Digital relationships

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Every few years, there is a gathering of a unique set of clans. In the UK, they are called ‘independent libraries’, while in the US they are ‘member libraries’; in Australia, they are ‘mechanics institutes’. All are libraries that make their own way in the world, with small budgets and even smaller staff numbers.

Our occasional meetings therefore represent a valuable chance for library staff to personalise relationships that may always have been digital. Based only on reciprocal retweets, Instagram hearts or emails, we have forged a tight-knit and supportive global community.

In 2016 we met in San Francisco; in 2019, some of us managed to meet in London. Hosted by the London Library, we spent three days putting faces to names, and discussing, workshopping and presenting on the challenges we face and the successes we’ve had.

Suitably enough for Libraries Week 2019, which celebrates libraries in a digital world, two members of Gladstone’s Library’s staff gave a joint talk on how we’ve been using digital technology and social media to develop outreach models on a two-hundred-year-old archive…

Director of Collections and Research Louisa Yates introduced the Glynne-Gladstone archive, a family archive of approximately 300,000 documents written by, to and about the Glynne and Gladstone family (in 1839 Victorian Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone married Catherine Glynne and moved to her family estate in Hawarden, joining the families). Around 15,000 letters are connected directly to William Gladstone, and Gladstone’s Library has been working to digitise these and several hundred annotated books from his personal library.

In its original form, the archive could not be further from ‘the digital’. Yellowed bundles of notepaper, letters, and sketches are carefully wrapped in grey acid-free card, tied gently with tape, and placed in serried rows of cardboard boxes. They are kept behind a hundred-and-ten-year-old strongroom door. Manufactured by Chubb, one of the two premium Victorian British locksmiths, this door is everything the digital item is not: solid, permanent, stable.

At the same time, the door also represents all the limitations of the traditional archive. It’s closed and it’s hard to access, in all the many and varied meanings of that term. The reading rooms at Gladstone’s Library are small, often full, and silent. We have one desk which is suitable for working with restricted items. If you do manage to get to that desk in North Wales and navigate all the required security measures, the archive’s contents are quite tricky to read – no search function and all the information is delivered in one man’s spidery handwriting that only worsens as he ages.

Digitisation represents some solutions to these problems. Digitised material can be transcribed, offering a search function which transforms unwieldy bundles into a searchable whole. Letters which are digitised can be enlarged and coloured overlays added, aiding readers with visual impairments. They can be read at home or browsed on an iPad in spaces which permit conversation. The archive can then be accessed by those who bring carers or wish to work in groups. The digital space is more flexible than the Library’s physical space can be.

Of course, there will always be those who like those unwieldy bundles, and whose research depends on them. Digitisation means the original resources can be reserved for these rarer researchers, preserving fragile letters that much longer. Expensive conservation, a major element of any library’s budget, can be commissioned in the knowledge that it will last longer than it would under heavier usage.

Staff at Gladstone’s Library knew that digital offers some solutions. Without Gladstone’s Library’s robust and vibrant digital presence, however, we would not have had such a clear vision of how to disseminate and promote the archive in a series of digital outreach and engagement projects.

Amy Sumner, Marketing Manager at Gladstone’s Library, talked the group through what the Library has been doing to build its digital foundations over the last 10 years, as well as some of the challenges that come with marketing a closed collection. When we talk about ‘building a digital presence’ in this context, it has a dual purpose. Firstly, to reach more people of all demographics and from countries across the world so that they are aware of the Library and what it offers in some capacity. Secondly, so that people who want to visit the Library specifically to use its collections are able to see what’s available and become more autonomous in planning their visit using the online catalogues, finding aids and other resources. Gladstone’s Library is a charity and a completely independent organisation with very little marketing and advertising budget, so this digital presence is invaluable not only in terms of the geography we can cover, but also the time and money we can save and invest elsewhere not having to do things like stuffing envelopes and posting out newsletters.

In building the Library’s digital presence the focus has always been on the overall nature of what the Library is and does and not just the collections; the rationale being that the more people know about the Library, the more will find out about the collections and will transmit that message organically through word of mouth, social media and other means. This growth naturally takes time, and sometimes a lucky break or two - the Library has always shied away rom placing advertorials or paying for engagement, so a lot of time and effort has gone into it.

The website has become a huge repository for blogs and aids of all kinds. It now houses a lot of information to encourage users to be as autonomous as possible. A new online booking system was introduced to allow customers to book tickets in their own time. The Library’s e-newsletter is sent out monthly to a mix of Readers, Friends, and those just generally interested in what is happening within the Library and its community. The mailing is currently sent out to almost 6,000 people worldwide.

On social media it can often feel as though growth is slow and painful. The Library has pursued an active campaign across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, using the scheduling platform Hootsuite to write and schedule posts in advance. The profiles are a collaborative effort with at least five different staff members contributing posts at any one time, so the Library has strict stylistic guidelines and posting policies. Fundamentally, the team recognises what a gift the Library is, being so unique and so aesthetically pleasing! The social streams are a mix of beautiful photographs, collection profiles, event information and other ‘interest’ pieces pertaining to books, libraries, Victoriana and more from across the web. The Library also works with journalists, bloggers and ‘influencers’ to profile the building in return for overnight stays.

Which is not to say that marketing a closed collection is without its challenges. At the most basic level, the Reading Rooms are not open to the general public. These are the really beautiful rooms that people want to see when they come to visit. The Library has tried to balance this tension by introducing Glimpses, promoted heavily on the website and social media. In this way, visitors are still able to enter but they do so in a way the team can manage.

Social media profiling and blog posts are used to promote particular areas of the collection, often tying in with special anniversaries or trending topics. There is also a real will to engage with outreach events such as Cadw’s Open Doors festival and other festivals and conferences just like the Independent Libraries Conference this talk was part of. Finally, the Library permits certain instances of photography and filming to take place within its walls – these are carefully chosen and must help to educate and spread the word about the institution. The team is always careful to ascertain right at the start what a crew wants to obtain from the filming and whether this can be fulfilled whilst maintaining respect for its collections and users.

With the above successes in mind, Gladstone’s Library submitted a successful bid to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. With the grant they awarded, the Library was able to equip a digital studio so that the fragile, uncatalogued archive could be processed in-house. Two new staff members were employed to deliver the project.

Every bid has its areas that change swiftly between application and implementation, and in this project that was metadata capture. The team knew that in order for a digital browser to work the handwritten letters would need to have a printed transcription somewhere in the catalogue metadata. The benefits would be twofold, meaning that not only would users have the benefit of clearer content but that the content would be fully searchable.

There is, as yet, no software which can decode cursive script. The letters would have to be transcribed by hand, with the results typed into a simple database. Very early on the team realised there just weren’t enough human hands. We would need volunteers, and for this we turned once again to the Library’s digital platforms. A volunteer guide and application form, published online, allowed prospective volunteers to gain a real sense of the commitment and work involved before getting involved.

With a volunteer team in place, we realised that asking them to transcribe entire letters – some eight or ten pages long – was prohibitive. After extensive consultation and research, it was decided to stagger the metadata capture. Volunteers work with the original letters to capture the minimum needed to build a searchable catalogue and allow for digital image capture. For every page, date, sender, recipient, the first line and WHAT are entered into the database.

The letters are then scanned, carefully rehoused and returned to the strongroom. They won’t be handled again. The digital copies are high-quality and suitable for all purposes barring specialist research.

The requirement to capture a full transcription remained and this, plus a desire for global public engagement with the archive, led to a project which proposes a global transcription team. Anyone in the world can be sent the simple database which when combined with images of the letters hosted online would enable them to transcribe the entire letter. The physical volunteers at Gladstone’s Library will become the first line in a two-part editing process, checking transcriptions before referring any questioned transcriptions to the team.

The digital web project we are currently working is an intranet, a password protected area which will streamline many areas of the Library. It will be a kind of backstage area for different user types, not only allowing our Digital Gladstone volunteers across the world to work on remote transcriptions, but also for our Readers to access Reading Room guidelines and regulations; our Friends to access exclusive benefits; our staff team to access resources including handbooks, health and safety guidelines and more. It’s an example of a digital resource fundamentally transforming working methods and user experience.

As our digital space grows and evolves, so to do our relationships with our collections, our spaces and our users. We can’t wait to see what the future holds!

By Louisa Yates and Amy Sumner

The Independent Libraries Association Conference took place at the East India Club in London 25th - 27th September 2019.

The year the theme of Libraries Week is 'celebrating libraries in a digital world'. Follow @LibrariesWeek for the latest news and updates and Tweet using #LibrariesWeek to join the conversation.

This article is part of our long reads series which we hope gives considered insight into Gladstone's Library, its processes and its world.