ILI 2019 Invent and create: digital skills for library staff

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This is the written version of a talk given recently at Internet Librarian International 2019 in Olympia, London. Slides are also available.


A participatory approach to staff learning

The work we do with libraries encompasses a lot of different types of digital projects — including a lot of active learning-based training and other professional development resources on digital skills.

We work with a lot of different libraries to help them gain the skills and knowledge needed to support the rollout of makerspaces or digital making programmes. These courses are by design very hands-on, participatory, active and, dare I say, fun. This work has inevitably had a profound effect on our overall approach to continuing professional development (CPD).

We’ve also had lots and lots of conversations with library staff. We’ve had a chance to see and hear how library staff are learning new skills, what works, what doesn’t and how different staff are responding to these new challenges.

And it generally comes back to an issue of access and time to play and explore new technologies. But when we talk about digital skills for library staff, what skills are we talking about exactly? Well, that’s a tricky question to answer. It’s both contextual and continually changing.


The project came about in convoluted and very nerdy kind of way. Like a lot of web developers, my solution to problems tends to be to buy a domain name and build something. This, of course, isn’t much of a solution in itself but can be tremendously helpful in working through the intricacies of a digital problem. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

I was asked to run a workshop on digital skills for library staff – particularly focusing on current awareness and how library staff could keep up with the latest digital skills and knowledge. It was while putting together that workshop and trying to provide some useful, actionable advice about what digital skills are relevant to library staff right now that the conclusion I ended up reaching was.. all of them. But also … it depends.

Digital skills are interrelated. And there’s lots of overlap and interconnection between skills (and knowledge in-between). This is an important distinction – when we talk about digital skills, what we really mean is digital competencies – the sum total of the parts (both skills and knowledge) you need to be able to get something done.

So the libraryskills platform was an attempt to bring this all together and to make it easy to find learning resources to gain a particular skill set. This could be to help you upskill for your current job or for when you wanted to move into a new one.

All library roles are technical

Are all library roles technical? Yes but not in the same way. This is a simplistic statement of course, but I think we can agree that library work has been irrevocably digitally transformed. It’s hard to think of any roles within libraries and information services today that don’t have at least some technical aspect.

Digital skills in libraries is no longer limited to a separate role – it’s now something that impacts every role. But when I talk to library staff there’s a lot of hesitance and a lot of reluctance about owning up to these technical skills. Today’s library staff are managing information, access, data, privacy, collaboration and preservation, digital literacy support and more. They even manage to wrangle information out of overly complicated library management systems.

Yet many people in the sector don’t feel like they can call what they do in anyway technical . The gatekeeping in tech is very real and has a major impact on how people perceive their own skills. There’s a certain model of tech worker that is promoted and feted above all others. And it leaves a lot of people that don’t fit with this feeling like imposters.

The amount of digital and technical work that we’re dealing with is only going to increase. And we need to take ownership of this and challenge gatekeeping that doesn’t recognise the specialisms in library and information work.

We’re at an important juncture

Just at this point when there’s more pressure on library services and more challenges on funding, we’re also at a crucial time when it comes to future proofing our services and the support we provide to our users.

There are lots of new things on the horizon that requires extensive skills and knowledge. Right now we are negotiating contracts with machine learning and automation services built-in, we’re advising library users on ways to protect their privacy in the face of increasingly networked devices. We are handling more data than ever before, including user data, research data and community data. These are just a few examples.

This is a critical time and libraries can’t risk getting left behind.

This is not the time for boring CPD

There are a lot of demands on library staff time. And aside from the fact that boring things are boring and life is way too short, it also just …doesn’t work.

We can’t depend on the old boring traditional approach to CPD to get us through. In order to be effective, CPD has to be engaging, practical and applicable to our own situations and circumstances.

Because you can’t learn digital skills just by hearing about it. We need hands-on professional development that’s relevant to our work, no more generalist talkfests. And i think a more constructionist approach is helpful here – staff are more engaged if they can see clear connections between what they’re learning and their interests and work requirements. – a curated collection of free resources is an Artefacto Labs project, which is the umbrella under which we do experimental projects or build things just because we want them to exist. And in this case, it’s the latter. This was not designed to be an experiement with a new technology, but to bring together all the awesome learning resources out there. There’s a strong ethos of dedicated self-driven learning in libraries that we wanted to recognise and celebrate.

The collection focuses on self-directed learning but we’re intentionally not overly strict on what constitutes a ‘learning resource’ because things like blog posts can be just as important.

And it’s not just digital skills, though these are a key component and our speciality.

The categories and learning pathways that are such an important part of this are very much a work in progress. Because skills don’t tend to exist in a vacuum – that’s why organising these into basic curricula was an important part of it.

Take privacy skills for example, which have become an important part of libraries’ digital literacy support. To help people learn about how to best protect their information online, you might need to teach them a little bit about quite a few different topics. Browser technologies, privacy laws, web security, data and policies may all play a part.

The collection of learning resources continues to grow. Some of my favourite resources that are now available on include

And lots more.

Guest curators can share their expertise on topics and help fill gaps on the site by putting together curricula for people to learn new skills. So far we’ve had two guest curators who very kindly shared their expertise, Aude Charillon (Privacy Advocate collection) and Dave Rowe (Open Data collection). We’re keen to have more guest curated collections on the site so please get in touch if you’d like to get involved.

The site is still in beta while we continue to add a backlog of content and fill the many gaps that still exist. We also want to build better learning paths – more specific, more flexible.

Another consideration is whether it’s valuable to users if we map the content to something like the EU digital competencies framework.

Part of a larger discussion

This project (and this talk) are all part of a larger discussion on how we can encourage and support access to ongoing, personal, practical and engaging learning opportunities for all staff. And having important, possibly overdue, conversations about what skills are really needed for library services both today and in the future is necessary to ensure we’re meeting the needs of library users today and tomorrow.

It’s important that staff have protected time for exploring new technologies and building new skills .

There are already interesting approaches out there to learn from. Google’s well-known (and possibly mythical) 20% time is one such approach. British Library’s Digital Scholarship team have done some interesting work in this area. Within the British Library’s Digital Scholarship Staff Training Programme of courses, they also have Hack & Yacks- informal 2 hour meetups for staff to get together and work through a variety of online tutorials on a particular digital topic. There are also things like Twitter Chats and LibraryCamps and other things that have sprung up quite organically to provide CPD in different ways

Creating a learning culture in an organisation, encouraging curiosity, exploration and collaboration will make a significant difference to the future readiness of your organisation.

Providing space for staff of all roles to just play and explore new technologies can really help. But we also need to account for busy staff with different roles, with different complex learning needs. It’s not a matter of just giving access and support to a designated ‘technical’ role but requires bringing all staff along with us.

Things are moving fast but we need to start planning and designing for future library services. I’m aware that this sounds like a big ask in the current climate but it’s important to start thinking about how we can provide this space and support and the value this can bring to our organisations.

There’s a lot we can learn from what’s already happening with makerspaces in libraries. There’s been a lot of amazing work done to provide learning spaces for library users to discover and explore digital technologies, but we also need to be providing this kind of space to staff.

It’s ok to start small – lending digital resources to staff, facilitating discussions and knowledge sharing sessions can all contribute to a culture of invention and creative, collaborative learning.

We always try and practice what we preach so we have a few experimental, self-paced learning resources in development. The first one to be released is the Data Detective Agency, you can sign up to be notified when it launches. will continue to grow and evolve and we’d love to get your input. If you’ve got any suggestions of resources to add to the site, please send them our way.