Where in a university should its digital strategy originate? The library might not be the first place that springs to mind but when a library service leads or co-creates the digital strategy, there can be huge benefits for students, staff and the whole institution.
“The library is almost seen as a neutral spot within the university to sit it.”
Alison Harding is talking about where the digital strategy originated at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD), where she is executive head of library and learning resources. There the university’s digital strategy is led by the library.
“It recognises the library’s strength around collaboration. We’re seen as a team and a department that manages relationships and collaboration really well,” she says.
James Stephens, head of library services and university librarian at the University of Cumbria, has a similar viewpoint:
“I tend to think libraries build relationships really well. I certainly try to build relationships with the research office and graduate school, with teaching and learning, so we're not just bolt on: we are embedded in, we're integrated.”
For James, strategy-building relationships also extend beyond the university.
“We librarians tend to be very good at talking to each other and sharing ideas, being involved in regional groups plus, obviously, Jisc, SCONUL: there's an awful lot of discussion about the future – about strategy.”
Leaders and co-creators
It was in the summer of this year at UWTSD that Alison was asked to lead on the project. She has written a draft digital strategy that has been through a first round of comments and she has significant engagement planned, starting in January with areas ranging from IT and estates to academic departments, students’ unions and more. The timing is critical.
“It’s too early to start this before Christmas, but in the new year people might come back a little bit more refreshed and think, ‘We need to move on and get into a new way of working that doesn't exhaust people.’ I've talked to our learning and development manager around using the digital strategy discussions to enable a culture shift away from the current crisis mode.”
Leading on the strategy is not only good for the university as a whole, Alison says:
“It's raised the profile of digital services and the library more broadly as a professional service that has a particular role, that works in partnership with academics rather than just a support or subservient relationship.”
At Cardiff Metropolitan University, the library has had significant input into its university’s digital strategy as co-creator.
“I would see us as being an enabler for an awful lot of the other activity,”
says Mark Hughes, head of libraries.
“We've taken the approach that it's a mistake to see it as just technology-led and we've consciously tried to step away from that. Actually, it's about digital places, digital people and digital skills. And I think that there's an awful lot in the skillset of libraries that we can bring to that.”
A major benefit of having libraries at the strategy helm is that, in the library world, the digital mindset is nothing new.
“Our merged library service has been e-first for a number of years,”
says Alison, and this is reflected in all areas of service development, such as collections, teaching and broader work like workforce development.
James has a similar claim for Cumbria.
“The library has been at the forefront of digital thinking,”
“We've had a digital-first approach for 10 years.”
His library has had good reason for digital pioneering, being distributed across five campuses in the north west and London, with a large number of students on placements.
“From the beginning of our university, we've seen the need to provide our library resources in a distributed way, which is why we engaged with e-books as soon as we could, back when they were unknown.”
Currently the library has more than 390,000 e-books compared to around 240,000 print books.
“At least 75-80% of the resourcing that we provide is on a digital basis,”
“So, we're already in there, we have the knowledge to understand, to organise, to help train people to get the best from that kind of environment. We should be one of those core bedrock pieces that enables the rest of the university to get on and do all the exciting things that they want to do.”
Cardiff Met’s digital strategy, which started in 2018/19 was,
“as much about cultural change as technical change,”
says Mark. Then COVID came along and
“supercharged some of those efforts because we had to do all these things, that we said we'd do in five years, almost in a handful of weeks.”
They are now reviewing and refreshing the strategy in light of the 2020 experience.
“We need to build on it, improve it and take it to the next level in terms of teaching skills and the whole ‘digital by default’ approach. I think we've done an awful lot around equipping students and staff.”
The student focus is an important strength for libraries, says Mark.
“We've done a lot of work around UX in the last couple of years, around understanding what the student experience is and that life cycle of how they go through their education. What they get from us being in that space is that end-to-end link up. And if we've got our digital service, our digital shop window right, that sets the tone in terms of the learning experience.”