Category Archives: Public Libraries

Part 6: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Do libraries only provide access to information?

Libraries are some of the world’s oldest institutions. Their primary function has always been to provide access to information. However, in recent years libraries have been transformed into being community spaces. Patrons enter into the library to find information that they need, but once the information is found they can use the facilities to turn that information into action. They can research, electronically communicate, educate themselves and connect with community groups to put the information to use. The library is a platform from which people can take meaningful action in order to improve their lives. Are you currently out of work? Then why not go online in the library and do a web design course that will help you get back to work? Are you going on holidays? Then why not learn a language through the library resources and then attend a language group to practice your new skills? Do you want your kids to receive the inspiration to read and to learn new skills? Then why not bring them into the library to take part in a treasure hunt or reading group, or to do a computer skills or coder dojo class?

I am a qualified Librarian who has also worked for 13 years as a Teacher. I am the Library Assistant in your local library also. Any library that knows and understands the service has been investing in three key areas over the past ten years. These are: the library as community, education in the library, and electronic resources and remote access to them. I am all in favour of using technology to our advantage and I do wish that public libraries in Ireland made better use of the technology that is available to us. However, libraries are very human places. People read, learn, play, and socialise in the library. Whether it is doing a course, attending a group, reading the paper, surfing the net, or having a conversation and a cup of tea, our libraries are unique community spaces. Open libraries, if not planned and used properly have the potential to dehumanise our community spaces. We need to take an honest look at the way in which this government, through their cost cutting policies and their deceit, have been dehumanising our society. When will our children, the elderly, the the unemployed, the disabled and disenfranchised human beings in this country be given precedence over fiscal and economic policy? These blog posts have posed a lot of questions, but this one is perhaps the most important question of all.

Norwich Library’s ‘Love Your Library’ Campaign

Part 5: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Is the open library initiative simply another cost-cutting Fine Gael policy and do you trust your local and national political representatives?

There is always a right way or a wrong way to do things in any endeavour. Given that open libraries in their current guise of 4/5 hours extra opening are not cost effective, we have to question whether or not the government are telling us the truth about their future intentions for libraries in Ireland? Given that the designated users are better served with remote access to electronic resources, we further have to question the level of research and thoughtfulness that has gone into this government plan? Given that open libraries  exclude children, the elderly and adults who are not computer literature, and  also fail to provide as much access to information as staffed libraries, we must question why so much public money is being invested in the open library initiative? Given that the government has not considered the more practical problems and implications on service level and the additional cost of these problems, we have to question the level of planning as well as the lack of professional and public consultation that has been undertaken in rolling out these open libraries? As well as these considerations, we also need to examine some more questions about how the government have co-ordinated the open library initiative.

Why are there contradictions in the report?

In relation to instances of anti-social behaviour, the government report contains the following three sentences: “there were no anti-social or other incidents in any of the three branches and all users complied with the terms and conditions”; “very few anti-social incidents have occurred and those that have were of a minor nature”; and, “no incidents of note”. So, clearly the report is not objective. What exactly were these instances of anti-social behaviour and what impact did they have on the library service and the patrons using it? How did the libraries in question deal with these incidents and what safeguards were put in place to ensure they were not repeated in the future? And more importantly, how did the CCTV system/ technology and procedures work in highlighting the incidents, and what, if any, changes were made to library policy in light of the incidents? Were the incidents reported to the Gardai and was anyone prosecuted?

Can we really trust a report that attempts to gloss over such problems? And why would the report do this? Are there other such contradictions or omissions of information from the report? Does the report further suggest that there is a bigger political agenda at play, one that extends beyond the interests of serving the community?

Why is access to library development funds conditional on establishing an open library?

It emerged this week that libraries will only be allocated access to a 2 million euro fund to upgrade services on the condition that they agree to set up open library facilities in the process. So, if a library is run down and in desperate need of upscaling, this can only happen if the library is transformed into an open library, meaning that the money will not be spent where the service needs it, but on technology for the open library. This takes the control of library development out of the hands of librarians who know their communities best and places it into the hands of a national scheme. In many ways, it is similar to what has been happening to our hospitals and post offices. The government, then, seem to be bribing county, executive and branch librarians who desperately want to upgrade their buildings and services. These exceptional people seem to have little choice – go along with open libraries or be starved of funding. Could this be the reason why some librarians are not speaking up against the initiative?

If the open library pilot was successful in Sligo, why are they facing closures due to staff cuts?

The government report indicates that open libraries are a valuable additional service to the community and that open libraries will not force staff cuts and library closures. However, in the Irish Times, it was reported that ‘Sligo libraries face closures due to staff cuts’. The government, as well as Sligo County Council need to clarify exactly what is the relationship between open libraries and the current threat of staff cuts and library closures? Could it be that so much was spent on setting up and servicing the open library that the council has run out of money and cannot afford to pay staff or provide services to the community? This is not such a far-fetched claim when one considers what has happened to libraries in the UK that have faced closures and cuts after open libraries were introduced. One such example can be found in Norwich in which staff protested the open library initiative when it resulted in the problems Sligo now appears to be facing.

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Did the government take an honest look at similar initiatives in Europe and what impact they have had on the communities involved? Why not survey the public on the issue more completely? And this means not just asking people if they want the library to be open for longer hours, as they did in Dun Laoghaire. But rather asking them if they agree with open and unstaffed libraries and whether they would be happy to have open libraries only in the future?

These are again, just some of the issues relating to a lack of transparency by the government. When Sean Fleming raised the matter in the Dail, he was ridiculed by Fine Gael’s Damien English. But if the initiative is genuinely attempting to serve the community, why ridicule the opposition rather than having an intelligent debate?

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.

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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.

Part 3: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Will the open library provide more or less access to information for all people within the community?

I initially started this article by suggesting that open libraries could provide greater access to information and that this could potentially be a good thing. They provide greater access to information simply because the library is open for longer periods of time. However, does an open library provide greater access to information than a less technologically enabled staffed library?

If the user is computer literate then the staffed library and open library provide the same access to information. However, if the user is not computer literate then the open library provides less access to information. This is because many people do rely on the librarians to help them use the IT facilities in the library. Many users do not know how to search the catalogue in order to find the books they are looking for; others do not know how to log on to a computer let alone search a digital database effectively; most users cannot use the photocopying and scanning facilities without help; and in libraries when there are self-service machines, most users come to the desk with their items anyway preferring the human interaction and service they get from the staff. Open libraries exclude all of these people. So, if it is cheaper to staff a library than to set it up for open access, and if open access excludes users, then is it not true that staffed libraries provide greater a access to information than open libraries given that a staffed library service in the evening provides access to more people and for longer periods of time? The simple truth is that librarians are as much a part of the access infrastructure of a library as computers are.

open-library-risks

Part 2: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Who are the designated end users and does the Open Library truly serve them?

The designated community of an open library are users that are computer liberate and technologically enabled. Many people who attend the library during the day are excluded because they do not know how to use the technology in the library. If the open library scheme is targeting those people that are working during the day then that is fine. It is acceptable to target these users if the library is open to everyone else throughout the day. However, if the end user is someone in full-time employment/ education and is already technologically enabled, is the open library the best solution for their needs?

The bottom line is that the library now provides more electronic resources than it does physical copies. You can borrow e-books and e-magazines through the library website, you can take courses through University Class and you can learn languages also. True open access for a technologically enabled user actually means ‘remote access’. That user can access electronic resources from home, work, while on the train or their lunch break. That user already has a broadband or 3G connection and is already connected to the information they need. Does it make sense that we are investing millions countrywide to set up individual open libraries to service people who are already connected to the internet and who are online? Does it not make more sense to invest this money in electronic and digital resources that can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere and by anyone that has an internet connection? This is also important because one countrywide electronic resources license actually serves the entire country. The open library initiative is setting up single, individual libraries in every county to provide greater access to information. It is like choosing to pay for hundreds of Windows licences when one will cover the entire country at a lower cost.

So, if the actually information can be provided electronically, whey else would someone need an open library? Of course, people will use it not just for the information it holds, but also for the facilities, ie. copying, computing and studying. Again, the designated or targeted user likely already has a computer and printer in their home, or alternatively, will use printing and photocopying services at work. So if the open library will only be open in the evening and the people using it will already be technologically enabled, is it worth the investment to open the library as a study space for professionals and students? There is no doubt that it would be useful for people to study and hold meetings in the library, but do we really need all of the additional security and technology to provide people with a desk, a chair, or a group meeting room? And will people feel safe and comfortable enough to use it anyway?

It appears that the reasons behind the open library are misguided. The attempt to appease disgruntled librarians and patrons by arguing that the open library will only be open for a few hours in the evenings and on Sundays simply does not add up or make sense from a financial or end user perspective.

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Part 1: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

This is the first of a 6 part series on Ireland’s current Open Library Initiative….

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In principle, I am not necessarily against having open libraries in our communities. We live in a very diverse society in which people have all kinds of different lifestyle patterns and needs. Having our libraries open 24/7 in this context can only be a good thing. The core function of a library is to provide access to information and if open libraries provide greater access to information then they may not be all doom and gloom. However, a serious and considered examination needs to be undertaken in order to assess whether the current open library initiative in Ireland is a  positive or negative move by the government. In order to achieve this, some questions need to be asked and answered.

Is the open library initiative cost effective in its current guise?

The current plans are to open the library for additional 4/5 hours each evening. In order to do this, libraries will need a serious upgrade to its facilities. Considering the current outdated technology currently in our public libraries, this will be an expensive venture. Security gates need to be full-length from ceiling to floor to prevent people stealing items. All computer access, photocopying/ scanning, check in/outs, entry/ exit gates, and also item returns will ideally need to be automated. CCTV in the libraries will need to updated also. Added to this, will be the ongoing servicing and maintenance costs of operating the service. This operation will not be taken over by IT Departments already working in County Councils, but will be carried out by the company supplying the technology. What all of this amounts to a very expensive venture. And if money is not spent wisely by choosing technology that is fit for purpose and reliable, along with a servicing contract that allows for efficient problem solving and technical support, then the cost of this will run into tens of thousands of euros per year per library.

So, the question is, is it really worth the cost in order to open the library for an additional 4/5 hours in the evening? And besides, if you have the technology in place, why close the library at all when 10pm comes? Why not open it all night? I will return to this question a little later.  The cost question is very important. A Library Assistant at the beginning of their contract, earns 21,500 euros per year full-time and works on a salary scale that reaches 37,000 euros. If the end goal here is to simply open the library for a few extra hours in the evening, why not create a job for someone like myself who is currently surviving on the scraps of temporary part-time work?

Why spend all of this money when access to the information in the library can be provided so cheaply by creating a job for a young newly qualified librarian? This calls into question the real motives of the government with this initiative. The bottom line is that this project in its current guise of 4/5 hours extra opening is simply not cost effective. And worryingly, the only way to make it cost effective is to reduce staff and have an Open Library all of the time. So when librarians express concern for the future of the profession, they are being realistic about where the open library initiative is heading.

Nice new self-service machine at Sligo Library, although why is everyone wearing coats? Perhaps the money would be better spent on heating?
Nice new self-service machine at Sligo Library, although why is everyone wearing coats? Perhaps the money would be better spent on heating?