Creating a sustainable public library through technology

Public libraries are an enduring part of our culture and remain a foundation for learning, social inclusion, equality and democracy. But with budget pressures and competition from the internet as an alternative source of information, sustainability has become a key area for libraries to focus on in 2017.

Indeed, in Arts Council England’s report, “Envisioning the Library of the Future”, sustainability is listed as one of four priorities.

Is technology really the route to sustainability?

Whereas evolving technology poses a clear challenge to pre-existing perceptions of libraries, it also provides some answers for how libraries can adapt and thrive.

With figures from Finland showing that libraries have seen a reversal in declining number of visitors since its introduction, one answer is the increasingly popular ‘open library’ concept.

However, there are many options out there and Lluís Anglada, director of Libraries, Information and Documentation at the Consortium of University Services of Catalonia, has come up with a formula to help libraries make key decisions.

So how do local authorities make their library service sustainable?

When considering the sustainability of libraries, it stands to reason that they can be considered, or predicted, to be operating in a sustainable way when the social value they offer outweighs their cost to society.

In a paper titled, “Are libraries sustainable in a world of free, networked, digital information?” Lluís Anglada considers how libraries can be sustainable in modern society.

Anglada proposes a formula which is simply a ratio of value against cost, where value is defined as the combination of a number of factors, specifically:

  • Library usage
  • The perception of the library
  • Expectations vs reality – for example, if a user expects the library to be open on the weekend but cutbacks mean that its hours have been reduced, then expectations are not being met and this detracts from the value

What’s important to note, is that sustainability is improved by adding to value.  So the common perception that an out-of-hours library access solution could, or should be used as an alternative to staffed hours does not, in this model, improve sustainability, it just adds value in one way – by keeping the library open longer, whilst detracting it in another – by reducing the number of staffed hours.

To show this value framework using a real-life example, we can look to the JISC guide on access and identity management from May 2013.  Here the focus is on offering Single Sign On (SSO) for identity management of users; essentially to simplify their online experience by providing access to multiple online tools with a single login.  The conclusion of this was indeed that the SSO project was of value and that it was cost effective, therefore, Anglada’s framework can be used as a guide to predict that this technology will improve library sustainability.

So the question of sustainability of libraries should (and does already) focus around adding useful new services or technologies to add value in a cost effective way.  The “Libraries Deliver” report by the Libraries Taskforce further highlights the importance of libraries continuing to add and demonstrate value above cost:

“This report challenges both central and local government to think and act differently to transform library services. Libraries should be integral to all public service strategies. They must demonstrate their value to service commissioners – promoting themselves as an asset not a cost. In turn, we are urging commissioners to consider a ‘Libraries First’ approach when planning services for their communities.”

Encouraging library usage

Library usage is an important part of what makes up value, according to Anglada, so how can libraries use technology to encourage use?

By making the library service more accessible and available.

Digital technology like mobile apps and responsive websites that are common in libraries are doing this already by facilitating online access to information in a way that is relevant to their users. This helps many users who can’t make it to a branch to access services.

“Open library” systems (i.e. out-of-hours library systems) are similar, but instead make the library as a physical space more available.  Crucially though these systems are providing the library service in a relevant way, making libraries available to a broader section of the community – which, evidence shows us, is typically students and those that work that may not be able to access them during the typical opening hours – hours that are being reduced over time thanks to external pressures.

Libraries must consider technologies that make it easy for users to access their services, both online and in the library

To facilitate services that are used widely, libraries must consider technologies that make it easy for users to access their services, both online and in the library.

The simplicity of “open library” technology ensures that there are almost no barriers to it being used, all you need is a library card and an access code; it’s a solution for the whole community.  This simplicity makes it even more accessible than mobile, which whilst widely adopted, still relies on the user’s digital skills in order to access library services online.

In Denmark, library services have reported a “significant increase of the number of visits since the introduction of the Open Libraries service”.  So clearly this technology has the potential to play a vital role in sustaining a library’s usership, and may in fact grow it, as has been seen in Denmark.

Significant increase of the number of visits since the introduction of the Open Libraries service

The importance of perception

According to Anglada, the value attributed to libraries is greatly dependent on their perception:

“In the past, the perception of libraries gave them social value because the printed book was the only means of disseminating information and recording culture, and so the library received the same value associated to information and culture.” 

With information much more readily available for free from a variety of sources, this associated value has diminished.  So libraries must work hard to increase their perceived value in other ways.

The perception of libraries is important in that it acts in two ways; firstly, it’s important to show the value of libraries to the community because their perception will influence their use.  And secondly, it’s this use that provides the demonstrable value that helps sell the library service within local government, giving library managers greater influence over key decision makers in order to secure future funding.  It’s this that lowers the potential political or budgetary barriers that might exist within an authority, which in turn will help secure the future prosperity of the library service.

An out-of-hours library service can play an important part in the perception of the library.  The LGMA report from the Open Library trial in Ireland is testament to the positive affect on perception:

“Feedback from users and staff has been very positive.  Overall, users seem to value the service more, respect the civic space and display a stronger sense of community ownership of the library.”

Furthermore, Tom O’Sullivan, Chief Librarian at Cavan County Library in the Republic of Ireland, which is in the process of adopting an open library system, says “the extra opening hours would add new life to the section of town in the evening”, and of the pilot that ran noted that “those who did use the service took on a degree of ownership of the initiative, and were proud to use it.”  Additionally, Tom commented that “It was onus on the Council to provide the best service it can for the people of the county, and that the ‘My Open Library’ scheme could only be seen as an enhancement of existing services.”

Adding value with open libraries

The open library concept was introduced in Denmark in 2009 and has proved to be extremely valuable.  According to an APSE report on open libraries:

“The open libraries concept has been used [in Denmark] to safeguard the remaining libraries, to extend the number of hours and to free up staff time to support customers.”

When considering the how to balance value against cost in Anglada’s formula, it can be assumed that the costs of ‘open library’ systems can be considered low because of the inherent efficiency of the technology. What’s more, as in Denmark, these systems go some way to safeguarding access to the library from potential future budget pressures.

Today, staff-less libraries are being operated all over the world and have been in some places for a number of years.

In the UK, for example, a case study shows how the “open library” functions in the small market town of Cullompton in Devon, a town which largely acts as a dormitory for people working in the nearby cities.  Here people normally work elsewhere during regular daytime opening hours. The Library Director has observed how the core users have begun to take ownership during the unattended opening hours and also that the open library is used for meetings by 20-30 regular evening meeting participants.

“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.” ― Bill Moyers

This serves to highlight two important points: firstly, that the “open library” is being used, and secondly, that it is likely being used by people that weren’t using the library before, thus adding value by making the library service more accessible to a greater number of people within the local community.

Referring back to Anglada’s proposal, we can see that “open library” technology has the potential to act on all three of the components of value in a positive way, whilst simultaneously not adding to cost at the same rate.  In the simplest terms, ‘open library’ technology is an opportunity to enhance a library and its role in the community in a sustainable way, safeguarding libraries against the risk of closure in these times of austerity.

References:

“Are libraries sustainable in a world of free, networked, digital information?”, Lluís Anglada, Dec 2014.  http://www.elprofesionaldelainformacion.com/contenidos/2014/nov/07.pdf

“Envisioning the Library of the Future”, Arts Council England. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sector-resilience/envisioning-library-future

“Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021”, (last updated) December 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/libraries-deliver-ambition-for-public-libraries-in-england-2016-to-2021/libraries-deliver-ambition-for-public-libraries-in-england-2016-to-2021#our-vision-for-public-library-services-in-england-1

“Open Libraries Pilot Service”, LGMA, 2014-2016. https://staffourlibraries.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/final-open-libraries-pilot-report.pdf

“Libraries – sign up for e-resources – 2016-2017”, SOCITM, 2017. https://betterconnected.socitm.net/services/libraries/sign-up-for-e-resources/2016-2017

“Access and identity management”, JISC, May 2013. https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/identity-management

Open Library at Collumpton, Public Libraries News, http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/about-public-libraries-news/unstaffed-libraries/open-case-study-cullompton-devon

“Review of the open library concept in UK public libraries”, APSE Solutions, October 2016.

“Mixed reaction to ‘self service’ library plan”,  Anglo Celt, http://www.anglocelt.ie/news/roundup/articles/2017/01/17/4133199-mixed-reaction-to-self-service-library-plan/

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2017-03-08T15:55:33+00:00 7 March 2017|Blog|

About the Author:

Sean is a Marketing Manager with over 8 years' experience of B2B marketing and digital marketing in the technology sector.