Cuts Scene Investigation: Tameside’s Libraries (Part Three)
Longer hours, less staff, but all eight libraries saved by technological developments
Almost four years have passed since we did our previous Cuts Scene Investigation on the future of Tameside’s libraries. A lot has happened since then with libraries moving to smaller premises in more convenient locations. It has meant reduced opening hours and the retention of West End and Haughton Green libraries – as community-run facilities.
Both West End and Haughton Green libraries have thrived under community ownership. On the other hand, the people of Mottram and Hurst have been less fortunate. Shortly after closure, Hurst library became a day nursery (though residents have plenty of Ashton buses to choose from). Mottram’s library was demolished with the new Hattersley library its nearest one (and only one bus an hour to Hattersley and Hyde). Newton’s library became a chemist’s shop.
Mossley library moved from its purpose-built facility (inherited from Lancashire County Council) to the George Lawton Hall. It is housed in the former lesser hall, hitherto used for private functions and community groups. Hyde library moved from its commodious brick building to the town hall. Great for local bus and train services but shoehorned into a corner of the town hall. Scant consolation for Newtonians who catch the 346 to Hyde (though Dukinfield library is an equally suitable alternative along the same bus route).
Denton’s library also moved from his palatial premises on Peel Street to the town hall. This move, in my opinion, seemed to be better than the conversion at Hyde town hall. Its piece de resistance is the upstairs meeting room. Furthermore, Denton’s first public library was… situated in the same building. Full circle.
For some time, there has been murmurs of Droylsden library and Ashton Central Library moving to more modern premises. With the former, there has been speculation over Droylsden library moving to the ground floor of Tony Downes House, also the offices of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund. It has also been said that Ashton Central Library could move to the Son of TAC. If the two projects went to fruition, public transport access to the facilities would be improved.
Since 2012, we have also seen a continuation of the cuts created by the Tories’ ideologically-driven destruction of local government. With more to come, exacerbated by the loss of access to EU funds once Britain signs Article 50 (the UK’s decree nisi with the European Union). With a gloomy prospect at hand this could mean our eight libraries being reduced further.
In the last month, Tameside MBC has created a consultation that has a fundamental effect on its service delivery. Instead of closing more libraries, the consultation suggests:
- The retention of all eight public libraries;
- Longer opening hours;
- Shorter staffing hours;
- The use of volunteers for support roles;
- Self-service checking in and checking out technology (new library cards with PIN numbers);
- Self-service library issuing terminals;
- Improved online booking and renewal services.
What we are likely to see is an enhancement of the existing opening hours at all eight libraries though with fewer staffed hours. Just to remind you, the present opening hours are as follows:
- Ashton Central Library: Tuesdays and Thursdays: 0900 – 2000, Wednesdays and Fridays: 0900 – 1700, Saturdays: 1000 – 1500 (closed Mondays);
- Denton: Mondays and Thursdays: 0900 – 2000, Fridays, 0900 – 1700, Saturdays, 1000 – 1500 (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays);
- Droylsden: Mondays and Thursdays: 0900 – 2000, Fridays, 0900 – 1700, Saturdays, 1000 – 1500 (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays);
- Dukinfield: Mondays: 0900 – 1930, Tuesdays and Thursdays: 0900 – 1700, Saturdays: 0900 – 1300 (closed Wednesdays and Fridays);
- Hattersley: Mondays: 0900 – 1930, Tuesdays: 0900 – 1700, Thursdays: 1300 – 1700, Saturdays: 0900 – 1300 (closed Wednesdays and Fridays);
- Hyde: Mondays and Fridays: 0900 – 2000, Tuesdays and Wednesdays: 0900 – 1700, Saturdays: 1000 – 1500 (closed Thursdays);
- Mossley: Mondays and Fridays: 0900 – 1700, Wednesdays: 0900 – 1930, Saturdays: 0900 – 1300 (closed Tuesdays and Thursdays);
- Stalybridge: Mondays and Wednesdays: 0900 – 2000, Tuesdays: 0900 – 1700, Saturdays: 1000 – 1500 (closed Thursdays and Fridays);
- Local Studies and Archives Library: Tuesdays: 0900 – 2000, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 0900 – 1700, Saturdays: 1000 – 1500 (closed Mondays and Fridays).
Using Dukinfield library as an example, the present opening hours are as follows:
- Mondays: 0900 – 1930;
- Tuesdays and Thursdays: 0900 – 1700;
- Saturdays: 0900 – 1300.
The library is open for 30 hours and 30 minutes over a week. All of these hours are staffed. As detailed in Tameside MBC’s example for an hypothetical library on The Big Conversation section, staffed hours would be halved. Self-service hours would be almost double that of previous staffed hours and nearly four times longer than prospective staffing arrangements. Once again, using my local library as an example, here’s how they could work. Please note that possible staffed hours are detailed in brackets:
- Monday: 0900 – 2000 (1200 – 1800);
- Tuesday: 0900 – 2000 (1000 – 1400);
- Wednesday: 0900 – 2000 (unstaffed hours);
- Thursday: 0900 – 2000 (1400 – 1800);
- Friday: 0900 – 1700 (unstaffed hours);
- Saturday: 0900 – 1300 (1000 – 1300).
The most noticeable effect of extended unstaffed hours is greater flexibility for library users unable to call in during usual opening hours. If you enjoy reading on the train, tram or bus into work, there is only one day you could really call in (with our example): Monday. Any of the other four weekdays are out of bounds at present. Being able to drop off a book you have finished on the 346 – two stops from the library – would be a cinch through a new PIN facility on your library card.
One drawback of the reduced staffing hours is access to the library for less computer literate borrowers. They will need extra support with using computer systems or remembering the PIN number of their new fangled Active Card (not an official name but who knows). The staffed hours (as per my example) would have to be a good fit with peak footfall figures. For example, Monday afternoons will be busy due to schoolchildren starting homework or coursework. Saturday mornings and Tuesday mornings may be popular for readers’ groups.
At present, Dukinfield library has been open outside normal opening hours for community groups using the exhibition room. These have taken place on Wednesdays, so the use of the exhibition room and a self-service library would increase footfall to both parts of the building.
As seen at many libraries across the UK, volunteers have begun to augment (or in some cases replace) qualified and salaried librarians. Locally, we have mentioned Denton’s two other libraries at West End and Haughton Green. In The Big Conversation, it states Tameside MBC’s intention to increase its use of volunteers. Instead of replacing librarians wholesale, it suggests the use of volunteers as support staff.
Though it sounds good on paper, introducing volunteers to municipal libraries is a sore point. Could we see the professionalism of librarians undermined? Is there going to be scope for personal development for volunteers (allowing them to study and become professional librarians)? Will there be suitable recompense in the form of travel expenses? Would they work during staffed hours, or outside proposed staffed hours to allow extra cover?
In a political context, it can be seen as ‘taking away paid positions’ and ‘driving down wages’. See how Workfare style schemes achieve a similar aim by offering free labour to private enterprise. How do we know if in Tameside (the birthplace of Universal Credit) that some people may be coerced into volunteering at their local library? Or sanctioned for volunteering at their local library because Job Centre Plus would rather he or she volunteer for Megapound Direct?
Unexpected novel in the bagging area
Compared with, for example, Manchester City Council, the use of technology within Tameside MBC’s libraries is several years behind the times. Self-service issuing systems have been in place in Manchester’s libraries since 2010 though its libraries have been staffed all the time. They perform a useful role in speeding up queues at library counters.
Tameside’s present system is solid and has served the libraries well for nearly a decade. There has never been provision for self-service transactions. It is anticipated that Tameside’s self-service technology would be akin to self-scanning checkouts (think of the Morrisons store that is five minutes walk from Dukinfield library). S/he would scan their card, in the same way you scan a tin of baked beans. Then they would do the same with their books before moving them to a bagging area.
Instead of paying for groceries, the coin slot would be used for paying library fines or purchasing a book from the Book Sale stand. After completing his or her transaction, the receipt will detail each book’s due date, any outstanding library fines, or book purchases. On returning his or her books, he or she would scan them and place the books in a receptacle or a shelf.
By 2017 – 18, there may be support for smartphones. The borrower could scan their library card onto their smartphone and flash the smartphone onto the self-service till. Furthermore, Tameside MBC’s website will (by then) be refurbished to suit mobile devices. A user-friendly app-style layout could be used to communicate with the till via a paired library card.
On ‘old school PCs’, a future version of the Tameside MBC website would work a similar way to the present one. One difference is that each borrower would have a four-figure PIN number. This could be used in place of (or in addition to) a password and their library card number. The PIN could come into its own for online transactions (loaning e-books, booking events, public computers, paying library fines or renewing physical books).
During unstaffed hours, the self-service terminal could be used for booking computer time. The receipt – if computer time is booked in advance – would detail his or her proposed time slot.
After hours borrowing
For ease of reading in this section, I have referred to the unstaffed borrowing hours as after hours borrowing. Entry to the library outside staffed hours will be activated by the PIN number and their library card. For users with smartphones, there is potential for the use of Near Field Connection technology. Using Push Notifications, s/he could enter the PIN via their device and scan their way in with their card.
Push Notifications could be used to direct people to certain parts of the library. They could be used to ‘say’ “the library is closing in five minutes”. On exit, even remind them of forthcoming events and changes to Christmas opening hours.
If the worst happens to the library user, there should be a defibrillator near the self-service till and a remote intercom link with Son of TAC (as seen at unstaffed railway stations and tram stations throughout the Metrolink system). Any reference to emergency procedures in The Big Conversation would have been helpful. There is reference to CCTV usage for security purposes on entry and at various parts of the library.
How an after hours borrowing trip would work
- He or she approaches the library;
- The library user scans their card at the entrance;
- He or she enters their PIN number to gain access;
- He or she drops their books off at a self-service machine: books are scanned then place in an appropriate deposit box or shelf;
- He or she may use the machine to book an hour on the computer for job-hunting activities, or general reference;
- He or she goes to their desired section and borrows up to twelve books;
- Prior to departure, he or she scans their library card then his or her books;
- The self-service terminal prints a receipt with details of the due dates (three weeks on from their visit);
- He or she collects their items and exits the library. The library’s intruder alarm is set.
If you visit most of Tameside’s libraries, entry into the main part of the building allows easy conversion for unstaffed provision. Dukinfield’s has a single main entrance but access to the main library could be permitted via the entrance between the computer desks and the staffed counter (if an event is taking place in the exhibition room). Or at the main entrance itself.
The automatic door and dedicated entrance at Hyde’s newest library (from Greenfield Street) offers scope for easy conversion. At Ashton-under-Lyne, the multiplicity of entrances and layout may mean more than one check-in point. At Old Street; at the entrance off Old Street next to the former Heginbottom College; and at the local studies library entrance off Cotton Street.
With the Astley Cheetham Library and Art Gallery, Stalybridge, two check-in points will be required: one at the main entrance, and a second at the accessible entrance. Denton’s, Mossley’s, Hattersley’s and Droylsden’s will be straightforward: the main entrance.
The next chapter
The changes will probably be in place by 2017 to 2018. Technologically, this allows a solid base for the adoption of mobile systems. The first step towards this may be a new version of the Tameside MBC website, using a content management system and responsive web design techniques. Should smartphones continue to rise in popularity across generations, this could make for greater use of push notifications and the use of mobile devices to pair library cards.
In spite of the technological developments, the reduction in staff hours and the use of volunteers wouldn’t be a popular one. Binary bits lack the local knowledge and authority of a qualified librarian. Some people go to the library for other reasons incidental to their core use. Besides borrowing books, audiobooks or recorded music, and hiring PCs, a librarian for some people is the only person they see on a social basis. Closer to home or a short bus ride away, it is a connection with the outside world. Eventually, after borrowing books, they may be interested in readers’ groups. Creative writing groups. Children’s reading groups. (Some might even see the creator of this blog attempting to recite his own poetry).
Tameside’s plans allow for the embracement of digital devices. Since 2012, e-books have been available for loan through the library system (though this Luddite prefers to read the dead tree versions). With fewer books being issued due to digital devices and the internet, there needs to be other ways of bringing the love of reading for pleasure alive. The public library, by far, is the best place owing to its location and classless appeal.
Footfall from unstaffed opening hours could be a panacea for change to staffed hours. If the library is staffed from 1200 – 1800 on a Monday, though at its busiest at 1830, this could prompt a review in staffed hours. This could see the library staff signing in at 1300 hours and finishing at 1900 hours.
Libraries are still important in the digital age. Paradoxically, thanks to digital devices and the internet, we are doing more reading than ever. Such as social networking sites, websites, online newspapers, blogs, and tutorials. Nothing beats a proper book, nor the sage advice of a librarian who is able to recommend similar titles or related events of interest.
How on Earth does one pick up a bus timetable, look for a job without personal computer or internet access without a public library? A borough – or a country – without public libraries would be as grey as a gruel sandwich on toasted Bit of Both (half white, half brown) bread.
The Big Conversation consultation process, entitled The Vision of a Library Service for the 21st Century has been running since the 04 July 2016. If you wish to participate, please click this link for further details. The deadline is the 14 August 2016.
If you prefer to do a paper questionnaire, why not call in to your local Tameside MBC library and hand it in to one of the librarians. Or you can visit the Customer Service Centre in Clarence Arcade, on Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne.
S.V., 22 July 2016.