America’s oldest cultural institution goes digital
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America’s oldest cultural institution goes digital

January 5, 2021 | Updated on July 14, 2021

With more than 170 million items and more than a million visitors per year, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. But like other institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the library to transition to a digital life in ways that have brought new challenges and opportunities for America’s oldest federal cultural institution.

The latest report by the Partnership for Public Service and Microsoft, “Bit by Bit: How governments used technology to move the mission forward during COVID-19,” looks at how government has used technology during the pandemic, from expanding existing services to conducting previously in-person functions virtually to launching new initiatives. To complement this report, we examined the transition by the Library of Congress to the digital realm, both in how it operates internally and serves customers externally.

Before the pandemic, the library had approximately 500 employees teleworking daily. As both workforce and customer services transitioned to virtual environments, the number increased to an average of more than 3,000 employees, an 800% increase that has been sustained throughout the pandemic.

To increase its public-facing virtual presence, the library expanded its promotion of digital programs, such as By the People, a crowdsourcing campaign focused on digitizing the library’s collection.

The transition to remote work nationwide gave many patrons the time to volunteer to transcribe and edit documents from multiple collections, including historical papers from the women’s suffrage movement. Moreover, the library worked extensively with researchers supporting their ongoing research remotely and through a number of projects. The library’s 2020 Innovators in Residence  developed two innovative projects to help access the library’s collections, one focusing on allowing users to create music and the other leveraging machine learning to make historic newspapers accessible.

The Library’s National Book Festival had to take a new form as well. The annual event regularly brings together several thousands of book lovers for author talks and book signing opportunities with the most exciting and engaging authors of the day. This year, the library pivoted to a virtual National Book Festival, which allowed audiences from across the country and around the world to participate in the event.

More than 22,000 visitors registered to participate in the online virtual platform that hosted this year’s content, and they logged more than 20,000 hours on the platform during the weekend of the festival’s launch. About 42,000 more virtual visitors viewed festival content on the library’s website and YouTube channel that weekend, with visitation to those website and YouTube videos continuing to grow steadily.

The library also had to rethink how it serves members of Congress, which is one of the library’s main functions. The Congressional Research Service and the Law Library—two of the library’s components— significantly increased their efforts to assist legislators, who were often addressing the ongoing crisis and in need of updated information regarding the pandemic.

CRS continued to publish new and updated reports, producing more than 2,200 since the beginning of the pandemic. CRS also created a website with COVID-specific reports. The page has more than 1000 documents related to the pandemic  including the most recent research in the field. Similarly, the Law Library spent more than 2,000 hours providing legislators with relevant real-time information during legislative sessions. Most of these services operated remotely.

Reflecting on the experience working during the pandemic, April Slayton, the library’s communications director, identified several lessons learned. Slayton said that having clear communication helped staff adjust to changing circumstances and respond to technological challenges. Similarly, listening to customer needs and guaranteeing the library could continue to offer many of its services across the spectrum was vital during the digital transition.

Currently, the library uses a variety of mechanisms to collect feedback and engage with its users. Ask a Librarian is an online tool that provides a one-stop place for researchers who have comments they want to share. The library also has developed a robust user experience design team that works full time to gather input through surveys and other tools, which is then incorporated in software design and new development efforts. Finally, the library relies on its diverse subject matter experts who continuously engage with peers across the country to keep informed about best practices and changing customer needs.

Looking forward, Slayton said the library will seek to integrate and maintain the different virtual strategies used during the pandemic through a comprehensive public-facing communication strategy.