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Power to the public
Having our users at heart in ever-changing times

Our current reality will shape the way libraries work in the future, but no matter which way we go, as long as we keep our users in mind, it will be the right way.

By Zane Siliņa, museum educator at the National Library of Latvia

Recently I have been taking part in a variety of discussions and workshops dealing with the question of how cultural institutions, including libraries, should work right now. I am quite certain that the current crisis will shape the way these institutions work in the future too. There are many ways to model the perfect future library and there are still a lot of unsolved problems and unanswered questions, but participating in the Emerging International Voices programme has pointed me in the right direction and given me tools I can use to improve my own work.
I firmly believe that the best place to start is thinking about the user. Even though I have always thought of the audience when designing a new educational activity, in the future I want to put even more focus on the people. Who are our users? What are their interests, needs and motivations? Do our users find the services and activities we offer useful? Do these services meet their needs? How can we improve the services we offer? We have been asking ourselves these questions a lot, but it is not always easy to answer them. Katie Moffat from The Audience Agency shed light on the matter by giving a clear account of the design process that will help us to keep our users as the focus of our attention. She pointed out that understanding and knowing who we design for is one of the most important stages in this process and will help ensure that the services we create are going to be successful. We should also keep in mind that the needs and expectations of our audiences might change over time, therefore the process of evaluating and improving our services should be continuous.

Only by giving power and support to the public we can reach our full potential as a community.

Since March this year the greatest challenge for me as an educator has been designing successful museum education activities in a digital setting. I thought about it as a challenge mainly because it is hard to imagine how to transfer the ‘real experience’ in a meaningful way online. But am I thinking of this question in a productive way? After hearing what the digital library experts have to say about this topic, I feel that instead of thinking about what a digital museum activity would be lacking I should start thinking of what gains it might offer. If a digital activity is designed with a user in mind, using the benefits of the digital setting, what new experiences could library users have? This is also what Professor Partha Pratim Das from the National Digital Library of India mentioned in his talk in the first Emerging International Voices webinar. One of his ideas was that preserving cultural heritage digitally gives a new dimension to educational services. It means not only that the digital materials and services could become more open and inclusive by being accessible to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, but also that it is possible to preserve more of the cultural heritage digitally than physically. This means that the parts of collections that cannot be accessed by the wider public physically could be made available in a digital setting.
What resonated with me the most, perhaps, is the idea of a library, whether as a physical or a digital space, that is given into the hands of the community that it serves. The primary concern of a library should be thinking of how to best support the needs of the public. Marie Ostergaard from the Aarhus Central Library reminded us that libraries are not isolated, they should open up to the public as well as team up with partners to deliver the best services possible and have people as the driving force behind everything they do. She also pointed out that we should apply all the new skills we have learned during the time of crisis to the future by not only connecting digital and physical formats, but adding multiple layers to the activities we design and reaching out to people in need. Only by giving power and support to the public we can reach our full potential as a community.
A colleague of mine has been trying to convince me for a while that we are at the dawn of a great change in how libraries work. Until now I have been resisting the thought of changing the way I work just because I loved how it used to be so much. However, following the closure of my library’s physical space twice and the lack of the usual buzz and busyness for most of this year, I’m starting to think that this might turn out to be a time of great learning after all. Taking part in the Emerging International Voices programme has certainly given me a lot to think about, but I will make sure that the people stay at the top of my list.