Linda Cockburn shares how bringing digital culture into Coventry’s libraries is building communities and helping to bridge a digital divide.
Recently Coventry Libraries invited The Space to help deliver Digital Spaces. Supported by Arts Council England and the BFI, and with partners including Coventry City of Culture and the BBC, the aim of the project was to reimagine the parameters of what libraries can bring to communities by expanding the services’ digital offerings.
Everything we do at The Space is about the audience and providing digital content that enriches lives. So, we were delighted to be invited to support Coventry Libraries develop a digital culture project. It provided an opportunity to help position libraries as creative digital hubs and offer audiences and communities greater access to digital arts and culture.
We worked with the Coventry Library Services on three strands of activity:
• An extensive VR library and immersive audio: Through the use of VR Pico headsets and audio headphones, people were able to experience places and stories in a new and captivating way. We included VR content that ranged from finding yourself next to Dr Who or walking through an enchanted forest to climbing mount Everest. The BBC’s R&D team curated a selection of audio experiences - dramas, slow radio and documentaries designed to immerse listeners in an expanded sonic field.
• Digital arts projects created with Coventry communities: Inspired by the Creative People and Places (CPP) programme, the project set out to tell the stories of Coventry and its residents. Socially engaged artists were commissioned to work in socio-economically disadvantaged wards, enabling community participation and cultural expression.
• Digital training for library staff: Library staff embarked upon a programme of training, creating ‘Digital Champions’ who could use and demonstrate the technology to visitors. As well as getting to grips with this new tech, the committed library staff built additional skills in social media, video production and audience engagement.
And a Digital Spaces showcase brought together all the strands and projects to share with the wider Coventry Libraries community.
Photo by Hayley Salter
The audience as a community
Libraries are at the heart of their communities. They might be the place you go to find information or to borrow music, enjoy stories or, at the moment, simply to keep warm. What we already suspected but has been highlighted by this project is that it’s the staff who ensure libraries are the perfect place for a digital offer.
Most people use libraries at school, so they’re familiar, we know what to expect. And they’re inclusive – the people who work in them want to help you find what you want.
All this means that for us it’s been an opportunity to see what digital arts and culture can offer when it becomes part of a community. The role that libraries play in offering digital skills, and providing access to computers, to the internet, supporting digital literacy is ingrained in their purpose.
This project was about thinking: “How can libraries go beyond those important services, to offer digital experiences that enrich lives?” And by bringing audiences, artists and other creative practitioners together the project has fostered a sense of community. Interactions are two-way and even more active than in other traditional arts settings.
Having spoken to some of the library staff who went through the training programme, I’m struck by its impact. They’ve talked about how working with new technologies has given them more confidence and inspired them to experiment. They’re trying content making and feel better placed to offer recommendations and advice to library users.
One Library Manager said: “Having this project and seeing the impact it has on our users helps the library staff to visualise what libraries can offer in the future. It’s about libraries being relevant in the future.”
And they told stories of the satisfaction they’ve felt being able to offer new services to their users. I’ve heard about grandparents and grandchildren enjoying VR together, about the pride of people seeing their work or hearing their stories showcased digitally.
It’s amazing that the project has been able to achieve so much, the library staff have been able to say: “Come and try this VR without having to spend any money, without anything complicated and with someone to help you.” Libraries have a real power – they are trusted locations where individuals, families and communities can encounter new technology and experiences they wouldn't normally access.
Projects such as Digital Spaces help us to cement the cultural and civic value of libraries, whether as physical buildings or digital hubs. As one of the team explained: “It’s not about getting rid of traditional books but rather we are telling stories in new and interesting ways that are relevant and engaging for the future. We are connecting with each other through these emerging technologies.”
All the partners are now actively discussing Phase 2 and the hope is that similar projects can be trialled throughout the country. We want to reimagine what is possible in these valued and trusted spaces while helping build even greater sustainability into the precious resource that libraries represent in their communities around the country.
The ambition is there, and Coventry’s Digital Spaces has demonstrated how powerful and connective digital experiences can be when made available to all.
Linda Cockburn is Programme Manager for The Space.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Space, is part of a series spotlighting new ways of creating and distributing digital content, and exploring the wealth of new technologies and platforms coming online.