Libraries of Hampshire: believe in yourself

I took part in Hampshire County Council’s consultation over the future of its libraries a few weeks ago. The consultation itself has been rather controversial with many anti-cuts groups saying the exercise, which does suggest some closures, is ‘phoney’ and uses fancy words to obscure plans for closures.

The council are currently spending more than £12m a year on running 53 libraries and hope to save around £1.7m with the new strategy – the subject of the consultation – putting libraries into tiers based on how well used they are, as well as cutting the mobile library service.

Far from thinking the consultation was in any way phoney, it does – in hindsight, at least – strike me that the strategy is trying to solve the problems of today and tomorrow with the solutions of the past.

It’s unbecoming of me to be less cynical than would be appropriate of people’s motives, and perhaps the bods behind the strategy are looking to find ways to cut back on libraries completely, but it seems that whoever put the plan together had settled in the view that libraries will, in the not-too-distant future, close up shop for good.

Their job, as they see it, is to manage the decline of libraries – not stop it.

And I disagree. Library usage might have declined, but books are still in demand. So why are we looking at solving the problems of under-use by closing libraries and not, instead, focusing on increasing usage?

Like charities should automatically have ‘become obsolete’ as number one in their list of objectives – the core values of the library service should surely be ‘keep people using libraries’.

Here’s what I’d do if someone left me in charge:

Open more at weekends, less during the week

It’s being proposed that some of the least used libraries in Hampshire will have their opening hours cut back, in some cases to 5-day-a-week opening and in some cases 3 days.

To get more people in to the libraries this opening needs to be biased towards weekends – why? Well, because most council tax payers simply aren’t around during the week and the places picked – Alton, Aldershot, Bordon, Eastleigh, Hayling island, Hedge End, New Milton, Tadley, Totton – all look to me like places where people live, not where people work.

Opening Monday to Friday 9 ’til 5 when most of the adult population aren’t around seems pointless – and of course, it’s also pushing up the cost per lent book too.

Put more stuff online

No, I don’t mean eBooks. I mean develop a proper, engaging platform which not only lets me do wall the stuff I already can – like reserving books and renewing a loan – but which actively encourages me to read more.

Goodreads’ Reading Challenge would be easily implemented to encourage volume, but at the very least a weekly ‘suggestion’ based on my loan history or a tip for a new release wouldn’t go amiss.

And that feeds into…

Take a hint from LOVEFiLM

The consultation says that ‘home libraries’ with volunteers delivering books to residents’ homes will provide a more intimate and efficient service than a mobile library van.

They’re not wrong – but with 2,200ish people relying on the service it’s going to be ‘free’ labour intensive. Why not instead let people use the new online service to create a reading list and have books posted to them – for a small additional subscription?

This wouldn’t just help those who can’t get to libraries because of a disability or lack of transport, but removing the effort from going to the library would almost definitely increase usage. It’d even be possible to join forces with other councils to offer the service on a bigger selection of books.

Work out how to open 24/7 without staff

Multiple chains of gyms manage this, and they’re significantly higher risk places. At the very least, collecting books you’ve picked online and returning ones you’re done with should be possible round-the-clock – or at the very least after 5pm in some of the ‘lesser used’ areas.

There’s simply no need to have staff buzzing about a library all of the time and with more than 60% of the £12m a year going on staff, finding ways to reduce the number of people needed to deliver the same basic service will reduce costs quickest.

Stop talking about ‘branding’ until you’ve fixed things

Libraries’ brand, whether they like it or not, is ‘placename library’, and no amount of swooshing coloured lines and “Your mind, our shelves, working together” branding that will inevitably come out of any rebrand is going to change that. The problem is that libraries are currently associated with female pensioners headed in twice a month for a stack of hardback novels to pass the time and housewives looking for their free fix of Mills & Boon.

If you rebrand before you change that the new brand will end up with the same image the old one’s got. No matter how many swooshes you use.

Remember you have to use it or you’ll lose it

I don’t use my local library enough as it stands – I’ve borrowed about 3 books from it since I joined about 9 months ago – but that’s partially because I forget I can, or because it’s easier to order it from Amazon and have it delivered the next day.

I think we all suffer from a belief over public services like libraries that they will always just be there, and we instinctively jump to their defence – even when, if no one mentioned it, we might not personally notice they’d closed.

Much like local business can’t rely on screaming from the rooftops about how local business needs to be actively supported to carry on trading – instead of considering how they might change to make it more attractive to shop locally – the people running libraries really should be acknowledging that they have a future.

Providing a library service on the off chance someone wants to use it isn’t enough I’m afraid.