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The Identity of the Contemporary Public Library

Margarita Pérez Pulido
Maurizio Vivarelli

3. Complexity Challenges

The Challenges of Public Libraries in the Digital Environment

Ernest Abadal

Texte intégral


1There can be no doubt that digitization is the main challenge facing the public library at the present time. Society and its habits of culture and information consumption have changed greatly in just a few years and the library is constantly seeking ways to adapt to these new developments. Instead of succumbing to immobilism, the institution and its professionals have, in general, reacted proactively to changes by consistently reorienting their existing services and creating new ones.

  • 1Frank Huysmans - Carlien Hillebrink, The Future of the Dutch Public Library: Ten Years On, The Hag (...)

2Several studies and publications have tried to explain which will be the future of public libraries in the digital society1. In order to describe more accurately the tests currently being put to public libraries it is necessary, in the first instance, to analyse the production and distribution characteristics of cultural content.

3Today, cultural production is typified as having a huge amount of accessible content, a good deal of which is available in digital format, and as undertaking retrospective digitization processes. It must be said, with regard to how cultural content is distributed, that its availability is immediate (in other words, just after it has been produced or created), it is accessible from an enormous number and variety of devices (computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.) and there exists the possibility of personalized distribution according to profiles which are user-defined or can be predetermined by the system.

  • 2Ernest Abadal, Open access: l’accesso aperto alla letteratura scientifica, Milano, Ledizioni, 2014 (...)

4Finally, certain popular values in this environment should not be ignored. These include the culture of sharing and of the free dissemination of knowledge (open access), both of which directly affect the production of scientific and cultural content and result in more and more of the latter being available to users free of charge2.

5Having outlined the context, it becomes clear that the activity and strategy of public libraries is conditioned by the characteristics of this environment and the demands of users who are accustomed to moving within it. What, then, do patrons of the public library want? They want to be able to access all content and services anywhere, at any time and from any device. In short, they want the public library to have the same characteristics as the comfortable settings from which they usually operate.

6How can the public library respond to these demands and practices? What can it do to reproduce its users’ customary habitat? Furthermore, how can the need for public libraries be assessed in an environment in which access to an infinite amount of content is free, immediate and without intermediaries?

7The aim of this text is to offer indications on how to respond to these questions. It will highlight actions relating to content digitization and access to information, while at the same time presenting indicators and methodologies that may prove useful in evaluating library activity in a digital environment.

8The academic library, with its specialized content addressed to a non-generalist audience, has already gone some way down this road and may serve as a reference for the actions to be taken by its public counterpart.

2. Actions and strategies

9Adapting the public library to the characteristics and demands of its context involves focusing in-depth on several lines of action, five of which will be outlined in the following sections. Content makes up the fundamental element in libraries and comprises two types (the external digital collection and the library’s own digital holding). Once selected and organized, it must be made available to users via the online catalogue, which should be consistent with the existing website browsing systems. Finally, dissemination activities should be conducted offering virtual services and promoting the presence of the library in social networks.

2.1 External digital collection

10The ever-increasing quantity of digital resources available on the Internet is having a direct impact on the definition and creation of library holdings. Collections are no longer made up of documents on tangible mediums which are acquired through the traditional channels, but now also include remote-access documents which the library does not necessarily own.

11The public library must continue its commitment to offering quality, well-chosen content. The types of digital documents that form part of thismay be many and varied, but are usually:

  • a) Reference works
    Due to the special conditions regarding their consultation, encyclopaedias and dictionaries were the first elements to be offered in digital format.
  • b) Daily press (digital newsstand)
    One of the most usual and frequently accessed types of document in the public library, newspapers made a rapid transition to the digital format and libraries have been able to access a comprehensive selection for some time.
  • c) Books
    Books were a late addition to the digital offering and the selection on offer to the wider public has not yet become as broad or varied as it is with other document types, at least not in Europe.

12The diversity of reading devices available today is growing constantly and the one-time monopoly of the computer monitor has been systematically undermined by a number of products, including the e-reader (in mid-2000), the mobile telephone, the tablet (2010) and the so-called ‘phablet’ (2012). Public-library patrons now use these devices indistinctly and must therefore be able to access electronic documents from any one of them. Despite the ever-greater number of digital documents available free of charge (encyclopaedias, press, etc.), it seems obvious that documents with high production costs will have to be bought (or rented). Library users will thus continue to need access to these “pay-for” documents. As regards the purchasing procedure, there are perhaps three methods that are most used in public libraries.

  • a) Direct purchase
    Especially addressed to the general public and essentially intended for the acquisition of e-books and digital press.
  • b) PDA (Patron Driven Acquisition)
    This recently-developed method of payment is particularly suitable for digital documents, especially monographs. There is a very wide range of titles on offer to users, with effective purchase only being made after libraries have observed that their users access and consult the document online or when the item has actually been requested a number of times. This system ensures that the document is only acquired by the library when it is needed by the user; in other words, it allows for a “just in time” deposit policy rather than the traditional “just in case” version3.

13Generally speaking, American public libraries have impressive, broad-based collections of digital books. The following figure shows the New York Public Library digital holdings homepage.

Fig. 1 - New York Public Library eBooks collection

Fig. 1 - New York Public Library eBooks collection

Source: <>.

14The trend in this area will be to improve the features of e-readers (inclusion of colour, higher contrast, screen flexibility, etc.) and increase the number of titles offered in languages other than English (Italian, Spanish, etc.).

2.2 Own digital collection

15In the previous section we referred to the public library as a consumer or user of cultural content. There is another side to the institution however, which cannot be ignored and which is emerging in the new role libraries play as producers of content through the creation of digital collections. This production is closely related to the traditional task of the library, which is none other than to select, organize, preserve and provide access to cultural content. Not too long ago, this content was only to be found on paper, but now it is in digital format or in the course of being digitized.

  • 4E. Abadal - Javier Guallar, Prensa digital y bibliotecas, Gijón, Trea, 2010, pp.138-140.
  • 5  These collections (perhaps more frequent in American libraries than in those of Europe) are made u (...)

16Digital repositories created by public libraries are becoming increasingly more common, usually based on collecting content locally4.The most frequent types of documents are collections of local newspaper items, historical photographs and, more recently, special collections5.Ancient holdings, especially monographs, are rarely present in public libraries but are nonetheless the subject of much attention from their university and national counterparts, in conjunction with such international initiatives as the aggregator Europeana and also Google Books.

17If such projects are to be successful, various aspects must be taken into account: financial (how to fund them), technological (what kind of repository, which digitization formats, browsing interface, etc.), conceptual (which materials, periods and subjects), documentary (metadata system) and legal (the situation regarding intellectual property rights).

18In the coming years, public libraries will continue with their retrospective digitization processes as well as with the creation of value-added products (interrelation of documents, research into the terminology of texts, etc.) which help situate documents in their proper context and facilitate their study. However, this is an area in which human resources must be invested; and the quantity of human resources required is likely to increase significantly in the future, as the contents to be digitized and disseminated are numerous and the processes are also laborious, especially cataloguing with metadata.

19Finally, it should be emphasised that many of these products are elaborated in cooperation with other institutions and offered via open access, in line with current digital information dissemination tendencies.


20Trencadís is the digital repository of the municipal libraries network of Barcelona’s provincial government. It is organized into theme-based collections which contain documents from local holdings preserved by the libraries. The goals of Trencadís are to promote and disseminate the local history heritage and to preserve ancient documents that are in delicate physical condition.

Fig. 2 - Trencadís homepage

Fig. 2 - Trencadís homepage

Source: <​>.

Fig. 3 - New York Public Library Digital Collection

Fig. 3 - New York Public Library Digital Collection

Source: <​>.

2.3 The next-generation online public access catalogue (OPAC)

21Library catalogues are the gateway to library collections. Some years ago, these catalogues started to offer search interfaces that reproduced the operating models of the most well-known and appreciated websites (i.e., Google and Amazon). The main features now being offered by the next-generation OPACs are:

  • Browsing of the library’s various collections through a collective catalogue
    Printed holdings are traditionally accessed through the catalogue. If the library has its own digital holdings, they will most certainly be in the repository and, in addition, there may be subscription digital collections on other platforms. The new OPACs facilitate access to theseseparate collections through one, sole search.
  • Results sorted by relevance.
  • Filtering of results
    Once the list of results has been obtained they can be filtered on the basis of such characteristics as subject, document type, and chronological period.
  • Visualization of covers
    This is an extremely useful graphic feature which helps guide users in the selection of documents.
  • Social participation of users
    The new OPACs allow users to record certain information in the catalogue registers, such as labels, scores attributing values to documents, comments, reviews, favourites, and links to social networks. Marshall Breeding6, who has named and characterized this type of program, is the leading scholar in the market as well as the foremost expert onthe introduction of OPACs. In Spain, Lorena Ávila et al.7have published an article in which they describe the characteristics of web-scale discovery tools, propose a series of criteria for their evaluation and describe their implantation in Spanish university libraries. These programs are increasingly present in public libraries, and may now be found in Queens Library (one of the library systems serving New York City), the Darien Library and many more.

Fig. 4 - Searching “Italian gastronomy” in the Queens Library catalog

Fig. 4 - Searching “Italian gastronomy” in the Queens Library catalog

Source: <​search>.

2.4 Digital services

22There is little to explain about the application of the ICTs in library services, especially in the most basic processes like document reservations or renewals, ordering photocopies or applying for library cards. Nonetheless, mention should be made of the two services which have most grown and developed in recent years: bibliographic information and the loan of digital works.

  • 8José Antonio Merlo Vega, Servicios públicos de referencia en línea, «BiD: textos universitaris de (...)

23Attending to information requests has perhaps been the service which has most evolved and whose activities have most improved thanks to technology. The system in which users employ web-forms to make their enquiries is now fully consolidated. Moreover, these practices are organized cooperatively, with regional or country-wide scope. Such is the case with “Pregunte”, the pooling service employed by Spanish public libraries or “Biblan Svarar”, a similar one from Swedish public libraries8.

Fig. 5 - Biblan Svarar home page

Fig. 5 - Biblan Svarar home page

Source: <​en>.

24The loan service has also been adapted to include digital versions, though this process has been complicated by the reluctance of commercial publishers to allow their e-books to be accessed and consulted. There are now numerous digital lending platforms offering titles to readers and operating with a model resembling that of printed-matter lending: though there is no limitation on the number of copies of digital books a user can have, a limit has been established on the number that can be available for access concurrently.

25The US is, without doubt, the most developed country in this field. According to ALA data, 75% of American public libraries lend e-books and also have a huge range of titles on offer.

  • 9Maite Comalat-Navarra, Bibliotecas públicas e impresoras 3D: el debate está servido, «El Profesion (...)

26As regards trends, they would seem to be moving towards the introduction of new equipment, such as 3D printers. An article by Maite Comalat9 describes the situation of this service provision in various European public libraries and analyses its potential.

2.5. Presence in social networks

27The importance of dissemination activities complements the production side of library functions described in previous sections. This means the institution must remain at the forefront in the use of systems that ensure its audience is aware of its digital collections, in a context of information overload on the Web.

28Public libraries have managed to exploit growth of the social and collaborative website, which has reached a high point with the popularization of social networking sites and blogs, to significantly boost the measures they take to disseminate their holdings. Many have become highly adept at using blogs (through WordPress, Blogger and other such platforms), content management systems, photo- and video-sharing sites (Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, etc.), social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn), content curation ( and virtual desktops (Netvibes). News of their activities, products and services can thus be seen by an extremely broad-based audience.

29The aims of this active presence in the social networks are diverse and, at the same time, complementary. We would highlight the following:

  • to distribute information about the public library’s activities, products, and services;
  • to offer mediation or advice to users;
  • to encourage user participation;
  • or to enhance the library’s identity and visibility.

30To be successful and really have some effect in these areas, however, it is essential to have a clear, social-network marketing strategy that provides for user communities to be created and maintained. These tasks also require constant, permanent dedication on the part of the librarian. Consequently, there can be little doubt that community management should be one of the competencies of the new library professional.

  • 10Maria Kronqvist-Berg, Social Media and Public Libraries: Exploring Information Activities of Libra (...)

31Maria Kronqvist-Berg10, conducted a practical study of social networks in Finnish public libraries which was based on surveys of both professionals and users. According to her data, only 50% of users considered presence of the public library in such networks positive. They also paid little attention to labelling in the catalogue or the use of chat in the reference service. So what purpose do social networking sites serve in the public library? In theory, the social media can favour interaction between the library and its users. In practice however, this seems far from the case. Users still prefer face-to-face contact with the public library.

32Following this review of the five lines of action, it should be pointed out that the presence of digital content and services in the public library remains scant, as regards both range of products and intensity of use. However, returning to the US, a good example in this area is the San Antonio Public Library (San Antonio, Texas), opened in 2013 and one of the first centres to have no books. The library looks like an Apple shop and provides access to a huge collection of digital works (books, data bases, etc.), wireless internet, computers, tablets and even technology training courses. The Bexar County BiblioTech (also Texas) could also be cited, with similar characteristics. Nonetheless, these two cases still represent isolated instances.

Fig. 6 - BiblioTech homepage

Fig. 6 - BiblioTech homepage

Source: <​>.

3. Evaluation

33Evaluation of products and services of the classic library is now fully consolidated and extremely useful in assessing the library’s contribution to its setting and detecting shortcomings and problems to be resolved. The results of evaluations also serve on many occasions to stifle criticism from the political sphere that questions the cost of public libraries. This is because the public’s appreciation of the library generally situates it as one of the most highly regarded public services.

34Logically, evaluation processes are equally necessary in the digital environment and all they require is the adaptation of existing indicators to the digital products and services being introduced. It should also be remembered that technology allows for the constant, direct monitoring of all the uses made of digital systems.

35The first step to initiate library evaluation processes consists in deciding on the most relevant indicators. For the purposes of simplification, they can be broken down into two types: quantitative indicators, which offer a numerical view of theuse of public library products and services, and qualitative indicators, which attempt to explore public perceptions of the value of libraries.

3.1 Quantitative indicators

36The aim of quantitative indicators is to provide a statistical view of the performance of library products and services based on the results of queries made or actions undertaken by users. The list of indicators is long, but by way of example we would mention the number of documents (books, journals, etc.), visits (to the catalogue, to books, etc.) or loans per user.

37Most of these usage statistics are based on the analysis of logs, in other words, the register of each and every transaction carried out in the library by its users. All visits to the catalogue, loans and so on are recorded in the library management system and allow for a detailed understanding of its operation and for its yearly evaluation.

  • 11The Economic and Social Value of Information Services: Libraries. Report of Findings. Co-ordinated (...)

38On occasions, opinion polls are conducted about users’ interests, such as those published in the study by the Spanish Federation of Societies of Archivists, Librarians, Documentalists and Museology (FESABID)11, which presents figures relating to digital collections and the use of technology in the library. According to these data, only 9.6% of users went to the public library to access digital resources, while the use of its Wi-Fi increased and the use of its computers fell (because visitors were equipped with their own tablet or laptop).

  • 12Nieves González et al. Revisión y propuesta de indicadores (KPI) de la Biblioteca en los medios so (...)

39The term ‘altmetric’ was coined in 2010 to refer to quantitative analysis of the significance of social-web content. Altmetrics are used to measure the impact the public library has on the social web – its visibility on the social networks. Reference indicators include the number of tweets, retweets, mentions in blogs (“likes”), inclusion in social bookmarkers and so on. These enable measurement of the public library’s popularity (the number of followers on Facebook or Twitter), and its level of activity (number of posts, tweets, replies, etc.), as well as social appreciation of the library (number of mentions, percentage of positive comments, etc.) and the interaction it establishes with the community of users (number of comments, labels, retweets, etc.). Specific programs exist to measure these indicators, such as Impact story and Social Mention, as they do not yet form part of library management systems. Nieves González has written about social indicators for libraries12.

3.2 Perceptions (qualitative indicators)

40Qualitative indicators refer essentially to users’ perceptions of the public library. They are based, in general, on findings obtained from focus groups and surveys.

  • 13Lluís Anglada, Are Libraries Sustainable in a World of Free, Networked, Digital Information?, «El (...)

41We operate socially by means of mental representations or mind sets that are difficult to oppose. This is the concept that George Lakoff introduced in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!. Lluís Anglada13dedicates profound reflection to these matters and refers to a 2010 survey according to which some 75% of Americans associate the library with the printed book. This stereotype therefore holds that libraries are spaces for reading printed matter and little more. There is no perception of the comprehensive digital renewal that is taking place. As a consequence of this view of bibliographic resources, users perceive libraries as completely obsolete facilities, seeing them as being useful only to preserve the past, but not for operating in the digital world.

  • 14A. Galluzzi, Libraries and Public Perception. A Comparative Analysis of the European Press; Ead., (...)

42Anna Galluzzi14conducted a study into the image of the library in the European press which is also highly illustrative and offers a few clues about its image today. The main features of her description coincide remarkably well with the preceding comments.

43So it seems clear that if we want it to be sustainable,a new stereotype of “the library” must be established in people’s minds based on the function of providing support in the process of using information and turning it into knowledge. Without this new perception it will be difficult for those in public office to maintain and promote libraries as a social and cultural facility of primary need.

4. Looking to the future

44We have reviewed the actions and strategies public libraries are taking to adapt to the digital environment and the systems in place to evaluate their impact. We will now present a few final considerations for the public library if it is to continue playing an essential role in the dissemination of cultural content in society.

  • Cooperation
    The vast experience of cooperation amongst libraries must be maintained and enhanced if these institutions are to successfully confront the challenges of digitization. It is unlikely that solitary public libraries will be able to respond adequately to the new demands of users.
  • Innovation
    Public libraries must take advantage of the potential of ICTs and quality content to create new products and services that will capture users’ interest.
  • Create community
    How can the library be made more visible if all its products and services are on the Web? This is a fundamental issue which cannot be ignored. Though they are not always seen in the flesh, public libraries must be very clear about who their users, community and audience are, and carry out the traditional technical processes (selection, organization and dissemination of content) accordingly.
  • Change perceptions
    Communication strategies are needed to publicize the role of public libraries and their professionals. Generally speaking, change has not been resisted; rather it has been met proactively, with the profession taking on new competences: identifying and locating quality information and the tasks of content curator and community manager, among others. In any case, new mind sets must be created in the general public so that the librarian is clearly perceived as a professional who can help people in the use and localization of information and its conversion into knowledge.
  • Increase the visibility of the profession
    People do not perceive what the librarian’s role is or could be. This role is linked, as we know, not only to the preservation and custody of ancient collections, but also to their organization and to disseminating content of any kind, encouraging the consumption of culture and so on. In this respect there is much to be done by professional associations and bodies to rectify this distorted view, and to remedy the profession’s lack of social visibility.


1Frank Huysmans - Carlien Hillebrink, The Future of the Dutch Public Library: Ten Years On, The Hague, Netherlands Institute for Social Research, 2008, <>; Roger E. Levien, Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st-Century Public Library, ALA. Office for Information Techonology Policy, 2011, < >; Kristen Purcell, Libraries 2020: Imagining the Library of the (Not Too Distant) Future, Pew Research Center, 2012, <>, Prospectiva 2020: Las diez áreas que más van a cambiar en nuestras bibliotecas en los próximos años, Madrid, Consejo de Cooperación Bibliotecaria, 2013. <>.

2Ernest Abadal, Open access: l’accesso aperto alla letteratura scientifica, Milano, Ledizioni, 2014. <>, <>

3Cristóbal Urbano, Library Catalog Log Analysis in E-book Patron-Driven Acquisitions (PDA): A Case Study, «College & Research Libraries», 76, 2015, 4, p. 412-426. DOI: 10.5860/crl.76.4.412.

4E. Abadal - Javier Guallar, Prensa digital y bibliotecas, Gijón, Trea, 2010, pp.138-140.

5  These collections (perhaps more frequent in American libraries than in those of Europe) are made up of “non-conventional” documents and may include materials of any kind (photographs, plans, letters, leaflets, artist’s proofs, etc.). They are often linked to the personal or professional activity of scientists, writers or famous figures.

6Marshal Breeding, Looking Forward to the Next Generation of Discovery Services, «Computers in Libraries», 32, 2012, 2, pp. 28–31, <> ; Id., Library Resource Discovery Products: Context, Library Perspectives and Vendor Positions, «Library Technology Reports», 50, 2014, 1, pp. 5-58.

7Lorena Ávila-García - Virginia Ortiz-Repiso - David Rodríguez-Mateos, Herramientas de descubrimiento: ¿una ventanilla única?, «Revista Española de Documentación Científica», 38, 1, 2015. DOI:

8José Antonio Merlo Vega, Servicios públicos de referencia en línea, «BiD: textos universitaris de biblioteconomia i documentació», 14, juny 2005, <>.

9Maite Comalat-Navarra, Bibliotecas públicas e impresoras 3D: el debate está servido, «El Profesional de la Información», 24, 2015, 2, p. 185-192, <>.

10Maria Kronqvist-Berg, Social Media and Public Libraries: Exploring Information Activities of Library Professionals and Users, Åbo, Åbo Akademi University Press, 2014.

11The Economic and Social Value of Information Services: Libraries. Report of Findings. Co-ordinated by José Antonio Gómez Yáñez, Madrid, Fesabid, 2014. < >.

12Nieves González et al. Revisión y propuesta de indicadores (KPI) de la Biblioteca en los medios sociales, «Revista Española de Documentación Científica», 36, 2013, 36, 1. DOI:

13Lluís Anglada, Are Libraries Sustainable in a World of Free, Networked, Digital Information?, «El Profesional de la Información», 23, 2014, 6, p. 603- 611, <>.

14A. Galluzzi, Libraries and Public Perception. A Comparative Analysis of the European Press; Ead., Le biblioteche nella stampa quotidiana. Il caso spagnolo, «BiD: textos universitaris de biblioteconomia i documentació», 34, 2015, <>.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 - New York Public Library eBooks collection
Crédits Source: <>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Titre Fig. 2 - Trencadís homepage
Crédits Source: <​>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 205k
Titre Fig. 3 - New York Public Library Digital Collection
Crédits Source: <​>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 340k
Titre Fig. 4 - Searching “Italian gastronomy” in the Queens Library catalog
Crédits Source: <​search>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 260k
Titre Fig. 5 - Biblan Svarar home page
Crédits Source: <​en>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 202k
Titre Fig. 6 - BiblioTech homepage
Crédits Source: <​>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 150k


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