Part 4: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

What are some of the more practical problems with open libraries?

The answer to this question depends on how good the technology in the library is, but here are some potential issues that can arise. None of them are unsolvable, but are still problems:

Ani-social behaviour

The report released by the government from which they have chosen to implement open libraries, as incomplete as it is, does suggest there were instances of ant-social behaviour in the piloted libraries, but does not go into detail. I worked in a 24/7 academic library in the UK and did experience some anti-social behaviour in the library. It was technically an open library but with two security guards on duty at night. However, given the size of the library, security could only respond to problems that were reported by other library users.

Users there did bring alcohol into the library at night. There were some instances of arguing, (but no physical fighting) in the library. Groups of students used the library as a social space at night also, which meant that students who wanted to study were often disturbed. Users frequently broke the ‘no hot food’ rule at night time in the library. There were many problems with coffee and alcohol spills, food stains and smells, vomit and general rubbish in the library. What this does is run down the library environment and adds to cleaning and maintenance costs. Chairs and tables were frequently broken from misuse, as were computers and other technology. Again, there was no violence in the library owing to the fact that security guards were on duty. The library in the UK that I worked in did also have a problem with homeless people sleeping in the library at night. Some students did also damage books.

keep-calm-and-stop-anti-social-behaviour

Tailgating

Anti-social behaviour is added to when people tail-gate into the library, which basically means they sneak in behind members. You can certainly have people in the library who cannot be identified if they engage in anti-social behaviour. This is a problem because it makes people feel uncomfortable in the library space. It means if stealing or damage occurs, we may not necessarily be able to identify the culprits. In the university library I worked in, students could actually get a guest pass for their friends. However, most still preferred to tailgate.

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Theft/ Damage to items

Damage to items is inevitable in a library. But if the security systems are not adequate then  theft will increase. All libraries have a missing items list that they maintain through their information management system. I would like to know whether or not this list has gotten longer in the piloted libraries and how much that has cost the libraries involved. If the security gates in the library are not full length, then it is very easy to throw a book over the gates and exit out of the library with it. RFID tagging of books nowadays does it make it more difficult to tear security tags out of books and walk through the gates, but a lot of stock in our public libraries is old and does not necessarily have that technology. In fact, in one public library I worked in people used to frequently and accidentally walk through the gates holding unchecked library items and the security alarms at the gates were not activated. Also, in the university I worked at, sometimes the self-check machines would experience technical problems. The machines do have a back-up, offline mode when this occurs. However, in this library the back up mode would sometimes allow students to take reference books out of the library. These books are normally expensive and valuable and are also library only-copies, which means if they go missing they are expensive to replace. What this demonstrates is the fallibility of these systems and the need to get it right from the start by researching the most appropriate technology and being prepared to pay top dollar for it.

Technology Problems

I wonder if the people planning opening libraries have analysed their chosen company’s customer service and problem solving records. Problems with the technology are inevitable. One library I worked in had chosen the wrong entrance gates. The gates would, on a daily basis, not allow entry to some users. The company responsible for the gates did not fix the problem even after 12 months of complaints by the library. With no staff to open the gates in an open library, people could be refused entry. If the self-service machines go down, how long will it take to fix them, especially if you have one company responsible for all the open libraries in the country? These kinds of problems are inevitable, so questions need to be asked about ongoing costs and time scales when problems arise.

Circulation

In all of the libraries I have worked in, one of the most frequent problems we encounter when working at the desk relates to lost or missing items. In a library that is understaffed, doing the request items list can be a nightmare. This is because patrons drag items all around the library, taking a book off of one shelf and putting it back somewhere else. There are always missing items and unfulfilled requests. Open libraries have less or sometimes no staff at all. And if patrons are using the library for many hours without assistance, and if the shelves are not maintained consistently, then circulation is affected. Items go back out on the shelves slower with open libraries because re-shelving only happens once per day as opposed to the constant shelving and tidying that happens in a staffed library. Circulation, sortation and shelving are the most important tasks because they mean that when a patron goes to the shelf, their book is in place. Libraries with poor sortation and shelving result in inadequate circulation and a frustrating experience for users with no staff to help them.

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The problems mentioned above are not unsolvable, but I have not seen any meaningful  acknowledgement of these issues in the government report. Of course, if there was consultation with librarians then many of these issues could be resolved more easily. The above list is far from exhaustive and I welcome my library colleagues to add to this this list using the comments below.

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