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Rewriting the Book: On the Move With the Library of Birmingham

Brian Gambles presents the Library of Birmingham vision and strategy for addressing the challenge of mobile digital services.

The Library of Birmingham (LoB) will open in 2013 as a world-class centre for culture, learning and knowledge, rewriting the book for public libraries in the 21st century. 'Rewriting the Book', which is integral to the new LoB brand, recognises and embraces the present and future challenge to libraries – it accepts that established means of accessing knowledge are changing rapidly and dynamically, with a significant digital dimension, and that increasingly radical responses to this challenge are demanded from leaders in the library sector.

The LoB will seek to transform perceptions of Birmingham, redefining 'the library', with an outward focus, deeply embedded in partnership working, digitally connected to the world, and servicing both local and international audiences as a platform and cultural hub for knowledge and communal exchange. Fundamental to this change will be the delivery of digital services both inside and outside the new library with greater support for mobile communications with customers. Mobile is commonplace today, and opens up many opportunities to enhance customer experience both inside and external to the new library.

This article describes the continuing journey of the LoB project in assessing the challenge of mobile, its relevance and how innovation could improve the visitor experience in the future.

Mobility: An Integral Part of Living

Mobile services are an integral part of our daily lives and embedded in our culture. This is never more apparent when we do not have them close to hand – a recent survey found that 40% of mobile phone users would rather lose their wallet than their mobile device. The choice may not be available for much longer: the mobile is very likely to become your wallet in the future!

photo (85KB) : Figure 1 : Library of Birmingham Design

Figure 1: Library of Birmingham Design

Numerous surveys demonstrate the extent of this change – from the first mobile phone in 1982 to over 5 billion phone connections worldwide and 30 million in the UK alone with 130% penetration. Alongside this has evolved an increasingly sophisticated functionality with the "Swiss army phone" concept and a growing range of applications addressed through the software. The human – phone interface is evolving with growing demand for touch-based interaction.

photo (89KB) : Figure 2 : Mobile Technology Growth

Figure 2: Mobile Technology Growth

The iPhone phenomenon shows no sign of abating, with some 250,000 applications downloaded 5 billion times generating $1 billion for Apple. Over 3 million iPads have been sold in 3 months. A similar experience is emerging in the cultural sector with some 300,000 downloads of the National Gallery application, Love Art, in just two months. The Louvre Application was the seventh most downloaded application globally in 2009. The majority of applications simply act as a new way to access content or replace the classic museum audio guide, but a new generation of augmented-reality applications offers more radical opportunities for learning and knowledge enhancement: Street Museum, by Museum of London [1], overlays the capital's street's with old pictures at given locations.

Mobility now encompasses many meanings and a vast range of device types offering multiple services. The growth of portable, lightweight computing platforms has blurred the traditional device boundaries with multi-channel access becoming commonplace. The growth of 'cloud'-based applications, increased collaboration and participation is driving the customer experience forward in the mobile space. The change from simple information retrieval to an enhanced customer experience is significant, with concepts such as augmented reality [2] appearing on mobile devices. The ability to connect anywhere, the availability and very nature of media, and the whole context of mobility is rapidly changing on a global scale. In some developing countries a whole generation of landline-based broadband technology is being passed over as the dominance of mobile access asserts itself.

Communities are already connecting using mobile devices over the Internet to share interests and information. It is unlikely that the pace of change will slow down and customer demand and expectations will grow – with profound meaning for libraries and archives.

The Challenge to Archives and Libraries

A revolution has taken place in how we read, learn and consume knowledge in the last twenty years. This shows no sign of halting. The combination of mobile tools in hand, ubiquitous Internet access and a vast array of ever increasing online content represents a significant challenge. Can libraries continue to hold appeal, or is this the end of libraries? Far from it, if we simply see the change from physical to digital as one of form but with a vastly increased user community.

For archives the online paradigm is an unprecedented opportunity - the frustration of limited physical access to collections and treasures is overcome through the digital dimension. Of course, this may not be as rewarding as the physical experience of a Shakespeare first folio but it opens up a rich treasure trove to millions, and signposts the originals. The LoB views this challenge as a unique opportunity but one which will require significant cultural change to embrace it. The objective for libraries and archives in the mobile arena is to make services relevant and meaningful for the mobile user but in a way that complements and enhances both the online and physical experience.

LoB on the Move: Vision and Strategy

The transformed library of the not-so-new century will be perceived and accessed in a variety of ways that reflect changing lifestyles, technologies and customer expectations. The vision must allow for and embrace the 'digital revolution' but not lose sight of the core values which have been embedded in library and archive services for generations.

Technology will continue to evolve, sometimes slowly, but sometimes in great leaps and bounds, always challenging accepted forms and formats. In 25 years time will all services be delivered from the 'cloud'? Will we all be reading 'plastic newspapers'? Will wireless be the universal form of access for all devices? Will we see a greatly reduced physical book presence?

The approach to digital mobile services fits with the overall vision for the LoB where top down service delivery and the conventional provider-recipient relationship embedded in most public services is replaced by collaborative working, enabling customers to contribute to and share in the collective knowledge and the active memory bank of the city. This will unify the online, virtual and digital characteristics of the LoB, integrated with and complementing the physical library and supporting engagement with new customers and communities in ways that are meaningful to citizens in the digital era. This will challenge accepted service delivery models. Mobility will be a critical component of this change. The strategy must entail fundamental changes in the library operation linked to digital mobile services: -

In reality the presence of mobile access throughout society is assumed and we fully anticipate that the capability and form of mobile devices will evolve – the critical factor is in the wealth of library and archive content which represents the knowledge preserved from generation to generation. The key challenge is facilitating the customer experience through 'killer applications' via the mobile channel. By this approach, the library can shed its recent dependence on the robustness of the device, and focus on its strengths – content and engagement.

Change Enabled by Innovation

The LoB has recognised the importance of innovation in the future delivery of library and archive services. Throughout 2009 innovation suppliers across the country were approached the better to understand how technology could apply to the LoB – mobile technology was an integral part of this. Innovation allows us to do things in ways we could not do before: it empowers people, supports their creativity, makes them more productive and, above all, releases potential and helps people learn things they did not think they could learn before. This is all fundamental to reinventing the whole way the library works, creating a new image of radicalism.

Birmingham Library & Archives Services has a strong tradition of social and community engagement as a platform for LoB to build upon – digital mobile opens up new ways of engagement and sharing with social and multi-cultural groups both locally and internationally. The rapid growth of mobile access and connectivity presents a number of critical challenges to the library and archive community. In developing a strategy for the next decade the key characteristics of mobile which are relevant to the LoB journey:

  1. Effective use of mobile in the provision of wayshowing [3] support within the new library with different levels of support from simple floor and service information to specific information and direction finding for collections and books.
  2. Integration with city-wide GPS-based navigation to promote cultural services.
  3. Social networking support and interaction with the library using existing services (i.e. Facebook) and new online services as they emerge.
  4. Enhancement of the visitor experience through digital media, content and augmented reality type services.
  5. Migration of existing services to the mobile platform, such as library reservations.
  6. Use of more recently established services through the mobile channel, such as email, SMS texting and Web site information.
  7. Development of new 'library and archive service' applications to provide specialist services.

Many of the challenges of the day were reshaped and reformulated as the research progressed: the Google book digitisation programme, the e-Book in all its shapes and sizes, electronic paper, the iTunes experience, the long-term evolution of mobile technology and mobile services. In developing a strategy for the future, each of these challenges must be addressed in the context of a changing library service. Amazon in the US now claim 6 e-downloads for every 10 physical book sales. At the very least this represents a sea change in how people access the written word. With the iPad, Apple has a potential game-changer offering illustration, animation, sound and film as well as words in full colour – much more than an e-Book and with iTunes capability built in.

The LoB is now set to move forward with a number of innovation projects which will help to shape aspects of the future business model and open up commercial opportunities in ways that would have previously been impossible. Discussions are taking place with major IT suppliers such as Microsoft around an MS Surface proof of concept which is looking to deliver both multi-media content from the library archives and content captured in the public domain. Partnership engagement with a number of leading digital SMEs in the Birmingham area is underway with some examples of the areas currently under investigation included below.


A project which is exploring the potential for using the iPad within a library context providing a highly visual image-based application making use of the iPad's excellent display capabilities. The application will focus on the strength of the digital images with the exploration of images facilitated through an intuitive image-browsing interface.

Digital Wayshowing

A digital wayshowing [3] application which provides an interactive tour of the library, accessed through the Web, on touch screens and mobile devices. The purpose of this application is to enrich user experience whilst in the Library, efficiently guiding users to their destinations as well as providing a platform for users to take a more interactive and explorative approach to navigating the Library.

photo (81KB) : Figure 3 : Library Wayshowing Application

Figure 3: Library Wayshowing Application

The application will use technologies including Augmented Reality [2], QR codes [4] and GPS tracking [5] to build a bridge between the real and the virtual, offering users a new and exciting platform on which to explore space and place.

screenshot (75KB) : Figure 4 : Library Visitor Journeys

Figure 4: Library Visitor Journeys

iTunes U

iTunes U [6] supports the application of the iTunes store approach to delivering downloaded content from the library. This is not a new concept, having been used effectively by universities world-wide to share content, but it is relatively new to public libraries with only a handful of sites in place.

Historically, libraries have been excellent at capturing, preserving and disseminating the intellectual output of others, but not so good at doing the same with their own expertise and knowledge. Specialist librarians often develop substantial expertise in their subject areas which is occasionally captured in a book, newspaper article or library-oriented publication, but usually it is only ever deployed in the context of customer engagement and professional networking. Some library experts deliver public talks on specific subjects, but these talks have rarely been captured for later use. In the main, the vast majority of library expertise is only ever expressed in a largely ephemeral way. Delivered freely and bespoke to the precise needs of one particular library customer, library expertise is an incredibly valuable element of the library service.

screenshot (97KB) : Figure 5 : iTunes U at New York Public Library

Figure 5: iTunes U at New York Public Library

iTunes U provides exactly the right framework through which digitised library and archives expertise could be best delivered. With the Apple framework as a model, staff can start imagining how expertise and knowledge might be captured and disseminated far more widely. The design and delivery of iTunes U is ideally suited to the mobile world opening up a wide range of content to library users.

Customer Experience and Mobility

Customer experience is everything! The LoB is embarking on a series of customer journey scenarios which will include the physical, digital online and mobile to fully understand how and where future customers will interact. We fully expect this to support multi-channel access to services from the home through to the digital spaces in the new building. The demand for a fulfilling and engaging customer experience has never been greater. Digital services provided by archives and libraries will need increased flexibility to support online access on the move using well designed applications which allow for the continuum between fixed and mobile locations.

The challenge is around understanding the needs of the customer in terms of transactional and experiential engagement and then shaping solutions which deliver a wide range of rich content through the mobile channel. The LoB is far from having all the answers to this challenge but our approach of engaging with innovative thinkers across the region, combined with the strengths of major ICT suppliers and the knowledge, understanding and drive from across the services represents a formidable mix in any transformation of library services.

The LoB Projects

The LoB has defined a programme of ICT-enabled change projects which will establish a sound infrastructure within and external to the building, a range of core business-led projects along with the innovation projects described above.

diagram (52KB) : Figure 6 : The LoB ICT Projects Pyramid

Figure 6: The LoB ICT Projects Pyramid

What Does the Future Hold

The journey for the LoB has only just started. As the building takes shape in Centenary Square a parallel change has started only a few hundred yards away in the Central Library. Change is ultimately about people – the technology helps make the change and often enables it to happen in new ways, but without the vision and drive of the people who deliver the services it becomes just another technology fad. How we employ the technology into current and new services to enrich the lives of visitors to the new library – both physical and digital – is the true test of our vision. To address this challenge the LoB has defined the 'Five Libraries' concept which establishes a clear structure for change incorporating all that is good about the library concept but also embracing the need for a transformational approach to the digital agenda of the day.

diagram (82KB) : Figure 7 : The Five Libraries of LoB Digital

Figure 7: The Five Libraries of LoB Digital

There will continue to be significant changes in technology with mobile leading the way. For example, we have considered the potential of near field communications [7] technologies in relation to the mobile customer with major developments expected over the next three years and the almost inevitable convergence of more and more services into the mobile phone. Our exploration has confirmed changes in the way we access technology with touch and voice – this is nowhere more convincing than in the mobile arena. What will be as important as the technology are the social trends which mobile facilitates: the increased collaboration and participation online with self-authoring and delivery of content.


The library of the future will be very different from today – there are fundamental social, economic and technical forces driving this change. However, if we adapt, take advantage of the technology, build sustainable partnerships, engage with communities and continue to provide meaningful services, and learn to operate effectively in the digital space, then the future looks bright. The theme of this article is 'on the move' which captures the dynamic approach which must characterise the library of the future, carefully and strategically positioned at the point where past and future collide, and perfectly shaped to take advantage of the resulting release of forces: rewriting the book.


  1. Street Museum of London http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/MuseumOfLondon/Resources/app/you-are-here-app/index.html
  2. Augmented Reality http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_reality
  3. Library Wayshowing iPhone application: American Museum of Natural History http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3quWNKB6w8
  4. QR Codes http://www.mobile-barcodes.com/about-qr-codes/
  5. GPS Tracking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gps
  6. iTunes U in Libraries – New York City Library http://deimos.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/Browse/nypl.org (Requires iTunes.)
  7. Near Field Communications http://www.nearfieldcommunicationsworld.com/

Author Details

Brian Gambles
Assistant Director
Birmingham City Council

Email: brian.gambles@birmingham.gov.uk
Web site: http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/lob
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/libraryofbirmingham

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