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Five lessons from the launch of Charlotte’s digital library

Building a new branch library costs somewhere between $250,000 and $20 million. American Libraries Magazine publishes an annual design showcase with gorgeous new, light-filled spaces, where a project like the renovation of an old Carnegie library costs more than $3 million.

Two years ago, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library launched a new digital branch for $10,000. Beyond the cost savings, Jessica Davis, digital strategy manager for the library, says the project delivered at least five key lessons. It also raises two questions about the future.

Funded with a grant from the State Library of North Carolina, the digital branch offers a curated collection of resources designed to help people with issues they face daily, including what books to read with their children, how to start a small business, and how to find a job. What a digital branch does that a physical branch can’t do, Davis says, is to offer availability 24 hours a day, wherever online connections are available.

“The library understands that people are becoming more digital, so they’ve got their cell phones, iPads, Nooks and Kindles, and we’ve seen the circulation of our digital materials, our ebooks and audiobooks skyrocket over the last several years,” Davis said in a recent interview. “Because of this, we wanted to provide a specific place for people to go, not just to get  information but also digital programming, because we are a programming library. So they can go and take online courses or watch videos that teach them how to do something.”

A visit to any Charlotte library provides programming on multiple subjects — story time for children, for example, or lectures by historic Mecklenburg County figures in period costume, or  one-on-one workshops to teach spreadsheet software. The digital team now includes six content creators and a full-time videographer who collaborate with education, government, and non-profit organizations to build online lessons and workshops on subjects ranging from automotive repair to Charlotte city government.

Libraries throughout the United States are strategizing for a future filled with digital competition. A 2014 report by The Aspen Institute quotes Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communication Commission: “Right now Amazon offers a better online experience than a bookstore, and Netflix is better at streaming video, and that’s the competition for libraries.” Until the emergence of a coherent national digital strategy for libraries, and until the need for more bricks-and-mortar libraries is met, Davis says the Charlotte digital branch will provide resources for people whenever they need them, even if they work throughout the day and need a critical piece of information at 3 a.m.

The future presents challenges in sustainability and scale, Davis says.

“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to build this website out and eventually build a curriculum around creating a digital branch, so that other library systems across the nation can do the same thing. Another challenge is going to be maintaining the structure. Even though it’s not going to be as expensive as a new building, there are costs. As cameras begin to wear out and equipment begins to fail, we need to replace it. Everything was originally provided through a grant, so having the funding to continue to upgrade our equipment is going to have budget implications.

“Additionally, our staff is made up of volunteers from throughout the branches,” Davis says. “So when they roll off the team, or leave the library system, we need to be able to replace them with people who are passionate about digital.”

Five lessons

Two years into the creation of a digital branch, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library has learned at least five lessons.

1. People are still uncertain about digital

Residents still don’t fully understand the internet, why it’s important, and how they can become more comfortable with it. All kinds of information exist online, but substantial amounts are incorrect, and people need to know how to find trusted sources. Librarians who can find a needle in a haystack are more important than ever.

2. Digital branches do education well

Online lectures, workshops and videos can teach people new skills at any time of day, whether they’re lounging in pajamas or commuting on a bus. Providing human service and support is a little more challenging during non-office hours. But online chat is possible during office hours, and the option to leave a question overnight means that librarians can respond by the next day.

3. Video is difficult

Creating video content requires knowledge of cameras, microphones, lighting, audio, and audio- and video-editing tools. A full-time videographer just joined the digital team to support new projects. It also takes time. When people are accustomed to the constant availability of high-quality video content, it’s challenging to be constrained to producing only a few pieces monthly. The library also partners with colleges and universities on video production, including students from the Knight School of Communication at Queens.

4. Content aligns with community

To create programming that aligns with community needs, the digital team focused on two critical issues in Mecklenburg County: economic mobility and third-grade literacy. That translates into a focus on helping people with life skills that lead them out of poverty, and on building the reading skills of third-graders.

5. Production differs from curation

Libraries have curated content for centuries, but are feeling their way through the development of online content. The Charlotte library collaborates with community organizations to bridge the gap. “We don’t want this to be the library’s digital branch,” says Jessica Davis, manager of digital strategy. “We want this to be the community’s digital branch.”

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Digital Charlotte are both members of the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance.