User involvement in digital library projects Making the global local

In an ever increasing digital world, what is the position of the libraries in relation to digital projects and user participation in these? Has involving the users in digital projects required a transformation in the libraries and which measures has this resulted in? To learn more, Special Advisor Sophie Bruun from the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media, met up with Library Consultant Stine Staunsager Larsen from Roskilde Libraries. Over the past few years, Stine has been responsible for several digital projects involving users, such as and

How is user involvement/participation catching on in digital library projects today?

As an institution, libraries have for many years been characterised by a traditional way of thinking and traditional structures. This has also been apparent in the mono-cultural focus on books and the mediation of these. This traditional approach has in many ways been in conflict with the thinking which is needed when dealing with user involvement, regardless if it’s in relation to physical or digital projects. This in turn means that user involvement hasn’t really been part of the librarians’ professional sphere until recently.

Today, libraries are to a greater extent being defined as houses of culture, which encompass all media types. The library as a cultural house is being characterised as a place for creating experiences both interpersonal and cultural. This slightly diffuse definition of the library is also an opening in terms of what the library can embrace – creating better space for new types of digital and physical projects, both with a more direct focus on user involvement.

How has the digital development affected the way libraries view themselves and the way they interact with the users?

The digital development has contributed to the libraries ripening as organisations.They have gone through a process where relating to the digital development, characterised by the 2.0 revolution was initially approached cautiously and with some suspicion. There was a domi- nating feeling of uncertainty as to how the digital development would fundamentally change the libraries and library systems.

Today most libraries have a much more relaxed and natural way of interacting with the digital possibilities. The use of digital media and digital services, and not least the under- lying thinking which shapes them, is beginning to have an effect on the libraries and their interaction with their users in general. The digital possibilities are now viewed more as a useful tool than as a threat to the libraries.

Due to the changing identity of the libraries from book towers to cultural houses of experience and the general changes in society related to digital development, the libraries have to meet the users in completely new ways. This includes relating differently to the users in terms of how they receive the library services and products.

The libraries have realised that even though the users aren’t library experts, they are experts in being users. This in turn means that the libraries can gain much knowledge and valuable information from their users. The libraries have gained a form of humility in their relationship with the users and are no longer afraid to ask the users what they think. The users in turn expect to be met, where they are. They want to be taken seriously and for the libraries to seek their counsel. All in all, user involvement in digital projects means the creation of a new type of library service and interaction between libraries and their users.

What can the libraries specifically learn from the digital development?

I find that the libraries as institutions have benefited from the digital development. The most pertinent example is learning from the beta culture, which is well-known in digital development. The point of the beta culture is to make services or products available to users, before they are actually finished.

This means involving the users directly in the creation of the service or product. So when the final product is launched, the users have already been involved and have given their opinion. In this way the services or products can be adjusted along the way according to how the users actually engage with them. Learning from the beta culture has been a healthy process for the libraries. Previously the systems, services or products were not released until they were 100% correct and ready. Today the motto has changed more towards “good enough is perfect”.

The beta model has concretely been used as part of the project Ud af boksen (Out of the box), which develops models for how libraries can work with partnerships. One aspect of the project is developing a toolbox with good advice which can be printed from the internet. The toolbox doesn’t have to be ready until 2012, but we have chosen to make the work in progress available for questions and comments already, so we can benefit from input along the way.

In general, the libraries can learn much about their users by looking at data which are already available to them. They can choose to either analyse specific library data (e.g. type of books borrowed) or the way the users engage with the library services (e.g. tracking the way the users engage with a digital library service). But much information can also be gained by examining other kinds of digital fora where the users are present and make themselves heard, for example on flickr, youtube etc. It’s a key for the libraries to discover whatthe users do and understand why.

To sum it up, the users can help shape the library space and services moredirectly by using tools and methods which are common in digital culture. This in turn can create new places ofdialogue between the library and the user.

How do mobile platforms play a part in user involvement in library projects?

It’s almost impossible to talk about digital culture today without simultaneously speaking about mobile platforms, as they are becoming perhaps even more important to the users than the digital platforms. The mobile phone is a very democratic media, where everybody by just reaching in their pocket can have their say – also in relation to the library.

The project Mobil din by (Mobile Your City) is one such example. Here young people from Roskilde were asked by the library to walk around town and take photos and make small films about how they experience the town in their everyday life. It was a way of giving the young people a voice based on their premises, and a way for the library to understand more about the needs and desires of the group, who are in many ways difficult to engage within a library context.

Mobil din by can be viewed as a form of cultural probe, which reveals something about the users and their needs, which wouldn’t be brought to light if they were asked directly. I think this kind of project is something we will see much more of in the future. It’s an effective way for the library to figure out which kind of services they should offer. In the future the libraries can also think of developing applications for mobiles, which could be useful to both the library and the user. One such application could let the users send a message directly to the library, when they have borrowed a book, and realise that there is a page missing.

Finally, the libraries should keep in mind that when developing digital products and services for the users, they mustn’t try to revolutionise the way the users think. They should focus on the media and platforms which the users are already familiar with and not force the users into new patterns or habits which are uncommon to them.

How can the libraries direct the process with user participation and user-driven activities in the digital sphere?

First of all, I would like to stress that it’s more important that the libraries are aware of the underlying mechanisms which are present when dealing with user involvement and don’t try to direct or steer the process as such. Instead the library’s role should be to support what is already there. On example of this is a project currently being tested called Hvem ved (Who knows?), where library users help each other answer questions in relation to academic work. Here the library is the facilitator and supports the infrastructure, but it’s the library users who answer the questions.

If you want to talk about the library tying a project together, the key is to make the actual needs of the users the starting point for the project and ensuring the project is relevant to them. This can be done be analysing what the actual needs of the users are, through focus group interviews and other such methods. The library also helps by creating a feeling of belonging and closeness for the users.

In a paradoxical way, the more digital and global the world becomes the more local and specific the needs of the users turn out to be. So the libraries should take at look at the immediate environment which their users relate to and tailor the projects to the specific local needs.

The greatest problem arises if the library doesn’t follow up on the project, which they help facilitate. This is especially important with regard to digital projects, as they are often characterised by more fleeting encounters in digital fora, and the participants rarely meeting physically. Therefore the follow up and nursing of the participants plays an even more important role. One such example is the project, which is a digital community for elderly citizens, which is facilitated by the library.

How do you get the users involved in digital projects?

As such there isn’t a big difference when trying to involve users in digitaland physical projects. Traditional marketing methods such as flyers, screensavers on library computers and information stands in relevant settings are useful in both cases. It can also be a good idea to appoint some lead users in the project, who can act as ambassadors. Finally, mapping both the library’s and the participants’ networks can help identify relevant contacts, which can be of use to the project.

The digital users are perhaps characterised by being less committed thanparticipants in other projects. But in general users today zap much more between interests, services and networks, and the libraries should be aware of this, but also let the services develop organically. This can happen by for example letting the networks create networks as is the case with

So where is the fingerprint of the library in digital projects with user involvement?

It’s a good question, which doesn’t have a straightforward answer. If we see thefunction of libraries to be distributing knowledge, then the question is whatdefines knowledge today? Can the exchangeof ideas and creating a meeting space between people, as is often thecase in digital projects, not be seen ascreating knowledge? I see it as an importantrole for the library to support this very democratic and pure way of communicating. Furthermore, the libraries have an enormous amount of goodwill and trust amongst the population in general, which they can use to support and strengthen the digital projects which are initiated.

What is the picture abroad in relation to user involvement in digital projects?

Denmark is definitely at the forefront in terms of digital library projects and user involvement. The fact that we have the national search engine is also quite unique.

But when we do look for inspiration abroad it’s important to widen the scope and learn from the digital development in general, and not only focus on the library sector. The digital development happens so quickly that within the blink of an eye an important development can pass you by.

One example of this is digital literature, which is only published online.The question is how the libraries are supposed to deal with this new genre, which should be represented in thelibrary, as all media are equated. RoskildeLibraries has just received funding from the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media for the project Happening literature, which deals with this issue. This and other similar challenges await the libraries in the future, and it will be interesting to see how the libraries choose to face the challenges, not forgetting the users along the way.

Sophie Bruun
Special Advisor
Danish Agency for Libraries and Media

Special Advisor Danish Agency for Libraries and Media