Service deliveryDigital Customer ServiceLibrary innovation equals success for North Somerset

Library innovation equals success for North Somerset

Find out how technology and a partnership approach is helping one council deliver enhanced library services despite budget pressures

North Somerset Council has taken an innovative, tech-focused approach to the delivery of library operations, increasing usage and access to services while cutting costs. Mandy Bishop, Assistant Director (Operations) Development & Environment and Andy Brisley, Library, Information & Customer Services Manager tell Austin Clark more about their journey so far

Please tell us a bit about the library service offered by North Somerset, how you operate and why you’ve chosen this model?

Andy Brisley (AB): We’re part of a large consortium called Libraries West, which consists of seven local authorities, namely Somerset County Council, Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Dorset, Poole, North Somerset itself and South Gloucestershire. We have one shared Library Management System (LMS) which we procure together, led by Somerset County Council who are the lead partner for procurement.

Mandy Bishop (MB): Central government funding for local services has been reducing steadily over the last decade. North Somerset is of the opinion that we want and need to retain our library services, so where other local authorities are scaling back, we’ve taken the active decision to look at how we think communities will want to access library services in the future, and how we can change our delivery model so that it becomes more relevant to communities. This has also provided the ideal opportunity to look at costs and innovative ways of working and sharing services that help us to cut costs. We’ve worked on a number of key digital initiatives to achieve this:

  • Self-service and automation: Moving away from large control desks and queues to return and borrow items, we’ve installed touchscreen RFID kiosks in every library, allowing issues, returns, renewals and payments to be made – these deal with over 90% of our basic transactions.
  • Online services: Through the Libraries West consortium website we’ve made it easy for residents to renew their loans, reserve and order items online, as well as obtaining details of library services across the region. If you have a library card in North Somerset you can use any library across the whole consortium area. Further information can be found on the website.
  • Libraries app: Our suppliers have developed the LibrariesWest app for Apple and Android devices that allows residents to make the most of their library memberships on the go. Features allow users to renew loans, search the catalogue, place reservations, manage accounts and find the nearest library and check opening times.
  • Digitisation of materials: We have a heritage and local studies collection in one of our libraries – we’re working with other authorities to take this online and improve accessibility. Know Your Place North Somerset means that, for the first time, historical maps of North Somerset are now freely available online. This has been supported by the Know Your Place West of England project, supported by The National Lottery.
  • Extended access: This latest project allows users to access libraries when they would otherwise be closed. We have a closure day in the week for each of our libraries and we open ‘traditional’ hours – people can register their interest in extended hours and then, using their library card, gain access between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Saturday and use all of the facilities. Lights come on automatically, kiosks spark into life – everything operates as it would if the library was staffed. We also provide access on a Sunday. Our library in Portishead now has over 600 registered Extended Access users, who have been given health & safety training and user advice. A freephone telephone is provided that goes straight through to the council’s CCTV control centre to provide emergency support if required.

We’ve reduced resources by 40 to 50%, while improving access to services and increasing opening hours.

At the same time, you’ve also been developing your mobile library service. How is technology helping you with this?

AB: We’ve made great progress in the development of our wi-fi provision, across the board, and that includes our mobile library, which is now wi-fi enabled through 4G, so it operates a live system. Our LMS is cloud-based, which allows us to provide all of the services you would expect in a branch library.

MB: We have a mix of urban towns and rural communities, so the mobile service is really important. It’s often the only service some communities see and to them, the service is much more than a library. They can deal with any council enquiry ranging from green waste collections through to schooling and care services.

The user dynamics of the library service are very much skewed to young and post-retirement people. Libraries play an essential role in supporting both of these groups, in different ways. For example, it’s a great way of tackling the problems of loneliness, which have been well documented recently.

Interestingly, the extended access programme has very much opened up library services to both growing numbers of students and our working age population.

When it comes to the technology you’ve implemented, what are the biggest challenges that you had to overcome?

MB: There are numerous benefits to sharing systems and the partnership model is absolutely right for us because it delivers the best value for money and service delivery. It does, however throw up a number of challenges. For instance, whenever you make changes, there are seven different back office processes being used – when you’re initially procuring systems they have to be compatible across the board. That can be difficult as everybody moves at a different pace and are at different stages of their transformation journey.

AB: It’s also worth pointing out that some authorities are more risk averse than others. That’s always a challenge.

From a specific technology perspective, networks are probably the biggest challenge. The service is nothing if it doesn’t have excellent network capacity between sites. There’s clearly tension surrounding the cost of upgrading networks and in some rural areas we find providing capacity over fibre a real challenge to some of our libraries. The problem needs to be addressed though as we’re only going to require more and more data! We’re constantly working with suppliers, with help from our IT partner Agilisys, to improve connectivity.

One of the challenges with the extended access initiative is the need for monitored CCTV presence. That does require a significant improvement in bandwidth – we’ve managed that in three of the four sites that have gone live and are looking for solutions in the other.

MB: It can also be difficult to manage technology when you have a mixed model of delivery and usage. One of our libraries, for example, is managed and delivered by volunteers. When you purchase a system that is very much tied to public sector standards around data governance and data management, it can be difficult working out ways to give volunteers access to certain information – while protecting the bits they shouldn’t see. We need solutions to be flexible and that’s often not the case.

You mentioned earlier the challenge of working in a consortium where the pace of transformation varies. How did you overcome that?

AB: I think it’s about agreeing on underlying standards and working to them – as long as we all have the same standards we can move at our own pace.

We all have our own financial circumstances, so we each have our own peaks and troughs of budget availability. We, for instance, are in a situation where we will need to change our RFID self-service kiosks within the next 18 months to two years. Other authorities within the consortium have already re-tendered for the system and are in the process of installing the new system. That’s not a problem at all – as long as we work to the same standards around a service, we can buy a system from the supplier that suits us, when it suits us. It’s about retaining freedom within the partnership, while learning from others and working together to share where we can.

MB: Libraries West is a mature partnership – and it’s very much a partnership of equals – so there’s now a high degree of trust between all of the partners. It clearly takes time to build, but the longer you work together the easier it becomes. Open and honest discussions about what each partner can bring to the table in various circumstances is required.

As Andy said, there are times when we will work at our own pace. At other times, we’ll re-tender as a consortium in order to benefit from the maximum economies of scale or access to additional services. For example, the consortium, along with Bournemouth Borough Council, has recently tendered for a new e-book and spoken word supplier. By sharing, we’ll all have access to a very large quantity of e-book material at a substantial discount. Shared costs are based on population, so we’ll only pay 10.5% of this – significantly less than if we went it alone. For the LMS we pay between 9 and 10.5% of the shared cost.

How do you involve citizens in the digital development of your library services?

MB: We survey our residents, tailored to certain services, where we’ll ask which elements of service they use. These tend to be more general surveys that shape our future plans. When we’re intending to make any major changes, we run a six-to-eight-week community consultation where we talk about the changes with residents. We visit lots of community groups, we run online consultations and we talk to disability groups, that shapes the future delivery model. Our consultation for the changes made to the library service is now being used as the blueprint for the rest of the council.

We also get people to co-design wherever possible – any aspect of our digital redesign that can be influenced by end-users will be.

AB: We’ll always try to involve as many community groups as possible – they have some great ideas – and deliver solutions for as many people as possible. Inclusion is important to us and technology is a great enabler.

A good example is a project called Memories Shared. We’re using the resources of our local studies collection and creating mini photo books showing a snapshot of local life from communities. They are being loaded on iPads, which are taken into care homes or used in community cafes. This is great for people who can’t hold a book or turn the pages any more but who can swipe through the pages and look at the pictures of places special to them. It’s about using our resources and technology together to take more services to more people.

Finally, where does your partner Agilisys fit into all of this?

MB: Agilisys is the council’s strategic IT services partner. As a partner, they are very good at doing the due diligence for us if we’re thinking of investing in technology or delivering services in a different way. Much of that work involves ensuring compatibility with existing systems. They are a critical partner and we couldn’t deliver the outcomes that we have without them. We often come up with an idea and then task the Agilisys team with working out how we achieve it. They definitely get the tougher task!

Agilisys is becoming increasingly more proactive and transparent in the support they give us. Recently, they introduced software that allows them and us to be really clear about system performance across the whole council, down to the performance of an individual PC and their replacement programme. This allows us to proactively plan how we replace systems, software and hardware. That analytical role will keep us ahead of the game.

AB: One crucial part of the Agilisys role is the provision of our corporate wi-fi solution that we also use to deliver the public wi-fi offering. This is vitally important to us and there’s a constant dialogue between us about passwords, filtering and ensuring both staff and the public have access.

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