Not drowning but waving – Transformative data in libraries

This is a text version of a talk I gave at the recent Libraries Rewired event in London, as part of the Doing More with Data session with Dave Rowe and chaired by Luke Burton. 

Our work is data-ish

Because of the projects that we work on at Artefacto as well as our backgrounds in libraries, we are quite heavily influenced by what’s happening in the sector. And like many in the sector, we are always thinking about how we use data. And how we don’t .

And I don’t necessarily view our projects as ‘data projects’, our work is always data-ish. Every single project we work on has data at the heart of it. 

For example, one of the projects we work on is the Health Library and Information Services Directory (HLISD). This is a joint project by the CILIP health libraries group and NHS England Workforce, Training and Education Directorate (formerly Health Education England). 

And though it is not a new project, it is one where we talk a lot about ways to improve and develop the platform, new features, changing requirements. And one of the recent discussion points has been about whether we are paying attention to the right metrics. Or measuring the right things. 

We discussed whether we were measuring things that helped us improve the platform or whether these were vanity metrics, things that made us feel good but didn’t help move the needle forward. And so we’ve revised the main metric indicators we focus on. This includes looking both at search terms used but also, those searches that don’t return any results. What does this tell us about gaps in the directory? Or about what terminology users use? 

We also recently worked with researchers at the University of Surrey on the Surrey Cultural Lives project. The aim of this project was to find ways to make the work of the participating researchers more accessible to a wider audience. 

The platform developed using storymaps to combine narratives with geographic data. Users can discover the stories of Surrey by exploring the locations on the map. This is still a prototype but will be developed further in collaboration with users. 

No longer just drowning in data

But it demonstrates the kinds of conversations that we are continually having with users about different kinds of data. And we know we are definitely not the only ones having these conversations. 

It is an interesting time for data in libraries.  We’ve always had data in libraries and library work, so that’s not necessarily new. But the amount of data is increasing. 

And the real change is that there seems to be a real concentrated effort to do more with it, to manage it well, to handle it ethically. To make it more intrinsic to the work libraries do. 

Libraries are being much more thoughtful and strategic about how they use data and what data they use. And you can see that in a lot of recent initiatives. 

For example, the IFLA library map of the World is a project that collects and collates data from library associations all around the world. And they have developed this platform that allows you to drill down into this data and compare different countries in areas such as internet provision, membership, staffing levels. And other key areas. 

We recently spoke to Kristīne Pabērza-Ramiresa (IFLA Member Engagement Officer) who leads on this project for the Digital Leadership for Libraries project. And she talked about the way that participating in this project has influenced the way these organisations approach and manage data more generally. 

Libraries Hacked has had a big influence on the conversations happening about open data, particularly within UK public libraries. As well as providing tools and resources and inspiration for libraries wanting to do more with their data, Dave Rowe shares a lot of his experience and expertise in data via the blog and the many Libraries Hacked projects. 

LibraryOn is a newer platform that is doing a lot of work to bring together different, local data about public libraries into a single national platform. And not just service info but the experiences and stories of library users. 

These are just a few of the projects that are currently on our radar and I think they are doing interesting things with data. 

But it’s not just about quantitative data. 

Qualitative data has a big part to play. And it often gets overlooked but I think more and more libraries are using qualitative data to collect evidence about how their services are used and how. 

Impact stories are one way, collecting and sharing how their services have impacted library users. And Darren Smart has done some interesting work on developing a framework on turning this qualitative data into quantitative data and linking these to the library’s objectives. 

User research and user experience (UX) are also growing areas in libraries. These approaches  help us challenge our assumptions about how our users engage with our services. 

Academic Libraries North is a network of libraries in the north of England that have, among other things, created a UX toolkit. This is a fantastic collection of UX resources that they have made available for others to use.

It’s not just big ‘data’ projects

I know that hearing about these kinds of case studies can sometimes be intimidating or a little disheartening if you are just starting out or if you don’t have the funding for big projects right now. 

But the projects that have proven to be transformative (in my humble opinion) are these ones that are based on sharing information, working ethically and transparently. 

For example, at a recent event, Kirstin MacQuarrie from CILIP Scotland walked us through their Carbon Neutrality Plan Template and how they were, as a team, measuring their carbon footprint. And this 5 minute talk about their  experiences, what worked, what didn’t and what they learned along the way, had a big impact on those in the audience. Including our team. 

The main thing that I like about these projects that I’ve talked about (and many others in the library world) is that they are all transparent and have a focus on sharing. Sharing how they do things, sharing tools, sharing user stories. 

So, when we talk about transformative data projects, we are talking about lots of different things. It could be a blog post, it could be sharing a template or how you did something. What worked and what didn’t. 

We are entering murky waters

The way that we think about, talk about and use data is particularly important as we move towards bigger and bigger data. Large language models, automation but also pressure to do more with user data. 

And making decisions about tools that work in mysterious ways, that have inherent biases or may even ‘hallucinate’. 

Libraries are going to be making big decisions about the types of tools they use, the way that they use and share data. 

We have a lot of data. And it’s looking like we might have even more in the future. So we need to start deciding what data matters, and what doesn’t. What data we need. And what we don’t. 

Creating a culture of good data

It’s more important than ever that we are fostering these values and skills of data in libraries. And sure, this may mean collaborations with data scientists and other specialists. 

But it also means cultivating that culture from the ground up in libraries. And bringing all staff along for the ride. Not siloed in certain staff or certain departments. But all staff are going to need data literacy, the knowledge to contribute to a data culture. 

Digital leadership

There’s a growing need for training, for knowledge sharing, for good practices across the sector. 

If you are looking for a place to start, there are resources out there to help like CILIP’s Digital Leadership for Libraries project. This is a project that we worked with CILIP on last year and includes a lot of case studies from people across the sector talking about how we steward data, how we manage data. And how we protect and share data. 

And here are some other projects that can help keep up with what’s happening and learn from others in the sector:

  • Newslet for Libraries – our fortnightly publication about innovative and interesting things happening in libraries. 
  • – a platform that brings together all of the main free learning resources for library professionals that are out there.


Thank you for your time today.