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Digital Libraries in Belgium
Break the digital landscape free from borders

The lockdown in Brussels has been an accelerator of change towards digital services for libraries. But how to bring that typical library experience into people's homes through a screen?

By Lizet van de Kamp

Libraries have always been a tactile place. A place where you walk between racks and corridors filled with books, looking for that certain book with only the first three letters of the author’s name to go by, or where you just get inspired by book covers or carefully curated collections. Moreover, libraries have always been a place to meet people, to work, to learn, and to connect.
 

During the lockdown, we started using digital services that we had only been dreaming of using one day.

 
During the lockdown, from March to June, librarians all over the world were forced to reconsider the way libraries work. At Muntpunt, Brussels’ largest Dutch-speaking library, we started using digital services that we had only been dreaming of using one day. With the actual library building inaccessible, we had to rethink our services. How do we bring that typical library experience through screens into people’s homes and palms?

Digital content

It’s been a long time coming, but e-books are finally a part of the library’s collections in Flanders and Brussels. English e-books have been around for a few years now, and from this month (September 2020), Dutch e-books will finally be made available to our customers. This is a great development, but there is one big disadvantage about the way the e-book system is set up: it’s one copy, one read.
 
This is a textbook example of digitalisation in which digital products are treated as analogue ones. The whole idea behind e-books is to have access to them at all times (and of course having less weight to carry around). But as it turns out, if someone has started reading the book before you did, you still have to wait your turn. This is of course a question of royalties, but that’s difficult to explain to users who are accustomed to the instant gratification of Netflix or Spotify.

Digital activities

Online activities have been something we were working towards for a while at Muntpunt. The organisation of these activities gained momentum due to the lockdown. Now, we’re at a new crossroads: how will we continue once people can leave their homes again?
 
We can focus on the advantages of online activities. For instance, the issue of distance became a distant memory when Muntpunt organised an online Meet & Greet with Mexican, author Fernanda Melchor. A Cuban reading enthusiast interviewed Melchor via Zoom about her latest book Hurricane Season, and it was broadcast live on Facebook for all our followers to see. Getting an author from Mexico to Brussels for one lecture in front of a live audience would ordinarily have been nearly impossible, or at least very expensive.
 
Other great online activities during the lockdown range from online masterclasses and book clubs, to interactive story time hours for children.
 
It is not just the libraries that are benefitting from online activities, people are becoming more comfortable attending meetings and workshops from their own homes. They also see the advantages: no time lost in travelling and being able to stay in comfortable clothes – at least from the waist down. In autumn our Dutch conversation classes will continue solely online, because of the positive feedback, and because we are able to reach a wider range of people online.
 

The first reflex is to digitalise offline products without actually changing them into a digital product.

Digital skills

During the lockdown, almost everyone was obliged to learn new digital skills: from basic video call skills, to using social media to spread information. Libraries are known for offering basic computer services: file editing, surfing the internet, and emailing. At the App-o-theek (the ‘App pharmacy’), Muntpunt offered help over the telephone to improve the digital literacy of people who are at risk of falling behind in this rapidly changing scene.
 
At the other end of the spectrum, Muntpunt offered masterclasses called ‘Master Your Media’ for people who wanted to improve their advanced digital skills. These classes ranged from making podcasts to creating online communities.
 
Hopefully, more partners from the artistic, cultural and academic fields can be included in the future. In this way, our work on digital skills can be opened up to a broader public.

Digital communities

Digital reading communities in Flanders are mostly concentrated around cities. Cultuurconnect, the main facilitator of digital library services in Flanders, offers a platform for digital reading communities named ‘[Your city] Reads’, e.g. Antwerp Reads, Leuven Reads. But these communities are very much complementary to an array of physical events and local reading tips. A better example of an online reading community in Flanders is ‘Everyone Reads’. With multiple posts a day in their Facebook group, it doesn’t matter where you live; what matters is what you’re reading right now.
 
In conclusion, the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has forced everyone to rethink libraries’ digital services. However, most libraries still consider their digital services as complementary to their offline services, as opposed to service in their own right. The first reflex is to digitalise offline products without actually changing them into a digital product. The digital offerings still seem surrounded by physical borders, just as a library is connected to its own neighbourhood. And yet, the digital environment is available for everyone, at any time, at any place. Why should a digital library be any different?
 
In Belgium, more specifically Flanders, we’re still working on the basics. For example: a single library system for all Flemish libraries is only just being implemented. These basics need to be in place before we can move on and use digital tools to the fullest.

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