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digital vision

As a part of my consulting engagement with Public Library Services (PLS) of South Australia, I have produced a draft ‘digital vision’ statement (published below) for the SA library network for 2019.

The vision statement is written from a retrospective viewpoint with the current date being ‘July 2019’.

The vision statement is my own work. It has not been endorsed as the official position of PLS, but it has been released here in draft form to facilitate consultation and to obtain feedback.

So, please take a read and let me know what you think in the comments below. Have I missed anything? Is there anything that doesn’t accord with your future conception of SA’s library network?

In the past three years, the South Australian Public Library Network (SAPLN) has focused on its core community-building role, shifting further away from the traditional conception of a library as merely a repository of books. Digital technology has played a significant role in this cultural shift in thinking.

SAPLN has sought to become a more dynamic, agile and digitally-driven network. Its leaders and managers now recognise the power of digital as a mechanism for enhancing connectedness with the community and seek to leverage it at every opportunity.  SAPLN staff members have a high level of digital literacy and are fully equipped to educate members of the community who seek digital advice.

Recognising the competitive forces that are conspiring against the library’s relevance as an institution (including an ageing population and universal access to electronic content), SAPLN has chosen to adopt a user-centred design approach to its services and customer interfaces. At every touchpoint with the ‘customer’, SAPLN seeks to deliver outstanding service and continually explores ways to improve the ‘user experience’. To this end, it is willing to experiment in the digital space and is not afraid of failure.

In the libraries themselves, SAPLN is promoting experimentation by making new cutting-edge technologies available to the community. The public are able to access the fastest possible internet connectivity in their local library, through fixed devices and wirelessly through mobile devices. The library serves as a testing ground for new devices and hardware – tablets, 3D printers, robotics, virtual reality goggles – and as a place to go to obtain advice about technology. This has been aided by central funding and training support from Public Library Services.

To enhance its relevance as a community hub, SAPLN has chosen to produce its own content, rather than just serve as curators of a fixed library collection. It uses storytelling and content marketing to promote the place of the library in the community, distributing the content via its digital channels.  Becoming a ‘publisher’ in its own right has deepened the library’s engagement with the community. It has resulted in greater discoverability of the library’s events and services through search engines and social media. SAPLN has also commenced its own content digitisation program that has assisted public libraries to scan, store and publish local and historical content.

In order to distribute content effectively to the community, SAPLN has invested in its digital channels over the past three years. It now operates a network of fully-responsive, stand-alone catalogue websites that make provision for both centralised and localised content publishing. These websites offer a personalised experience to members, displaying content which is tailored to the members unique preferences and previous borrowing history. A central Knowledge Centre has also been built, containing curated content that is relevant to members across the network. SAPLN’s websites are now much more than just a catalogue, they are an online destination that is worthy of repeat visitation.

All physical and electronic library items that are available across the network have been integrated seamlessly with the central catalogue, such that users can search, find and access content from a single user interface, without the need to reauthenticate their membership or to navigate a third party interface. The catalogue websites are also search engine friendly so that item availability is visible to users directly in external search engine results.

In keeping with the societal shift to the consumption of electronic content, SAPLN has changed its funding model and service delivery in favour of electronic content over physical content.  This has proven to be extremely important to satisfy the growing number of members who prefer a remote relationship with the library, rather than setting foot inside one.



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SAPLN has also invested in a new iOS and Android app under a co-creation arrangement with an app developer. The app enables remote on-boarding of new members, with the member’s device becoming the ‘membership card’. The app utilises location based services to offer contextually specific experiences to the user when they are in the library. By scanning the RFID chips that are affixed to all library items in the SAPLN network, the app permits the user to borrow items from the library or to view additional information and content about the item whilst browsing.

To support its core digital assets – its websites and app – SAPLN has implemented new systems, procedures and policies in relation to social media, email marketing, and search engine marketing. New tools include a central email marketing platform, an event management system and an online survey tool.

SAPLN recognises that the capture, storage and manipulation of data is becoming more important in delivering services to members. Over the past three years, efforts have been made to consolidate and improve SAPLN’s existing data holdings, particularly its 700,000 strong member database. This data consolidation will ensure that SAPLN is better placed for future innovation in the fields of data-driven marketing, automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Whilst SAPLN’s main focus in the past three years has been towards its external users – library members – it has also supported its internal staff with new digital technology. All libraries now have access to the ‘One Place’ intranet website, BC Acquisitions procurement system and to RFID book handling infrastructure. These platforms, as well as the centralised content production and training offerings, enable local staff to save time and therefore devote additional effort to their community-building responsibilities.

Finally, SAPLN has adopted a measurement culture, particularly when it comes to digital initiatives, which are inherently measurable. SAPLN has instituted a number of measurement and analytics tools that enable it to gauge performance. All digital initiatives and campaigns are measured closely to determine their effectiveness and future efforts build iteratively on learnings of the past.

6 thoughts on “A Digital Vision for the South Australian Public Library Network”

  1. Hi Clayton,
    I like it!
    The only part I would debate is the shift of funding model to digital content, as I think this is a slowing trend, not a growing one. Love the app, curation, customer focus and security of data.

    1. Hi there Benita – thanks for your feedback – it’s much appreciated. When you say that the shift to digital content is a ‘slowing’ trend are you speaking specifically about the slowing of eBook sales? That certainly has been the case in the past 18 months, but I would expect that this is a temporary situation. Looking more broadly, there has been a massive shift from physical content to electronic content. Think The Advertiser versus theadvertiser.com.au; DVDs versus Netflix/Stan/Presto; CDs versus iTunes/Spotify/Pandora. And with books, remember that the first Kindle only became available in late 2007 – there’s plenty more innovation coming our way in the electronic book world. Yes, physical books are going to be around for a long time, but the tide will turn. Your average 17 year old kid is happier reading a book on an electronic device.

  2. The Digital Vision is a amazing vision for public libraries in this state. The curating and being publishers is something that I have been thinking about. In regard to RFID self check machines increasing in functionality by having a promotional aspect and also a recommendation of additional resources that is delivered when a customer uses these machines based on prior loans.
    I am just wrapping my head around the ideas.

    1. Thanks for the comments Janice. The personalisation of the online experience is an important direction for us. We have plenty of data and we need to start using it better to improve the customer experience. Borrowed a Tom Clancy novel previously? Well, then let’s offer up other Tom Clancy novels to the member when they visit our websites.

    1. Helen, thanks for the comments. That’s a very interesting article – it’s interesting that they also publish a counter-argument here: https://blog.intercom.io/its-not-the-end-of-apps/. There’s plenty of discussion on the web both ‘for’ and ‘against’ the app – and ‘for’ and ‘against’ responsive design for that matter.

      The Local Government focus on responsive design is the correct one. Responsive design is ‘device agnostic’ – it doesn’t matter what device you’re on, you’ll be able to access the service via a web browser. This means that largest possible audience can be reached, because all internet devices have a web browser, whether that be Chrome, IE, Edge, Firefox, Safari, etc., and the vast majority of people have an internet-enabled device, whether it be a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Responsive design means that the web pages will render in an accessible format, regardless of the screen size of the accessing device. So, responsive design makes a great deal of sense for councils and libraries. Responsive design should be the priority in most cases.

      Developing an app brings some challenges – but also some benefits that responsive web design does not. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that an app needs to be built for a specific operating system. And there are two dominant operating systems – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android (Windows 10 Mobile is a distant third). That means that you have to build, support and continually develop at least two apps, and that means more expense. The existence, ebb and flow of other operating systems – Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft and Blackberry – means that you won’t ever be catering for the entire audience by building an app for a single operating system.

      The real benefit of building an app is that you get to leverage the native capabilities of the operating system and device. For example, apps have better integration with a smartphone’s camera, GPS, near field communications chips, Bluetooth and biometric capabilities (fingerprint scanning). From a library perspective, there are some clear benefits of having an app – ability to use the app as the membership card, ability to use the NFC chip to scan RFID tags for further information about an item, ability to borrow books with the app, ability to use location based services of the phone to surface content to the user based on their location in the library. Some of these capabilities are not currently achievable in a web browser.

      So what about a shared council app? Firstly, it would be near on impossible to incorporate library services into a shared council app on a localised basis. This would be an expensive undertaking and not worth the investment for a single council to do. Secondly, I would question the value of having a shared council app at all. Councils provide transactional services to their constituents, all of which can be provided through a browser. Beyond paying our council rates and paying our dog registration, there’s little need to interact regularly with the council (at least that’s my experience). Apps work best when there’s a deeper relationship between the user and service provider, where there is regular interaction, and where there is something the app can provide that a browser cannot. My view is that the council should absolutely work on responsive design, so that people can transact via their smartphones on the bus, but that there is less of a business case for implementing an app.

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