How the National Library of Scotland continued to provide a quality service during lockdown

Library professionals at the National Library of Scotland decided to see the pandemic as an opportunity. Revised work processes and innovative service provision to the public and to staff when library buildings were closed and physical access denied were the result. Craig Statham, Maps Reading Room Manager, explains.

The pandemic that has ravaged its way across the globe for the past two years has caused havoc. We could all highlight the negative impact it has had on us as individuals, as families, and on society generally, and how glad we will be to return to some sort of normality. But we, as library professionals at the National Library of Scotland, saw opportunities, and used this time of no readers, and no access to physical collections, to undertake tasks and changes to the way we worked, that may not otherwise have happened.

One response of the Library to lockdown was to attempt to provide laptops to staff. The number of available laptops was limited, but it did ease some pressure (this shortfall would eventually be rectified, as the Library procured laptops for most staff, but it would take several months for this to happen). It then purchased a licence for Microsoft Teams, and had staff add this to their devices—which ranged from laptops to mobile phones.

Teams was, throughout lockdown, our saviour. It allowed staff to interact about projects and tasks they were undertaking, but more importantly, for some it provided a lifeline to the outside world and allowed managers to offer continued support, thus reducing the potential for mental health issues arising.

The Library’s buildings were closed on a Friday, and staff began working from home the following Monday. Managers began to identify projects and tasks for staff to work on from home, although remaining cognisant of the fact that not all staff would initially be able to fulfil all tasks due to having to use their own personal (and often inadequate) IT until a laptop became available. Importantly, however, tasks were viewed as a way of keeping the Library interconnected, and staff working as part of a larger team.

Of the many projects and tasks worked on by Library staff, four stand out:

Zoom Into Scotland

The curator who managed this project asked two questions. How do you create a resource that will appeal to an audience across the whole of Scotland? And how to you deliver that to an audience that cannot leave the comfort of their armchair? The answer to both is surprisingly simply: Create a project that covers every geographic area of Scotland, and do it using only digital material. The Library split Scotland up into its 32 council areas, and a group of 18 volunteers from across the public-facing teams worked on each of these council areas. They used a template to identify digital resources from different categories for each of the areas.

For example, the writer would be required to provide a link to a film of the area, and would provide readers with a relevant link at the Library’s Moving Image Archive. Zoom Into South Lanarkshire offered up a lovely colour film covering the 1981 Carnwath Gala Day. Readers would get a rounded view of the area with links to books, maps, manuscripts, e-resources, photographs, and information about people, mythical creatures, towns and villages. Some staff chose to work on areas that they were originally from or had lived in whereas some areas were new to the member of staff compiling the information.

All of Scotland has now been covered, and the resultant Zoom Into texts were published as blogs on the Library’s website.

Chapbook OCR correction

Prior to lockdown, the Library had digitised, and carried out automated OCR on, over 3,000 Scottish chapbooks from the 18th and 19 h centuries. These contain different formats such as stories, poems and songs, across many different themes such as romance, adventures and murders, and are available to view for free on the Library’s Digital Gallery. However with difficult pages, OCR, as we all know, does not produce a perfect result, with many of the words and letters ‘misread’. For example:

Clean your Face in Summer with the Juice of Wild Roses

was automatically read as:

LF .AN your Face in Summer witlr the Juice of Wild Rofes

Making these more accurate requires human quality control – essentially the need to read through each document and correct any inaccuracies in the automated transcription. To do this, we used Wikisource, an online digital gallery run by the Wikimedia Foundation which allows you to transcribe open-licensed works such as these online. This was a perfect working from home project and the staff did this with much enthusiasm – we have now completed over a thousand of these items with accurate transcriptions and aim to export these to our Digital Gallery and Data Foundry in the future.

Online workshops

Prior to lockdown, Library staff offered a wide range of public workshops and talks—from family history to outlining how to navigate the maps website—both in the Library buildings and out in the community. These were a wonderful way of connecting with both existing and potential audiences, albeit on a local level. Lockdown put an end to this means of outreach. So, a working group convened to look at ways of providing a similar service online. We decided that, through Zoom and Eventbrite, we would offer many of our previous events as online workshops, which would see them shortened in length and an interactive element added.

We now have a busy schedule of events, and are even adding new workshops. While the personal interaction of a face-to-face event is largely lost, in some ways the online talks are an improvement. Onsite maps talks, for example, could only host a limited number. Moving the workshops online has increased the audience by 100% and sometimes more. Our attendees are no longer limited to the geographic areas surrounding the Library, but come to us from across the globe. Furthermore, workshops are interactive, allowing attendees the opportunity to use online resources while the workshop is ongoing.

Maps website

Fortuitously, many maps had been scanned prior to lockdown and were awaiting upload to the maps website. Uploading a map to the site is not as simple a task as it might appear—it must go through a multiple-point workflow to take it from storage to website, a number of which are digital. These include the quality control of metadata, digital preservation of images, the creation of shapefiles and remedial corrections, as well as the creation of HTML content and sometimes georeferencing of maps. Lockdown allowed some staff more time to focus on these digital tasks, and as a result a number of new map series were added to the site during the first lockdown. Coming out of lockdown provided an opportunity to fulfil further non-digital tasks, such as the extraction of metadata, and when the second lockdown took place, more map series were uploaded to the site.

Working from home, and map scanning interruptions due to lockdown also allowed time for an upgrade to the maps website. For some time, both staff and readers had been suggesting ways to improve what is, at times, a complicated website (due in great part to the number of maps on the site – currently over quarter of a million). Time and staffing constraints meant that these could not always be implemented, but lockdown provided a useful opportunity. While the site wasn’t completely overhauled, we updated our home page, search interfaces, and site navigation, and it has, so far, been well received by the majority of users.

Evaluating our projects

It now appears that we are returning to some sort of normality, and we can look back and consider what worked, and also what didn’t work quite so well. The Zoom Into blogs and the chapbook corrections worked really well, because neither were too onerous. Completing a Zoom Into blog might take half a day, and a chapbook could be completed in an hour, and the work required for both was incredibly interesting. Online workshops also worked well, expanding the Library’s audience, both geographically and in terms of visitor numbers. It did have its teething problems, such as quite a large number of bookings not turning up, and while the number of no shows has fallen slightly, non-attendance continues to be an issue.

There are also long-term benefits. Most staff members now have laptops, and are well placed should another pandemic happen in the near future. Also, some of the changes that were made will not end with lockdown—there is every intention to continue online workshops (in conjunction with face-to-face ones). Furthermore, staff now have the skills to set up projects quickly, and to complete those projects to a very high standard. But perhaps most importantly, we have continued to cater for our existing audience, built new audiences, and reached out to audiences across the world.

While none of us want a repeat of the past 18 months, the pandemic has forced us to address the way we work if we cannot access the Library. We coped well, overcame the many issues that we faced, and staff stepped up and delivered, under the circumstances, a wonderful service. We are ready … should we be forced to do it again.