Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

27 April 2020

A Single Digital Presence for UK libraries: the project and the platform


The Single Digital Presence project turned two years old just over a month ago. We can’t really believe it either. During that time we may have published one report, but we have also consulted over 75 library authorities, spoken to hundreds of library users, and learnt from a staggering number of amazing library projects happening here and overseas.

Our first report outlined 5 approaches to deliver a ‘single digital presence’; a digital platform for all of the United Kingdom’s public libraries. Since June of last year we have been refining our approach by conducting even more user research. We’ve also been exploring in more detail what technology would be needed to transform the SDP from a buzzword into an actual thing. A living, breathing platform connecting people with library material, library staff and library space.

Though before we give more detail it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room. COVID-19.

Like all areas of life, the coronavirus has utterly upturned the public library service. Like all public libraries, our buildings in St Pancras and Boston Spa closed over a month ago. Throughout the country, vibrant spaces of learning, culture and community closed overnight. Many public library staff have been redeployed into key worker roles while others are continuing to make sure that the library remains open, even if our buildings may be shut.

Public library services are having to rapidly transform into a digital-first, indeed digital-only service. Within this landscape, the value of a central digital platform, collating, amplifying and unlocking the public library is clearer than ever.  

I’d love to be able to fast-track our work. Build the website, develop the app and get library users discovering new titles, connecting with each other and taking part in library activities all in one space online.

However as we outlined in our report, a future-proof, sustainable digital platform that increases public library use in the digital and physical world requires a future-proof, sustainable technical infrastructure, supported by ongoing resource, and a clear and accountable delivery model.

The public library is a proudly local service. This is one of its great strengths. They are accountable – rightly – to the local authorities who fund them. This is what makes a public library such a valuable and vibrant community asset.

Though this does pose certain challenges for the delivery of a UK-wide digital platform. How would a platform interact with the hundreds of different systems and technical specifications of each library authority? With public libraries, and library staff, constantly working at full capacity, which organisation, or organisations, have the expertise, resource and mandate to build and deliver such a platform? How do we make sure they remain accountable to public libraries in all four countries of the UK? And how would a user navigate a centralised platform while still being valued as a member of a distinctly local service?

These are not straightforward questions to answer. They point to a central dilemma that we have grappled with since the start of the project. Building a website is not the difficult bit. But creating a digital offer that provides genuine benefit to public libraries, library staff and library users, this requires a long-term strategy for digital transformation, complete with a clear and accountable delivery model and funding settlement.

The purpose of this project is to provide definitive answers to these questions. While we cannot build the platform tomorrow, we want to harness the huge appetite for a more comprehensive digital library service during the coronavirus crisis, to make a decisive step towards delivery.

So where are we currently? How far have we got in addressing these questions?

We see the build of a digital platform as one part of a wider project of the digital transformation of public libraries here in the UK. Its success depends on more open and integrated systems under the bonnet. This requires the promotion of common ways of working, and advocating for open data, ensuring that library management systems efficiently and intuitively talk to each other.

The build of a digital platform should also include the development and promotion of open and accessible communities of practice. What does this mean? In the digital world a community of practice brings people working on similar projects together to solve common problems and promote common ways of doing things. In the public library sector this could mean the promotion of open source tools to make local library websites easier to use, while encouraging knowledge exchange and data sharing throughout the sector. Real digital innovation means working as openly and collaboratively as possible, and we believe this should be at the heart of how libraries use and improve their digital offer.

And with this in place, we think a UK-wide digital platform for libraries should focus on the three enduring pillars of a library service. People, content and space.

It should strive to unlock collections, making finding public library material online easier and more enjoyable. It should amplify the library as social, physical space. Promoting activities, events and programmes happening within public libraries. And it should build a large, engaged and healthy community of library users online, interacting both with library content, staff and each other.

Done correctly, this holds the potential to build a safe, trusted, digital civic space, with the values of the library at its heart.

So where do we go from here?

This week we kicked off an exciting phase of work with our delivery partners, dxw. We’re working together to prototype and test the concept of a digital service for public libraries. This marks a significant step forward. We’re heading ever closer towards understanding what a tangible library platform might look like. Together, we’ll look to validate our assumptions through prototyping concepts and testing these with those using libraries and those working within them. 

Our eventual aim, the introduction of a new digital presence and the build of a platform for all libraries across the United Kingdom.

But first, we need to speak to as many people as possible. Something made harder by us all being stuck in our homes. We’ll be testing what we create remotely, and we need as many participants as possible to help us with this. If you’d like to be involved, please email us at [email protected]

Last week we launched an online consultation with the public library sector. We have already hosted two webinars for public library staff outlining our latest work in more detail. Don’t worry if you missed it, you can see the slide deck from the presentation here.

We have also developed an online survey to understand in more detail what public libraries would like prioritised and to test appetite for our current vision for the ‘single digital presence’. If you are a head of service, or senior manager in public libraries, we’d very much appreciate your input. You can find the survey here.

But in the meantime, when the need for libraries digital resources and activities is more important than ever. We want to finish by celebrating the amazing content public libraries already have.

The SDP project may not be here yet, but the sector is working tirelessly to ensure that libraries continue to serve their communities during the crisis. Libraries Connected have launched #librariesfromhome, and their website has a wealth of information on how to access public libraries’ brilliant digital content. CILIP are running the amazing National Shelf Service, a daily Youtube broadcast promoting reading and the lending of e-books from public libraries.

We are working with our partners to learn from these efforts to unlock libraries’ digital content at a time of crisis. The lessons from COVID-19 will help us shape a digital platform that unlocks and amplifies libraries’ amazing digital content, while promoting and enhancing the library as a physical space when we can finally open our doors again.


Jacob Fredrickson is the project manager of the Single Digital Presence project at the British Library. When he’s not working with libraries he can be found reading a history book or riding a bike.

Please get involved. You can email us at [email protected] or tweet us at @jacobtfred or @lizcwhite