is time to take the leap — into learning, into coding, into robotics, into digital disruption — whatever you are most challenged by — be audacious and just learn it. I am not saying every library staff member needs to be an amazing programmer. But I am saying we should all know about coding, the art of problem solving and then writing a piece of code to make a robot turn around. I am saying we should all be exploring this new world — for ourselves, our libraries and our users. And sometimes being audacious is slicing off a piece of the budget for innovation, creative play, and learning. That is investment for our futures — giving ourselves time. And then of course we need to share our learning, in blogs, in forums and across our networks. Believe in yourself and your library. Believe in ‘LIBRARY’.