23 Things in Public Libraries

Helen Leech describes a collaborative project to increase front-line staff's understanding and use of Web 2.0 in public libraries.

Did you know that:

  • Of the Generation Y – the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s – 96% are members of a social network
  • There are some 200 million blogs on the World Wide Web
  • One in eight couples who married in the USA in 2009 met over the Internet
  • If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest by population in the world after China, the USA and India

All the statistics emanate from Socialnomics [1]. They are designed to be attention-grabbers, and they will no doubt provoke ferocious debate. However, what is unarguable is that some seismic shifts have taken place on the Internet in the past ten years, and social media and user-generated content now play a huge role in the way many people create and share information and how they communicate with each other.

These changes have crept up on public libraries. Ten years ago, we became Internet experts when the People's Network initiative put 30,000 computers into our buildings. We became used to the new role of teaching people how to use a mouse, what a search engine is, how to create an email account. But when it came to content, we tended to leave that to our customers. Friends Reunited came along, followed by Myspace, Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, and we were dimly aware of them as social phenomena, but we did not have much to do with them in our day-to-day work.

Changes in Public Libraries

So what has changed and why do we need to know about them now? The list below is by no means exhaustive but represents some of the main drivers behind changes emerging within public libraries in the UK.

  1. The need to help people get online. As I write, every public library in the UK is being asked to sign up to Race Online [2], the initiative to get 100% of the population clued up by the time the Olympics happens. The reappointed UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox launched the Race Online 2012 campaign in March 2010. The initiative reports that more than 600 partners have pledged to help more than 1.7 million new people to get online by the end of 2012. Its rationale is "to build a UK of near-universal web literacy by the time of the Olympics, with access as easy and affordable as water, electricity or gas and skills considered as fundamental as literacy and numeracy: [its] ambition is to get everyone of working-age online by the end of this Parliament." People need to know the key skills for getting around online, and a large part of these skills involves social networking.
  2. Changes in the way people communicate. There is a subtle shift taking place in electronic communication, moving onwards from email towards more collaborative methods: file sharing and cloud computing, social media that include information 'walls,' instant messaging and mobile apps. There is growing evidence that Generation Y and the Millenials – the generations born after the late 1980s – are moving towards very different methods of communication. It is important that library staff understand these technologies, since they are going to become as mainstream as email very shortly.
  3. Communities in Control [3]: you might recognise this as the title of a recent government paper, looking at the need to pass control over political processes to local communities, and how this could be achieved. The principle is being reinforced through the new administration's Big Society initiative [4]. New technologies are allowing people to mobilise in a way that simply has not been possible before, to create and share content, and to become involved in the running of public libraries in radical new ways. It is also worth looking at the International Association for Public Participation's Spectrum of Public Participation [5] which gives some idea of the range of ways in which we need to work with our communities, from providing them with information all the way up to acting as facilitators so that they can manage and run services themselves. It is also worth watching the film Us Now [6], which gives a glimpse of the way that new technologies might affect people's relationships with central government and public services. It highlights the way that social networking applications allow huge numbers of people to collaborate to do previously unthinkable things, like run a bank. If communities can make the day-to-day decisions necessary to run a bank or a second division football club, then it starts to become possible that they could do the same for political processes or delivery of public services. Library staff need to understand this culture of engagement, and to understand the tools that facilitate it.
  4. The economic environment. The next four years, 2010-14, are going to be the hardest public services have seen, and we are going to have to make cost savings everywhere we can. There are clear benefits in collaboration, and the tools that are available for this are improving rapidly. Which is where 23 Things comes in.
photo (59KB) : Learning online

Learning online

23 Things

In 2008, I was casting around the World Wide Web looking for online courses that would allow staff to learn about the Web at their own pace, when I came across 23 Things. It was set up in 2006 by a technology trainer called Helene Blowers for an American public library system, and was based on a very simple concept. She set up a blog and divided it into modules. Each module, or 'Thing', covered a separate technology. The content was light and entertaining, with lots of emphasis on podcasts and videos, and plenty of interactivity where people could set up their own accounts on Twitter or Flickr and upload content. To monitor their progress through the course, participants were asked to set up their own blog, and to record their experiences. You can still see Helene's original 23 Things online [7].

I found the fact that Helene had put the course onto a publicly available blog quite astonishing. A free course? Surely not. That anybody could do? How did that work? Surely Helene wanted to restrict it to her own staff? What's the advantage of making it available to anybody, library staff or not, free of charge? The concept that there could be a fully fledged course, answering a key library need, available free of charge for me or anybody else to do, was quite revolutionary, beautifully simple, and very much in the spirit of the Web.

Other people clearly felt the same. Word spread rapidly, and people from outside Helene's service started doing the course or adapting it for their own needs. Four years on, Helene's Delicious account lists 462 organisations which have their own versions – and those are the ones she knows about. I started to think about using it for Surrey. The Society of Chief Librarians (South East) held a briefing session on Web 2.0 in September 2009 which put me into contact with Patricia Garrett from Portsmouth, who was using Web 2.0 tools for many practical purposes, including The Book Case [8] and a teen reading group [9]. We started talking about how we could use Helene's 23 Things.

We ran through the course and felt that Helene's original was out of date. Three years is an awfully long time on the Internet, and a number of the Things had become outdated, or contained dead links, or the focus had moved on. Enough had changed to force us to rethink it.

23 Things with a UK Public Library Orientation

So we went looking for UK versions. There were several educational versions. Two of the most well-developed were created in 2008 by Imperial College [10] and the University of Huddersfield [11][12]. However, although a lot of the aims overlapped, we felt that we wanted a public library version. Our customers are different to a university's and create a different set of focii, and our resources are more populist.

We found two public libraries who were in the process of writing and rolling out local versions: Devon [13] and Kirklees [14]. The people writing them very kindly gave us permission to use the content they had created, and this went into the mix. Next, we had a look at the blog format, which we found we did not like. It forces all the content into date order, and we felt it was not intuitive to use. We decided to use a wiki, and Wetpaint [15] was the application that we knew most about.

We sat down and created a list of the subjects we wanted staff to know about, such as blogging, photos and images, social networking, tagging, RSS feeds, etc. We shoehorned them into 23 modules, which in retrospect was a bit of a mistake, because it forced us to create modules that were not entirely justified. This is something that we are planning to address again once we are further into the project. Then we and our teams went away and wrote content, lifting liberally from the Kirklees and Devon versions.

Using the wiki collaboratively was a great experience, allowing the creators to work freely together and making the content available to anybody who wanted to participate. Staff in our two authorities were able to collaborate freely, creating content and assessing and editing each other's work. We communicated largely by email – while this is effective, it made us conscious of the disadvantages of email's one-to-one linear nature. We experimented with Google Wave, which while vaguely promising still had all the disadvantages of the written medium (and has since been withdrawn by Google), so went back to email.

In June 2010, we finished assessing the quality of the content, and started a period of evaluation, by putting a Surveymonkey form at the bottom of each Thing. In addition to asking library staff to test it out, we posted a message to the Web 2.0 Jiscmail list [16]. To our surprise, we had a huge response. We ended up with evaluators from 11 public library authorities, 15 FE and HE institutions, 2 health authorities, and two intrepid independent librarians in Australia. If you would like to see the results of the evaluation period please contact me using the details below.

Feedback from Evaluators

Now (July 2010) we are entering the next phase, which is to revise the course in line with feedback from the evaluators. One of the comments that came up a number of times was unease about the amount of time front-line staff would have to commit to doing the course. It's getting increasingly difficult to pull staff off the front line for training, and the current economic environment means that we're looking carefully at anything which will take time. As a result we will probably create a 'lite' version of the course, perhaps five or six Things which will be mandatory for all staff to complete, and then offer the rest of the course for those people who want to take it further.

A really exciting development is that we – Portsmouth and Surrey – are now working with Suffolk and Aberdeen, public library authorities which also see the need to enhance staff skills. It will be a challenge: with the geographical distances involved, we are not going to be able to meet physically – but we live in digital times. We have already had a couple of WebEx sessions which will allow us to speak to each other, share documents, and work on the wiki collaboratively. (WebEx is seminar software to which Surrey County Council subscribes [17].) It is not as good as face-to-face meetings, but we think we can make it work.


The way is opening for public library authorities - for all public services - to collaborate in many areas. I suspect that increasingly we will see authorities collaborating in areas such as:

  • Benchmarking: Like most local authority services, we are dependent on organisations like CIPFA [18] which allow us to compare our performance with our peers. However, the figures CIPFA collate are high-level, and not all authorities subscribe to CIPFA's benchmarking club. We often resort to asking each other about performance through the various email lists. How much better it would be if there was one social network where we could collate an FAQ and ask each other questions!
  • Putting together guidelines for use of Web 2.0 resources. We are all creating Twitter accounts, and we are all writing instructions for our staff, largely about what they are and are not allowed to do with them. The guidelines are generally all the same. Let us think about having one template for each Web 2.0 application, deposited on a wiki somewhere, which can then be adapted by each authority to suit its own needs.
  • 'Virtual libraries' of hyperlinks and URLs. Go to any public library Web site and you will find a list or database of recommended Web links. Let's work together to create some central lists, and feed them into our individual Web sites. Delicious [19], anybody?
  • Cribsheets and guides for our users - setting up an email account, using Ancestry. Thanks to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council [20], the majority of public library services are subscribing to the same list of online resources. There are many fine training materials and guides produced by the publishers, but curiously not many e-guides. Librarians end up creating them themselves, and using them to support in-house courses such as UK Online's MyGuide, or Computing for the Terrified.
  • Further staff training. We work in difficult times. I don't know any library authority which can easily pull staff out of the front line to attend traditional classroom training. 23 Things and Frontline [21] allow people to build skills and understanding in their own (work) time, at their own speed. How about getting together to develop online, virtual training resources for developing frontline staff's skills around customer services, enquiry skills, understanding of new ways of working such as floorwalking?
  • Infiltrating book and reading forums like LibraryThing to talk about what public libraries can do. LibraryThing and similar Web sites - Goodreads, Shelfari - draw people together around books, and the relationship between LibraryThing and public libraries is growing stronger and stronger, with the development of centralised catalogues and apps. These Web sites can be seen as extensions of our services and are places where our customers gather. Let's go and talk to them there.
  • Q&A forums. One of the great side effects of Web 2.0 is that it creates places where you can throw a question into a social network, and 20 people will answer it, whether it is facile ('What shoes go with this dress?') or life-changing ('I've got a job interview tomorrow. Does anybody know - ') Many public libraries already offer a 'chat-to-a-librarian' facility using Enquire [22], and Enquire staff also work hard on Yahoo Answers [23]. I think we should be expanding on this. Public librarians should be haunting all the Q&A networks, from DIY to health.
  • Countering the bad press public libraries sometimes receive. Most online news stories, these days, have comments areas. Have you come across the concept of flashmobs? One person texts all his friends, and all his friends text all their friends, and they all meet on a street corner somewhere? We should be flashmobbing to counter negative stories!
screenshot (56KB) : Screenshot of a page from 23 Things

Screenshot of a page from 23 Things

I think I can speak for everybody who has been involved in our 23 Things project when I say that it has been really valuable: not only for creating staff training resources, but also for the experience of working collaboratively online, and on a personal level, it has been an opportunity to develop and understand new skills – skills which are becoming increasingly important in public libraries.

If you would like to find out more, contact me using the email address below, and, of course, you can look at our own 23 Things [24].


  1. Socialnomics Web site http://socialnomics.net/
  2. Race Online 2012 http://raceonline2012.org/
  3. Communities in control: real people, real power, H.M. Government, 2008. ISBN: 978 0 10 174272 6
  4. Government puts Big Society at heart of public sector reform, Cabinet Office News, 18 May 2010
    Cameron and Clegg set out 'big society' policy ideas, BBC News: Politics, 18 May 2010
  5. International Association of Public Participation's Spectrum of Public Participation:
  6. Us Now, Banyak Films, 2008 http://watch.usnowfilm.com/
  7. 23 Things @ Devon Libraries http://23thingsdevlibs.wordpress.com/
  8. Portsmouth's Book Case wiki http://thebookcase.wetpaint.com/
  9. Portsmouth's Teen Reading Group wiki http://teenreadinggroup.wetpaint.com/
  10. Learning 2.0 @ Imperial College London Library
  11. 25 Things @ Huddersfield http://25things2008.wordpress.com/
  12. You can find a presentation about Imperial College's experience at
    and about the University of Huddersfield's course at
  13. Devon Library Service's version of 23 Things:
  14. Kirklees Library Service's 25 Things
  15. Wetpaint wikis http://www.wetpaint.com/
  16. Web 2.0 Jiscmail list
  17. WebEx:Web Conferencing, Web Meeting, Video Conference, Online Meeting Services
  18. CIPFA Benchmarking Club http://www.ipfbenchmarking.net/
  19. Delicious social bookmarking http://delicious.com/
  20. Museums, Libraries and Archives Council Web site http://www.mla.gov.uk/
  21. Frontline training is a programme available from The Reading Agency, and develops staff skills around reader development
  22. Enquire (online chat with a librarian)
  23. Yahoo Answers http://answers.yahoo.com/
  24. 23 Things Home http://23things.wetpaint.com/

Author Details

Helen Leech
Virtual Content Manager
Surrey Library Service

Email: Helen.leech@surreycc.gov.uk
Web site: http://23things.wetpaint.com/
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/helenleech

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Date published: 
Friday, 30 July 2010
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