missrachelsmith

Posts Tagged ‘Visits

Public libraries: 3 big changes

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Two weeks ago, I headed back to the town where I grew up on the south coast to spend three days working at a large public library. As a child, I used the library to take part in the summer reading challenge, and as a teenager, to revise for my GCSEs and A levels. I hadn’t been to the public library for a while, and as I woke up at my parents’ and walked to the library in the pouring rain on my first day of the placement, I wondered whether I would find it as I remembered it. There’s a lot of talk in the news and in the industry press about public library budget cuts and I was interested to find out how that was affecting the library and the services it offers. And I was intrigued to see what it was like to be behind a public library counter, rather than in front.

Whilst I was revisiting my old life, I found a library service which was changing and moving to new ways of working. These were the key points of change I picked up on during my time at the public library:

1. Budget

The budget the public library is operating on is massively and rapidly reducing. The county council library service had to make £1 million of savings in the last financial year and they’re looking at making the same cost saving this year as well. To do this, the library was attempting to save money where possible and had implemented lots of little income streams, such as asking people to pay to hire meeting rooms, selling greetings cards and auctioning rarer books for disposal. This was a difference between the public library and the university library, where I work, that I wasn’t expecting. Traditionally, libraries are seen as a ‘free’ service (although they’re not, of course. Customers pay for the public library service through their council tax and for the university library through their ever-increasing course fees). Beyond simply borrowing a book, there wasn’t much you could do in the public library which was free. This seemed a little sad from a customer perspective, but from the perspective of the public library’s tightening budget, necessary.

2. Staff and structure

The county council library service had recently undergone a major restructure in terms of staffing and structure. The public libraries throughout the county had been organised into tiers, determining their opening hours and levels of staffing. After the tiers came a major staffing restructure in March 2011. Collection management was centralised, whilst specialist roles such as the children’s librarians, reference librarians and community librarians were spread throughout the library service, working with a number of different branches. The remaining staff within the branches worked in front-line or management roles and were directly engaged with running the library they were based in.

It was interesting to talk to staff about the restructure and how it had impacted upon their jobs and the service that the library offered. I came away with the feeling that the staffing structure was becoming leaner, that several jobs had been lost, and that even visiting six months down the line, a few of the creases had yet to be ironed out. However, the public library staff seemed to be making the best of it and making it work. I was really impressed by the positive attitude demonstrated by all of the staff I met in the face of such big changes to their established ways of working.

3. Service

The public library is currently preparing for another big change – they’re moving to self-service and RFID in November. This will mean an entire new customer service desk layout in the entrance level to the library, which houses the circulating stock out on the open shelves. Transactions will be handled by RFID machines, which will allow customers to borrow and return items, as well as check their Library record and renew items. There will be a small visitor desk created which will handle library registrations and enquiries, but on a much reduced scale.

I’ve seen RFID in action at a public library in the North East, and it’s spangly technology – the way that the self-service machines recognise a stack of items is pretty magical. The new kit will certainly have the wow factor, but it will mean a shift in the way customers experience the library service. I think that the word ‘service’ implies a personal element, rather than a machine. The library I work in operates on a self-service model and I feel that although it works well in terms of handling the volume of customers we see, we’re constantly trying to get across to students that Library staff are approachable and that we’re (as one of our ‘identities’ says – we don’t call it a logo, otherwise Marketing are down our throats!) here to help. The public library is a public service; by moving towards using RFID, the human element will be reduced and I think that’s a really important part of what public libraries do.

Bearing the first big change that the public library is up against in mind, and the fact that the public library is looking to save a million pounds before the end of the financial year, the move to self-service also rings alarm bells. Will this decision make the impact of budget cuts upon staffing even more drastic?

Over the next year, I’m going to attempt to revisit the public library to see how self-service works in practice and how staff are adjusting to this. I’m also going to try to monitor what the local press is reporting about what’s going on at the public library.

It’s true that change is inevitable, but not all changes are necessarily for the better. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes lie ahead for the public library and what kind of challenges and opportunities they bring.

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Written by missrachelsmith

October 7, 2011 at 15:50

In the clink

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Prison is one of those places I never thought I’d go to. I don’t really fancy life behind bars and I hope I’ll never have cause to visit any of my family or friends there either, you know? But some librarians work in Her Majesty’s Prisons around the UK. In fact, the closest library to the library where I work is a prison library. A Category B men’s prison, the jail serves the local courts and has a high prisoner turnover rate. I arranged to visit for the day to find out more about what prison libraries and librarians do…

Security

Perhaps it’s a bit obvious, but the biggest difference that struck me about my time at the prison library was the importance of security. In prison, everything revolves around it. Walking to the library, we travelled through pairs of locked doors every few metres around the prison buildings. Alongside the librarians, prison officers assigned to the library were present at all times to ensure the security of both library staff and prisoners. Due to their customer group, stealing of library property was an issue and prisoners are unable to access the internet, word processing software or printing facilities. Security issues also extended to the stock that the library offered. There are a number of banned items and subjects which you won’t find in the prison library’s collection, from the obvious – books about bombmaking, for example – to the ones you wouldn’t have thought of, like the Igguldens’ Dangerous Book for Boys.

Customer journey

This heightened awareness of security stretched to the customer experience of using the library. The customer journey begins when the prisoner fills out an application form, or ‘app’ to visit the library. Each wing has appointed times when library officers collect those who have filled out an app. The prison officer takes the men to the library for around half an hour and then the group are escorted back to their accommodation or their next activity. I found it interesting that the customer experience of using the prison library begins sometimes days before their visit. This had its own unique set of problems – sometimes when called to go to the library, the men are busy, for example. If prisoners forget to fill out a library app or are unavailable when the library officers come to collect them, they are unable to return their books on time. These were issues that library staff were debating on the day I visited and I hope they continue to investigate ways to resolve this.

Prison libraries and public libraries

Something that I found surprising was the close relationship between the prison libraries and the public libraries in the area. The library service, like the educational provision in the prison, is tendered out. The county council currently provides library services to the prison and the library staff are employed and managed by the council. Therefore, there were a number of crossover points – one of the part-time librarians working at the prison also works for the main public library in the city and the prison and public libraries use the same library card system. The prison libraries in the county use the same library management system as the public libraries and borrow books from there. This close relationship between the services means that data protection is paramount. Library Orderlies (prisoners who work within the prison library) can use the library management system, but can’t access any information on patrons within the public library network. Similarly, only very basic information – surname, current cell and prisoner number – is held on the library management system about the prison library’s customers.

Although I wasn’t aware that the two systems were so closely linked in my area, it appeared that this had a number of benefits – the library is able to provide access to a wide range of material, and there is continuity between the service provided within the prison and libraries within the local area.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I turned up at the prison gates, but I found the atmosphere within the prison to be calm and controlled, and the prisoners seemed to respect and value the service that the library offered.

I’m not sure that prison libraries are for me, but it’s not so bad in the clink.

Written by missrachelsmith

September 15, 2011 at 09:44