Idea Stores: what the ideas are and why they’re important

Wherever I go, the most successful libraries are those who have a clear strategy and vision.  In Tower Hamlets, it’s based on location, on combining with adult education and on reading for pleasure. They have also, root and branch, changed their staffing.  There’s no bibliographic services department, at all. There’s no actual long term specialists, at all. There’s also no freedom to blue tack an amateur poster up or to say that an event isn’t happening, or a computer problem can’t be fixed, because that person is on holiday.

They’re pretty hard nosed about that, and rightly so. In times of crisis, inertia and existing working practices can kill. So now, in this time of crisis, they’re not facing a crisis. Because they know what they’re doing, they’re well used and they can defend everything they do in easy to understand terms. Sound good? Bite the bullet and see how you can learn from them. Because it’s kind of embarrassing that we aren’t. The week I was there, they had a delegation from South Korea for goodness sake. But there’s not been much about Tower Hamlets seen in the UK recently.  It’s like because it has been there for a few years it’s not important any more.  Well, it is. And here’s why.

  • It’s eleven years old and it works.  This is not an experiment any more. More than a decade means the thing is a success.
  • They did the research first.  Tower Hamlets used to have a terrible library service (the lowest usage per capita in the capital when they started) so they took time out and thought about things. The library service was proactive rather then reactive, coming up with a long term strategy and sticking with it. They did proper market research on what people wanted and where they wanted it.
Yes, it's a brochure. But it's also a superb cross-promotion opportunity

Yes, it’s a brochure. But it’s also a superb cross-promotion opportunity

Libraries are merged with Adult Education. This makes for a lot of extra benefits for both: the books and computers are right where the students need them and there are buildings all over the borough to do classes. For the library, it’s a ton of potential customers coming through the door and those classrooms can be used by the public when they’re not being used for anything else. In terms of size, Whitechapel is the biggest with 3500 square metres; the others are between 1000 and 2500 square metres but all have meeting rooms. There 10,000 enrollments per year for adult education and 7,000 of them join the library. It’s all about getting them through the doors and on-selling, in both directions.

It’s all about the location. Tower Hamlets are very fussy about location and want them where the footfall is (e.g. by supermarkets or a tube station, preferably both). They are happy to close old libraries in less busy locations and move to a busier one.  This is made easier for them by the massively high property values in London: selling off an old building always makes loads of money. Before Idea Stores, Tower Hamlets had the most per capita libraries in the capital but they were in the wrong places and were too small. They now have two million visits per year from just seven locations.

  • No Bibliographic Services department.  All done either by suppliers or by staff in the libraries themselves. This saves a lot of money.
All posters are vetted by professionals and are branded.

All posters are vetted by professionals and are branded.

  • Making publicity and communications professional.  Tower Hamlets have two full-time equivalent staff for branding and marketing.  There are standard templates for posters and leaflets so staff in branches can produce their own: but they must all be approved by the publicity team.  This is really important. Too often I see amateur posters and leaflets being produced by library staff who think, just because they have access to Publisher (or, worse, Word) and a printer then they can produce non-embarrassing notices. They just can’t. Graphic designers need training for a reason. It’s the worst kind of hubris to think that a member of library staff can do the work of someone with the training and qualifications. What happens is that the public sees poor displays, handouts that are just off and the whole thing looks confused.  Libraries need to look professional in their communications. The same logo and look are everywhere in Idea Stores.
  • No events posters.  All local events and other publicity are put on TV screens: this makes for a far cleaner look for each library and means the wonky poster and blu-tack should be thing of the past.  It makes things look more professional, at the cost of annoying a few local groups who cannot cope with sending in the poster digitally.
Posters are so last century

Posters are so last century

  • Core collections.  300 is the key number there: the authority ensures that there are 300 key non-fiction, 300 core fiction and 300 core CDs that are always in the authority. There are also 150 core DVD titles.  All of this are loaned for free.
  • Music. Get this, CD loans are free in Tower Hamlets. In addition, the borough subscribes to Freegaallowing 3 tunes per wee to be downloads to keep, again for free.  The downside of this is that it is Sony only.
Its Freegal and it's legal

Its Freegal and it’s legal

  • Membership. People just need one proof of ID to join. Actually, that’s one too many in my view. My authority gets by with no ID requirement at all and the feared stealing of all the good stock failed to happen. The thing here is that criminals will steal it anyway: it’s easy to forge ID or just plain not return something. What you’re doing in asking for ID is putting up barriers to entry and penalising the genuine user. Don’t believe me? We’ve been doing it for seven years. Why are you treating your potential joiners as criminals? Treat people as thieves only if they are thieves  (up to and including calling the police and pushing for punishment – just because we’re pro open access does not mean we should be soft).
  • Stock champions.  There are no long-term specialists. Staff do a specialism for a while (I think it is for two years) and then move on. The advantage is that it keeps on being fresh to them, they don’t hold entrenched prejudices or positions and there are many more people who know and understand a job: so if someone is long-term ill or retires, it’s not crisis time. Moreover, the library world changes quickly so you don’t get people mourning for the way things used to be and refusing to move on. There are 23 FTE library staff in Whitechapel, 11FTE in smaller ones. Champions are in four key areas (Stock,, kids, learning & digital and volunteers). They’re given extra training and develop skills and then move on. Champions work with a team of four or five: the pay-off for them is variety and not extra pay (there is none).
  • Keeping the day varied. Everyone works one hour a time at a different station e.g. Enquiry then kids then nonfiction then workroom then first floor. All have a generic job description so everyone is at an adequate level for everything. It keeps them fresh and the day goes fast.  The help desk can be very fast so gives you a breather.
  • Clothing.  Staff uniform is a black top and there is security fob on the lanyard to go through doors. It’s easy to spot staff from behind and from far away.
This way, you can tell who the staff are and they can promote key messages. Besided, I've always liked the idea of not having to buy my own clothes for work.

This way, you can tell who the staff are and they can promote key messages. Besided, I’ve always liked the idea of not having to buy my own clothes for work.

  • Security.  This is Tower Hamlets so they have security concerns: CCTV, security and facilities management are all on separate contracts.
  • Opening hours are long and easy to remember.  Opening hours used to be 46 per week but some had odd times. Now they have longer hours and are easy to remember.  Whitechapel is 9am to 9pm Monday to Thursday, 9am to 6pm on Friday (less people use libraries on Friday evenings), 9am to 5pm Saturdays and are open 11am to 5pm on Sundays. Sunday opening is successful with one thousand people using Whitechapel in six hours on that day.
  • Taking kids seriously.  We all know how successful storytime and rhymetimes are, right? So Tower Hamlets has sessions every day and at the same time. It means people don’t forget and are comfortable with going in on the off-chance. There are also specific activities for children every day at 4pm, precisely the right time after school to attract kids in.
  • Reading for pleasure.  Libraries are a key player in this as schools often forget about it.  Why should they go to the library not the school? Because the library s better for this. The emphasis is on reading, not crafts. Councillors are impressed by kids reading and not by sticking things on to card. So it’s not like a playgroup: there’s no mission creep here. The thing is the reading. This extends to having no computers for kids between 3.30 and 5. This makes for less rowdy behaviour and for an atmosphere of reading and study, not Facebook and messing around. Children therefore come specifically to the library to learn … and that’s an easy sell for the library to decision-makers.
And, yes, of course they have a café.

And, yes, of course they have a café.


Further reading

Public library innovation: Idea Stores – so last century? – CILIP, February 2016.

A Library and Lifelong Learning Development Strategy for Tower Hamlets – Tower Hamlets Council, 1999 and Idea Store Strategy.

  • #1 written by librariesmatter
    about 7 years ago

    Yes interesting. The largish libraries linked with adult education makes sense given that Tower Hamlets has an ethnically diverse population of 284,000 in a very small area (7.6 sq miles).

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