What do libraries do in a digital world?

Collections - Posted 09-10-2019

An answer to almost any question is now only a few taps of your touchscreen away, or you can speak directly to your device. Ask Google ‘what do libraries do’ and it will tell you (with the help of Wikipedia) that ‘in addition to providing materials, [they] also provide the services of librarians who are experts at finding and at interpreting information needs.’

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is no mention of books. Some would prefer to see other activities or services mentioned; at the National Library of Wales, for example, we ‘collect, preserve and give access to all kinds and forms of recorded knowledge, especially relating to Wales and the Welsh and other Celtic peoples’. Most importantly, however, Google and Wikipedia’s definition of the role of the library is as valid today as it was in the pre-digital world of the twentieth century.

The theme of this year’s ‘Libraries Week’ is ‘Celebrating Libraries in a Digital World’ and it is an opportunity to highlight how libraries use new technologies to improve and extend their activities and services. With examples from the National Library of Wales, here are eight ways in which digital technology is enabling us to fulfil our mission more effectively today.

1. Widening access

For over twenty years, the National Library of Wales has been digitising collections to give access to them beyond our building in Aberystwyth. Over 5 million items have been digitised so far, including newspapers and journals, maps, manuscripts, artworks and photographs. You can browse highlights from the Library’s collections under the Discover tab on our website or view a list of our digital resources.

Among the Library’s most popular online resources are the Welsh Newspapers website, which gives access to over 1.1 million pages of newspapers published between 1805 and 1919, and its sister website Welsh Journals, which has 1.4 million pages of journals and periodicals. The popularity of these resources is due in large part to users being able to search their content – an enhanced level of access made possible by using software to read printed text and produce searchable text files as well as capturing images of pages.

2. Discover more

The Library’s entire holdings, both physical and digital, can be searched online using our online Catalogue, allowing you to find out quickly whether it can be found in the collections.

If you’re among the millions of people who are within a single day’s travel to and from Aberystwyth, you can use the Catalogue to request access to items on-site. If not, then you can request copies to be sent to you, use the Catalogue to compile lists of sources, or filter your results only to display those that are available online.

3. Opening new fields of research

Methods and formats of digital capture and data creation are enabling researchers to ask new questions and make discoveries that would have previously been virtually impossible.

On the Welsh Newspapers and Welsh Journals websites, for example, a vast amount of text can be searched in a matter of seconds. Duncan Brown, one of the founders of the ecological project Llên Natur, has used the resource to find historical references to the nightingale song, and to the fish brwyniad Conwy (smelt or sparling in English) being caught in the River Conwy after wet weather.

In 2015, ‘ghostly faces‘ were found on the pages of the 13th century manuscript, The Black Book of Carmarthen. They are believed to have been erased in the 16th century until they were discovered by Professor Paul Russell from the University of Cambridge and PhD student Myriah Williams with the use of image analysis techniques.

Research is probably the most exciting area in which Library’s use of digital technology is making an impact.

4. Opportunities to collaborate

Digital developments have led to opportunities for collaboration within Wales and internationally, working with other organisations to deliver shared resources and to improve our service to users.

To commemorate the centenary of the First World War, a project funded by Jisc brought together primary sources from the collections of 11 libraries, special collections and archives across Wales to be digitised and presented on the Cymru1914 website.

The Cynefin project led by the Archives and Records Council Wales saw the digitisation of tithe maps, most of which were held at the National Library but some in other archives in Wales and England, and related apportionment records held and digitised by The National Archives in Kew, to a single Places of Wales online resource.

Between September 2017 and February 2019, we worked in partnership with 12 other cultural heritage institutions across Europe to bring together collections on the Europeana digital platform to tell the story of ‘the Rise of Literacy’. Having selected materials for the project, individuals from the partner organisations worked together to discuss their shared history and to present the collections with digital exhibitions, blogs and galleries.

Most recently, we have been working with The National Library of Scotland, The Hathi Trust in the United States, The British Library, The University of Glasgow and RLUK as part of an AHRC-funded project to explore the possibility of creating a global catalogue of digitised texts that would enable organisations to plan their digitisation programmes and strategies jointly, and researchers to search digitised tests from a single point of access.

5. Enabling participation

Recent advances in digital technology have enabled users to create, enrich and interpret of cultural heritage in new ways. Participation gives opportunities to develop new skills, promote social cohesion and contribute to the health and well-being of participants.

Following the success of the Cynefin Tithe Map project and collaboration with the Wales for Peace project to transcribe the Welsh National Book of Remembrance, we have developed our Crowd website, a crowdsourcing platform to deliver projects that allow users to participate in the work of the Library by transcribing and annotating the Library’s digital collections. These projects include the transcription of First World War Tribunal Records, tagging Gwilym Livingstone Evans’s photographs of the community of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and transcribing the diaries of the Welsh artist Kyffin Williams.

Since the appointment of a Wikipedian in Residence in 2015, the Library has had a successful partnership with Wikimedia UK and, with the support of the Welsh Language Unit of Welsh Government, delivered four thematic projects (WiciPop, Wici-Iechyd, WiciPobl and the current WiciLlên project) to increase digital content available in the Welsh language. In keeping with the ethos of Wikimedia projects, these projects have a strong element of participation, inviting both new and experienced Wikipedians to get involved in the initiative and to attend editathons,  translatathons or a hackathon.

People’s Collection Wales delivers digitisation training to community groups, projects and organisations so that they can digitise and share their own collections and stories online. Launched in 2010, People’s Collection Wales has delivered training to hundreds of groups throughout Wales and beyond, and gives access to over 120,000 objects on the website.

6. Sharing and promoting collections

Digital collections can be shared on various platforms simultaneously, where they can be presented in various contexts and reach different audiences. The National Library of Wales’s collections can be found on Art UK, People’s Collection Wales, Europeana, Wikicommons and Flickr Commons. Many of these images are available to re-use under open licences.

Using social media – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram – we take collections directly to users, where they can help to share and promote our digital collections. As well as promoting our collections to the world, we engage with users in discussion using these channels.

7. Augmented reality

Digital technologies are used to enhance visitor experience to the Library building. Using the Smartify app, you can access additional information about items that are displayed in the Library’s exhibitions. Smartify was used as part of the National Library of Wales’s exhibition at the National Eisteddfod in Llanrwst this year.

Using the Google Expeditions virtual reality platform, you can also take a virtual tour of the Library. Developed especially for use in education, the Library expedition takes you behind the scenes as well as to public spaces, presenting information about the Library and our collections.

8. Preservation for future generations

Ensuring long-term access to the record of today’s culture to future generations is one of the great challenges of the digital world as libraries deal with questions around storage, copyright and digital rights management, multiple and obsolete formats, information that can only be accessed using specific software and devices, not to mention information continuously evolving or disappearing from the World Wide Web. The National Library of Wales is the only library in Wales that has ‘legal deposit’ status, which allows specific libraries to collect and preserve electronic publications and  to archive websites so that users can access digital publications and study the history of Web.

The tasks of collecting, preserving and giving access to knowledge continues, and the question is not whether there is a role for libraries in a digital world, but how do we continue to reach standards of service that not only make the most of opportunities these technologies offer, but ensure that future generations have free and unrestricted access to knowledge that has been digitised or is not yet available in digital form. To celebrate libraries in a digital world is to declare the importance of their role in society today and for years to come.

Dafydd Tudur

Head of Digital Access

This post is also available in: Welsh

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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