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Ruli Pennington is senior healthcare writer for i-D Information Daily & a frequent contributor to Public Service Digital. She is passionate about better public services, devolution & women's football. From Jan 2017 Ruli will write leaders for i-D & PSD

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Library e-resources under-exploited potential says report

Council library services should be doing more to make it easier for people to sign up and use their e-books, e-magazines and e-audio services according to Better Connected 2017

I’m a heavy consumer of news online so I was delighted to find out about the e-zines service available to library members. Free online access to a whole range of popular titles including – deal maker for me - The Economist. Better still, downloadable to an app on my phone. Good for the library and good for me, I thought! But accessing the service was not as easy as it might have been.

I remembered to sign into my library account and the provider account but couldn’t quite remember the process. I tried looking at the instructions with the app, gave up and reverted to "borrowing" my partners print copy. Then I tried live chat with the library service.

‘Is it just me?’ I asked.

‘A lot of our readers experience some difficulty when we introduce a new service’ replied the person on the other end, diplomatically.

But it really isn’t "just me". The user experience with council library ‘e-resources’ is not good, according to Better Connected, the annual survey of local authority website performance now in its nineteenth year.

Based on Better Connected user testing of library services provided by England’s 27 county councils, the survey has just recomended that Council library services should be doing more to make it easier for people to sign up and use their e-books, e-magazines and e-audio services.

Library services online are already well used, accounting for around 8% of visits to council websites. But the provision of e-resources opens council library facilities to whole new audience segments, including those unable, or disinclined, to visit the library in person.

That council libraries are taking advantage of services made possible by digital technologies is to be applauded but making these services easier to use will be critical if they are to fully exploit the opportunity says Vicky Sargent, Better Connected programme director, .

Fewer than half of the sites tested were assessed as providing a good or very good service around e-resources. This compares with nearly three quarters that Better Connected assessed as being good or very good at the more straightforward Renew library book task reviewed last year.

The main failing reported by reviewers was the lack of good, clear explanations of how to use e-books and other e-resources. Just 41% of sites scored a ‘Yes’ answer to the question Is the process for borrowing e-books clear including whether/how I need to 'return' ebooks. And fewer than 60% scored a ‘yes’ for the question Are there clear instructions on how to access and use e-resources?

The survey report says that those responsible for managing library website pages need to account for the fact that processes for borrowing e-books, magazines and audio resources are different and more complicated than traditional book borrowing and that readers will often need to download software or apps to do so. They will usually need to sign up for accounts with third party providers in addition to having a library account with the council. Sometimes they will need to be signed in with both accounts at the same time in order to access resources.

In this context, poor wording and the wrong hierarchy of information can make a huge difference to the user’s ability to complete the task. Lack of attention to detail will lead users to give up or phone for further information. And all to often councils fall back on the help pages presented by these providers rather than providing their own overview of how it all works.

Despite these observations, a number of councils are recommended in their approach, including East Sussex CC; Kent CC; Staffordshire CC; and Suffolk CC (where the service is provided by Suffolk Libraries, independent from the council).

Results of the library survey for the 27 county councils tested are now available. Individual councils can find their results from the council index page at https://betterconnected.socitm.net/councils. The ‘all council’ reports can be found by following links from http://better.connected.boilerhousestudio.co.uk/services.

Better Connected Live 2017 will take place on June 28 & 29 in Birmingham. Further information is available at http://www.betterconnectedprogramme.co.uk/bclive-2017.

Axiell will be sponsoring the libraries workshop at BC Live 2017 presented in association with the Society of Chief Librarians.

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