Innovative libraries encourage citizen participation

Libraries NI Assistant Director Trisha Ward highlights the importance of libraries embracing the digital revolution.


Traditionally libraries have been all about books, however in the 21st century many citizens without internet access at home are turning to libraries for digital assistance. “Our role now is to empower people and give them the skills they need to engage more as citizens,” explains Libraries NI Assistant Director Trisha Ward.

Customer facing computers have been present in libraries across Northern Ireland for 12 years granting users access through IT to information resources. At present Libraries NI have 1,300 computers with over a million sessions per annum. “People trust us to help them use computers and even if they had access at home, they still found value in coming in to use our computers,” states Ward.

However the adoption of IT by libraries wasn’t always as appreciated. Ward explains that when self-service was first introduced, people saw IT as an attempt by the public sector to save money and as an attack on the staff they valued. “We had to demonstrate to citizens that it wasn’t about staff losing their jobs, it was about improving the customer experience,” says Ward. “Customers now see our staff as someone to help them get access online and use our services and those of other agencies like government departments. They are very appreciative of this support. We have released our staff to engage more directly with citizens, we are upskilling citizens who don’t have access to computers at home in all our branches.”

The main delivery mechanism of this upskilling is through one-to-one training but group training was also delivered to over five and a half thousand people last year. If a customer has a problem with any of their personal electronic devices or the library’s own computers they can ask staff to assist them. Another positive impact of IT is its ability to deliver traditional services 24/7 through a virtual library offering equality of access for all.

The rate at which this virtual library is being used is significant, last year 120,000 eBooks were loaned. “We aim to deliver a virtual library equivalent to what we currently offer physically in all ways but at present we are some way off realising that ambition,” admits Ward. “We don’t want to replace local branches with this service, we want to broaden our offer and meet our customers’ expectations, making sure we can provide access to our customers at home or on mobile devices when it suits them.”

Social media is one of the most effective forms of communication in the digital age. Libraries NI views social media as a way to engage customers and most libraries have a Facebook account. “We train our staff to use Facebook appropriately and communicate with our customers but we have found that Twitter doesn’t work for us,” Ward states. “How we engage with people comes down to how they view us and how they engage with us. IT is an important tool but ultimately what it is all about is enabling people to access the services they want to access, when they want to access them.”

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