A Positive Post-Pandemic: More Engagement, Bigger Audiences, Better Accessibility
Based in a former nurses’ home in Salford, the Working Class Movement Library is a treasure trove of books, pamphlets, archives, artefacts and fabric memorabilia relating to political and cultural institutions of the working class over the past 200 years. As part of The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab, the library was mentored by Janet Alderman to help the organisation develop its digital skills and capabilities. In this case study, Janet shares how the library was able to achieve big digital changes with a bit of courage and a can-do attitude.
Filming the start of the Working Class Movement Library's virtual tour. Image courtesy of Working Class Movement Library ©.
The Working Class Movement Library packs a powerful punch with their collection of books, pamphlets, archives, artefacts and fabric memorabilia relating to political and cultural institutions of the working class. Their collection is ever more relevant with the economical challenges the UK is currently facing, and they actively seek to be a place of resource and learning.
Like all of us, they were forced to shut their doors during the pandemic but have been incredibly busy and resilient in their online and digital offerings. Armed with an experiment attitude and the willingness to try, the results have been incredible for their programming, staff and audience base. The success over the last year during such a difficult time is not to be dismissed lightly. The library has made some small but fundamental changes and things can only look up from here.
As a small core team of three members of staff, the library has managed to achieve some enviable results. Their events saw more visits over the last year than they did before Covid-19. In addition, they have managed to digitise more of their collection, discover incredible artefacts that they were unaware of, actively collect digital objects (such as social media), grow their social media following significantly and develop a virtual tour offering more accessibility to their audiences.
In September 2020, the library were successful with their application to be a participant in The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab, a programme managed by the Arts Marketing Association and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. I became acquainted with Lynette Cawthra ― Library Manager ― as their mentor for the programme. She came to me with a broad question: how do we do all this ‘digital stuff’ and keep doing what we’re doing, but online? I answered the questions with guidance but the real energy came from Lynette and her team. The solution for them was simple: just have a go and see what happens. To make big changes, you don’t need flashy solutions and lots of cash or people, you need a bit of courage and a can-do attitude.
“It’s like we’ve let the genie out the bottle - and there’s no way we’re putting it back in”
Before March 2020, the library had never heard of Zoom, something which is probably true for the majority of people across the globe at that time. Yet through the use of Zoom, they have been able to induce three new board members, hosted volunteer lunches and carried out staff training and development online. They made full use of the Digital Heritage Lab programme and attended many of its workshops such as digitising collections and creating digital content. In addition, The Lab's online ‘lunches’ allowed them to connect with other small heritage organisations such as Morecambe Bay Partnership and The Armagh Rhymers. These institutions were groups that they have wanted to connect with before, this new online space enabled them to get together without the physical costs.
The biggest change over the last year has been how the library has been running its free talks programme. Events prior to the pandemic were limited due to the space in the annexe room, and regularly saw 20-30 people attending. Although these talks were popular with a regular audience, the physical restriction of the room size meant they could never exceed 40. The pandemic pushed the library into hosting these talks online and over the past year they've held 27 free online talks. Zoom has brought them audiences far larger and more geographically spread than ever before. Twice they managed to hit their Zoom limit of 100 attendees ― once for a poetry reading from Oliver James Lomax, and a talk about a graphic novel on Thomas Paine. Attendee figures overall consistently were around three times than the 2019 figures. In addition, they made significant savings on travel expenses and have been able to have speakers as far as Aberdeen, Sussex and Toronto (Canada).
“We were fortunate in a way, when I asked our first speaker if they’d like to try and do the talk online, they happily agreed. Having a speaker willing to have a go made the transition to digital much more easy”
Moving these events online has been a fantastic move for the library and a move they plan to keep permanent going forward. Once the library reopens, the team plan to trial ‘hybrid’ events, where they will aim to livestream the speaker from the annexe with a physical audience, or stream in the speaker to a live audience. Depending on what works best, they plan to iterate using audience feedback and will keep digital as part of their offering.
The popularity of their online events is obvious not only in their attendee numbers, but their overall digital activity. Despite not having a full-time digital marketing person, their website traffic has increased over 40% in 2020-21, with a significant increase from social media referrals. Their Twitter account grew by nearly 20% to just over 8,200 followers and Facebook page ‘likes’ increased over 13% to 6,800. Thanks to their newly digitised poster collection, their Instagram account continues to grow and is gaining a striking visual appearance with engaging copy. Their YouTube views for events far exceed the live numbers, with talks bringing in views of over 500, and their Radical Sounds music and spoken word event with Maxine Peake drawing in 200 live views, with a further 1,000 later on.
Digital in itself is rarely a solo journey and this is simply the case because ‘digital’ does not encompass one thing. A viable solution to gaps in your knowledge or inventory is partnering or seeking input and resources from outside. In March 2021, the library were in a position to welcome a team from Creative Manchester ― part of Manchester University ― and bring on their skills to undertake 360 degree photography of the building to create a virtual tour. The virtual tour allows visitors to explore the space digitally and explore the exhibition in a different way. Annotations and rich media can be added to the tour allowing further information to be added and adapted over time. A further benefit of the new virtual tour is that it provides access to those who are unable to use stairs as some of the exhibition space is on the upper floor. Digital labelling has the benefit of being more accessible than physical printed text so the benefits to the library having this new tour have been wide reaching.
The virtual tour allows visitors to explore the space digitally and explore the exhibition in a different way.
A blessing perhaps of the pandemic means that ‘spring cleaning’ type tasks can be carried out without disturbing the public. For example, the photography for the virtual tour could only have taken place without disruption thanks to the library being closed. In this period of lockdown, Jane Taylor, Librarian, and Lindesy Cole, Library Assistant, had a chance to sort through their ceramics collections and digitise their posters collection. Interestingly, Jane discovered something unknown in the collection ― handwoven fabric from Claudia Jones, the ‘mother of Notting Hill Carnival, that Claudia made whilst in prison for political activism. Jane is now working on digitising more fabrics from their collection and this precious time has been possible only because the library was forced to close temporarily. The library is now welcoming back one volunteer at a time with a focus on digitising the collection and are actively seeking to upskill more of their volunteer base with these types of skills going forward. All of these new discoveries are being shared on their website and social media, with 22 blog posts being published in the last year.
The first people back into the library's reading room Summer 2020 to research six episodes for a Arts Council England funded podcast.
Image courtesy of the Working Class Movement Library ©.
Another experimental area for the library is creating a template to help them collect digital objects and accession them into their collection. Materials of this nature typically include social media, and they have been actively collecting content that has been a direct result of the pandemic. This includes some union posts around the demise of Debenhams and the #FireAndRehire campaign for Go North West bus drivers. This type of contemporary collecting means they are able to collect modern examples of political activism and relevant news, storing both official news sources and user-generated content.
Although the past year has been challenging, there have been many positive outcomes to the Working Class Movement Library. From using Zoom to keep their staff and board members connected, trialling hybrid events that are both in-person and live online, to creating a virtual tour for both accessibility and as part of an online exhibition. The library has embraced digital with enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn. The result is higher engagement, a growing online community, more attendance, reduced costs and geographical diversity. There is no going back for the library, and they plan to expand more into the digital space, starting with their own volunteer base digital skills and confidence. I look forward to where their next venture will take them.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.