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British Library

Supporting the creative community with the British Library

The Challenge

Design and build the system that ensures book contributors are remunerated when their works are loaned out from the UK’s public libraries.  

When we borrow books from public libraries – in print, electronic or audio form – the authors, illustrators, narrators and other contributors receive remuneration for the loan. This is funded by the UK government, and managed by the Public Lending Right (PLR) team at the British Library.

This team collects data about loans, uses this data to propose to the government how much each contributor should receive from the annual PLR fund, and then makes these payments directly to contributors. The British Library also shares insights into patterns of borrowing with book contributors – something they value extremely highly.

The PLR process previously used several bespoke legacy applications. These were becoming increasingly difficult to run and maintain, and making any significant enhancements was becoming ever-more complex. In addition, they were built on technologies that were no longer supported technically. The PLR team wanted to replace them with a single, modern and sustainable system that would deliver a variety of benefits for the British Library and the creative community.

Kate Ebdon, Head of PLR at the British Library, explains: “First and foremost, we wanted to make the service more attractive to potential users by improving the user experience. Secondly, our aim was to make financial and efficiency savings by, for example, introducing automated self-service options for identity verification and book registration. Thirdly, we needed full confidence in the system, both in terms of the data it produced, and its stability.

The British Library brought in Softwire to design, build and support its replacement PLR application. Ebdon adds: “What made this project extra-challenging, as well as offering up the opportunity to do things differently, was that the British Library had just taken on a completely new team to run PLR. This meant we needed a partner that could work with us collaboratively on the discovery, to help define the exact requirements.”

Our Solution

We helped the British Library establish exactly what the replacement system needed to do, and worked closely with a variety of users to ensure we met their needs, while also delivering on the British Library’s strategic aims. These included putting users at the heart of everything it does.

Discovery and prototyping

Through detailed user research, our Manchester-based team defined the processes the system needed to support. From these insights, we established new user journeys that would enable the software to meet the needs of the British Library and creative community.

Our design team then mocked up rapid prototypes. Regular testing with users, including individuals with additional accessibility requirements, enabled us to refine and polish them to better meet people’s needs.

Technical re-use to minimise cost

The British Library had done some initial technical work on the new PLR application in-house. To keep costs down, we validated the technology choices and work done, and used it as the foundations of the new system.

Making the PLR system more engaging

To grab and hold users’ attention, a key aim was to speed up registration, so that people could start finding their works in the catalogue as quickly as possible. To this end, we introduced a faster, completely digitised registration option, including secure identity-verification, which had previously required physical documents to be sent to the British Library. We also designed the system to allow people to search for their works while the identity check happens in the background.

We built an entirely new search system, to make it simpler for people to find works in a variety of formats. This involved searching multiple data sources, and putting in place rules to govern what happens where data conflicts.

We then used the British Library’s data to streamline the process by which contributors submit their works, and the British Library approves them. In many cases, the entire process can now be completed within minutes.

In addition, we built a new, interactive loans insight area for contributors. We used simple graphical widgets to help people understand where their books were being borrowed, which were most popular, and see trends over time. For staff, we aligned the software with the British Library’s Microsoft Power BI skills base. We connected the app to Power BI Service and delivered an initial set of dashboards, which the PLR team then developed and expanded to meet its needs.

Eliminating manual processes to save time and money

As well as supporting user engagement, automating the registration process significantly reduced demands on the British Library PLR team.

To further streamline British Library operations, we integrated the new system into its existing marketing automation platform, CRM system and British Library account registration process.

Ensuring trust in the PLR system

The new PLR system represented one of the British Library’s first significant uses of the cloud. We gave architectural reassurances that the benefits of the cloud could be realised, while still meeting the British Library’s high standards for security.

For external users, we introduced additional security and data verification, such as two-factor authentication. And for the PLR team, we made sure the application gave transparency over the PLR calculation process, as well as the ability to model and reliably reproduce different scenarios.

Supporting the British Library team as it started using the new PLR system

The annual PLR process is a statutory obligation for the British Library and government. To ensure it all proceeded smoothly with the new system, we supported dry-run training exercises with the PLR team, before providing increased levels of support during the first annual payment cycle.

Flexible approach to accommodate evolving project landscape

As the project progressed, external factors and dependencies, including the pandemic, demanded that we adapt the delivery approach, scope and timelines on several occasions, to ensure the project was ultimately able to deliver on its aims.

The Result

The British Library now has a robust system that’s led to significantly higher user engagement, tens of thousands of pounds in cost savings, and enabled the PLR team to focus more on its users.

Following the successful launch of the new PLR system, the British Library felt confident in publicising it, so ran marketing campaigns to encourage the creative community to register.

This saw an immediate uptick in signups, with 2,000 new people joining as a result of the launch publicity. Those individuals were able to register and begin compiling their lists of works within minutes, rather than days.

Improved user engagement and financial savings

Ebdon says: “The new PLR system that Softwire has built for us has met all of our aspirations. We’ve seen an almost 20% increase in active users, and the annual number of new book registrations has more-than-doubled, to around 48,000. This demonstrates the new system is engaging the creative community more effectively.

“We’ve also made substantial savings. The fully digitised ID check, for example, saved us £40K on those 2,000 initial signups. And by automating so much of the process, we’ve freed up a lot of employee time. This means we can do things that had previously been on hold, such as engaging more with our stakeholder community, and improving the quality of our data. By eliminating the need for our IT team to be involved in the annual payment cycle, our PLR team is more self-sufficient.

“Lastly, we know we can trust the system and the data it produces. It’s robust, and gives our team the transparency we need to see exactly how things have been calculated.”

“Triumph of collaboration”

Ebdon concludes by highlighting how the partnership with Softwire has been essential in delivering on the British Library’s aims: “The way we’ve worked together with Softwire has been a great example of best practice in collaboration. When challenges arose, Softwire were phenomenal in remaining positive and finding ways to keep the project moving. Innovation has flourished on both sides, and together we have built a system that’s genuinely a delight to use.”

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The project
We replaced the legacy systems that ensure authors and other book contributors are remunerated when people borrow their works from public libraries.

The results
The new application has markedly increased user adoption and delivered tens of thousands of pounds in cost savings, while freeing up the PLR team to focus on other work that offers higher value to their users.