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Openness, accessibility, community
For the love of libraries

As I sit writing this end report, balancing my 7-week old baby on my stomach and trying to remind myself how to touch type, it’s impossible to reflect back on the Emerging International Voices (EIV) seminars from October without having my son in my mind.

By Rachael Culley

Indeed, it’s impossible for me to think about the future of libraries without considering what they will look like – digitally and physically – during his lifetime. Libraries were an integral part of my own childhood and, having worked at the British Library for the past five years, they have also been a major part of my career. Being part of the 2020 EIV programme, which coincided with the arrival of our little one, has reminded me just how important the future of libraries are not only for my work but also in my personal life.
A thing of beauty: the King’s Library tower at the British Library Photo by Paul Grundy A thing of beauty: the King’s Library tower at the British Library (photo by Paul Grundy)

I’d like to thank the Goethe-Institut and IFLA for inviting me to be part of this enlightening and exciting opportunity, to the experts who ledthe three seminars, and to my fellow participants for making our chats so interactive and energised. Given the slightly unique circumstances in which I found myself as I embarked upon the EIV sessions, I’ll be reflecting on my key takeaways from the seminars and discussions regarding the future of libraries and the direction in which they may be heading during the lifetime of my son.

Impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on libraries

Looking back at the discussions from the EIV, it has been refreshing to celebrate the achievements of libraries around the world as they have been thrown into a whole new way of working since lockdowns came into force. Libraries have long been leaders in the digital, as Gerald Leitner (IFLA Secretary General) has put it, ‘libraries were the internet before the internet’. But as many of us found ourselves in a ‘high disruption / low planning’ scenario earlier this year, we should mark what has been achieved in reaction to COVID-19 and lockdown. Exciting social media campaigns, online courses, digitally delivered events, making items digitally available for consultation, and even collecting data around the pandemic so that libraries have a record which can be reflected back on for future generations, have meant that libraries have had the chance to stay relevant, ‘open’ and maintain a real sense of comfort and online community during a tough and testing time.

Harnessing the potential of digital to reach new audiences

In many cases the past eight months have been a time when ‘everything stopped’ but the EIV seminars have reminded me of just how much has been created and evolved within the library sector. Libraries have seized the opportunity to reach out to new audiences, reaffirming the ongoing and ever-changing value of libraries in any climate. Head of Digital at the Audience Agency, Katie Moffat, articulated the importance of putting users at the heart of digital design, a value shared by the British Library’s Living Knowledge strategy. In times of crisis at work it’s easy to focus on what one wants to deliver rather than what one’s audience wants to see. We should keep challenging assumptions about our users to ensure we are constantly serving them what they want.

Digital vs physical: companions not enemies

The EIV discussions have served as a positive reminder that digital and physical in the library capacity can’t do the same thing; they should complement not replace each other. Digital can enhance the already existing value of libraries, generating experiences and services that cannot otherwise be provided and creating an exciting offering that goes beyond ‘traditional’ library services. Luke Swarthout, Director of Digital Policy at the New York Public Library (NYPL), encourages libraries to use digital to ‘rewrite the rules’ to enable community uplift and uphold the fact that libraries are, as they have always historically been, central democratic institutions in place to support communities.

Libraries as an experience for the senses

Is it possible to transfer the unique and very special social serendipity of the physical library space into the digital world?  Katrin Schuster of the Munich City Library reminded me about the physical, sensory offering of libraries. Katrin discussed the sense and sensibility of libraries – something that’s easy to forget while working from home, or easy to take for granted when you are lucky enough to work in a library every day. The smell of a library, leafing through its holdings, seeing rows upon rows of books; the experience of a library affects the senses and is unlike any other.

Collaboration is key

Each EIV seminar reaffirmed the takeaway that no one has a monopoly on good ideas and the only way for libraries to remain culturally relevant as times change is for institutions to continue to talk to each other and their users, learn from each other and enhance each other’s offerings. Marie Ostergard, Project Manager at Aarhus Public Libraries, affirmed how communication and interaction in physical library spaces can be translated into a virtual space. Libraries are not islands – they are shared spaces for communities and partners that should be open and utilised as each user group chooses. Going forward, to ensure the survival and thriving of libraries both physically and virtually, we should not underestimate the power that can be generated when we all join forces; we are never competing, we are all linked to our communities and can serve these better when we work together.

The values and beliefs of libraries – openness, accessibility, community – are intrinsic to their existence and survival. They dictate who we are and what we do, and no matter what happens in the world and demands made by the digital landscape, we should never lose sight of these.

The values and beliefs of libraries – openness, accessibility, community – are intrinsic to their existence and survival. They dictate who we are and what we do, and no matter what happens in the world and demands made by the digital landscape, we should never lose sight of these. I think this is what makes the library sector unlike any other in the world.

While libraries may be closed physically right now, we will be working our way through my son’s mini library. A collection of my husband’s and my own childhood books, we are sure to have a little bookworm in the making over the coming years who will develop his very own love of libraries.
Baby’s first library: baby Jude’s collection so far Baby’s first library: baby Jude’s collection so far
 

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