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Digital Libraries in Latvia
The old, the new and the unknown

In the course of the pandemic, newly created and existing offers were made accessible to the library customers. But one of the biggest challenges remains making these offers known.

By Zane Siliņa

Two of the main functions of libraries in Latvia are preserving cultural heritage and providing access to library resources. Library professionals believe that a great way to do both of these is by digitisation. When the COVID-19 crisis hit us, life changed for most people, but it did not stop – people still had to work, study, and continue their research. It meant that even though many libraries were physically closed to the public, they still had to provide access to their resources. The biggest achievement for the libraries during lockdown in Latvia was reaching an agreement with the local copyright agency to make all digital resources accessible for users from their home devices. Anyone interested could access digital collections while sitting on their sofa at home or working in their home offices. This proves that our libraries can react to crises appropriately while continuing to serve their purpose.

A well-made digital resource that is convenient to use has the power to engage not only users that are specifically interested in the topic, but can also attract schools and serve as a great learning tool that encourages students to want to explore and learn even more.

Another role carried out by libraries in Latvia is researching and collecting evidence of the history of the local area. This research can usefully be presented in digital formats and many libraries are already doing this. A well-made digital resource that is convenient to use has the power to engage not only users that are specifically interested in the topic, but can also attract schools and serve as a great learning tool that encourages students to want to explore and learn even more.

As a museum educator in a library my main role is to engage visitors in activities that help them learn about the history (and present) of books. Most of the time it happens face-to-face in a hands-on way. We offer digital experiences to library visitors alongside the physical experiences, but the recent crisis has made us appreciate digital content more than ever. It has given us an opportunity to deliver our message remotely and in a different way than before. During the lockdown, our team worked hard to create digital resources for school audiences that would present our content in a more concise way, focusing on narrower topics. This format also gave us an opportunity to integrate digital library content created by the National Library of Latvia, such as the digital library of newspapers and magazines and the digital library of books, and to teach students how to use them. This would be hard to do within our usual approach to exploring the history of books.

Finding ways to make the public aware of the resources that are available to them can be a great challenge for the libraries in Latvia. Our experiences with teachers, for example, shows that often they have to be guided towards the digital resources. Only rarely do we learn that someone has discovered the resources by themselves. This is where social media is useful. Choosing the right way to tell your audience about what you have to offer can be crucial when it comes to the success of your digital offerings. We held a webinar in August in order to increase awareness of our resources, to which teaching professionals were invited. We used the webinar to introduce the online teaching resources as well as to highlight other digital collections and databases created by the National Library of Latvia, and to suggest ways in which they can be integrated into the teaching process.

During the period when COVID-19 restrictions were most severe we initiated a number of social media activities to involve people in the creation of our digital content. The most successful activity was ‘The Family Bible’ (‘Dzimtas Bībele’), in which we asked people to rummage through their bookshelves for Bibles which have belonged to their families for many generations and share stories of these Bibles on our social media. It used to be customary to write the most important life events of the family members in the family Bible, such as births, deaths and marriages. It is exciting to find these inscriptions as well as other artifacts that have been hidden between the pages of these precious books, such as old photographs, newspaper cut-outs and dried flowers. Since people were forced to stay at home, they had time to dig deeper into their own histories. As a result, there were a lot of stories and pictures shared on ours or their own Facebook timelines, tagging #DzimtasBībele and #PaliecMājās (stay at home). At the end of this social media challenge, we chose one book to exhibit in the permanent exhibition of the National Library of Latvia. This is an example of how digital activities can evolve into real-life events.

We used social media not only to find new exhibits for the exhibition, but also to showcase the ones we already have. During the lockdown, we posted daily short videos on Facebook where local celebrities told personal stories related to the books that are displayed in the exhibition. These daily messages ensured that our visitors continued engaging with the exhibition during the time it was closed and hopefully interested potential new visitors in coming to the library later on.

Even though digital content has been important for some time, I believe we have never appreciated it more than we do now. After all, it is easy to access and convenient to use even when other areas of life have changed completely. Digital resources can attract and engage users in a unique way and can ensure that you connect to your audience when there are no other options. Whatever its purpose, it is important not only to create digital content, but to let the appropriate audience know what is available for their use and how to access it.