The Human Bridge

Published on 24 January 2022, by Susan Smith

Emerging technology, Workforce, Use of technology

The importance of knowledge and library staff as a bridge between technology and those who use it.

In 2021 I attended the CILIP conference Design It, Build it: Information Professionals at the heart of Digital Transformation.  What struck me was the common theme of the conference was as the library as the human bridge between technology and our user.  It is something we have always done.  How many people ask for help accessing email, or wonder if their problem with IT is technical or human error?  We support the people who struggle with technology and flag up the inequalities of access.

In every presentation at the conference people were at the heart of digital transformation, not the technology itself.

Kal Dhanda is rolling out the NHS Digital Champions Programme across Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to support people struggling with technology and working in partnership with others to extend the support network to ensure digital inclusion.

It was interesting to see Ciaran Talbot’s approach at the University of Manchester to put the library at the heart of digital transformation.  They decided the best way to learn a topic is teach it and in doing so could demystify the topic not just for them, but others across the organisation.  They ran a workshop for library staff, inviting IT, library users & Head of Information Governance to discuss chat bots.  They did the research, knew it was happening in other institutions and they already used LibChat as a virtual enquiry service.  A key driver was they wanted to lead the way and not have the change forced on them. They looked at all aspects of the technology including organisational risk, branding, technology available and the impact to different audiences.  They story- boarded the session as a summary at the end of the morning and blueprints in what they could do. 

Once a week, they run a genius hour where staff can research something that interests them and would benefit the service.  Robotic Process Automation was something explored.  With a philosophy of start small they tested on the laborious process of bibliometric analysis of research outputs using UiPath, which freed staff time to develop more information to focus efforts on more skill appropriate work using Power BI.  They understood it worked in this scenario, but now in the process of identifying future projects realise that it isn’t sustainable across the board or relevant to all processes.  It works best with click heavy processes.

Kirsty Lingstadt from the University of Edinburgh had an innovative approach where they created maker’s space for technology.  They started out with a 3D printer and a philosophy of teaching design and agile thinking.  The Library is not just about knowledge, but the skills to use the knowledge.  They ran introductory workshops and made the equipment available for anyone to use.  The service has now expanded using only commercially available technology.  While often people start of playing with the equipment, which proves the best way to learn, serious innovation then begins.  Some students started spin off companies based on their experiments.  They projects turned very collaborative across a number of disciplines and many outputs have now been fed back into teaching and improving the service.

The innovation didn’t stop there.  They have been working hard to data mine the textual content of their holdings, turning content of books and journals into data sets to better support their researchers.  I also loved the concept of the generous interface.  It offers a discovery layer which isn’t just about the library catalogue, but one where the information is pre-interpreted. e.g. geographical layer showing a world map blobs representing the home location of the collection content, subject matter or date.  This is a technology driven by the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector where AI is improving access to diverse collections.

Similar innovations are coming out of Lancaster University Library as Andrew Baxter described his strategic journey to deliver a library fit for purpose in current times.  The motto they have co-produced is “We connect, we innovate, we include” which again is an echo of the important role libraries play in being the human bridge to technology.  They are using Alexa to answer queries alongside LibChat.  One of the more interesting projects has been around data cleansing publication lists which has been hugely successful in boosting the Universities research ratings. 

A key trend highlight is no differentiation between physical and digital collections.  The two should be seamlessly blended so users can access physical content at home and digital content should be made more visible in amongst the print collection.  They are working to make e-books ‘real’ and exploring juke box or vending machine style options.  University of new South Wales have got a fantastic example of how a dashboard can promote library usage in their Unstacked project.

Another blending philosophy they have is of outside -in.  In the recent refurbishment 3 new vertical garden walls have been installed in the library and work is under way to determine how the library can move outdoors over the summer period.

Janet Peden from Ulster University also echoed the need to re-purpose the library space to look beyond the collection.  She reminded us the greatest asset is the library staff – they are the human bridge and need to be brought along you.  The work she has been doing resonates with shifts we have seen over Covid.  The demand for more digital collaborative space has increased. Users are becoming the main user of library space and not the collections.  Furniture is flexible and interacts with technology.  The library is evolving into an active learning digital space.

With this evolution new library job roles are developing, so supporting the training of staff to use and teach the technology is vital.  Future jobs will be about helping upskill staff and bridging the technology gap. 

It is something we have always done with the advent of computers, MAC records and digitisation of records. As Dr Owain Rhys Roberts from the National Library of Wales says: It is about navigating change and evolving.  Progress is long-term, we need to experiment and fail, the change will be incremental.  It is how we engage, learn across the sectors and how we partner that will determine our success.

It is important we don’t get blindsided by technology; a digital strategy should be cultural and not a technical strategy. People are at its heart and we are here to make the difference to lives, not just for the sake of technology.    In delivering this, it will not be possible to be completely neutral. We need to be at the centre delivering change.  It is about a blending of the worlds – don’t split the digital and physical – they are one.  What is true in digital is true in physical.  Maintain skills to connect people with information.  Adopt the mantra “Keep calm and do something” when things feel challenging.

Susan Smith

Knowledge and Library Services Project Manager (Digital and Data Science module development)  Health Education England