Library. Library strategy.

Nick Poole on the role of libraries

23 December 2019 • Michelle Silvestre, head of marketing

Keynote speaker, Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, the UK’s library and information association gives us a brief insight into the challenges and solutions for libraries in an age of rapidly changing digital technology.

Star speakers from across the information industry will share their thoughts and expertise at our annual conference. Recently re-named Access Lab, the conference will take place on 19 March 2020 at the America Square Conference Centre, London.

The theme for this year is ‘Simplifying the Future together’. The theme reflects our commitment towards developing a secure, simple and seamless user journey to content.

The role of libraries in 2020

The role of libraries has always changed and evolved with the needs of society at the time. The traditional image of a library is a large red brick Victorian building filled from floor to ceiling with books. But libraries now are about much more than books. Libraries are a resource which people can use to work, research, educate themselves or simply enjoy reading.

At the most fundamental level, libraries are about shortening the distance between the individual and information. They are trusted information providers in a world where most of us are now overwhelmed with a barrage of information and misinformation every day.

The library’s role as a reliable source of information is now more vital than ever. Users can rely on the fact the resources provided have been carefully curated to ensure their value.

But libraries should do more than simply provide valuable information. They should help educate people in how to access, select, analyze and use information.

One of the major issues people now face is knowing what online information is trustworthy and what is not.

Libraries can equip people with the skills needed to make informed judgements about the content they are accessing.

We now live in this incredible age of access and opportunity in which the ability to reach information is unprecedented. But the downside will be to consume vast amounts of content which cannot be trusted. And to potentially have our thoughts and beliefs manipulated to suit certain agendas.

So, we need to go in with our eyes open.

The skills of the library

The skills needed to check sources and recognize and analyze opinion, perspective and bias, question accountability and accuracy, are the same whether you are reading a book or scrolling through a social media feed on your phone. Traditional library skills, applied over hundreds of years, are what we need to remind people of today. Because we have got to empower people.

These skills are not part of the UK curriculum. But we work with school libraries across the country to encourage them to teach them. If we can teach children of nine or ten how to properly fact check and assess information, it could revolutionize the future.

Data is now used as a powerful tool or even, between countries, a weapon. The best antidote to fight misinformation is to create a more information-literate nation.

We need to be much more aware of the value of our own private data which we share online. And also how it could be used. If we still choose to share, then at least we are doing it from an informed stance.

Libraries also need to educate their own staff and users in how to handle constantly changing technologies.

Technology change is so fast now that we never fully get to grips with one thing before technology evolves. By the time we have got our heads around artificial intelligence, things will have moved on to genomics. And then it will be onto something else.

Rather than just teaching people how to deal with specific forms of technology, we need to give them the skills to deal with the constantly changing nature of technology. This is a major part of the skills set that libraries can provide.

The digital content ecosystem

Technology has advanced and precipitated huge changes in the way people access and consume content. Libraries, publishers and information providers have gone through huge internal shifts independent of one another, rather than working together. This, for the most part, has proven ineffective and costly as everyone has scrambled to protect their content.

We are all part of one ecosystem and mutually reliant. So it makes far more sense for everyone to work together to create new models of content provision and access that will serve the end user. And also preserve the value of the content. That way, everyone thrives. Quality costs, and will continue to do so. You cannot remove the cost of curation and creation of good content.

OpenAthens is vital to this future because it offers a solution. It enables easy access to content whilst protecting it from misuse.

Key challenges for libraries

UK libraries need to cater for an ever-growing population due to people living longer, births outnumbering deaths and net migration. We cannot hope to meet demand when we’re already struggling with resources. So, we will need to work smarter rather than harder. Technology can be a big help.

People now access information from anywhere, no longer just at home, work or school. We are constantly moving through different information points from our smart watch, telling us our heart rate to shopping on our phones. We need to find new and innovative ways to support users who are more likely to search for content via multiple channels. And give them access to information they can trust whenever they need it. Again, harnessing the available technology to improve our services is the key.

Don’t panic!

Every time a major new technology emerges which threatens to change the existing business models, librarians go into a major existential panic about whether they still have a role.

What they should instead do is look at how they can work with, use or compliment the new technology to enhance access to their content and other services. This will enable us to successfully meet the challenges we face.

Online search is a great example. Rather than fighting it and ring-fencing content so tightly that many users stop accessing it, we can help people gain the skills needed to navigate the reams of data presented by online search, to reach the best content. Let’s get on the front foot and explore the possibilities. For instance, library systems developed recommender engines to help people sift through the endless amounts of information.

It is really important for libraries to remember that much of this tech advancement assumes an infrastructure and access to technology that is simply not the case for a lot people. Access to tech is not evenly distributed. So we need to be careful not to exclude people. We still need the library buildings because they provide vital spaces for people to go and educate themselves and work.

Throughout all the changes, the key role of a library remains the efficient and inclusive provision of information to users. However and wherever they wish to access it.

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

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Want to find out more?

Hear Nick’s Access Lab 2020 keynote presentation ‘The future of libraries’.

The future of libraries