Living Knowledge blog

24 October 2018

The Single Digital Presence for public libraries: our research so far

The Single Digital Presence is An Arts Council England and Carnegie UK Trust funded project, exploring what a national online platform for public libraries might look like. I’m currently working as researcher on the Single Digital Presence scoping project here at the British Library.

Working with public libraries across the UK, we’re lucky enough to have lots of inspiring conversations with inspiring librarians about libraries, their value and their future. One of the questions we get asked most frequently– and it is also a question we frequently ask ourselves – So what is a ‘Single Digital Presence’?

Well, as Liz introduced in our first blog, that really is the million-dollar question for this whole project. What does a national digital platform for public libraries look like, and how could we create a digital platform that reinvigorates, refreshes and rearticulates the values and purposes of the library in an information-rich society?

When I started my role with the project back in February, my first job was to look beyond the UK to see how other library services internationally have tackled this question. For someone who loves libraries, this was a pretty exciting task, and it didn’t disappoint. From shared catalogues, to intelligent discovery tools, centralised e-lending platforms to digital libraries, digital innovation has streamlined and enhanced users access to trusted and authoritative knowledge, as well as, we shouldn’t forget, the simple pleasures of a good read.

But while we were researching what digital innovation in libraries looks like, we’ve also had our eyes on how public libraries worldwide are changing. We’ve seen the library space evolving to facilitate different and diffuse types of activity and knowledge exchange. Libraries are increasingly used - and valued - as a safe, trusted and flexible civic space for work, study, debate, and creation that some traditional performance metrics (book issues, active memberships) fail to capture. Steady declines in physical borrowing and active memberships are an almost global phenomenon, however libraries are continuing to attract new users, as increasing physical visits statistics in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Denmark attest to, even as physical borrowing patterns change.

In our hyper-connected world, this evolving library space often involves a forward-thinking digital space or offer. One that reinvigorates the public libraries by communicating more effectively the services it provides, while also reflecting the changing needs of our users. A digital space that is flexible and personalised. One that responds to user needs, that promotes co-creation and connection without stipulating the form this takes, and a space that enables this both digitally and within the walls of the physical library space.

In what follows I’ve chosen a few examples of libraries and librarians tackling these challenges.

The City Space as Library: New York Public Library’s Digital experiments

NYPL-subway-intImage at top of page and above: both copyright New York Public Library. See:

For many of us who follow the work of the New York Public Library, we’re often left with considerable library envy. Two projects that caught my eye in particular were #subwaylibrary and Insta Novels. In both cases NYPL take the library offer and direct it towards the spaces a 21st century library users spend a lot of their time, namely the subway train and the social feed.

For #Subwaylibrary, the NYPL partnered with New York’s transport authority, to offer subway passengers free access to hundreds of e-books and short stories, appearing on the ‘splash page’ as soon as users’ login. To celebrate this, the Subway commissioned a ‘library train’, designed to resemble the NYPL’s main reading room, bringing the library literally outside its walls.

And if users want to read a book without even leaving Instagram, the NYPL now have this covered, with their exquisitely designed Insta novels series. Starting with Alice in Wonderland last month, the NYPL will release a full public domain each month through the Story feature.

Alice_gif_smallNYPL's first Insta Novel, Alice in Wonderland. Image copyright: New York Public Library

Both of these examples highlight the possibilities digital when combined with expert strategic thinking and beautiful user-centred design. NYPL have thought seriously about where the current library user is and how they want to access material. What I really like about these projects is that they are additive to NYPL’s core physical offer. They grab our attention, make us more likely to read a few pages on the subway, and visit a library to check out the rest of the book. What the NYPL shows us is how beautiful digital products and services can sit perfectly well within a wider library eco-system.

A Central Presence, Multiple Platforms: The Scandinavian Approach

Around 10 years ago, libraries in both Denmark and Finland began large-scale digital projects to radically overhaul their central infrastructure and improve the digital offer for all of their library users.

In 2012, the Danish Ministry of Culture established the ‘Danish Digital Library’, an arms-length governmental body and the lead agency in designing new digital services for library users. The DDL noticed very early on into their research that users had a strong preference towards their local library website, even when offered the choice of a highly functional, well designed national aggregator to find library materials.


'Litteratursiden': An online magazine ran by the Danish Digital Library, copyright: Danskerne Digitale Bibliotek

With this in mind they developed a shared website design with a core infrastructure, that is then adjustable for each local library authority. To get a good feel for this, I’d recommend you take a quick look at Copenhagen, Aarhus and Gentofte libraries’ website. As you can see, they share a basic design articulating a clear and uniform library brand and style that is national in scope. However, local libraries retain autonomy over their own content, and have a local digital space for a local physical space.

Finnish Public libraries are taking a similar approach, and over the next five years all libraries will use the ‘Finna’ interface, a highly intelligent and open-source search tool developed for the Finna digital library. Finna is as a central discovery tool and digital library, allowing access the holdings of all libraries, galleries and Museums in Finland, developed by the National Library of Finland. However, with libraries migrating over to the shared interface, users will retain a local digital experience, while accessing a clear and recognisable digital cultural brand.

National Library of, A digital library and national search tool, copyright: National Library of Finland

This Scandinavian approach is great because it recognises the great strengths of both the library (it’s local, and loved because it is local) and of digital (to work at scale and to forge both national and global digital communities).

In these instances, the local library website is powered by national clout and joined up thinking but remains the main gateway to the library for users who crave meaningful cultural experiences that are fundamentally local.

Transforming Collections in the Digital Age: AVA in Berlin

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to speak at Next Library in Berlin, a coming together of librarians to share ideas and stories from the front-line of library innovation and best practice.

Next Library Festival BerlinNext Library Festival Berlin, ZLB/Copyright: Mike Auerbache

Here I heard about AVA, a library owned video streaming platform, granting users access to on-demand films both in the library and at home or on the move. What makes AVA unique is that it partners with Europe’s leading film-festivals (the Berlin Film Festival being their primary partner), to curate a selection of unique Audio-visual packages for users, showcasing some of the best independent filmmakers, as well as offering some content that is exclusive to the AVA platform.

For me, this is an audio-visual platform that doesn’t just mimic its commercial rivals, but offers something distinctively of the library, a platform for enjoyment yes, but also for research and inspiration, and a space that encourages connections to new cultures and cultural production. I’m particularly impressed at the partnerships AVA has forged, and it’s unsurprising that film festivals want to work with Public Libraries. In the conversations we’ve been having it’s clear that cultural institutions are eager to work more closely with libraries, and as AVA shows, digital platforms are well placed to build stronger connections between libraries, their collections, and beautiful, inspirational content from other arts organisations.

Get involved!

These are just three examples of some of the most exciting developments happening world-wide, everywhere we look there are committed libraries and librarians embracing digital to ensure the Public library remains at the heart of a thriving and vibrant civic culture. But we’re always on the lookout for more, so if you know of something happening in your local library, or your country, do get in touch. We see ourselves as part of a global conversation about the future of public libraries, and we’d love to hear your thoughts.

We are also running workshops with library users across the UK. Coming up we have two hour workshops in:

  • Stratford upon Avon, 25 October
  • Glasgow, 31 October

For more info and to sign up please email:

Jacob Fredrickson

Research Officer, Single Digital Presence Project


Jacob Fredrickson is a Research Officer working on the Single Digital Presence Project at the British Library. He is also a M3C/AHRC Funded PhD Student at the University of Birmingham. When he’s not reading about libraries he’s probably reading a history book or riding a bike.

Get in touch with Jacob @