Mark Cantrell, Author

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News: British Library Investigates Virtual Future

Posted by Mark Cantrell on September 9, 2017 at 8:25 PM

Towards a single public library in cyberspace

IMAGINE a future where Britain's physical libraries are a thing of the past, writes Mark Cantrell.

No, this isn't a dystopian foretelling of a post-austerity age where cutbacks in public spending have stripped away such civic amenities. Instead, it's a vision of a singular nationwide virtual library; accessible anywhere there's a wifi hotspot.

That may not be quite the dream of the British Library and its backers, as it looks to explore the possibilities of a 'single digital presence' for UK public libraries, but it raises the tantalising possibility of the shape of things to come.

The organisation has launched an 18-month 'scoping project' that aims to identify the demand for such a virtual library, as well as how it might operate in practice. It's being funded by Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust.

“As part of our Living Knowledge strategy to 2023, the British Library has in recent years renewed its focus on public libraries,” said Roly Keating, the British Library's Chief Executive. “Our engagement with public libraries and city libraries across the UK has given us a sense of the excellent work they’re already doing, but also the potential for future growth, given the right vision.

“We are excited to be leading this scoping work for a single digital presence and I look forward to working with stakeholders from across the sector – and across the UK – to develop a full understanding of exactly what might be possible.”

Brian Ashley, libraries director for Arts Council England, added: “Inhabiting the mobile, digital space, complementing and energising the existing library offer, is central to the future strength and relevance of libraries,” said Brian Ashley, libraries director for Arts Council England. “As the development agency for libraries, the Arts Council is very excited by the prospect of it becoming a reality.

“Developing it will be a challenge but we believe that success is more likely because of our partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust and the British Library. The British Library is uniquely placed to deliver this project across the country and we appreciate this significant commitment to libraries. I’m looking forward to seeing how together we can deliver this for the benefit of the people and communities that use libraries.”

Martyn Evans, Chief Executive of the Carnegie UK Trust, said: “The British Library has the credibility, expertise and stature to tackle this complex project. It can bring stakeholders from across the four UK jurisdictions, examining models for success and exploring how an on-line platform can support the delivery of high quality library services in the 21st century. I am looking forward to supporting them, and our partners at Arts Council England, to advance this vital work.”

The project is supported by £236,384 of funding from Arts Council England and £30,000 from Carnegie UK Trust. Emerging findings from the project will be shared in autumn 2018, with the final report published in 2019.

Whatever emerges out of the project, a single digital platform for all UK public libraries is hardly likely to take the sting out of the tale (sic) of library closures; there's more to these civic institutions than simply browsing periodicals or borrowing books.

In many respects, libraries are a vital communal meeting space, a hub for those human connections essential for civil society to function. Digital purists may scoff, but a single virtual library's power doubtless resides in complementing the physical entities – not in supplanting them.



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