Libro Futuro

The digital library. Towards the creation of a Popular Platform. Mario Coffa interviews Liz McGettigan  

intervista in italiano

Liz McGettigan is an experienced senior leader with a focus and passion for delivering strategy and results. Passionate about libraries and trusted information, digital and social inclusion, leadership, and transformation.
Currently Director of Digital Library Experiences at SOLUS, formerly Head of City of Edinburgh’s Library and Information Services, a trustee CILIP and a Past President of CILIP Scotland.
Liz founded the Edinburgh EDGE Conference and is currently Co-Chair of Internet Librarian International London. She has achieved several accolades as a Scotland Women in Technology Finalist and named as one of Scotland’s top 10 Digital Disruptors. She is very proud to have been named as one of HOLYROOD’S TOP TECH 100. An effervescent Speaker with extensive international experience of libraries around the world with strategy, marketing, technology, innovation, and community engagement. 

Let’s start with the simplest question but one that is always useful to remember: what is a digital library? But above all, what is a digital library today?

The formal definition is “ digital library is a collection of digital objects that can include text, still images, audio, video, digital documents, or other digital media formats or a library accessible through the internet

Libraries have long served the role of providing communities with access to important written resources, but patrons are increasingly looking for more than just books and we now need to cement the link between our digital and physical services.

User interfaces like Netflix etc. are attracting leagues of new users that are accustomed to highly visual, functional, and engaging user experiences. Libraries must offer a similar experience but with trusted content and access to staff and physical library spaces – isn’t it time for a better and personalised patron centric service?
In my mind and for the public library sector today there are 2 key aspects:

  1. A People’s Platform – A Library Discovery Platform – a hybrid of rich public library content -an amalgam of vast library resources. Yes, it is a digital library but one that links together the various apps and digital services that currently run independently of each other and provides customers with an intuitive and exciting Netflix style interface and access to online services.
  2. The Library space and staff -The value comes from a vision of the combination of the physical library space and the digital library space. It is The People’s Library- a digital and physical hybrid. A beautifully designed discovery platform and the network of physical libraries that already exists, their physical library spaces, staff, and resources.

This People’s Library hybrid will be an enormously powerful agent for change: accountable to and trusted by people, and integral to education, industry, government, and community. The digital front-facing part that customers see and access -trusted, safe platform for libraries and communities.

“If the public libraries do not act as a bridge between the new electronic information world and the language and history of print then no one will, and we will risk losing our heritage, culture and education”.

Is it too obvious that if as a great starting point government invest in our existing trusted information network of Public Libraries located in every community? Investment in the Public Library Network is a major step forward in any government’s ambitions for a better, more trusted information society.
We need to own the “trust” and “disinformation” agendas and underpin The People’s Platform with national/ local projects on free media literacy training. We need to find a big loud voice with national and local information and resources, promoted widely as THE trusted information provider and available on TV?
Sounds like a no brainer to me! We need to rethink our future society- our children’s information society!

The tragic experience of COVID made us rediscover the meaning of digital and introduced us to tools, sometimes already existing, sometimes new, to continue teaching and providing information services. Do you believe that these new skills acquired by “necessity” can be consolidated also for the near future?

I believe they must not only be consolidated but developed and promoted to cement a link between our digital and physical services.
Who could have predicted the pandemic and its impact on all our lives? The current situation calls for bold and positive thinking from us all about our future. The pandemic has accelerated the opportunity and the need to completely rethink our services and to lead in a new reality. Libraries are changing to meet the new 21st century audience expectations, to showcase stock, resources, and content and to ensure they remain relevant in a digital world.
We need to learn from the best user interfaces like Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. as our customers are now accustomed to highly visual, functional, and engaging user experiences. Is it not time that libraries offered a similar experience but with trusted content? While we do it, why don’t we move away from the status quo of a collection of non-integrated services – often by vendor (search events separately, search the catalogue separately, search e-Content separately, etc) and isn’t it time for a better and personalised customer-centric service?

It is time to pivot! For years- decades now, libraries have balanced their physical spaces with their digital services. The current uncertainty driven by COVID-19 is not going away but it has strangely provided us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive a rapid digital transformation and innovation – to digitally pivot!

But we must also transform public perception of our role and relevance and become thought leaders that support, protect, and empower people in a digital age. We must promote our capacity to enable the learning required to create new jobs and a new skilled, entrepreneurial, adaptable workforce. Tomorrow’s libraries will need leaders who understand new technologies, the changing and future job market and the future skills citizens will need for that. These new leaders must also be great advocates and marketers and know how to develop a united, big, loud voice to sell the vision.
To thrive in this new world, we must play an active role in shaping our future and redesigning the relevant ‘next’ library – the 21st-century People’s library –people’s places, learning and digital hubs, experiential, entrepreneurial, experimental spaces where access to technology and people enhances opportunities to learn, work and create.
To identify a way forward requires strong leadership, vision, and collaboration between many sectors. Many libraries have re-envisioned everything they do to the delight of their customers. Indeed, not just surviving but thriving! The current uncertainty driven by COVID-19 is not going away but COVID-19 has provided many of us with a once in a lifetime opportunity for driving rapid digital transformation and innovation.

“I think the main thing I will take away from all of this is how awesome and creative librarians can be when you create a space to experiment, time to develop new projects and resources to apply them.”

The pandemic has reinforced the critical importance of free and easy access to trusted information. The way in which people access content, particularly those under the age of 35, is rapidly changing and the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated that change. This is rightly causing major concerns re misinformation, fake news, and public trust and not least our future information society.
The Public Library brand is strong, and we must reinforce this trusted brand and become the “GO-TO” place for Wi-Fi and trusted support with ICT skills and access. We need to deliver a discovery platform people know they can trust, a place for free and easy access to resources that underpin their place, wellbeing, and future in society. Renewed and invigorated by technology investment and layout refresh they will become very different places.
More and more of our customers want to self-serve via their smartphones and modern communication and social media means people expect great access and customer service around 24/7.
This is an incredibly pivotal moment for libraries, and digital technology has opened the doors for us to harness its power.  Organisations who emerge stronger from the pandemic will be those who leverage the full potential of current and emerging technologies.

We are starting to reopen our activities and therefore also our libraries: what can librarians do to be able to relaunch the social and educational function in the light of what they have learned in this recent past?

Social interaction the” People Stuff” will become more important as we have all missed this so much! Importantly we need to create the fantastic spaces in which people feel they can just ‘be’, places they own, want, need, and can mould. Spaces to meet, to talk, to relax, to study, to eat, drink and make. Places to do business!

Technology, the Discovery platform, and mobile apps will take the drudgery and transactional elements out of the workload, freeing up staff for the “people stuff” Much of what the library will do may not even be about books at all but about simply enabling people-to-people experiences, bringing digitally focused but socially isolated people together in the physical world.

Awareness of technology will not relent in its rapid development and the digital and technological inclusion gap will undoubtedly continue to become even wider. In the future, will we read a library book to get information to inform a decision? Why would we when a machine has already read all the books and is more skilled at analysis and decision making? Will we spend hours on library computers researching a question when artificial intelligence can do it for us in seconds? We certainly will not go to a human librarian with an information need when artificial intelligence is able to deliver a better answer in a fraction of the time.

Vision, What librarians are well placed to do is to seize ownership of the agenda, enabling citizens to get ‘smarter’, understand the impact of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and realise the impact on their privacy and data ownership. To achieve this, we must take time to think and dream as a profession, to develop a new and exciting vision of the future library experience and deliver excellence. We must engage and captivate our audiences in new ways – in compelling ways – to deliver the experience they now expect, at a time and in a format that suits them.

Leadership – Tomorrow’s libraries need leaders who understand new technologies, the changing and future job market and the future skills citizens will need for that. Undoubtedly, these new leaders must find a united, big, loud voice to sell the vision.

Unfortunately, at least in Italy, there are still many problems related to the recognition of the librarian’s profession: in addition to dialogue with politics and its representatives, what do you think must be done in order to achieve this validation?

We need to find a big loud voice!
Promotion and marketing, leadership, a place at the top table are all critical! The long-term economic health of countries now and in the future rests on an ability to become a country of highly educated knowledge workers. Many countries are now recognising a national network of public libraries as one of the most powerful engines of informal education and social capital generation, capable of growing the educational capabilities across all sectors of our population.
Globally, many countries are investing heavily in well-funded policies and plans to develop their networks of public libraries. Networks that are recognised to have the potential to underpin ‘smart cities and economic regeneration by delivering information, learning skills and creativity, and guiding access to quality information, ideas and knowledge. Countries like Denmark, Singapore, Norway, and Finland, for example, have seen growing importance and use of their libraries; Norway has targeted reading and digital literacy as areas of their greatest focus, while Finland is emphasising the library’s role as a community space. There are many other excellent examples,
Public libraries contribute to at least 10 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Public library outcomes are associated with health and wellbeing, quality education, equality, economic growth, sustainability, justice, and the reduction of poverty, amongst other things Many of the public library services that are thriving and well supported around the world are in countries that recognise these goals and values and are tying their policies and strategies to these internationally accepted objectives.

Digital library platforms have seen a very significant increase in the last year, making up for the closure of traditional libraries. After the emergency what will their role be? What prospects do you foresee for digital publishing?

Consumer trust across institutions is declining and customers are increasingly worried about misinformation spread by news publications research states: “During the course of the pandemic, consumers became less trusting.”
Consumers are not only aware of how their data is being used online, causing this decline in trust, they are beginning to act against organizations that misuse their data too. Further, Forrester’s research shows that over 40% of consumers in North America and the UK said they would be likely to cancel a transaction if they read something they did not like in a privacy policy. So now is a moment in time for librarians to establish themselves as the physical and digital epitome of trust and quality information!
We must promote and embrace our globally recognised USP – underlying mechanics of trust — integrity, competency, and transparency. Even as society undergoes continuous change, the public library continues to be considered by many as a much-loved and respected institution – even those who have never used it can still see its wider democratic and civic value. The public library is still widely and globally recognised as a public institution, a catalyst for change, facilitating social, economic, and cultural development and supporting communities to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by a modern society.
The public library – the space and the staff are catalysts for addressing so many social problems, places where not only can people start learning about new technologies, but spaces where creativity, collaboration, and play can thrive. This puts libraries and librarians in the best position to partner with local governments and agencies to address the needs of communities.

Digital cannot replace the library physical space but can so enhance it. Library services across the world must get to grips with new technologies. The big facilitator in all of this will be “the library discovery platform” and a digital platform is just one national collaborative tool to use librarians’ and indeed the public’s curatorial, social media and cooperative skills and enable the further development of the social and physical work of the library. It is a must for customers who want trustworthy and safe library and information services for themselves and their families at home, in the office or in the library itself. A must for those who want to read, attend events, join a club, buy, borrow, or publish.

We have ascertained the need in recent years to network within our communities: alongside the network between libraries and public bodies, how can we promote the promotion of books and libraries?

At this critical time when society needs to adapt to new technologies and new ways of working more than ever, austerity policies have resulted in the erosion of funds for the operation of public libraries in many countries. These resource issues have hampered public libraries’ ability to keep pace with user needs and have limited their capacity to adopt new user technologies, resulting now in huge differences in vision, service provision, staffing, training, infrastructure, and information communications technology (ICT) across public library services globally. We clearly face a challenge to bridge the gap between the public’s perception of the library’s continued importance and relevance and their actual use of libraries.

People will continue to want personalized experiences such as book groups, reading lists and recommendations. Opportunities and events to talk in the library building and online will be more welcome than ever. However, a great digital presence, social media, data, intelligence, analytics, and public library marketing tools, to strengthen libraries’ connections to communities will be essential to spark connections with your community.

It is an incredibly pivotal moment for libraries and digital technology has opened the doors for us to harness its power. Libraries need to have a clear digital strategy and it must be embedded in an entrepreneurial culture that values experimentation and creativity. We can inspire and create a vibrant, open, and inclusive economy that works for everyone, but to do this vision, leadership, innovation, and disruption must become part of our DNA.





Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa archivista e bibliotecario, laureato in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali presso l’Università degli Studi di Perugia (2005) e diplomato in Archivistica e Paleografia presso la Scuola di Archivistica dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2010). Dal 2010 Lavora per CAeB (Cooperativa Archivistica e Bibliotecaria) presso le biblioteche dell’Università di Perugia come bibliotecario e come archivista presso l'Archivio Storico del Comune di Gubbio. Si occupa di Biblioteche Digitali e formazione in ambito di biblioteconomia digitale. Nel 2014 membro del Comitato Esecutivo Regionale dell’Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (AIB) sezione Umbria, membro del gruppo AIB sul portfolio professionale e nel triennio 2017-2020 Presidente eletto di AIB Umbria. Dal 2020 membro dell'Osservatorio Formazione dell'Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. Autore di diversi articoli e interviste per Insula Europea sul tema degli archivi, delle biblioteche e del digital lending.


One thought on “The digital library. Towards the creation of a Popular Platform. Mario Coffa interviews Liz McGettigan  

Comments are closed.