Libraries, shelf life and service design

The Edge 2011 conference was organised by the City of Edinburgh Council to show how virtual libraries are revolutionising local authority service delivery. The two-day conference at the Caledonian Hotel on the 3rd and 4th of March brought together top local government figures from the UK and beyond to explore how libraries can be key to delivering council services, e-government, learning and digital inclusion. You can see all my snaps from the event here.

Brian Gambles, the Assistant Director of Culture for Birmingham City Council, described future libraries as empowerment centres and thinking platforms. Although I was glad when he brought the focus right back to basics and asked “what problem are we trying to solve?”. It seems the library sector often gets caught up in the new and shiny – a new kiosk, a new building, a new website – instead of asking the simple questions first: “if timeliness is so important why are libraries open when it suits staff?”

I spend alot of time talking, thinking and writing about ‘service’ so I was curious to see the reaction when Brian prompted the crowd to think about the difference between service and experience. The answer is very important – they are two very different things. As Adam responded from the virtual world – “the same as the difference between cooking and taste”

When you really stop and think about libraries – what they were, compared to what they are now, it really makes you think about how people engage with information and ideas. I wasn’t surprised to hear speakers ponder over why communities that have good local services have a low opinion of their council. It’s the classic case of hitting the target but missing the point. A phrase that I also think could be applied to the image below.

Culture change tips from the library of Hampshire

Culture change tips from the library of Hampshire

Cultural attitudes of staff are crucial for libraries right now because they are defining new value for their industry. Libraries are often the glue that h0lds communities together, that’s the kind of statement that should be on the list above! The image above shows culture change from a library perspective – Snook’s perspective is very different. Our idea of culture change is focused on creating organisations that have the ability to cope with and do innovation and as a result produce new / improved services that deliver value. We believe the way to do this is embedding design-led activity in the DNA of organisations.

Kevin Winkler from New York Public Library talked about decreasing back stage activity and decreasing the number of touch points – this is all language that service designers are familiar with although I don’t agree that getting rid of all the touchpoints is the answer. Asking ‘why’ about each touchpoint would be a better place to start.

The audience

The audience

Nicky Parker from Manchester City Council talked very strongly about ‘automation’ and the fact that ‘people want stuff done for them’. I couldn’t disagree more. I felt this talk in particular was focused on ‘sexy pictures’ and ‘visioning’ as opposed to real conversations about what the public want.

Words are very important in the library sector. Infact, over the course of the two days the speakers compiled a list of ‘dirty words’

  • cuts
  • big society
  • money
  • frontline ( it was decided front of house was a better phrase to use )
  • volunteer ( it de-values people and should be referred to as a ‘gift of time’ )
  • customer
  • service

I don’t think this list is very valuable. The value is in speaking a human, simple language that everyone can relate to. Hat tip to Alan Barr from The Big Partnership for telling the librarians their websites are dull and social media is about being social. The truth is that staff make or break any service and these are exciting yet scary times for library staff. What if they say or do something wrong? It does seem safer to stay behind the counter but the library landscape is changing. Dave Coplin, Director of Search at Microsoft ( and the chap behind The Envisioners ) delivered this point brilliantly to wrap up the two days. He encouraged staff to make friends with the IT guys and persistently tell them you need their help to change culture! Dave reminded the audience we are all on a journey and have to be on it together. The reason that’s so important is because we need to provide momentum and inspiration for the libraries all over the country bursting with ideas and unable to bring them to life because of bureaucracy. Afterall, that’s how we get others to understand our ideas – it’s about mindset

Libraries are at an interesting cross roads and we need to make it clear that this is not about technology or tools it’s about culture. Think about how how people perceive change and how they perceive the service you deliver! It’s time to let go and really believe in your organisation and your service

You can watch a video of my talk here and read a write up by the team at Edge ‘The user journey towards better services”

If you would like to know more, Joanna Ptolomey puts it far better than I ever could in both her articles  Service Design on the edge and I’ve quite literally been to the edge and back.

Brilliant to finally meet @chibbie and @dcoplin and hang out with my buddies @mikemclean and @allanbarr. I’ll end this post with some fantastic snippets of insight from Arne : if libraries are not willing to become obsolete than that is exactly what’ll happen to them. Throw out the library completely, start with value and how to co-create it, and then you’re designing the new library…get people engaged in your service and it will grow naturally.

To any libraries reading this – be more open as a profession and let the public share ideas with you – the public want to make their own decisions. I promise.