Libraries as ‘public living rooms’

Liz McGettiganEdinburgh’s libraries are not just about books. Actually they were never just about books! They are about place, people, learning, inclusion and equality of access.

Libraries are here to stay because they have a survival instinct and because they have created a mutually dependent relationship with the communities they serve, and most importantly, they know how to adapt to the changing world around them. Libraries are public spaces, one of the few non-commercial spaces in the city.

There is the democratic dimension. Libraries are where a mix of ages, income groups, young and old share the same place and there is huge potential for us to play an even more vital and active role as ‘public living rooms’.

In Edinburgh libraries are owned by our communities. Free, attractive, warm and comfortable spaces. spaces where everyone and anyone can freely pick up a magazine a book, DVD or CD, somewhere to learn ICT, to take a class or have a coffee. They are about healthy communication networks and well informed neighbourhoods.

Customers are telling us clearly they expect a quality experience when using our services, a vibrant, bright, welcoming space providing a modern environment with the opportunity for reading, activities, relaxation, enjoyment, information and learning, and we have listened.

Craigmillar quietcroppedOld, young, teens, grandparents, families, singles, babies all have something in there for them from rhyme times and parenting collections to X-boxes, large print and personal shopping. They are about community, creativity, collaboration, curiosity and connectivity and so are we!

Anyone who thinks libraries are going away simply because books are going digital are missing the true shifts taking place in the world of information. In fact, it is now more important to develop this community value in a world that is often one of isolation, solitary social media and Internet. We are about social and digital inclusion and making people feel at home in their public space.

We have embraced innovation and technology and extended service provision for citizens. Edinburgh’s library service has been able to act as a trailblazer in the use of mobile apps, providing a new way to reach busy, leisure-time-poor, citizens and has demonstrably driven up attendance at library events.

Performance improvements:

  • Visits to libraries 12/13 = 3,069,291 –  8% increase on 11/12
  • Electronic transactions 12/13 =  4,530,134 – 90% increase on 11/12
  • Issues of books, CDs, DVDs 12/13 = 0.2% increase on 2011/12
  • Events = 10.8% increase on 2011/12
  • Attendance at events = 14.7% increase on 2011/12

The budget for developing the service was reallocated from within existing revenue budgets. The project was entirely funded from a realignment of resource spend from traditional to digital. We’ve seen huge budget efficiencies over the last four years, but through realignment of staff resources, skills and budget we have managed to increase profile usage and performance. For example, where we once bought very expensive multiple hard copy reference materials we have now moved to high quality online versions.

Cuddlebook cornercroppedSupply chain improvements meant huge savings were achieved in postage for example. Instead of sending out reminders and overdue letters, we have gradually moved 78% of our customers to online or text. We invested in technology such as self service and supplier selection of materials and supply chain efficiencies which enabled us to free up staff to concentrate on more citizen focused services. Staff that were once heavily involved in providing more traditional reference resources were reallocated and we have built a very innovative and exciting team.

Everything we have built is replicable by other library and information services. Libraries, much like any living breathing organism, have to adapt to the complex nature of the ever-changing world of information. As information becomes more sophisticated and complex, so do libraries.

I am always amazed at the innovative things being done in libraries across the world. I have an ambition that Edinburgh’s Libraries are regarded as world leading and we have gone a long way towards that, with awards for the UK’s Best Library Service 2012 and finalists for the Public Sector Digital Awards.

Andrew Carnegie put it so well: ‘A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.’


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Garry Crosbie
Garry Crosbie
10 years ago

Great article Liz. Keep up all the fantastic work.

Best wishes,

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