Libraries gear up for open data challenge

Government commitment to open data could cast libraries in a new role

Government’s commitment to open data casts libraries in a new role as the channel to a potentially huge information resource for the public, says Ian Littleworth, chair of the Association of Public Library Managers.

This is one of many ways libraries will be “repositioned” as an increasing proportion of their resources and services - and the information in the world that surrounds them - are digital, he says.

The association will publish a strategic document on the changing library scene on Wednesday August 15 aimed at stimulating discussion and focussing the library community’s attention on innovative digital moves that some libraries are already making.

Littleworth gives a foretaste of some of the topics likely to be discussed in the strategy report.

With the opening of government agencies’ databanks and the emergence of applications to help present data in a friendly way to the public, libraries will be the vital link to this information for people who don’t have their own internet facilities, Littleworth says.

The local library has long been an informational centre for the community, but those communities are now partly constructed online and through social media, he says. “We need to be in the environments where our customers are.”

A growing need to provide web access and wi-fi facilities at the library is “obvious”, he says, but it’s something libraries need to do and need to discuss among themselves and with their customers, through such channels as the forthcoming strategy document.

A core objective of the document is to “understand the strengths of libraries and their surrounding environment” and how these can be emphasised in the future, says Littleworth, who is also library manager at Nelson Public Libraries.

Many libraries are already offering e-books.

That, he acknowledges, is one more factor in a sometimes challenging relationship between libraries and authors and publishers, but “you can look on it as a challenge or an opportunity.”

Like almost every other sector, libraries must explore the potential of the mobile channel, Littleworth says. Finding items in the catalogue and putting items on reserve from a mobile device are two clear opportunities, “but there are probably others”, he says.

Customers of a library used to be seen purely as information consumers, but online they are producers too, says Littleworth. An example of libraries’ accommodation to this change is the Nelson Libraries website, www.theprow.org.nz, a site with both internal and customer-generated content related to the region.

Libraries are impacted, like any organisation, by a straitened economy and part of the suggested strategies will cover shared services across libraries, to save costs, Littleworth says.

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