Here is a link to a short presentation I’ve put together for this topic:
Objective or Topic:
There are four main objectives to this briefing:
- Demonstrate added value in library services
- Stretch a limited library budget
- Create an ease of access for all library patrons
- Meet community needs
These four objectives can be met and exceeded by offering unstaffed before and/or after-hours access to the library building and its contents. This unstaffed library service is modeled after the Open+ service used in over 800 libraries worldwide (Zulkey, 2019).
Covid-19 has flipped library services on its ear. It is the job of library leadership to make sense of the current circumstances and seek opportunities to extend service to their communities. Many libraries are closed for traditional services or have been required to modify the few operational services into curbside pick-up and virtual programming. It is so important that the health and safety of our communities not overshadow our ability to continue to meet our patron’s needs. It is imperative that we continue being mindful of the families with young children, the immunocompromised, those with shifted schedules, displaced distance learning students, the fearful. Safety has taken on a new and elevated precedence- more than ever before. Offering access to in-house library services is extremely valuable. During the current restrictions and going forward once guidelines are lifted, libraries have an excellent opportunity to continue providing access to library materials, computer access, and a respite for those looking for a safe place to spend time during unstaffed library hours.
Libraries are constantly competing for a foothold in the minds of their communities and in the pocketbooks of their governing bodies. Libraries are constantly put in a position where they must prove their unending relevance, they demonstrate their value in services, and they advocate to best meet the needs their communities. As such, libraries have begun to think outside of the box when it comes to ease of access and meeting community needs.
Library systems have leaned into the use of book mobiles and roving reference librarians to deliver services. Many locations are testing out things like book bots and book lockers for contact-free delivery. Many are transitioning to smaller facilities that can be inserted in strip malls or used as colocations in other city, county, or state buildings; this allows to extend the reach of libraries by inserting a greater number of them into a community. Many library networks are even offering access to library materials and services during unstaffed times.
Here are a few links to exciting articles about the above-mentioned services:
Now, more than ever, libraries and library networks need to be open to and considering ideas that were once unimaginable. They need to be creative and thoughtful in the direction taken from here. Libraries need to demonstrate their capacity for fiscal responsibility. So, the rub remains; how does a library offer more without driving up the operational costs or cutting other services? The answer is that they must revolutionize the way they do business. One of the recent trends sweeping the globe, involves extending library open hours during unstaffed periods whether before or after existing operational hours. This has provided many academic and public libraries with room for “operational agility” (Tredwell, 2012).
What is the trend? Where did it originate?
The trend of providing unstaffed library access is gaining traction across the world. Reports of its implementation have been documented from Canada to England to Denmark to Ireland to the United States and beyond. Gwennett County Public Library in Georgia is a fantastic example of a successfully piloted program offering access to libraries and their services during off-hours. “GCPL installed Open+, a system that grants patrons self-service use of a library outside normal operation hours through a card reader. The technology controls and monitors building entry, self-servce kiosks, and public access computers as well as lighting, alarms, public announcements, and patron safety. Open+, a bibliotecheca product, is used by 800 libraries around the world…” (Zulkey, 2019).
Community Impact and Issues to Understand
There is a substantial challenge afoot with implementing unstaffed library access. Reports from England expose the vocal backlash that the community of London’s East Finchley received to its library’s unstaffed services. The community was dissatisfied at the lack of onsite librarians as well as raising the alarm about substantial safety concerns (Murray, 2019). As reported by Zulkey (2019), Michael Casey, GCPL’s director of customer experience, has said, “I think it’s our responsibility to find creative ways to create more value for residents’ tax dollars. If we can extend access and make it more convenient to use our library, it’s something to research and consider” (Zulkey, 2019).
One key difference worth mentioning between East Finchley and Gwinnett County’s drastically different outcomes rests in the staffing hours. Casey says, “We didn’t use it to replace any staff hours; we added it on top of staff hours” (Zulkey, 2019). GCPL did not take hours away whereas the East Finchley library branch “is staffed for only 16 hours a week…” (Murray, 2019). Marketing this as a value-added service rather than a substitute to traditional services, is the way to go.
Lalani, reporting on Toronto’s pilot of 2 libraries offering unstaffed hours writes, “I think that we’re lucky here in Ontario that we have a library culture that is willing to try new things” (2016). That same article stressed the importance of conveying that librarians are still hard at work for the community, even if their physical presence is not visible. “Shelaghy Paterson, the executive director of the Ontario Library Association, [says], ‘I think you may not actually see the librarian in your visit to the library, but there is a librarian behind the scenes putting it all together and delivering a really excellent service’” (Lalani, 2016). Whether the library staff is in a back room across town, or across the country watching on CCTV, it is crucial to the success of this program that the efforts of library staff be tangible and visible to the community.
Implementing Unstaffed Hours
Despite the occasional opposition, unstaffed libraries are growing in popularity. Whether it is being implemented across the pond, or here in America, libraries are beginning to think favorably of the unstaffed options. Now, although there is some information about libraries going exclusively unstaffed, those situations appear to be in the minority. What is mostly written about is a trend with communities still requiring the direction and presence of librarians. The majority of the information indicates either early access or after-hours access for a set period of time are the most popular and most successful unstaffed options. Library 2.0 reminds library planners that the forward-thinking library is concerned “both about keeping our current customers satisfied and reaching out to serve the broader market” (Casey et al, 2007, p.16). During this unique time in history, libraries have the opportunity to do this very thing in a meaningful way.
It is so important to be honest and upfront with staff who will weather the most from a new implementation or alteration; especially one as substantial as offering unstaffed library access. It is also valuable to have a strong and consistent platform when patrons inquire about the changes. Stephens asked the GCPL staff what lead to its Open+ great success. They reported that “while some staff members confessed that were still working through personal responses to significant change, all agreed that library administration had been focused and communicative” (Stephens, 2016). He went on further to remind, “added to that was a willingness to listen to staff feedback and change course as needed through the process” (2016). Implementing a program like this will take time and will no doubt encounter some road bumps, but being communicative and community-minded will lead to the best chance of success.
Change is difficult for many people. Finding the right services that address the four objectives can be a tricky ordeal. By and large, communities tend to express their loyalty for library staff and worry that providing unstaffed hours may jeopardize their employment. “That’s the danger that a lot of people fear with automation, that it will replace something better with something worse, but I think it can be really useful to think about it as a step toward something” (Zulkey, 2019). Libraries must look to the changing times as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve; unstaffed library hours are the next opportunity to do just that.
Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today
Murray, J., (2019). Backlash grows against unstaffed libraries: Use of key cards and self-service scanners cannot replace librarians, say campaigners. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/21/backlash-grows-against-unstaffed-libraries
Stephens, M., (2016). Open to change. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=open-to-change-office-hours
Tredwell, S., (2012). Managing Unstaffed Satellite Libraries. SLAW. http://www.slaw.ca/2012/04/20/managing-unstaffed-satellite-libraries/
Zulkey, C., (2019). Automatic for the people. American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/09/03/automatic-people-self-service-libraries/