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All in the same boat
New ideas, new questions, but more importantly: a whole new network

How do you move on from a programme that kept your mind buzzing with new ideas and provoked so many new questions? Lizet van de Kamp reflects on her biggest takeaways from Emerging International Voices.

By Lizet van de Kamp

‘How do we bring that typical library experience through screens into people’s homes and palms?’, I wrote in my first essay for Emerging International Voices. With all those great speakers from amazing places, how is it that we couldn’t find an answer to this question? Well, as 2020 has taught us, things don’t always go as you anticipated.
 
So how do I move forward with all this new input and additional questions? Here are my most important takeaways from the programme.

Start with the user 

As professor Partha Pratim Das (National Digital Library of India) put it: the pandemic led to everyone doing highly disruptive things with little planning. At Muntpunt, the library in Brussels where I work, we started doing things we had only dreamed of doing at some point in the future, but still mostly from the library’s perspective rather than the users’. We were figuring things out as we went along, like setting up a takeaway service for books. Today, we find ourselves in a second lockdown, and we have a better sense of what worked and what didn’t.

It is the library staff who decide what is offered digitally. We use our platforms, such as social media and our website from our own perspective and assumptions. Instead, we should focus on our patrons’ needs and challenges.

Lizet van de Kamp

 But still, it is the library staff who decide what is offered digitally. We use our platforms, such as social media and our website from our own perspective and assumptions. Instead, we should focus on our patrons’ needs and challenges. Muntpunt will be at the start of a new five-year policy in 2021, and I hope we’ll implement Human Centred Design to establish what our patrons actually need. As Katie Moffat (The Audience Agency, UK) said: ‘Don’t fill in what you think people want but get to know the point of view from your community and use Design Thinking to put your users at the centre.’

Social media is not the only digital way to go 

Confession: as a social media employee, I realised that I was too focused on social media. I didn’t think a lot about open source or other ways to communicate online that aren’t social media, such as via websites or e-newsletters.
 
Luke Swarthout (New York Public Library) broadened my vision. In the digital world, you have three choices: you build, buy or join a platform. Libraries, including Muntpunt, usually choose to join platforms that are generally run by big tech companies, such as Facebook or Google. Such platforms don’t always have the best interests of their users in mind, so we need to critically evaluate how we use them.
 
‘Existing social media are just a stage to advertise the libraries services,’ Luke stated. At Muntpunt, we use social media for advertising and as an extended platform for our services. Unfortunately, we don’t have the means to build or buy platforms and our website is limited in terms of what it can support or provide. This means we tend to turn to social media as a place where we directly post our content, instead of leading our followers back to our own website.
 
After we find out what our patrons want and need, we should carefully choose which platforms to use and how to use them.
 
‘We seek services that are under NYPL control at all times,’ said Luke. ‘We do not want to hand over patrons to third parties that we have no direct oversight with. We seek services that are completely available with the presentation of a library card.’ Even though this ideal is still out of Muntpunt’s reach, it is definitely something to think about for the future.
 
Another aspect to keep in mind is the fact that the digital and physical libraries bring different values when it comes to setting, space and experience, as Harry Verwayen (Europeana) pointed out. They shouldn’t always try and replicate what the other offers.

We’re all in the same boat 

After connecting with fellow librarians, six carefully chosen professionals and the great hosts of EIV, one thing became clear: we’re all struggling with the same problems. Or as a Dutch saying goes: ‘we’re all in the same boat’.
 
‘Libraries underestimate what we can do when we work together,’ said Marie Ostergaard (Aarhus Public Libraries), ‘libraries are not islands.’ Luckily, I now have an expanded network from all over the world to share ideas with and learn from, and with whom I’m very happy to share a boat with. This won’t be the last time you’ll hear from Emerging International Voices!

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