Web Magazine for Information Professionals

National Library Goes Local

Stephanie Kenna and Sue Cook tell the story behind the British Library's online training package for public library staff.

In response to a challenge from the Society of Chief Librarians, the British Library has launched an online training package [1] to its services and the wealth of information in its collections for the benefit of staff in public libraries and their users. In this article we describe how the training package was conceived and created, how it is being rolled out and evaluated, and our plans for future developments.

The Challenge

Improving services and making our collections visible and accessible to all are key objectives for libraries in all sectors. So, when in December 2001 Martin Molloy, then Chair of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), challenged the British Library (BL) to reveal the depth and breadth of its collections and services to public library staff and to users of public libraries, the British Library's Co-operation and Partnership Programme (CPP) was keen to respond.

The CPP was originally set up in 1999 to promote collaborative working and to test different models for collaborative collection development and management as well as for resource discovery. CPP has moved away from project-based funding to delivering a targeted programme in support of the BL's chosen stakeholders: the researcher, the general public, business and the learner. CPP was beginning to develop new partnerships, especially with public libraries and other bodies in the regions to improve access to BL collections and services and to deliver them alongside local and regional resources, underpinning local and regional provision. This was a perfect fit.

The support of the SCL executive was central to the project. Members acted as a sounding board for our ideas and committed to piloting the training package and rolling it out across the SCL membership.

The Solution

We considered various methods of delivery.

Who would lead the project? There was a danger that a BL-led approach might be regarded as patronising or not relevant to the public library sector. Moreover it would not be evidence-based. We decided instead to offer a personal career development opportunity to someone currently working in a public library, someone with both front-line and middle management experience. The invitation was to spend a total of eight weeks at the BL, to immerse him/herself in the Library and to highlight those collections and services likely to be most relevant in a public library context. We felt this would make the end-product more credible to the intended audience as well as offering an opportunity for BL colleagues to learn more about the public library world.

What exactly would the product be? A folder of leaflets would become out of date and might end up unused and forgotten in a drawer. Training courses or visits would be resource intensive for the BL while public libraries would find it difficult to release staff. The impact would be limited. The BL was however increasingly moving to Web-based delivery and we were keen to build on the People's Network and on European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) training which all public library staff have undergone. We wanted to offer a new and interesting learning experience which would serve to boost confidence in Web site navigation. We therefore proposed a Web-based tool and positioned it as part of continuing professional development.

The candidate's brief was to:

We were just beginning to explore the potential for partnership working with Leeds Library and Information Service - the public library authority for the Boston Spa area - and were delighted when Sue Cook agreed to join us from Leeds early in 2003. She takes up the story.

The Designer's Tale

When I first read the e-mail outlining the project I was intrigued. Like many public library colleagues, I suspect, I still harboured vague notions of our national library as a remote institution, featherbedded from the day to day realities of performance targets and budgetary concerns, peopled by an elite whose only point of contact with my sector was in supplying the odd book or photocopied article through the interloan scheme. Meeting the BL staff working on the project for the first time I began to revise my opinions. The Library, they assured me, had undergone a sea change but even so I was still more than a little taken aback when I was parachuted into an organisation that struck me as forward-looking and ready to employ the latest technology to deliver its services worldwide. I was given free licence to roam, access to a raft of strategic plans and relevant documents and generous amounts of time with a wide range of staff who were eager to share their enthusiasm for their Library and its collections and were equally keen to engage with and learn about libraries in the public sector.

Also extremely useful was all the BL promotional literature and the time to browse the Web site to assess its relevance to the training programme content. I press-ganged four colleagues, with widely disparate IT skills and interest in accessing information electronically into assisting with my assessment of the BL Web site. On observing them, I noticed they all strayed off into other areas as individual items on the page caught their interest. At that stage no decision had been taken as to which Web site would host the final product (both CILIP and SCL were close contenders); but my 'guinea pigs' had unconsciously demonstrated that direct access to BL's main Web site content was essential if we were to interest people and encourage them to explore beyond the limits of the training package. I also came to the conclusion that given the high quality of material in print format and the ongoing upgrading of the Web site, no re-drafting was required.

Supplied with public awareness surveys undertaken by the Library, I adapted them for use with volunteers from Leeds and Derbyshire public libraries. These were drawn from all levels of their organisation, from chief officer down, to ensure a balanced view was obtained. I was delighted to have more than 90% of the forms returned. They made interesting reading. Whilst 85% of respondents considered the British Library key to their work, as one would suppose, 72% had never visited any of the three sites. I took this as further evidence of the relevance and timeliness of the project. The survey results informed what was ultimately included in the package in that we focused on those areas less familiar to respondents.

By the halfway stage I realised I had not yet considered how I would structure and present the course. Soft market testing, (also known as bothering friends and acquaintances across the profession), gave no clear steer as everyone seemed to have different learning preferences. It was here the survey results were helpful once again. If 72% of respondents had never visited the BL, it was high time they did, and in the least expensive and most time-efficient way possible, i.e. virtually.

The outcomes we wished to see were also clear: we hoped public library staff would become enthusiastic and knowledgeable advocates for the Library and would increasingly choose to use the Web site as a resource; that independent learners would see the Web site as a means to acquire IT skills; that other virtual visitors would be advised on membership requirements beforehand and be saved unnecessary trips to St Pancras; and that best use would be made of the Boston Spa reading room.

Once I had established the concept, the next step was to script and storyboard. I prepared an initial draft which was presented to SCL and which was adjudged to have exceeded expectations. Another month saw the final draft completed and the start of discussions with the BL Web team about converting it into electronic format. We were all aware that what we had created could be no more than a taster. I likened it to trying to fit a Steinway grand piano into a shoebox; a lot had to be omitted and what was included barely does justice to the original. Our aims, however, were clear. The tour, as it was now termed, had to be flexible so staff could break off and return to it as their workload demanded and should take no longer than three hours to work through. It needed a high visual content to support the concept of making a visit which is why it opens with a video sequence about the Library and its services. Nor did it need to be overly academic in its approach. In order to add a lighter touch, therefore, I finished each section with an unexpected fact or two that I had unearthed during my research.

Conclusion: Outcomes

Sue Cook's continued involvement and encouragement were critical in enabling us to turn the concept into reality as were the technical skills of the Library's Web Services team.

We updated an existing introductory video, created some 45 Web pages, added approximately 110 images and created some 100 links to the main BL Web pages. By January 2004 we felt ready for public library staff in Leeds and Derbyshire to test it for us. The response was positive and the feedback constructive and, after only a few minor tweaks, we finally went live with a launch at the June meeting of the SCL Executive. Since then SCL members have been rolling out the tour nationally.

It would be impossible to take every librarian on a physical tour of the British Library, but without this insight local library users would be missing out on the real treasures housed there. This e learning package offers the next best thing. It is packed with information broken down into manageable chunks and the learner can really get inside the British Library and all its outlets. While many of us know a bit, this package opens up the British Library in detail for the first time. It is a joy to work through the package and the real winners are local people in every library service up and down the land as they will have access to much better informed staff who can guide them to the nation's resources.

Catherine Blanshard, Chair of SCL

The tour includes a workbook so individual progress through the site can be recorded and also a feedback form [2] which we encourage all visitors to the virtual tour to complete. We do not intend this to be a static site but trust that it will continue to evolve in response both to feedback and the development of new BL products and services. We would also like to add case studies to illustrate how it has benefited staff in public libraries and, in particular, their users.

Hits on the tour home page now average 1,000 per month and we are beginning to evaluate the impact the tour has had through a mystery shopping exercise. We are also conducting a repeat of the original awareness survey in some of the pilot libraries.

Looking to the future, we are exploring the potential for re-purposing the tour for other library sectors and for general professional training. As for Sue Cook, the personal development opportunity led to a move to the senior post of City Wide Services Manager in Manchester Library and Information Service.


  1. The British Library: a tour for public library staff: http://www.bl.uk/training_package/introduction.html
  2. The British Library: public libraries training package feedback form and sample of feedback from visitors

Author Details

Sue Cook
City Wide Services Manager
Manchester Library and Information Service

Email: S.Cook2@notes.manchester.gov.uk
Web site: http://www.manchester.gov.uk

Stephanie Kenna
Manager, Regional and Library Programmes
(formerly Manager of the Co-operation and Partnership Programme)
The British Library

Email: stephanie.kenna@bl.uk
Web site: http://www.bl.uk

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