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Digital Libraries in the UK
Keeping the library ‘digitally open’

Rachael Culley gives a behind-the-scenes tour of the social media strategy of the British Library and tells what the most important learning from content production during the lockdown were.

By Rachael Culley

The British Library uses a number of digital channels to communicate with its vast community, namely our web platforms bl.uk and blogs.bl.uk; by email; via podcast and by social media, primarily Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with YouTube and Soundcloud secondary to these. The British Library straddles the balance between a research library and a cultural institution/museum. As well as being the national library of the UK – open to all for research, inspiration and enjoyment – we also have a vast cultural offering of exhibitions and events. Along with a diverse community to serve physically, our online offering of digitised collection items, online exhibitions and resources to access electronically, mean we are able to serve users not just outside London, but globally.

The Library’s main social media channels focus on delivering content that reflects the many elements of the British Library, and should serve the breadth of audiences who use our services. All content posted should provide something of value to our users and be informed by data insight – that is, understanding what our users what to see from us, when, and in what format. Social media content from the Library complements our Digital Engagement Content Strategy and fits the pillars of People (showcasing the staff who work across our Boston Spa and St Pancras sites), Spaces (highlighting our physical buildings) and Collections (our holdings of books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound – and more – that are available in our Reading Rooms and online).

All digital content (shared via social media or email from the Library) should also reflect one or more purposes of our Living Knowledge strategy. Living Knowledge is the Library’s 2015 – 2023 strategy that discusses the constant growth in the British Library's collection, our contribution to the knowledge economy, and our staff's commitment to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone.

During the lockdown of spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to utilise my experience as both a curator and the British Library’s Social Media Manager to reflect on the importance of the digital services that the British Library offers. Hybrid working across both roles, I was able to focus on the importance of digital research materials such as e-resources, online exhibitions, digitised items through platforms such as Google Books, and the creation of blog content as a means of entry-point into the collection, in my North American Curator position. For the other half of my role, Social Media Manager of the brand accounts, it was my job to work across teams to highlight the ways in which the British Library could still be ‘open digitally’ while our physical doors were sadly closed. Digital offerings included the creation of animations and sound clips using digitised collection items and Sound Archive recordings, #CuratorsOnCamera videos to provide insights into the collections while items could not be physically consulted, and highlighting the work of, to name a few areas, our Web Archive, Heritage Made Digital and Cultural Events teams (who shifted their work from in-building events to online in response to pandemic restrictions). We have found moving image to be paramount in the successful performance of social content and, from seeing other libraries’ social feeds, it seems clear that video has become the predominant content format organisations need to resource. Content-producing teams must prioritise video in order to make library content as digestible and accessible as possible in our digital age. 
 

We have found moving image to be paramount in the successful performance of social content and, from seeing other libraries’ social feeds, it seems clear that video has become the predominant content format organisations need to resource. Content-producing teams must prioritise video in order to make library content as digestible and accessible as possible in our digital age.

Rachael Culley

Not being London- or UK-centric is paramount for the Library and its social media presence. Collections are international and as such, we aim to make them available to as many users as possible. Being able to provide users across the globe with means to access the collections at the Library, and for us to interact and join in conversations with the wider libraries community, is a key objective for the British Library social media channels. While the international aspect of the Americas team, in which I have held a curatorial position, goes without saying, we aim to communicate what is available to researchers across the world, and highlight the resources and collections provided by peer institutions to our online community via events, Twitter and blogs.

Libraries always have, and continue to be, places of inspiration, refuge and education, on all levels, from small community and mobile hubs, to national buildings. Whether it be a parent taking their young child to a story time session, a pupil experiencing an exhibition for a school project, an undergraduate at their university library, or a researcher consulting their family history, what unites all libraries is the enduring and paramount fact that they provide free-to-access spaces for all, and that they have the magic to transport you anywhere – to any time or place in history.

When the pandemic struck the UK and these places of solace were tragically made unavailable, the need to still be able to provide users with an online alternative was highlighted more than ever, and I think the digital offerings from libraries in this country are in a strong and inspirational place (despite the ongoing threats of financial cuts to these integral services). From live-streamed events with authors to online workshops for budding entrepreneurs, chat services managed by librarians assisting with research queries remotely, to securing access to e-resources packed with primary materials, the digital offering of libraries is vast and varied, and I’m excited to see what the following years bring as we learn from the experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent, longer-lasting effects, as public buildings as we know them must evolve and adapt to a new way of reaching and providing for their communities.

From live-streamed events with authors to online workshops for budding entrepreneurs, chat services managed by librarians assisting with research queries remotely, to securing access to e-resources packed with primary materials, the digital offering of libraries is vast and varied, and I’m excited to see what the following years bring as we learn from the experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent, longer-lasting effects, as public buildings as we know them must evolve and adapt to a new way of reaching and providing for their communities.

Rachael Culley

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