Community connections can help libraries do digital for all

14 Jul 2016

Libraries’ community roots and community partnerships are key in helping to address digital and social exclusion - from the ground up.

But if England’s library network is to live up to its true potential, more needs to be done to tap into local support services and get digital out of quiet corners and into the lives of the people with most to gain from it.

That’s the message from Good Things Foundation today, launching the findings from a library action research programme. Sixteen library services were funded to deliver new digital inclusion projects which targeted vulnerable or isolated people.

The project supported more than 1,600 people to improve their digital skills at over 200 branch libraries and other community venues. Target audiences included elderly people, families in poverty, disabled people and the long term unemployed.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all model, the programme allowed each library to adapt their activities to the needs of their community and the audiences they serve. That local knowledge helped libraries forge new partnerships with key intermediaries - allowing them to reach new and excluded audience groups. Those partnerships were supported by Good Things Foundation centrally, and included relationships with Housing Associations, colleges, other local UK online centres, disability support groups and charities.

Libraries used the additional funds from Good Things Foundation to invest in mobile equipment like tablets and mobile internet devices, essential for outreach engagement and delivery. They also collected management information through Good Things Foundation’s Learn My Way learning website and Capture IT system, to report on the progress and impact of their projects.

Delivery models included the recruitment of local digital champions from a housing estate, who then referred people into Newcastle Central Library for classes, and a supported home access programme in Leeds - offering housebound library users tablets on library loan. Meanwhile in Cumbria, health and social care students helped shape and support a programme for people with physical and learning disabilities as part of their course’s mandatory placement hours.

Libraries proved incredibly effective at helping even the most socially and digitally excluded people to shift to online information and service channels - resulting in significant channel shift savings. Just these 1,600 people crossing the digital divide represents an estimated annual saving to government of more than £800,000 a year - every year. Across all 151 library services in England, more than £7.5 million of cost savings could be achieved.

Helen Milner, Chief Executive at Good Things Foundation said: “There are an estimated 12.6 million people in the UK without basic digital skills, and libraries clearly have an important role to play in helping connect people to both new digital skills and better lives. Libraries have grown roots in our communities over many years, and this research shows how they can work alongside other community organisations to reach the furthest first.

“However, not all libraries are living up to that enormous potential. They cannot operate in silos, and they cannot continue to see digital inclusion as peripheral or incidental to their work. Having a couple of computers in the corner and wi-fi access in the building is no longer enough.

“The challenge for library services is two fold. They must first think differently about what they do, and they must then must prove the impact they’ve had. At Good Things Foundation we believe we can help libraries on both these fronts, and this research very much shows that in action. We also believe that by doing so we can help to secure libraries’ future.”

Sharon Wagg, research lead for the action research project, said: “The project has been a great opportunity for public libraries involved in the research to test and develop innovative digital inclusion delivery models, build effective partnerships, and engage with hard-to-reach audiences who have truly benefitted from the project. Overall the project has demonstrated that public libraries remain relevant and are a key player for digital inclusion activities both locally and nationally.”

Recommendations from the report include communicating pockets of good practice across the wider library service, and standardising how digital inclusion information is collected and reported. Good Things Foundation plans to continue its work to build the digital inclusion capacity of libraries by creating bespoke support materials, communications, training, and templates to help library services emulate successful delivery and partnership models.

Read the full evaluation report of the action research project.