Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A library 'solution' without the staff!

Last night, Mick Fortune, an expert on library technologies especially RFID, reviewed a new product from Bibliotecha, a fully serviced staff-less library. It's called Open + and is described by the company itself as;

“a complete solution which extends library opening hours and improves service to the community” which “can automatically control and monitor building access, self-service kiosks, public access computers, lighting, alarms, public announcements and patron safety.”

Apparently the model has been piloted in Leeds and 60 users signed up for the service in the first 3 weeks of operation, which to me seems an incredibly low figure.

Now there are many who would argue that volunteer-led libraries are basically staff-less and that the whole concept is not a new one with Denmark, Taipei, US and Ireland leading the way but one thing that worries me is that this 'new' model will be used by councils purely as a cost cutting exercise.
You've got to remember that the public library sector especially in England is incredibly fragmented with no real leadership, standards or strategy, with each local authority cutting, closing and divesting until a legal challenge lands on the desk of the borough solicitor.

Mick has pointed out to me that the Danish model didn't result in job losses and says in his review that;

"Bibliotheca make it very clear in all the marketing literature that their intention is NOT to accelerate the demise of the public librarian"

But, and its a big but, this is not how most local authorities will see it.

Mick also goes on to mention 'My Community', another Bibliotecha product, which although is not RFID or library related is being marketed by the company as an add-on for self-serve, it basically allows library users to access other council services, which could be seen as library budgets being used to hasten the downfall of other public services. Basically if you can pay for your council tax through a library kiosk then councils could use this to cut dedicated & trained council tax staff. Lambeth Libraries have recently invested in this product.

Bibliotecha also claim that Open+ will;

"increase community value
Increasing library access and new service delivery to meet the needs
of the whole community. Increase membership, footfall, value and secure
a resilient and relevant service for present and future generations."
now some might say that this is a highly contentious and inflammatory statement, especially in the current climate. Do communities want staff-less libraries? Have they got a choice? Is there a mandate for this? Is a library a library without library staff?

In Ireland recently a union representing library staff, Impact, called on it's members not to cooperate in plans to pilot staffless libraries there so it will be interesting to see what response, if any, there is here to all this.

"So, for the cost of some computer cameras and a card-based door entry system, your library can also get rid of all of its staff apparently. While I am not opposed to a holds-pickup station somewhere in your community, I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “library.”

for more on unstaffed or staff-less libraries see:




  1. A couple of observations. Remember that this is only being trialled in a single (small) branch in Leeds. I have no idea therefore whether 60 is a big number or a small one. The librarian responsible for the project seemed quite pleased with it so I'm guessing it's significant for them.

    The 'product' is not a fully serviced staffless library, the product is essentially software linked to the various hardware elements that a library may wish to control out of staffed hours. It's a nice point I grant you but I think it's important to concentrate fire on those who may seek to create staffless fully serviced (which they wouldn't be) libraries by using the product - rather than the product itself.

    I believe this approach will be a game changer for service delivery - and I should point out that "other solutions are available" - but it could be for good as much as for bad. I can certainly think of situations where staff and branches might be saved by extending opening hours for relatively lower cost.

    But I will admit to feeling a distinct chill when I consider a future that might see me sitting in a darkened library at 11pm watched only by a camera and being told by a disembodied voice that I have 2 minutes to leave the building...

    1. yep thanks Mick some good points but you didn't expect me to be accurate and balanced did you? After all i'm not PLN ;-)

  2. It sounds interesting, and I imagine it could help a lot in some situations, so long as councils (library authorities) do not forget their statutory duty "of encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service, and of providing advice as to its use and of making available such bibliographical and other information as may be required by persons using it" (Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, sect. 7.2(b)). I doubt if the technology described does this, though it may help towards such provision.

    1. thanks for your comment/s :-) My fear is that unlike the Danish model, in the UK councils are going to use this as a piecemeal way of cutting staff and costs and if you hollow out the service then of course you are going to find it difficult to provide one that fullfills your statutory obligations under the Act.

  3. "...being told by a disembodied voice that I have 2 minutes to leave the building...".

    So what happens if you don't?

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  9. Hmm as a union member I'd rather an unmanned library into the late evening or early morning than being told I have to work until 10pm or start at 6am with all that holds for my family life.Because that's when Mr and Mrs wage slave can get to the library.

    1. Thanks for your comment but as a union member myself is rather that my employer had proper 'family friendly' policies in place that didn't force me to work all the hours under the sun and that unscrupulous Cllrs didn't use models like 'open +' to cut staff like they're doing/proposing in Barnet, Sheffield etc.