List of Staffless / “Open Plus” Libraries in the United Kingdom and beyond

Swipe, type and enter

Swipe, type and enter. Image from Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly.

These are libraries that are open sometimes with no staff at all on site.  Systems include Bibliotheca Open+ and Axiell Aperio.  Entry to the library is via a library card and Pin, with CCTV aiding security and self-service machines/computers allow usage without staff. Denmark has been using this system in some of its libraries since 2011.

Bibliotheca claims there are 205 Open+ libraries (not necessarily all public) in Scandinavia (including 180 in Denmark – where the library card is also the national ID card which cuts down, but doesn’t eliminate – the number of people using other people’s IDs – and 41 in Sweden, 25 in Finland and 14 Norway). Canada has only two (November 2018).

The first public library to use the system in the USA began a trial in June 2016. After a few (4 at time of writing inc Tubercurry in Sligo, Tullamore and Banaher in County Offa and the Lexicon in Dublin, September 2016) public libraries in the Republic of Ireland are also experimented with the technology, the decision was made to 200 of the 330 libraries in the country in June 2018 after “longer opening hours and self-service technology was piloted in Tullamore and Banagher, Co Offaly, which resulted in increased visitor numbers of between 75 and 185 per cent over a 12-month period in 2016.”

A trial in Toronto (Canada) is about to begin, with strong union resistance (April 2017). There is one staffless library in Germany. Singapore has the claim to the first staffless library (in a shopping mall in 2002) but Gjern in Denmark is regarded as the first “true” staffless library. opened in 2004. There are at least 119 staffless libraries in the UK, all for some of their hours, or in process of becoming staffless.

You need a library card and know your PIN. Registration is additional and some automatically include a "how to deal with tailgaters" intro in the brief intro to how to gain entry.

You need a library card and know your PIN. Registration is additional and some automatically include a “how to deal with tailgaters” intro in the brief intro to how to gain entry.

Pros

  • Longer opening hours.
  • Avoid need for staffing therefore far cheaper per hour open, therefore can extend opening hours far beyond what budgets would normally provide.
  • User preference: users like having the library open for longer (or, in some cases, open at all).
  • Gain new users who otherwise would not have been able to use the library with older, more limited, hours.
  • Community feel and social capital: creates trust and meeting place.
  • Impersonal (some people prefer this)
  • Hours can be set to suit the library, as can other restrictions.  CCTV and remotely controlled equipment means security is provided.
  • A good news story if (as is often the case) Open+ is twinned with cuts to libraries elsewhere.
  • Regular users out of hours may police library themselves and assist those who need help.
  • Vandalism if often feared but appears rare, according to Danish/Scandinavian study.
“The council believes that the model that has been implemented offers people an enhanced service, without the council having to close any of the libraries. At a time when many other councils are having to close libraries, we are delighted that we have managed to develop a service that meets the needs of our residents whilst making the saving that we have to in order to continue meeting the needs of the whole city.” Peterborough Libraries (Vivacity)
Cons

CCTV can be fairly well-hidden. The warning (real or otherwise) that it is constantly monitored is normally part of the process.

CCTV can be fairly well-hidden. The warning (real or otherwise) that it is constantly monitored is normally part of the process.

Danger a Staff Less Library may be coming to a community near you – Save Barnet Libraries (September 2016)

  • Absence of personal touch, although remote conversations can be had.
  • Equalities issues: pilots in some authorities show far more men than women are willing to enter an apparently unsupervised library (ratio of 90% male to 10% female mentioned in one workshop attended by the author). However, news from other authorities does not seem to support this, with information from Denmark suggesting women are as likely to use as men.
  • Sense of “big brother is watching you” with CCTV. There is no CCTV in Swedish staffless libraries.
  • Question of access for those unaccompanied under 16 needs addressing in each authority. Barnet have decided 15 is the correct age.
  • Cost: the system is cheaper than paid staffing but cost (especially set up) is still substantial.

“Open+ does not deny access to under 16’s. The parameters and rules of open+ are completely flexible and decided locally by the library. The objective of open+ is for each authority or individual library to decide on their ideal opening hours (and the budgets can decide on how many of those hours can be staffed). Every individual in the community can then have access to their library, to borrow a book or use a PC when they want. If the library can increase supply then demand will increase from all demographics and user types. Under 16’s, like everybody else, are free to use the new extended hours of library access 7 days a week. However, it is not uncommon for libraries to elect not to allow children in the library at night by themselves but this is a local decision not a restriction by default of open+ ” Daren Ratcliffe, UK Managing Director, Bibliotheca [via email]

  • Cannot be used by those without library cards already
  • Not suitable for anyone with certain special needs. “Physical access will be difficult for anyone with such needs, and once in the library, without staff present, many learning disabled residents, perhaps with autism, or similar difficulties, will struggle to use the facilities provided …” (Broken Barnet, March 2016).
  • Danger that regular library users during outside open hours will take ownership of the library, policing who is allowed in themselves. Would such users be checked by the authority to ensure they do not take advantage of other users during unstaffed times.

“I worry about someone having a fall or somebody causing damage. A response to this wouldn’t be quick enough with the use of CCTV.” Calne

  • “Thin end of the wedge”: system is introduced to extend opening hours but, with cuts, may increasingly replace core hours, being used as an excuse or placebo for reducing opening hours. Research shows that, in Denmark, users would be unhappy to use the system if it directly replaced staffing. In addition, Danish research suggests and entirely staffless library is not successful.
  • Dependent on IT.  If there is a problem with the library servers or other computer-related issue, including servers or data, then the system does not work and the library has to close.

“TEO [Open+] requires names and PIN numbers to be able to operate. Verification between the door entry panel and the library management system is not available as the latter has failed. Entry into the building using TEO is therefore not currently possible. Names have been recovered but PIN information is irrecoverable. PINs will need to be reissued. A step by step process to re-establishing the service, based on the time required to communicate to all registered users of the TEO service, has been created. Registered TEO users will be notified of the new PIN by the 1st April, ready for the target date for re-opening of the TEO hours of the 1st April.” Appendix L: Issues arising from the Failure of the library management system – Barnet Council, 23rd March, 2016.”

  •  Risk assessment needed to identify all eventualities so service can still show duty of care.

Barnet – ‘They may as well stock it with weapons and tell people where to hit the bullseye’ – anger over unstaffed libraries – Time Series. Campaigners pretend to wreak havoc in Open+ library, including two collapsing and one smoking. No response from CCTV. “People say they don’t want to go there at night because it is creepy when nobody works there. “Smoke alarms might not even pick up smoking.” [February 2016]

Further reading

  • Eire – Further breaches of safety in staffless libraries – Staff Our Libraries. “There have been 29 tailgating incidents and 24 incidents of an Open Library member giving their card to another person. Most staggering of all though are the 158 incidents of open library members opening the security doors to allow access to another person. Most worrying of all the suspensions are those due to leaving a child without supervision in an unmonitored unstaffed library. In 2015 there were 4 incidents of a minor being left unsupervised during unstaffed hours, in 2016, 3 and another one last year. One incident should have been enough to prompt a review of the system and its safety.” (May 2018)
  • Open + Libraries: Sharing the Library Key Medium / Jane Cowell. Notes use to extend opening hours in Arhus and Cologne and looks at what is needed to be successful.
  • Review of the open library concept in UK public libraries – Apse Solutions. “The objective of the report is an independent review on the option of using the “open” concept to work alongside and in partnership with available staffed hours to maintain and increase community access to the library service”.  Funded by Bibliotheca, the report looks at the experience of “open libraries” so far in the UK, with an emphasis on advantages and how to implement. (December 2016).
  • Denmark – Open libraries: Self service libraries – The Danish way – Jan Holmquist (April 2016).
  • Denmark – More open libraries: A Danish perspective – Princh. a lot of preparation and conversations. “we just used signs so people have some self-explanatory indications on where to find different key points at the library. We also marked everything just in case something is stolen so we could then trace it afterwards” … “Nothing has changed in the staff’s activities when it comes to the unmanned open library because there is no additional activity. ” … “Our open library opens at 8:00, but the library opens at 10:00. So, usually from 8:00-10:00, the staff work to get the library ready for the public.” [This whole article sounds like a different world – staff start at 8am but the library doesn’t open to 10! – Ed.] “we discovered that there are people who prefer the libraries when there is no staff present”
  • Norway – Who are they and what do they do? – IFLA. “The method used was observation. A number of library visitors were observed during their library visit a week in November 2015.The libraries have done the same survey in 2007, and this new survey gave interesting results compared to the first survey. The main libraries, some branch libraries, and two branches, also open in unstaffed hours, were included.” …  Looks at differences in use in staffed and unstaffed hours. More men visit than women unstaffed (opposite is case when staffed).
  • How technology can save council libraries – Public Technology.net (February 2016)
  • Article in PanLibus (December 2015).
  • The Libraries Taskforce has reproduced a review by Vivacity of the project in Peterborough here.  (December 2015)
  • See also this case study – Open+ Case Study: Cullompton, Devon – was written especially for Public Libraries News in January 2016 and looks at the first couple of months of operation extending opening hours.
  • Open libraries in Denmark – Scandinavian Library Quarterly, 2013.
  • Open Plus/Staff less Libraries – Danish Union response Barnet Unison. “self-serviced or unstaffed libraries are only to be seen as an enhancement of the opening hours, not as a replacement for the important tasks that librarians, information professionals and other library workers perform every day”
  • Open+ UK launch of 24/7 library access from Bibliotheca. – Changing Libraries (April 2014).
  • Opinion: Staffless libraries are a terrible idea for Ireland – Journal. “In addition, the UK’s experience of staffless libraries is not referenced at all in the report. Why not? Rather, the report repeatedly references the Scandinavian countries (where, in fact, the choice for the public was one of no library at all or a staffless library). Staffless libraries in the UK have not been successful from the public’s point of view and have led to closures, reduced staffed hours and thus the intrinsic loss of a valuable community asset. The real question is, does the government in the UK regard this as a successful cost-saving exercise?”

    No hands required?

    No hands required?

  • Staff-Less Libraries: Innovative staffing design – Carl Gustav Johannsen (2017).
  • USA / Global – Checking Out Securely: The Challenge of Staffless Libraries – Public Libraries Online. “Automated checkout has its place. Computer databases and artificial intelligence make research even faster. Still, no automated system can offer a friendly smile, a helping hand, and an eye to security that provides an immediate response to problems as they occur.” (April 2017)
  • How to get more users to the library? – Interview with Peterborough Libraries from the UK – Princh (May 2017).

List of known Open+ Libraries in the UK

The following is a doubtless incomplete list of authorities and branches which are using or plan to use this system. The UK managing director of Bibliotheca has emailed me to say 20% of all UK library services have installed, or are about to install, at least one service point (December 2016).

Barnet

“The health and safety risks of this shift to ‘open libraries’ are self-evident: CCTV will be unmonitored, toilets will be closed, many vulnerable users will feel unsafe, while children under 16 years of age will not even be allowed to use these ‘libraries’ unaccompanied by an adult (age 18 or older). The Council claims it is using a ‘pilot’ at Edgware library to test its plans. However the pilot is not a fair test because, unlike in the proposed plan, a security guard is present during unstaffed hours, which are, in fact, only in addition to current opening hours.” Broken Barnet, January 2016

Bedford

Bracknell

Brighton and Hove

“The three month pilot at Woodingdean and Portslade saw 288 library users make 318 separate visits with council officers reporting a steady increase month on month. “

Pilot deemed successful in August 2016 meaning “Libraries Extra” extended to all 14 libraries.

Bristol

  • St George
  • Stockwood
  • Westbury

“For veteran libraries campaigner Julie Boston, inset, of Love Bristol Libraries, this “innovation” has set alarm bells ringing. “I think it’s a horrendous idea, and the beginning of the end for librarians,” she said. “We need to protect our librarians – they serve an important purpose; they are what make libraries so accessible.” Bristol Post, January 2016.

Cambridgeshire

Piloting the system at St. Ives (May 2016) with public feedback/consultation before considering rolling out to others.

Camden

Five libraries converted from August 2016. These libraries only available via swiping card before noon.

  • Kilburn Library Centre
  • Kentish Town
  • Camden Town
  • Queens Crescent
  • West Hampstead

Derby

Considering introducing system to cut costs. “This is not a total replacement for library staff. Any library adopting Open+ would still have staff on duty for a few hours each week but up to 60% could be totally unstaffed.” (November 2015)

Devon

Cullompton – no reduction in staffing, used to increase opening hours “From Monday 16th November 2015 opening hours will be extended at The Hayridge using the Open+ system. Open+ enables access to the building and facilities during unstaffed hours using your library card and PIN. If you would like to use the library or meeting rooms out of hours, please see a member of staff or email”

Edinburgh

Consultation includes questions on volunteers/community groups doing more in libraries / more colocation / Open+.  (October 2016)

£350k allocated to Open+. IT problems. (August 2017)

Gloucestershire

Bishops Cleeve Library – open only for Open+ for majority of week (March 2017)

Hampshire

“In some Tier 3 libraries that are single staffed, the council is looking to pilot an ‘open library’ approach whereby the library would be unstaffed some of the time but remain open to allow customers to issue or return books using the self-service systems” (November 2015)

Harrow

  • Consultation showed ” 57.31% supported or were willing to consider the introduction of Open+ technology to extend opening hours. “

Hertfordshire

  • Croxley Green is piloting Open+ (May 2017)
  • Berkhamsted new library will also be piloting Open+ (May 2017)

Lambeth

Leeds

Leicestershire

“To begin with, the self-access technology will be operational outside of staffed hours, but due to the demands on the council’s budgets we will be looking at reducing staffed hours in libraries. “

Norfolk

“”A lady has just told us that she regularly uses the library for job hunting because she no longer has the internet at home/ She saw a job advertised on Monday morning, came into the library during an open+ session and sent off her CV. She has just heard she had got the job and starts next week” Acle Library, 2015 [Quote supplied to me by Bibliotheca who say “lady was unable to attend the library during standard hours due to caring commitments.” – Ed.]

“I like Norfolk’s self-service terminals & use them a lot. But are they worth £0.9m for a measly few extra hours & less stock?” Christopher Pipe [via Twitter]

North Somerset

Northern Ireland

Oxfordshire

Peterborough

Salford

South Gloucestershire

Somerset

Staffordshire

Stockport

Swindon

Tameside

Trafford

Vale of Glamorgan

Walsall

Wiltshire

Wokingham

Worcestershire

  • #1 written by Jane Cowell
    about 3 years ago

    Interesting that all these Councils are only focused on the transaction / loan that the library does and not on the impact or function of the whole library. The public library connects people to people, people to ideas and people to place / community and a swipe card access to an otherwise locked space does not do that. Like the idea of increased after hours access to community library spaces though so the technology is certainly welcome.

  • #2 written by Michelle Sutcliffe
    about 2 years ago

    I have just seen this article & am wondering why Leeds City Council is not mentioned as they were the very first Local Authority in the U.K to be chosen to install the Open+ system. Farsley library was chosen as the pilot branch who then received numerous visits from other local authorities up & down the country to see whether they wanted to use the service. It has been running approx 18 months

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