New research proposes five options for a digital presence for public libraries

A new report from the British Library, commissioned by Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust, has set out five possible options for digital transformation for UK public libraries.

The recommendations paper, Digital Transformations for UK public libraries: five approaches to a ‘Single Digital Presence' (PDF file), sets out what a national online platform (or “single digital presence”) for public libraries could look like, what it could be used for and how such an offering might fit in with existing digital library systems.

The British Library undertook a year-long enquiry to examine a range of options for such a platform and has identified five potential models that could enable public libraries to benefit fully from recent technological developments and to engage new and existing users at local and national level. These are:

  1. Deep Shared Infrastructure – a common, centralised Library Management System, procured at a UK wide level and run as a single piece of technology serving all libraries.  Such interventions are rare at national level, though the Republic of Ireland has recently introduced such a system.
  2. UK wide Content Discovery – an aggregator at UK national level of free-to-view digital content from libraries, archives and other public collections. Example include Gallica in France, Trove in Australia, Finna in Finland and the Digital Public Library of America in the USA. 
  3. Unified Digital Lending – a single, publicly-run service devoted to the free digital ‘lending’ of books and other copyright content that would otherwise only be available on a commercial basis.  An example is eReolen in Denmark.
  4. Safe Social Space – a user-led digital platform for the people who love libraries, replicating the community spaces they visit and work in as a complementary alternative to commercial social media services. No exact national equivalent currently exists, though emergent services such as Library Planet and Lit Hub offer analogies as digital places where library users and book lovers can gather and interact.
  5. One Library Brand – an intervention to create and promote a single ‘library brand’ at cross-UK scale: potentially applicable in both the digital and physical realms and consistent with any of the above propositions.

The British Library, funded by Arts Council England and Carnegie, is conducting a further scoping exercise to explore the feasibility of each of these types of transformation.  

Roly Keating, Chief Executive, British Library, said: “The British Library was pleased to accept this timely and challenging commission from Arts Council England and Carnegie Trust UK.  Public libraries have a unique and trusted role to play at the heart of the information economy, but in an era of continuing digital disruption their presence and visibility can sometimes be fragmented.  Our report argues that there is not just one but at least five complementary ways in which the vision of a more coherent, vivid and unified presence for libraries in the digital landscape could be delivered, each with its own benefits, opportunities and challenges.  Our hope is to have framed this complex discussion in a way that can encourage focussed innovation and intervention, with the long-term goal of giving public libraries the digital presence they deserve.”

Sue Williamson, Director Libraries, Arts Council England, said: “We know that libraries play a huge part in the lives of our communities and that the digital opportunities that libraries offer are growing all the time. So, the Arts Council is pleased to welcome this report on the scoping of a Single Digital Presence for Public Libraries. In evaluating future options, research has been done by the team at the British Library to examine examples of work from all over the world as well as with key sector stakeholders. The report outlines potential ways forward and areas which may need further development. As this funded phase draws to a close, we look forward to having discussions with our key partners about next steps.”

Douglas White, Interim Co-CEO and Head of Advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust said: “Public libraries are vital to the wellbeing of individuals and local communities. They support, connect and stimulate people in a multitude of ways. For libraries to fulfil their unique mandate to its full potential, it’s essential that they maximise the opportunities that digital technology offers, and find the right blend between their digital and physical services. This is far from straightforward. The Carnegie UK Trust has been delighted to work with the British Library and Arts Council England over the past 18 months to explore the potential for a single digital presence for public libraries across the UK. The work that has been undertaken marks a significant step forward in understanding the potential of an SDP. It provides a robust evidence base for action, a clear set of options and next steps for delivery and a sophisticated articulation of the complexities and challenges to be overcome”.

The recommendations paper considers how a single digital presence can inform future library service design, reflect the best of what public libraries can do, promote public library use (including physical visits), and amplify the impact and importance of libraries at local, national and international level. It is based on a comprehensive programme of case study research, user consultation, sector analysis and review previous relevant consultations and reports.

The paper is available online inquiries into the project’s scope and next steps should be made to 

Notes to Editors

Arts Council England is the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2018 and 2022, we will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve the lives of people throughout the UK and Ireland, by changing minds through influencing policy, and by changing lives through innovative practice and partnership work. The Carnegie UK Trust was established by Scots-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1913.

For more information:

Ben Sanderson
The British Library
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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.