Developing Digital Engagement with the British Library

Identifying barriers to digital engagement and opportunities to widen access to the British Library’s digital collections in African countries.

Partner overview

The British Library (“BL”) is the national library of the UK. It provides information services to academic, business, research and scientific communities. Its collections include artefacts from every age of written civilisation.

This project was completed in Spring 2021 as part of the Collaboration Labs programme, a PhD research consultancy programme created by REALab, with funding from the ESRC, the NWCDTP and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

The challenge

The British Library

The British Library is committed to engaging international audiences with its digital collections. The British Library has identified a specific need to increase engagement in regions whose cultures and histories are reflected most strongly in their collections, this includes African countries.

This goal poses two challenges:

Firstly, internet access and library infrastructure varies in the region and there may exist barriers to digital engagement (eg. widespread use of mobile phones requires mobile-friendly interfaces);

Secondly, digital engagement will only be meaningful and effective if it is user-driven. The British Library needs to identify the resources and engagement opportunities that are truly relevant for libraries and users in African countries.

Research team 

  • Fiona Lakareber, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
  • Kylie Gilchrist, School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures, The University of Manchester, NWCDTP
  • Frances Liddell, School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures, The University of Manchester, NWCDTP
  • Emeka Joseph Nwankwo, Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Manchester Metropolitan University

The solution

The Research Team produced a comprehensive report on digital engagement among the British Library's target audience and four case study countries, offering deeper and more nuanced insight into how their digital and online services are accessed currently. The research approach consisted of four parts:

  1. Qualitative literature review on four case study countries - South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya - to explore access to digital resources in public and university libraries; library and internet infrastructure; social media engagement in libraries and socio-economic and cultural factors.
  2. An analysis of secondary quantitative data on internet use in these countries.
  3. An analysis of Google Analytics data from the BL’s website.
  4. A survey of libraries in all four countries.

The report included actionable opportunities to build better relationships with communities and recommendations on how to embed anti-imperialist and decolonial approaches to heritage custodianship.

Results and impact

Findings noted several major factors shaping engagement with the British Library’s online collection including socio-economic, age, and ‘digital divide’ factors, internet infrastructure, ICT and social media use, and the role of partners in e-resource collection development. Based on these findings, the team offered the following recommendations to the British Library:

  • Foster mutual engagement by devising an outreach strategy with the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions or another consortium based in the region; and by promoting scholarship in Africa among international audiences by implementing a programme of blog posts by authors based in African countries.
  • Improve digital accessibility by creating a more mobile-friendly website and support digital learning by collaborating with Digital University in Africa.
  • Harness social media by expanding its network of followers and producing digital collection tours for YouTube.

With this project’s tangible findings, backed up by the very thorough literature review and background research conducted by the team, we will be able to suggest amendments to current practises and strategies in all of those departmental areas. One of our main organisational goals is to open up the library’s collections for everyone, everywhere, and this report will certainly help us understand how we can widen access to, and engagement with, the BL’s online offerings by users in African countries. We would definitely recommend [the Collaboration Labs] programme to other partners in the future. It was so valuable to have four minds dedicated to answering some of the questions that we have wanted to address for some time, and useful to have the perspective and freedoms of academics outside of our organisation.

Eleanor Cooper / British Library International Engagement Manager

The project has provided us with an opportunity to explore new fields of research and use different research methods from our PhD work. This has also been beneficial from a research perspective also as it has provided us with time away from our own research projects and focus on something new and stimulating. Collaborating with a partner has also been a great experience of learning to work within a set of parameters and ensuring that the work carried out reflects the partner’s overall needs and objectives for the project. This has also been a useful experience in working as a team to pull together a large research report, and we have learnt to delegate and work with others, which is different from writing up an individual PhD thesis.

Frances Liddell / The University of Manchester