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Digital libraries in Israel
"It's not about the books, it's about communicating"

Much improvisation was needed when her library shut its doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Rana Haj Yahia on difficult programmes, grateful visitors and the importance of listening to customers' needs

By Rana Haj Yahia, Kfar Saba Municipal Library

I believe that libraries, and public libraries in particular, are hybrid places where the needs of knowledge, cultural consumption and community meet. Although the needs of the community have not always been central to the definition of a library, they have always played a large part in the way libraries operate. Libraries were built to preserve legacies and people shared their book collections out of a feeling of belonging. Book clubs emerged as private libraries were opened, nurturing the intimacy between the librarian and the local readers. We often hear people reminiscing about their stories at the library or with a librarian. Libraries were never just about the books: it has always been about communicating, whether with the writers, our thoughts, other readers or with the librarian.

People look for connection and intimacy.

My five years’ experience as a librarian has taught me a lot about how visitors to the library behave. Some people come to study together or choose to hold meetings in the library. Others read the newspaper at the library; some even bring their own paper. Readers enthusiastically exchange recommendations. Some people wait to talk to a specific librarian, even when another librarian is available. Readers often feel the urge to talk about a book they really liked; some people come to the library just to have a conversation with the librarian about books or a common field of interest relating to a book. People look for connection and intimacy, and they find the library a safe space to initiate a small talk.
Whatever form a library might take, we are always interested in how people relate to the place. When people are not familiar with the platform it would be hard for them to ‘feel’ the ‘place’. Nowadays there is a large population of people who find comfort in virtual communities and forums, social media and blogs to share their voices and interests. Libraries must reach out to these users as well, since they are considered to be a significant portion of our audience. Libraries need to expand their services onto digital platforms and to adapt alongside technological changes.
Another factor that is crucial to the digital role of libraries is the threat of COVID-19 and the resulting challenges around social distancing. When Kfar Saba public library in Israel was required to shut its doors, we had to face serious obstacles with a limited number of staff (there were 3-5 workers out of a total of 17). We closed down the telephone service and largely confined the connection with our readers to email responses. Requests for access to digital books in the form of e-books and audio-books were hugely increased and we had to register the readers on separate programmes.
We were obliged to improvise all the time, initiating book delivery services and directing readers to use the catalogue. A significant number of new readers joined the library online. We were aware that the readers who needed the library the most were often those who struggled to reach us, so we redirected our incoming calls to the municipal telephone service centre so we could fulfil their requests. When we returned calls, readers sounded so relieved and enthusiastic to hear from us, and often wanted the calls to last longer. We also made a ‘self-collection’ stand outside the library for book orders. Some readers called our names from outside just to say thank you face-to-face.

A digital library is not just about e-books and online catalogues and electronic communications with the library users, the community’s needs should be met as well.

We lack advanced platforms to make our services more efficient. The programmes we use are separate and not synced so we had to update data everywhere. It took us a while to catch up with the gap and at times there was a week-long delay before we could respond to readers’ requests. But we overcame the challenge. When the library’s doors opened again readers were delighted to be back in their library.
A digital library is not just about e-books and online catalogues and electronic communications with the library users, the community’s needs should be met as well. The user experience should be taken into consideration, in addition to the question of what would transform a digital library into a library in a digital form. Last year, the association of public libraries in Israel started to work on rewriting the vision for libraries, redefining what a library is and what services it should provide. One of their points of discussion was about social and cultural pluralism, equal opportunity and narrowing social gaps. I firmly believe that a digital library is a tool that directs us to achieve these values once we understand the needs of the users, their limitations and preferences. For instance, when a user is looking for the services of a librarian, it would be more convenient for the user to be able to choose between various ways of communication, e.g. between a video call or texting. Individuals have different preferences and a digital library offers more possible options for users and enables them to feel at the library in whatever settings they prefer.
With such an innovation, I strongly believe that it is important to take into consideration the people on the other side of the desk: the librarians. I feel that there is not enough communication between librarians from different libraries, both in my country and around the world. It is time to develop and build up our own digital community, so we can share, learn from each other and make our work even more efficient and productive.