This is the third 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.
Make the virtual visible: In a sense this is a challenge for colleagues who manage physical libraries as well. While it is easy to make the physical visible once people are there, library buildings that are out of the main thorough fares of the hospital, in remote locations are as difficult to promote as the virtual. The difference lies in the way VLK/IS have to approach the challenge. They have to make themselves “visible” by being part of the discourse of learning, teaching and knowledge management in the organization they serve. In other words you need to exist in the minds of your users. If your users aren’t talking about you, hearing about you, reading about you, or using your services then you don’t exist. Of course this is the culmination of the previous four points outlined in this post. But there are some steps you can take to be visible.
The first is to have a website that is visible to all, both inside and outside your organisation’s networks. You need to be available 24 hours a day seven days a week, anyone can access it provided they have an internet connection. For some this has its challenges. Useful sites to build your web presence , such as Google Sites, are likely to be blocked on some NHS networks. There are solutions. Those working in the NHS can use NHS Networks. A constructive dialogue with you IT Services may provide another solution. Visibility is an essential part of your strategy and there should be no compromise on this.
The second point is to put yourself on your organisations Intranet and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Even if you don’t use this as your main point of web presence, being there and signposting your website is important. Maintaining more than one website is time consuming. You have to either signal or direct people to your main website or tailor your additional web presence to meet the specific needs of the audience it addresses. Think of it as a stub or satellite web presence.
You have to generate relevant content. This needs to be appropriate to the demands of your users but you also have to create content that anticipates the demands of you users. Here are just a few examples of the types of publications you might consider, guides to the literature and guides to material available on the web, bibliographies on frequently asked for topics, pages of useful links, your publications, user education and teaching materials, explanatory text to resources and links to resources. You have to feel the quality of course, but you also have to feel the quantity.
Building good content takes time, effort and requires maintenance. However, apart from the service you give users it is another manifestation of the intellectual ability that exists within the VLK/IS, your shop window. Its not a new strategy. Many companies that offer consultancy, training or an intangible product offer some free web content for their users. It also offers an opportunity build your networks and keep the conversation going with your users . Mailings about new guides or web content are a useful opportunities to contact users. Be an expert in repackaging your content to provide talking points and appeal to your users.
Be digital, think digital, organize digital, purchase digital: Being digital is a key to the success of the VLK/IS service. This means taking digital as your starting point in the acquisition of resources and in your professional world view. It means moving on from the hybrid model of the library, mixed print and digital resources to putting digital first.
The assumption made is that those who are are embarking on the VLK/IS route either do not start with a physical library or in the current climate have had to abandon the physical library in the face of reform / reconfiguration of the National Health Service (NHS). In being digital there may be compromises to be made. Typical would be the journal title that isn’t available in electronic form, or the book that is not available electronically. The question is whether on careful reflection you need access to these texts or can the need be supplied by agreements with existing libraries and inter-library loans. The compromise is the reliance on libraries that have hard copy or maintaining a dark store of irreducible printed stock. The argument made here is not for being a purist, but for approaching the problem of print from the point of view of managing it down to zero.
Being digital, will require you to make representations to publishers and put forward arguments for digital access. History is almost certainly on the side of digital and what once looked like a difficult line to hold is made easier as book publishers in particular go the digital route. Anecdotal evidence suggests that publishers who resist digital or insist on unworkable licensing restrictions look increasingly isolated and in some case risk being by passed for content from publishers who are both digital and sympathetic to the needs of virtual library services.
Be mobile, moving is good for you: Google has a workspace with wheels on all their furniture to make everything mobile. Working in the VLK/IS put imaginary wheels on everything. In essence the library service comprises your computer, you and an internet connection. Location is not that important. You may work from home at the kitchen table or from an armchair, an office / hot desk or a cafe in a motorway service station. The VLK/IS is where you are now. However, don’t need to waste time travelling to places you don’t need to be. Use networks intelligently and you can save road miles.
You need to think about your ability to be mobile as an asset, especially if you serve a geographically diverse user community. Going to meet your users in their place of work, or an agreed location gives you a unique insight into how your users work and how the organisation works. It is in fact a reciprocal transaction you gather intelligence as you provide support to your users. There is also the opportunity of chance meetings that expand, strengthen and renew your network among non-users or relapsed users of your library service, those who you might not meet if you stay within the walls of your office.
Another consideration in working in a VLK/IS is the nature of work. Of course in the physical environment work has an obvious and tangible quality. Books get issued and returned. Shelves are tidied. Buildings are opened and closed. Administration is done through the day. It all has a very satisfying feel to it, but in the end does it contribute that much to your user experience or service quality? They also work who sit and think. Thinking about your service, how to improve it, how to make it better is work. Thinking, talking to others and visiting other library services is work as well. In the VLK/IS it is essential to keep your service fresh and the intellectual effort behind what you do robust. In the end the evidence for what you do, the quality of your arguments, is all that you have to support your library service.
Give it away: Everything is free now, or looked at another way everything retails at 0.00 pence. In other words everything has a cost, your time and your effort, but you don’t have to charge for, or recoup that cost from your users. You can give it away or charge 0.00. With the VLK/IS its better to share everything you create and make sure you put everything where anyone can access it. You get back much more than you give, it keeps you visible, makes friends and helps build your networks. That if you like is the payment for your original investment. Remember of course the limits of License Agreements with publishers and respect for Copyright Law.
Open access to material should extend beyond your users. Be completely open to anyone. In a small organisation, possibly a one person VLK/IS you need to cultivate the generosity of colleagues. So sharing your current awareness service, might generate extra content for you from colleagues in the health library community. Sharing is part of the ethos of a professional community like health librarianship, however, to support and encourage it you need to contribute something.
Finally, you need to consider sharing on the web all the documents that define your service, from formal strategy to impact surveys. These documents are the bricks and mortar of the VLK/IS. They give a tangible reality to your service. If they are good, and they need to be, they might also provide models for other services and save them doing some of the work you have already completed. They in turn may be able to suggest improvements to you. Sharing creates a virtuous circle.
Explain yourself, but always be a Librarian: Be straight with your users, but keep the nomenclature simple. They expect a Librarian who works in a library service, so give them one. Make the purpose, benefits, features and capabilities of your VLK/IS clear, but don’t labour the point. At its simplest the message is: “no print, more service”
This is a personal view, but there is a tendency among librarians to show too much of the inner workings, too much explanation of the how to do and not enough of the doing. There is a cost to the complexity layered on top of a library service. It takes more explanation and diverts effort away from what is really important. The point here is to use some of the users preconceptions to short circuit the longer explanations. You may feel yourself to be a cybrarian, and information consultant or any other term you choose. Users won’t understand the finer points being made here. University libraries now call themselves libraries, because users were turning up at the Learning Resource Centre and asking where the Library is?
Matt Holland, Librarian, NWAS NHS Trust
BA, DMS, Dip Lib, MA, MCLIP