British Library to scope Single Digital Presence for U.K. Public Libraries

“The British Library is to lead an 18-month scoping project to establish the demand for and possible shape of a ‘single digital presence’ for UK public libraries. 

Funded by Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust, the project will investigate user expectations and demand for what a national online platform for public libraries might deliver, and will explore the network of stakeholder groups and organisations best placed to make it a reality.” (Full text here)

For reasons I still cannot quite fathom the theme from Star Wars began playing in my head as I read this announcement last week. Perhaps inspired by a new hope or possibly the realisation that a force was awakening – either way it took me somewhat by surprise, especially as the announcement went on to mention that,

“The scoping project will build on the work of the Single Digital Libraries Presence Steering Group…”

Wait a minute – wasn’t that the name of the group of which I was a member? I checked my notes and found this snippet from the minutes of its last meeting in April 2016.

“The issue of achieving wider engagement with suppliers was discussed. Mick Fortune offered to organise preliminary discussions using his BIC network (as all but one of the major suppliers were already members of BIC) with a view to identifying a single representative to attend future steering group meetings.”

Clearly Carnegie and the British Library had been very busy since then – but it soon became clear from social media and my mailbox that some people remembered my involvement with the Steering Group and were wondering what had happened to that idea of meeting with suppliers – and why had I thought it might be useful in the first place?

So here’s the story – so far…


Following the meeting in April BIC (Book Industry Communication to give it its full name) agreed to take up my suggestion that we start talking to the SDLPSG but to meet first with Kathy Settle (CEO of the Libraries Taskforce). I was personally very eager for this meeting to take place as I thought there was more potential for progress than both sides probably believed at the time. (I’ll explain my reasons for thinking this later.)

That meeting was facilitated by Kathy and her team and took place in Whitehall at the end of June 2016 with both parties agreeing that it was a very positive encounter. BIC members were keen to tell Kathy about the efforts they were making to improve system interoperability through initiatives like the Library Communication Framework (LCF), products and services that were already available to libraries that might be deployed to improve the user experience and the frustrations of a procurement process that still depended heavily on ticking off the required elements in a completely outdated UK Core Specification and consequently missed any opportunity to talk about developing the service. (I think both parties were slightly surprised to discover how much their thinking overlapped.)

Since then we have held several more meetings and the group has now expanded to include the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), industry experts and many other interested parties including – at our most recent meeting in Rugby in July – the British Library’s PLR agency. The philosophy of the group has been very much to try and get anyone with a contribution to make around the table.

I was pleased to receive an email on behalf of the group late last week informing me that the British Library plans to talk to us once the project is underway.


That’s the ‘what’, now here’s the ‘why’.

My belief that dialogue with existing suppliers of library systems infrastructure – be that LMS, RFID, mobile apps, or any of the many specific applications that interact with one another in the library systems arena – is likely to be of benefit to the process of building a Single Digital Presence (SDP) is based primarily on my experiences over recent years with projects involving both Scottish and Irish public libraries. Granted almost 30 years as a supplier also plays its part but for the past 10+ years I have been working both through BIC and as a campaigner to try and preserve and even dare to try and develop the public library service.

My experiences in Scotland and Ireland tended to reinforce the discoveries uncovered by BiblioCommons, the SDLPSG and the round table discussion that was the immediate genesis of the new BL project.

The first problem in almost every discussion I have about SDP is – what exactly is it? Attempts at a definition tend to reflect the interest of the definer. Providers of websites offering access to online union catalogues may see it as another website providing access to library holdings whether physical or digital. A digital content provider – like e-books or online reference tools – will most likely see it as providing easier access to their content via any means possible, an LMS provider (and those familiar with managing them) may see it as being a single LMS to run a nation’s libraries.

The consumer (remember them?) probably doesn’t care so much about what form content takes they just want it to be easy to find and use. And I suspect that’s essentially what the SCL wanted when it asked BiblioCommons to carry out their consultancy on building their SDP. The trouble was that BiblioCommons was at the time a commercial organisation that made its money primarily by developing highly customised interfaces to other people’s systems running in a single library service.  So unsurprisingly they defined SDP as being an overlay (probably theirs) to run across the full range of online resources that might be provided in a modern library. All of this was to be an additional charge over and above the cost of buying and maintaining all of the subsidiary systems that would underlay the BiblioCommons ‘wrap’ and would need to be scaled up to handle the entire public library service…

Not quite what you might call an truly integrated solution to the problem but the report did raise some important points that the new British Library scoping project will doubtless consider.

Not the least of these is governance. Let me explain why I think this is so important.

In recent times the idea of a single LMS to run a national library service has become very popular. Personally I have grave doubts about the wisdom of this approach – commercial monopolies rarely see continuous development as being as vital as those that have to differentiate themselves from the competition. I am not opposed to the idea of a single LMS – the US State of Georgia successfully implemented an Open Source solution across its public libraries some years ago but I believe it succeeded because the state took ownership of the system and continues to develop it on behalf of Georgia residents.

This was essentially the thinking behind the Scottish Library and Information Council’s SEDAR project and five years ago I was asked to carry out an evaluation of progress so far.

SEDAR (Stirling and East Dunbartonshire Area Resource) was an attempt to deliver a cost-effective national solution for Scottish public libraries. Open Source solutions were very popular at the time – partly in the (often mistaken) belief that they are much cheaper to buy and run – and four library services had already signed up to use Evergreen. The hope was that all Scottish libraries would eventually run on a single system but the project was encountering difficulties. My brief was to find out why and make recommendations for fixing them.

I discovered that the addition of each new authority’s holdings had led to discrepancies in the catalogue and consequently to how information was displayed. A growing list of workarounds to overcome the problems were making the system increasingly unwieldy to use. The fourth service to join the consortium had added a long list of new requirements that would be difficult and probably costly to implement.

My conclusion was that the system would always need some modifications to accommodate emerging local requirements but that this ought to be readily achievable given compromise and a reasonable degree of co-operation between authorities. To manage this problem required strong governance and an agreed set of rules by which such delicate matters as “who pays what” and “who decides which modifications are made”.

My principal recommendation was that the consortium should improve its governance structure before any more authorities joined the project. I made many other recommendations concerning the maintenance and development of the product but these were less significant.

SEDAR still exists, but only in a very limited form – and the dream of a national LMS is still in abeyance.

Irish libraries approached the idea of a national LMS from a different perspective with their Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) taking the lead on behalf of all public libraries in the Republic. In 2013 I was asked to help the librarians identify a provider that might meet the requirements of a document for a single national LMS that I was told had been prepared by IT professionals working on behalf of the agency.

Irish libraries chose to implement a single LMS.

The problems the librarians were facing were firstly that there did not appear to be any existing system on the market at that time that would operate in the way defined in the requirement (something I was able to confirm) and secondly that there was no real consensus among the different library authorities as to the kind of solution they wanted. They had also only allowed 30 days to resolve their dilemma.

In the event it took almost a year to reach some kind of accommodation and produce an enormously complex specification that satisfied everybody. I have no idea how the evaluation was finally made as my involvement ended with the issue of the tender but the project continues and appears, after some teething troubles, to be going well. It’s a brave experiment that I believe was only made possible because of the existence of a single agency taking responsibility for system acquisition and maintenance. Governance and funding working as one.

Even the problems encountered by the Irish could be overcome by the existence of strong central governance and funding but in the UK we have a completely different situation. Libraries compete for a share of the local budget and tend to do best where funding is maintained at a reasonable level. Where funds are cut and the service pared to the bone they don’t do so well. Building a national model on such diverse and shaky foundations – with no central backing or funding – seems almost an impossible task. Delivering a 21st century library service is the real aim – and it will be difficult – but the first task for the British Library is likely to be to either establish what exactly is meant by a “Single Digital Presence” or abandon the concept altogether and focus on what can already be improved and identify what is to be delivered in the (near) future.

It is the fragmented nature of the public library service that led me some time ago to the conclusion that to try and build a national platform by starting with the library authorities would be too difficult. Even OCLC with its enormous reach and resources had achieved only limited success for its equally limited (but entirely laudable) aims.

When I helped set up Voices for the Library (VFTL) back in 2010 I believed that austerity would inevitably lead to a dogfight for local funds that would be unlikely to be won by librarians. Our aim, I recall saying, should be to try and get the public to view their library service with the same passion and affection as they viewed the NHS. Ah, but I was young(er) then…

My experience with VFTL taught me that there were far too many visions of what a library service might offer for me to be able to make any realistic positive contribution to their future welfare.

There are probably fewer than 30 companies providing automated systems in the UK. There may be ten times that number of library authorities , including trusts and volunteer-run libraries. Easier by far then to try and build closer co-operation and better interfaces between existing systems. Build the future service one system at a time.

It seemed to be a much simpler task. All BIC would have to do was convince suppliers to use new and open protocols, attract the attention of the Taskforce and the SCL – which we did. Librarians would then naturally support our efforts by insisting on BIC standards – which mostly they haven’t.

Ah well. 3 out of 4 isn’t bad.


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