Knowledge Matters blog

12 August 2020

Supporting public libraries through a national digital presence

SDP - prototype image -smaller
For those who have been following the work of the ‘Single Digital Presence’ project, you’ll know we’ve been exploring how public libraries can represent themselves better in the digital world, and how through digital, libraries can provide better services and attract new users.

 Something we’ve learned on the project is how capacious the word ‘digital’ is, it means something different to everyone who uses it.  It could be the systems used to manage collections and user data, it could be the digital services libraries provide such as e/audiobooks and online resources, or it could be the ways users find out about libraries online, on our websites, apps and social media pages.

As we’ve found in our research, isolating ‘digital’ as one discreet part of what libraries do obscures how digital technology now underpins all services libraries offer, both in the physical and online world.

Our focus is on how we can improve the experience of using a public library in both its physical and digital form, through development of intuitive, well-designed and inspiring online presences for public libraries.

 Since our last update, we have been working with partners in the technology sector, to develop in more detail how we can build better digital presences that improve current services and get more people using the public library. 

Discovery and its outputs: Embarking on digital transformation

In April, we partnered with dxw, a digital agency that works with the public and third sectors to build user-centric digital services.

We formed a single multidisciplinary team to conduct a discovery to create and validate practical concepts and prototypes for a national digital presence for public libraries.

Discovery is a phase of developing digital services that enables teams to uncover the problem at hand and test ideas with users. During discovery, we pulled together existing research and interviewed people from similar organisations. We spoke with sector peers at The New York Public Library, the National Library of Australia and the National Library of Scotland, to name only a few.

Focusing on understanding the existing digital capability across the library sector, the landscape that any potential service would operate within and drawing from comparator organisations experiences, revealed a need to shift our thinking. There were two opportunity areas that our team would focus on within design sprints.

  1. Present an engaging national identity for public libraries, that showcases the vibrancy of library culture and connects people to their local library
  2. A way for every local library to represent themselves as a unique place and community, whilst engaging and informing the public in an authoritative and trusted place

By mapping out the core users’ journey, the discovery team were able to create two possible solutions that can meet these opportunities. The result was a single prototype that covered a connected end to end journey from national to local presence.  The team then tested the prototype firstly with librarians and library staff and then secondly with people who do and do not use libraries (the above image is a screengrab). At the end of discovery, we’d evidenced four clear recommendations:

  1. Build a national digital presence for public libraries
  2. Help every local library to curate an engaging digital presence
  3. Promote regional library consortia for shared lending
  4. Create community guidance and resources for safe and effective use of social media

 Our aim is to set the direction and pace, so that we can drive the recommendations from discovery forward.

Understanding the needs of library community - From ‘single’ to national digital presence

Through speaking to librarians, library staff and users, we discovered there is a significant need, and huge appetite for a national digital presence for the UK’s public libraries. We found that the national presence should prioritise three things. It should:

  1. Provide a space to showcase the work of libraries and librarians, amplifying the work librarians do and show potential users the variety of activities and services that libraries offer
  2. Create a recognised identity for public libraries, becoming a focal point for national campaigns such as libraries week, World Book Day, or the Summer Reading Challenge
  3. Connect users to their local library service seamlessly and intuitively

We also found that the development of a national digital presence should coincide with a programme of work focused on finding a way for every public library to have an exciting web-presence that reflects the vibrancy and individuality of their service.

In the climate of COVID-19, it is clearer than ever the role libraries will play in rebuilding our communities and a national presence should support this.

Public libraries already stand at the front-line of community support, providing support for businesses, job-seekers and running digital skills and information literacy sessions. This will be needed more than ever as we tentatively emerge into a post-pandemic world. There is a clear opportunity for a national presence for public libraries to support this through national content, campaigns and services.


Moving forward to deliver a national digital presence

We’ll begin by scoping and testing a national digital presence for the public library sector. We’ll draw on the expertise of the technology sector, as we move into the alpha phase of delivery and work in partnership to ensure we continue to embed user centred design within the long-term delivery strategy of a national digital presence.

We’ll continue to regularly engage with the sector, through research sessions, workshops and webinars, as we look to collaborate with our colleagues from across government to help every local library curate a digital presence that reflects the vibrancy of their service. We’ll embed this into a comprehensive digital transformation strategy for public libraries, to be published by April 2021.

 Get in touch

If you’d like to take part in our next round of workshops and user-research, please email us at

[email protected]

JF headshot - smaller KC headshot - smaller
This blog was co-written by Jacob Fredrickson, SDP Project Manager, and Kath Cooper, delivery lead at dxw.