How technology can save council libraries

While councils contemplate library cuts, Gill Hitchcock finds out how Peterborough has used an integrated system to save £305,000 and keep its 10 libraries open

Hundreds of librarians and authors gathered outside parliament on 9 February 2016 to demand an end to the “national scandal” of public libraries closures. More than 100 libraries shut last year and another 149 are under threat, according to the Speak up for Libraries campaign.

The good news, however, is that by using technology Peterborough City Council has kept all 10 of its libraries going, extended opening hours and saved £305,000 this financial year alone.

Lisa Roberts, Peterborough’s strategic client manager for culture and leisure services, answered’s questions about how automation has resulted in such positive outcomes.

Why did Peterborough need to change its library services?

It started about 18 months ago when we were facing a budget deficit of £25m. I look after culture and leisure and I had to look at all of my services, including saving £400,000 from libraries.

How we had saved money in the past was through things like reducing opening hours and cutting back office costs. But we had got to the point where we needed a huge transformation project to make the savings required.

How did you start the transformation?

We set about doing a public consultation on the value of public libraries. We got more than 5,000 responses from library members and the general public telling us what was important about their library service.

The results were striking. What was important for 87% of respondents was books on shelves; for 70% the location – being near home, and for 65% access to information. When we asked what would encourage you to use the library more, 74% said extended opening hours.

Also, we found that libraries were overwhelmingly local services, with 75% of users travelling less than two miles to use their library.

Having got all that data, we started looking at models for a future library service, from the most drastic option of closing all of our libraries except the central library and our mobile service, to closing our four smaller libraries.

Then we looked at a system called Open+, which would enable us to keep all our libraries open, but we would have to reduce staff hours to make savings.

Why did you opt for this model?

It enables you to extend your opening hours outside staff time through self-service. There is a keypad on the outside of the library where users pop their library card in and key in their PIN. The system talks to the library management system (LMS) and verifies that user as a [scheme] member, the doors open and that person can go to the library while it is unstaffed and use self-service.

They can get books out, use the computers and access information. The only things they can’t do is to print, because we don’t have the hardware, and take out CDs or DVDs.

We do not allow under 16s to be [scheme] members, but they can come in accompanied by an adult.

What were the costs of setting up the new system?

There was a one-off capital cost of £170,000, from Peterborough’s Invest to Save budget. Then there are running costs of £1,500 per year for each library.

Is there a role for library staff in this automated model?

Library users have to join [the scheme] before they can use it and a member of staff will take then through an induction to help them understand what they can and can’t do.

Does the system include hardware and software?

Yes. The hardware is the door access control panels, the CCTV, audio system and the server, which links all of the systems together. The software talks to our LMS and the radio-frequency ID on the door.

We are able to see who is entering the library. The system takes a photo of them putting in their PIN, it can see them in the building, and it takes a photo of them leaving. It also has the ability to turn the lights off at the end of the day, put the building alarm on and lock the doors.

How did go about launching the technology?

We piloted it in our biggest central library and Dogsthorpe library, which we considered to be our biggest risk because it had suffered from anti-social behaviour.

We had no issues whatsoever at Dogsthorpe; the issues that we had at our central library were around tailgating.

We have very high use of the public computers at the central library. They are always very busy and people are used to queueing to get their hour slot.

A queue would form outside, the door would open when [a scheme] user left and people would assume the library was open and all come in.

Was the tailgating problem resolved?

We were able to remedy that through a marketing campaign telling people they didn’t have to queue because they could access the library using the new system, giving them control of when they wanted to use the library rather than having to queue outside. Now the message has got out.

An unauthorised person could still get in though?

Yes, but we have risk assessed it and we are happy with our level of risk. And what we found was that the public are very aware of who is around them and also the tailgater can’t do anything when they are in there because their card is not valid.

What challenges did you face in introducing this new system?

The technology was seamless and very easy and put in. But we have 10 libraries in very different types of buildings, from grade II listed to brand new. It was the solution to automate the doors – ranging from an old wooden arched door to glass doors – that did present challenges.

And the public perception?

After the pilot, we had a second consultation setting. Forty per cent opposed [the new model], of whom 80% said it was due to lack of safety.

We had a lot of comments about how fantastic library staff were. But no one day is just automated, it is a combination of automated and staffed. So a member of the public can make an informed choice about whether they want to use the automated service or see a member of staff.

Councils are under pressure to shut libraries. What would your message be to them?

Don’t go to closure first. There are alternatives that will save money and keep the service for the community. Pilot it in two libraries in completely different buildings and areas to understand how it works for your community. 

Colin Marrs

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