MY GIRLFRIEND and I have just experienced a complete waste of taxpayers’ money at Blackpool Libraries. Upon attending Bispham library we were told that we were no longer members and had to join again. In doing so the same form as before was completed and we were issued a new library card – which was the same as the last one.
Now, I am sure there was some sensible reason for replacing my professional looking Blackpool Libraries membership card with some colourful oddment with the same information on it and the same name scrawled in black marker pen on the back by a library worker, but really, when two libraries have just had their death warrants signed by the powers that be, it laughs in the face of austerity to see the service blowing money on pointless schemes like this. Is this the way library staff are justifying themselves, promoting “essential improvements” such as this? Are they not busy enough?
As we know, the biggest cost of any business is usually staff and I don’t believe Blackpool Libraries to be any different. Staff costs were, after all, the underlying cause for the decision to shut down Boundary and Mereside libraries. Was it worth paying £90,000 in staff costs to maintain two libraries that between them served less than 1,000 members, when down the road at Layton the staff costs are probably half that amount but the library serves more than twenty-five times the membership? Probably not.
I’ve got the brains
I’ve pondered previously the options available for modernising the library service, and I am aware that some libraries in other authorities use a self check-in and checkout service, avoiding the need for a panel of staff behind a library desk. It sounds good on the face of it, and one only has to look at the self checkout facilities appearing both in supermarkets and on petrol station forecourts to see that big companies have made a business case for these systems.
Replacing people with technology is something despised on the shop floor but adored in the boardroom, and when it comes to Tesco, BP or even Johnston Press, they can do what they want as they are self-regulating private companies whose success is driven by and judged on profit (as all companies are).
The public sector does not make a profit and as such it is difficult to judge the success of the various departments. Council tax payers cannot pick and choose whether to pay or not, and as such they demand that their tax is used to fund efficient services and not extravagance or waste. But there is no way of judging this and taxpayers have to put blind faith in the council to ensure that the provided services are needed, are efficient, that they are not over-employing staff and that they are not paying them too much.
This faith is misplaced, perhaps, in many local authorities whose chiefs have spent their entire careers within the public sector and therefore have little concept of value for money or innovation. It’s an easy trap to fall into when in recent years councils could easily get money for any moronic project they wanted, and if the project didn’t work out then “hey, just write it off, we can always get more”. Wrong.
Similarly, you would have thought that council departments were given a budget which they must adhere to. Wrong again, looking at the overspending of the Childrens’ Services department at Blackpool council. Their philosophy seems to be “hey, we’ve got a budget but we get more money if we run out so who cares”. How can this possibly be deemed financially responsible? Because it’s for the cheeldren?!
You’ve got the books
Going back to libraries, my vision for the service is to embrace technology and observe private sector efficiencies to create an ultra modern service. Self check-in and checkout are modern but I’m not too sure they are the future.
You may have seen the Amazon Kindle; an e-book reader and a very good one at that. They do one now which has a 3G service worldwide, so wherever you are (provided you have a 3G signal) you can buy new books from their store. It removes all ties to physical books, providing a fully electronic solution (and lots of profit for Amazon).
Maybe Blackpool libraries could get involved with a manufacturer of these devices (from now on I will refer to it as The Device), sell them to local residents (at a profit) and provide the library catalogue in e-book format. It could be a much better library service than we currently have, but without any libraries. The benefits are obvious. It would;
- Signal that Blackpool council is striving to be efficient
- Signal that Blackpool council is an innovator
- Engage the youth and middle aged who like to have toys like this
- Massively reduce consumable costs and other overheads
- Provide service to the whole of Blackpool regardless of proximity to a library building
- Be a greener solution
- Cut staff
- Wipe out the cost of delivering books between libraries
- Mean that latest titles could be available faster
- Create opportunities: the e-book reader could be a one-stop portal for information
It would have to work on the same basis as the library currently does: there would have to be copies of e-books available, and you would have to withdraw them and put them back electronically. The e-book file you had on your Device would be the equivalent of a real book, otherwise publishers would not be very happy.
However, whereas with the current system you can have the library notify you when a book comes in, and when I say notify I mean someone writes you a letter and posts it at cost to tell you, the electronic variant could notify you on the screen, automatically withdraw the book for you and display it for your perusal.
Reference books would not be available on the system so there would still be a requirement for some form of reference library.
What of current libraries?
Well, when I’ve attended any of the libraries in Blackpool, it is quite clear that the IT facilities are always busy and the area with books rarely is. To support and further the change in culture, the current library sites could be converted to full-time IT suites rather than half-and-half as many are now. They could be unmanned, open 24/7, with admission by swipe card and CCTV monitoring.
Each user would be allocated an account (linked to The Device as well) and have a personal “Blackpool” email address. There could be a small subscription cost for the use of these facilities (with users paying more for use of, for instance, Microsoft Office applications), and printing and copying could be paid for using either printer cards (as many universities do) or electronically (as many universities also do). A full selection of e-books would still be available via the IT facilities.
This would also give bored kids something to do: playing around on the internet has to be better than antisocial behaviour. I actually believe something like this could be deployed at the Boundary Library site now.
Lets make lots of money
I mentioned that opportunities could be created with the use of an e-book reader. It could form part of a Blackpool portal, where information on services is easily accessible. The cost of all of the leaflets sent out by Blackpool council – and the manpower to deliver them – could be saved by merely deploying them on the e-book reader. Bus timetables could be made available. NHS Direct services could be offered through the system, as well as the Sports TV advice product operating in Blackpool’s council-operated leisure centres. Private companies could pay to be on the system so for example you could order a cab through The Device.
But what about more adventurous schemes, such as the ability to purchase a ticket for a bus on The Device, which would produce a bar code on the screen which could be scanned when you get on the bus? What about the ability to purchase a Blackpool Travel Card on The Device which again is scanned at the point of use and allows comprehensive travel using any of the local means, be it trams, buses or bicycles? Car parks could be paid for in the same way meaning people don’t have to carry a pocketful of change as is currently the case. This is a green solution and could mean a lot of paper and indeed paperwork saved, as well as removing the need to drive to a library and all of the associated transport and fuel costs of ferrying books around.
You might be wondering why I am going on about e-book readers when you could do a lot of this stuff on most smartphones. The main reason is that the business case for producing the Blackpool Device comes with the savings to the library service that it could make, as viewing books on smartphones is not very practical.
Book readers are designed so that what you’re reading looks like a book. People like that. But it’s a highly dynamic book. Those with sight difficulties can make the text larger on the screen or use the text-to-speech function. The battery life greatly supercedes that of all smartphones. It doesn’t weigh as much as a book. If you can add value to it by implementing a bespoke local services platform – especially if it links with an integrated transport system – could it not be the essential, must-have toy of the future?