Top Tips for running a Virtual Library Knowledge Information Service: Part 2 by Matt Holland

This is the second in a series of 4 postings by Matt Holland, Librarian for the NW Ambulance Service NHS Trust, outlining his top tips for running a Virtual Library Service.


Your users communication with you is your key metric: Communication is the new footfall. The frequency and quality of your encounters with users through any medium, electronic or face-to-face is the metric that defines the success or failure of your Virtual Library & Knowledge/Information Service.

In the previous post the idea of a metaphor for the VLK/IS was proposed, that of networks of users forming your library service universe. This is a network of people, it is not an electronic network, but of course in the new age of technology, electronic communication will play its part. How you push out your messages depends in part on your users, on the message you want to send and on you.

There is no footfall in the Virtual Library & Knowledge / Information Service. You could count visits to your website as a proxy for users, or Open Athens registrations, but this won’t really capture the essence of your library service.  You might achieve a high footfall in a physical library at lunchtime where people come to eat their lunch and leave, but that tells you nothing about the quality of the library service.

The key metric is not your communication with users. That is of course important and the everyday activity of the virtual library service Librarian. It is also a metric you can control. Just send more e-mails or make more phone calls. In that sense it is meaningless. The key metric is your users communication with you. That is a measure of success. To capture that data you do need to be sensitive to who is talking to you and count and measure each activity.

At a practical level it means keeping and counting e-mails each month, and creating and being diligent in maintaining an enquiry tracking system. This is easy to do using something as simple as a spreadsheet to a more complex database application and online form. Find ways to capture face to face encounters as well. Send your self an e-mail each time this happens or self-complete an online form. Capture this information by any means possible and this will give you the rich picture you need to evidence the activity of your virtual library service.


Meet the users where they are: Meeting the users where they are requires you to make a mental leap and reverse the service flow. Your users will no longer come to you. Where would they go anyway? You have to go to them. Of course this doesn’t have to be literally true. A well-managed mobile phone conversation even a conference call is a good way to meet the users where they are. A website that is available 24 hours a day 7 days week would be enough for some. Others you need to go to their office or meet them half way.

There is a lot that underpins this strategy. The point of departure is to convey a willingness to meet users once contact is made with the virtual library service. Second is to make sure that you understand their preferences. That after all is part of reversing the service flow. Going to meet users gives a powerful message about the nature of the service. Supporting this is mobile technology. Having a library mobile phone and mobile broadband are probably essential. You have to imagine going to someone’s desk logging in and starting a consultation. The virtual library service is there in the form of your physical presence and your computer providing a window on your electronic resources. Lots of people work this way from  salespersons to trainers and consultants. The model of the consultant is very close to the model of the new virtual librarian.


Invest time in the service of your users: If you are not managing a physical space, then you have a very valuable commodity that your earth bound colleagues don’t have, and that is time. This is a key difference between managing things and managing a service. You might think that if you don’t have to spend time opening your library, closing it, shelving books, staffing desks and so on that you will have nothing else to do. If you do  then you have missed the point. Spending time is an investment in your library service and your users and it needs to be planned carefully.

Providing a personalised service is your key selling point. Spend the time you save from managing things with your users and on their behalf. Much discussion about time on library lists is about limiting resources, what we won’t do, what we can’t do, the limits to the library service becuse we don’t have time. The virtual library service manager needs to turn that logic on it’s head. Deliver the service that the user wants with no limits, go the whole distance with your user and their enquiry. Don’t be afraid of spending time with them or on their behalf. In the end they won’t become dependent users, they will become better users, they will be advocates for you and your services marketing on your behalf through their networks.

Capture their satisfaction, or dissatisfaction and what you did about it, in a narrative that you can tell other people, especially your line managers and sponsors. Of course you can use this information to promote and justify your service. The raw data of the Impact Survey is useful if not essential, but the narrative provided by a satisfied customer is compelling, and paints the colours into the bare bones of your bar charts and tables. This information of course is a strategic resource, requires a deliberate strategy to capture it and sensitive handling if it is to be included in publically available documents.

Users who feel that you have invested time with them and gone on their information journey as a friend or consultant will be your advocate in the organisation. These are comments that the author has received unsolicited “I am always coming across people who have been helped by your service” or “I have been given your name by my manager, he says you helped them and you can help me” or simply “My manager says you are a legend”.

Put your messages where your users can find them: Of course this means understanding how users receive messages and how they use the various channels you have access to, to send them information. A point of departure is to adopt the one message, many channels strategy. The message is simple. “I am here. I can help you. Here is how to contact me.”

The many channels means reaching out to your users in as many ways as you can. Be clever, be creative but above all be relentless in your efforts to reach users. Time spent just thinking about this is time invested in a good cause. If you are finding it hard to imagine what this might look like then here are some practical suggestions.

Be your own journalist. Writing can be rewarding, even fun.  For the VLK/IS it is an essential skill. Getting regular pieces in the internal Newsletter, Magazine or Bulletin is a good example. Content is important and requires a degree of creativity to generate something worth talking about that is appropriate to the publication. The real benefit is your by-line, your title and above all your e-mail address and mobile phone number. This shouldn’t be limited to your organisation. The occasional publication outside in the professional press can raise your profile and be useful in validating your professional status within your organisation. Circulating .pdfs or post prints to your line manager and others should create a good impression.

Be proactive. Responding to users enquiries, and the regular routines of current awareness and emailing lists are the core of the many channels idea. Even if they don’t read the content, they still know you are there! Hopefully they will read it. Respond to the news agenda, the NHS is rarely out of the news, or respond to the media agenda of charities and campaign groups, an example would be World Sepsis Day or National Dementia Awareness Day. Send out a topical email or current awareness bulletin.

Give other people the tools to market your service. Keep colleagues informed about the library service and benefits to users. Make sure that information about the VLK/IS is easily available online, or in a format they can use to promote you and your service, which may be a hand out of leaflet, web address or a pen with you contact details stencilled on.


Matt Holland, Librarian, NWAS NHS Trust
Mobile: 07747456736,

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