Inspiring Convergence

META Nummer 2021/7

Inspiring Convergence

Geschreven door Maxine Lynch
Gepubliceerd op 27.09.2021
Roland Poellinger. © Allan Richard Tobis

Roland Poellinger is the head of eServices at the Munich City Library, the biggest communal library system in Germany. Coming from a totally different field – Roland has a training in philosophy and was a researcher at the Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy – it was his experience in science communication that got him interested in working at the library.

“Libraries are all about knowledge and how to make that knowledge accessible. I wanted to do that in a truly relevant way, and that is why I joined the Munich City Library. Now I am in charge of all things digital, ranging from library technology like self-checks and sorters to digital platforms like the website, the library management system, digital archives, and an increasingly important field: statistics and analytics. It is a broad range and IT all through”, Roland says, “Though we are not the IT department.” (laughs)

I picked a topic that is very dear to me and that I have not presented to a larger audience, yet. I labelled my talk Inspiring Convergence where the first part points to our goal of inspiring people. It is what we want to do as a library and it is also in our vision. We want to inspire people to use our materials, to engage in the community, to come back and to make the library a lively place – and their own. We want to do that both in the digital and in the physical space.

The second part, convergence, points to the changing concept of a library’s collection: it is not just books anymore, it is more than that. The library is a place where people can interact with each other, engage in activities, and dive into all the different things the library is offering, may it be digital and physical materials, programmes of all kinds, best seller novels and historical manuscripts, and so on. Instead of presenting those things in different categories, you much rather want to present them in a unified way, grouped around topics and interests.

One other thing that also strongly motivates the digital strategy for the Munich City Library is the changing concept of knowledge. The library is certainly the place to find all kinds of information and answers to all kinds of questions. But what is becoming more and more important is the idea of navigational knowledge, and this points to the core of what a library is all about. Libraries are the one place – and have been very good at this for ages – that can make sense of disconnected things and make cultural assets accessible in a meaningful and relevant way by connecting the dots. That is what I think we as a library are striving for and that’s where the idea of convergence comes in.

The website of the Munich City Library: a starting point for exploring.

Why is digital and educational inclusion so important?

Digital inclusion starts within the physical space. Like many other libraries, we have started providing even more access to the library by extending our opening hours. The library has become a workspace where people can study and work, but they can also get their hands on technology and learn something new, together with others or by themselves. Our patrons can access the online databases and the digital materials we offer at their neighbourhood branch or from home. Everybody is invited to create content at our digital labs or during a gaming workshop. With the goal being that everyone gets their chance at participating in this digital society.

Beyond that, at the Munich City Library, we are proud to have some scientifically interesting collections, but the nagging question is: how can we make sense of these? How do public collections fit in with scientific archives? How do you bring together mainstream materials and those local treasures? Now, the idea of an open library – in a broad sense – is a very strong theme in our digital strategy. It is kind of an overarching theme.

By opening our scientific collections to the public, we aim at educational inclusion. Normally only scientists get their hands on such collections because certain objects must simply be handled with care. It is difficult to open those physical objects to the public. By making them digitally accessible, people can suddenly get their hands on valuable manuscripts and letters of historical importance. They can start toying with such historical material that touches their identity because it is about their own city. Opening up local treasures and providing a reference point for identification for the community enriches our collection once more. People start contributing, adding elements, exploring, communicating and spreading it through social media. So, suddenly, these collections become relevant, vivid and fascinating in new ways.

Do the patrons also have a say?

When it comes to interacting with our patrons in the digital space, we have systematically been exploring some ideas for the past years. The central goal is answering the questions, interests and needs of our patrons in a more relevant way. One example would be the website we relaunched last year. One central idea was to make everything we have to offer accessible through one search button. Simple, but far from trivial. There are some interesting challenges in there that I will sketch out at the conference. You cannot just throw all your data on the website, run some algorithms, and hope for the best. We can do better as libraries.

It all starts with the customer, and we really worked on this during the redesign of the website. It is essential to know how a person uses the search bar, what they expect from running a search and what pages they are visiting most. On top of that it really is important to understand what the most frequently asked questions are at the service desks, or what information patrons ask for over the phone before they come to visit. And then, what do useful answers look like? How long is the path to that answer? How can we encourage user feedback? And what should we be measuring to learn about the usage and improve the experience?

I like to think that using something as technical as a search bar can become more like a dialogue. When someone visits the website and enters their needs or interests, we would like to shape this interaction in an interesting way and make it a conversational experience that is as pleasant as possible. And not only pleasant, but also inspiring. It is all about looking through our patrons’ eyes and trying to understand what is relevant to them in that particular moment. That is what our staff is doing at the service desk, and we should endeavour to translate that rich experience into the digital space. Starting with the patron is kind of the paradigm here, and preparing an inviting journey where relevant information inspires to explore.

Handled with care: historic originals in the archives of the Munich City Library. © Eva Jünger.

Did the pandemic stimulate libraries to undertake digital development?

Obviously, there was a moment of shock when we turned from a library with an emphasis on the physical space into a digital library. We highly value that physical space and we want to be an inspiring environment where people can mingle, learn, exchange, study and hang out. And all of a sudden, from one day to the next, all that remained was the digital space. That was really insightful – and a little painful. Because suddenly we saw what worked well and what did not. We also noticed we had to change some of our services to something that would not exclude certain people relying on a non-digital way of reaching out to us. Things have been crazy, everyone can relate to that, but I really hope, in the long run we take the time and learn from that moment. It will make us better.

A lot of libraries are becoming more digital and accessible online. Do you think people will keep going to the library to meet other people and to get inspired? Or do you think that when the digital part is so strong people will not bother stopping by?

No, quite the opposite. I certainly think that the digital and the physical part are complementary. Coming out of research I am of course used to digesting all my research materials online in the digital version. Preferring digital for such a purpose does in no way exclude the irreplaceable feeling of browsing through a nicely printed art book for example. Some experiences cannot be replaced without losing essential quality. Moreover, the things we offer in the digital space are also bringing people to the physical space. Last year we started recording talks at the library for a virtual audience. We are looking forward to hosting such kinds of new programmes for an audience at the library once it is possible again. And we hope that we might even welcome new visitors who learned through our digital channels that there is something interesting going on.

While offering recordings or live streams online does have many interesting advantages and might even lower barriers for some, there are still aspects of such events that just cannot be transported through digital channels. And the non-virtual is part of our vision too: we want to make the physical library space one of high quality where people can feel at home. We think this is very important in a city that is growing and getting denser at the same time, and we feel quite privileged to be able to grow with the city. New neighbourhoods are being developed right now, and the Munich City Library is part of that development, from the start. We are currently working on four new branches to be opened next year, and we are very proud to be able to contribute to making Munich a liveable place with new library branches and new experiences.

What can we learn from the Munich City Library?

What I have learned in my time at the library is that we are part of a beautiful community eager to exchange ideas and insights. And if we can contribute to this community with what we learn from our experiments or with what we develop in the digital space, I could not be happier. One impactful, renewed paradigm is certainly the customer-centric approach that we are pursuing at the Munich City Library in everything digital. It certainly is hard work, but I firmly believe in it, and I am looking forward to discussing with others on how to take this approach further.

On the more technical side, we are hard at work integrating our digital platforms by defining the right modules and implementing the right interfaces. One example would be the development of a new event database as a source for the website and for our printed programme booklets, as well as for our information screen system to link the physical and the digital space and provide information to our visitors where and when it is needed. This integration is an example of an interesting development task which I am happy to share more about with the community.

One of the branches of the Munich City Library: a hub for different communities. © Eva Jünger

What are the main challenges for libraries?

I think our image is sometimes behind on what we actually offer and do. When people come to the library, they are often surprised by what the library has become and what our ambitions are now. So, the question is: how do we reach out to an audience that has the wrong idea – or an incomplete picture – about who we are and what we do? An audience that might not be in touch with the community? The library is so much more than a place to get a book, and I would like to think that whoever comes to the library should feel invited to contribute and shape the library of the future. That is a real challenge – yet sometimes pushed aside too lightly, I think.

What do you think future libraries will look like?

Looking back at historic examples and trying to really pinpoint what a library is, I cannot help but wonder, when is a library not a library anymore? When does it cease to exist? Is it the books? Do we need books to have a library? It is in the name, so books are going to be around. (laughs) But the library will always be about language, dialogue and discourse, and exchange of knowledge. I firmly believe this should extend into the digital space, into how we design our digital channels, and into how we open access to digital assets, resources, and data. There is huge potential here if we build on the value that is in that personal, conversational experience. I even think we are kind of obligated to take that idea and truly bring it out in the digital. To me, this is a central aspect of technology: helping libraries become even more open and more accessible spaces than they are today.

Why visit the Munich City Library?

It is a very interesting time for Munich, with so much change going on in the city and at the library – lots of opportunities for us to try out new ideas and concepts. Each new branch will be a little different from the last one. We are developing the technology, the design language, and what the branches individually stand for. The Gasteig in Munich will soon be a huge construction site too, with exciting potential as Europe’s largest cultural centre, home to the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and our library’s main branch. With great anticipation and respect, we can say that the future is going to be a time of learning for us. More reason for everybody to come visit and exchange ideas.


Bekijk het abstract en de praktische informatie van deze lezing in het programma van Informatie aan Zee 2021.

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