Agenda item

Libraries Provision - Worcestershire County Council Presentation


The Overview and Scrutiny Board welcomed the Deputy Leader of Worcestershire County Council (WCC) alongside Officers from the County Council.


The WCC Deputy Leader introduced the presentation and stated that the County Council was committed to preserving all 21 libraries in the County. It was stated that the Libraries Unlocked scheme provided a way of allowing libraries to remain open despite significant financial pressures facing upper-tier authorities, particularly relating to adult social care (ASC) services and home to school transport of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).


The WCC Deputy Leader stated that the Libraries Unlocked scheme enabled library users who upgraded their membership to enter specific libraries outside of standard opening hours. The scheme had already live at Droitwich and Stourport Libraries for circa 18 months, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that there was high satisfaction with the scheme at those locations. Through the scheme, there was a reduction in total staff hours, however, library users were able to enter libraries and access range of services in the evenings, without a member of staff needing to be present.


It was highlighted by the WCC Deputy Leader that there was no proposal to reduce the range of activities offered at libraries; it was reiterated that Libraries Unlocked scheme would safeguard the future of libraries in the County in the face of financial pressures facing authorities.


Following the introduction by the Deputy Leader of WCC, County Officers provided a presentation on the Libraries Unlocked scheme, with the following matters highlighted for Members’ consideration:


  • The open library service delivery model was identified in the Library Strategy 2020-25 as Worcestershire’s preferred transformation approach for sustaining the library network. This was approved by County Council’s Cabinet in December 2019; however, the implementation had been delayed due to Covid-19.
  • Formal public consultation on library transformation options was undertaken in 2018-19. 2000 responses were received in addition to feedback from public meetings held across all libraries in the county. Therefore, the Libraries Unlocked scheme was a model based on and informed by customer feedback expressed in the consultation, particularly with regard to addressing barriers to customers using libraries when unstaffed and best times of day for libraries to be unstaffed.
  • Key benefits of Libraries Unlocked scheme were listed as: increasing opening hours and thereby extending service availability to a wider community audience; growing libraries as community assets by increasing use of library space by community partners; future-proofing of Worcestershire Library network through a flexible delivery model; supporting recovery of library participation post pandemic.
  • It was reiterated that staff support would remain available under the Library Unlocked model and would be timetabled throughout the week. The model provided a way whereby most library services remained accessible without library staff needing to be present.
  • To mitigate the impact of reduced staff hours from Libraries Unlocked, the under 16s were surveyed (in phase 1 locations for implementation of Libraries Unlocked) to identify preferred times for visiting local library. The staff had been timetabled to reflect the preferences expressed by survey respondents. 12-months after the go-live date, it was reported that there had been a 22 per cent increase in 16-19 year old active library members and a 5.6 per cent increase in 11-15 year old active library member (for locations where Library Unlocked is live).
  • Safety of Libraries Unlocked – Concerns of customers about safety of unstaffed libraries had been taken into account with all libraries operating Libraries Unlocked scheme offering: mandatory face-to-face induction for users upgrading to libraries unlocked membership; the scheme being unavailable to customers with history of unacceptable behaviour; full CCTV coverage of libraries including monitoring by County Hall Security during unstaffed hours (Monday-Friday 5-8pm and all day Saturday); dedicated emergency 24/7 phone line on sites; security and fire systems linked to suppliers for a timely response.
  • The early adopters of the scheme, Droitwich and Stourport libraries, had seen an 85 per cent increase in opening hours and a 26 and 37 per cent respective reduction in core staffing hours in the two libraries. Staff remain available throughout the week. It was highlighted that the scheme had seen a positive customer response with a 56 per cent increase in library visits 12 months after the go-live date.
  • It was noted that at the Droitwich and Stourport libraries, which were part of phase 1 of Libraries Unlocked, the use of library as a local venue for community activity had been encouraged. As part of this, a free meeting room hire offer had been in place to encourage greater use of library by local groups and organisations.


In terms of next steps, Worcestershire County Council (WCC) Officers noted that 12 further libraries were in scope for phase 2 implementation of Libraries Unlocked scheme: 5 of these were located in Bromsgrove District – in Bromsgrove, Rubery, Hagley, Wythall, and Alvechurch. The first libraries to proceed with implementation of Libraries Unlocked would be Bromsgrove and Rubery libraries, with the provisional go live date of March 2024. Further work would need to take place at Hagley, Wythall and Alvechurch libraries with regard to separate arrangements at those libraries before implementation dates could be provided.


It was highlighted that the implementation of Libraries Unlocked at each of these locations was subject to a detailed stakeholder engagement, cost-benefit analysis, and formal staff consultation. It was further highlighted that additional feasibility work would be required to determine whether Libraries Unlocked could be implemented in libraries which were run under Private Finance Initiative (PFI) arrangements, these applied to Alvechurch, Wythall, and Hagley libraries.


In terms of staff hours and opening hours, it was confirmed that for Bromsgrove (town) library, staff hours would be reduced by 25 per cent and overall opening hours would increase by 50 per cent when Libraries Unlocked is introduced. For Rubery library, staff hours would reduce by 30 per cent but opening times increase by 106 per cent following Libraries Unlocked implementation. All libraries under Libraries Unlocked had an opening time of 72 hours per week.


Following the presentation by County Council Officers, Members asked questions and made a number of comments. The following responses were noted:


  • Safety of unstaffed libraries – Officers reiterated that there had been no recorded incidents of theft at either the Droitwich or Stourport libraries since the implementation of Libraries Unlocked in 2021. There was one incidence of disruptive behaviour at Droitwich Library in January 2023. While it was noted that CCTV footage showed the disruptive behaviour did not seem to concern other users, police community support officers (PCSOs) were alerted and appropriate action was taken, including talking to the parents of the offenders. No damage or injuries to persons had occurred from this incident. There had been no further incidents.


  • Updating library stock based on needs of residents – It was noted that despite budgetary constraints facing the County Council, there was a book fund as part of a broader libraries funding. This allowed book stock to be replenished in libraries and get books updated with latest additions. The BorrowBox app allowed users to offer suggestions on the books they would like to see stocked. The use of the app, it was reported, had seen a great increase in the post pandemic period. In addition, an annual customer voice survey would be run again this year, which would ask asked users what books they would like to see in stock, among other questions. Lastly, library users could offer suggestions directly to librarians.


  • Impact of Library Unlocked on experienced librarians – It was noted that in all libraries in the County, all staff was experienced in customer service and the library managers were qualified librarians and that would remain the case in libraries under the Library Unlocked scheme. In terms of staffing, the main impact for users would be that staff would be on hand for a reduced number of hours per week.


  • Further information about the impact of the scheme on library staff – It was explained that Libraries Unlocked was designed to deliver savings and as staffing was the main expenditure the reduced staff hours had been identified as a way to deliver savings. It was noted that vacancies had been held open to minimise any compulsory redundancies that might occur. In addition, the County Council had recently run a corporate-wide voluntary redundancy scheme with some library staff taking the voluntary redundancy offer.


  • It was noted that additional energy costs of libraries from increased opening hours would be factored in when calculating the net efficiencies made as a result of the Libraries Unlocked scheme.
  • A Member commented that special praise should be given to the current librarian employed at Alvechurch Library who was doing an exceptional job in very difficult circumstances. It was added that the librarian was greatly valued by the community in Alvechurch. Concerns were expressed that library staff worked in conditions where building staff and other contractors might be continually on site as part of the plans for new arrangements which was very distressing to the staff concerned. County Council Officers responded that staff awareness sessions had been implemented as part of the Libraries Unlocked implementation. In addition, because there had been a number of vacancies, there had been no staff redundancies up to this point and it was hoped this would continue to be the case in the remainder of phase one and phase two of Library Unlocked implementation. It was highlighted that there had been a positive response to Libraries Unlocked scheme from staff in other libraries. Staff were also formally consulted on any final proposals to implement Library Unlocked; Alvechurch, Wythall, and Hagley libraries were not yet at the stage where final plans had been formulated.


  • Survey feedback on Libraries Unlocked – The County Council’s Head of Libraries reported that a survey had been undertaken during the early part of the phase one Libraries Unlocked implementation in October 2022. As part of that all of the Library Unlocked customers in the County at that time had been surveyed. It was noted that one learning point from that survey was that non-Libraries Unlocked customers in the libraries having the scheme should also be surveyed in order to understand the reasons why those library users were not subscribing to / using the Libraries Unlocked. This would be taken into account in phase two of the Libraries Unlocked scheme. The Head of Libraries undertook to provide the survey results (figures) to District Councillors.


  • Libraries put forward for phase two of Libraries Unlocked that operated under PFI arrangements – It was noted that as part of identifying the 12 libraries for phase two of Library Unlocked, a return on investment (ROI) exercise was (or would be) undertaken individually for each of the libraries proposed. It was explained that each library that was planned to have Libraries Unlocked implemented had a capital investment assigned and Officers had to assess whether there would be an appropriate level of ROI based on factors such as potential staffing costs and implementation costs of the technology. It was explained that in locations such as Alvechurch, there might be a negative ROI to Libraries Unlocked, because of the PFI arrangements, in which case the scheme would not go ahead at that location.


  • It was explained that scale up phrase used in the presentation denoted keeping libraries open even if further efficiencies were needed should they be required. This was not the case at that moment.


  • Free meeting room hire (for partners) during Libraries Unlocked hours – It was queried by a Member why this offer was provided if efficiencies needed to be made. An example was provided of Rubery where the building was felt by a Member to be in a bad condition requiring regeneration. County Council Officers explained that there was a wide range of partners that County worked with across libraries including voluntary organisations who run activities for children and youth. The free meeting space within libraries unlocked hours was offered to encourage people and organisations to utilise library space in the evenings and weekends. It was stated that this initiative can be reviewed over time in terms of its effectiveness. In Library Unlocked hours (weekdays 5-8pm and Saturday), library members could also book the space for free.


  • Building surveyors – It was explained that this was to assess any needs and costs arising from the implementation of Libraries Unlocked at the selected libraries such as from implementing the new technology and design and safety features required to run Libraries Unlocked scheme.


  • Library use and access – It was explained that anyone who was a library member in the County could join to become a ‘Libraries Unlocked’ member. It was explained that all members of the public (regardless of place of residence) could join to become a Worcestershire library member and through this could then sign up to join ‘Libraries Unlocked’.


  • It was reiterated that no library activities were proposed to be scrapped as part the Libraries Unlocked scheme. Individual libraries within the County retained discretion over timetabling library activities such as ‘bounce and rhyme’ sessions, the timetabling of which might be affected by the implementation of libraries unlocked.


  • Information for Staff about Libraries Unlocked – The hours of operation of Libraries Unlocked had been communicated to library staff at affected libraries (via staff consultation) and this message would be reinforced through further communication. It was raised by a Member that a number of librarians were not aware of the decision to proceed with Libraries Unlocked until a key decision had been published on the County Council website. Providing a response, Officers noted that staff had been provided with up to date information on this but efforts would be made to provide comprehensive communication to library staff going forward. It was noted that the decision to implement Libraries Unlocked scheme had already been taken. Staff consultations going forward would be more specific circumstances in the individual libraries concerned that had to have the arrangements implemented.


  • Information session on Libraries Unlocked arrangements for customers at Bromsgrove Library would be held on 20th February, and similar sessions would be held prior to ‘go live’ dates of Libraries Unlocked at other libraries. Officers undertook to ensure that Libraries Unlocked engagement sessions were effectively publicised.


  • Key lessons learned from implementation of Libraries Unlocked in Stourport and Droitwich – County Council officers reported that a review of the implementation of this scheme in Stourport and Droitwich was undertaken by Worcestershire County Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Panel. Some of the lessons highlighted were ensuring that year 11 children (15 to 16 year olds) were able to access Libraries Unlocked because they were in their final GCSE year; improving communication with the customers, including those who were not local to the library area, to ensure that there was more awareness of the scheme before it was implemented at a specific library was a further key lesson from implementation at the Droitwich and Stourport libraries.


  • Use of library for community activities – It was reiterated by Members that libraries were a vital space for community, used not only for library activities but also for a wide range of community activities such as warm spaces.


  • Consultation engagement with young users – It was highlighted that there was a focus on engagement with young people (15-16 year olds) on Libraries Unlocked because under 16s were not allowed to access libraries during unstaffed hours currently but this age group had to prepare for GCSE exams. The consultation was to ascertain what arrangements could be made to facilitate access for young people preparing for GCSE exams. In reference to a Member comment about lack of survey focus on working age people, it was noted that while the core library staff hours would be reduced as a result of Libraries Unlocked, the scheme allowed libraries to remain open in the evenings which was more suitable for working age people. With reference to Rubery Library, it was noted that staff hours would reduce from 35 to 25 per week, however, the opening hours would increase from the current 35 to 72 hours.


  • Libraries Unlocked scheme implementation – It was noted that Droitwich and Stourport were the most suitable libraries for piloting the Libraries Unlocked scheme due to their size, building and accessibility perspectives. It was noted that it was deemed that implementation at those locations was successful which meant that the scheme would be rolled out more widely.


RESOLVED that the presentation be noted.



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