I am watching with interest as eMails announcing that one NHS library service after another has “gone virtual”. It’s a process that has many dimensions, new software and new ways of working in teams. Anyway, as a lone home worker I don’t have any insights into remote team working and I don’t have any additional special software. So I thought I would share some reflections on the intangible aspects of running a virtual service. Things I am guessing that might be over looked in the excitement of change!

Have a marketing plan
It’s not clear how long “going virtual” will last. So at the end of the COVID19 epidemic colleagues may be anticipating chasing the mice out of the library and re-opening the doors. Even though it’s a temporary change it might have longer term implications. Some users might actually prefer the idea of a virtual service. My advice is to embrace the change and plan accordingly. Make a virtue out of necessity. I have lost count of the times I have said or written “NWAS LKS (now LKS ASE) is a virtual service operated via the library website eMail and mobile phone”. It’s not that inspiring but fundamentally true! So take some time to craft the message and then hammer it out. “LKS X is now operating virtually [during the COVID19] contact us by …” Truly I don’t think I would have made it as a copywriter but you should get the idea. Of course, you are now virtual so putting a notice up in the library is not going to cut it. For this to work well you need to push it out though all your electronic and social media channels. If these are a bit lacklustre now is the time to put your social media in order. This might be a “good news” story for corporate communications – always check in with them – on how the library is adapting to the changing times. In short, have a message be relentless in pushing it out.

How will your users experience the virtual library?
If you are also working from home you will start to get a completely different idea of what virtual means. Or to put in bluntly how the idea of virtual can be roadkill in the haste to offload physical and staff resources. Think of your most unpleasant online shopping experience and how you can never find the customer services telephone number! It’s worth putting your user specs on and seeing if it really is possible to use the library virtually. You might get some friendly users to do this as well if they have time. This probably means having easy to use forms, clear contact details on your website, putting your services front and centre and striping out anything that detracts from this message “we are now virtual, this is what you can do and this is how you do it”.

Put the “service” into the virtual
This is an interesting one. What can you do to make the virtual service exceptional? I am just suggesting that if you don’t have the burden of physical buildings and stock can you do more to put more “service” into the virtual. Can you turn things around faster? Can you be more flexible? Can you soften your electronic communications to appear super friendly and approachable – something we all are in the real world of course - but how do you do that in a virtual world? What is it that will make the virtual better than the physical? The happier you make your new virtual punters the more likely they are to recommend the new way of doing things. In the frenzy of electronic communications that will already be overtaking the workplace word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool.

Not all users respond in the same way
Just in the same way as not all users like coming to the library, not all users are going to get being virtual. It may frustrate you that they won’t fill in online forms but some users just won’t do it. My advice is to have a catch all eMail or telephone number that says basically just get in touch and we will take it from there. If you insist they will go elsewhere or nowhere. You absolutely don’t want to give the impression that virtual is an arm’s length or impersonal. Clearly you need to tailor your service to meet the users where they are. Let them know there is a real person in there somewhere.

Have you got enough stuff?
It’s a delicate time of the financial year but do beef up your eBook budget. For years from an LKS ASE point of view books were too physical to mention. Now, with unnerving timing our key publishers who previously thought eeee books were Lancashire dialect are now offering an eBook alternative. It’s not perfect but purchasing specifically to meet user enquiries is now viable option and I had the good luck to have a credit with our chosen eBook supplier.

Leverage the electronic stuff you already have
Once the initial rush to virtual is over you do have time and space to push your electronic resources harder. One of the key messages has to be to self-register for NHS OpenAthens. There will be other services and resources that will showcase the virtual qualities of your library.

Good luck everyone.

Matt Holland
LKS ASE Librarian