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Drone racing, children's parties and shopping.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019 11:10am

By Daniel Clark, Local Democracy Reporting Service

Alex Kittow, Libraries Unlimited's Chief Executive

The plan to get more people using Devon's Libraries.

The number of people who used Devon’s libraries fell by six per cent last year, compared to the previous 12 months, with stock issues falling by seven per cent. The number of events and activities that took place though rose 14 per cent, there was a 32 per cent increase in event attendance, and while physical stock issues dropped, eBook issues rose 25 per cent.

Alex Kittow, Libraries Unlimited’s new chief executive, though has plans to reverse the decline in visiting.

Drag Queen Story Time and live streaming events from the Royal Shakespeare Company have already taken place, and he's floated ideas around children’s parties, personal shopping experiences, and even drone racing as potential future activities.

While the ideas may feel radical, he told the committee that books were in the library before they were in the home, the same with computers and the internet, so they are looking at what may be next, with a plan to introduce virtual reality, among other exciting developments, in the next 12 months.

Active users – those who have interacted with a library service using their membership number within the last 12 months – were down by two per cent at the end of the year compared to the end of the previous year, but Alex, speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service this week, said: “Our library service remains the envy of other places.

“We’re absolutely focused on bringing more people into our libraries and to encourage people to read for pleasure, so of course we will do our best to reverse the decline.

“However, we have to be realistic and accept that the way we live our lives is changing, high streets are used less, increasingly more shopping and borrowing of books is done online and we all lead busy lives which means convenience is a priority.

“We see significant traffic going through our websites and we’re always looking at ways to improve our digital services so that we can meet people’s needs. At the same time, we’re continually expanding our services and events within libraries to encourage people through the doors to explore what we have to offer.

“Events and activities massively increased last year though and the main reason is because we have been working hard to bring new people into libraries through a diverse events programme. We’re trying new things all the time, like Drag Queen Story Time and live streaming events from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“We want communities to look to the library when they want something to do, whether it’s parent and toddler groups, Lego and Code clubs, knit and natter, dementia cafes, author visits or fundraising events organised by one of our supportive Friends Groups.

“Is this the future? I think this will be a way that libraries and their buildings can be used to serve our communities more, by providing events and experiences that people might not be able to access elsewhere.”

He said that the majority of people who do use libraries are either from the older or younger age of the spectrum, but what thrilled him this summer is that there was a nine per cent increased on the number of people participating in the summer reading challenge and that a large number were from schools that had not engaged before.

Alex said: “Young kids still love physical books and turning the pages but we don’t mind if people prefer physical books or digital books. We are passionate about reading for pleasure and we know that reading and stories in any form can help to improve people’s lives in many ways.

“Technology is changing the way we live and we therefore want to continue investing in our digital offer as we know that enhancements in digital services with continue to change the way we interact with books and information. That said, I have no doubt that there will always be a strong demand for physical books. Kids love them, adults love them and over the past year or so, reports have shown that the sale of books has begun to pick up again as more people move back to hardcopies. Either way, we will remain committed to providing people access to both.”

While the core service of a library remains around book issues, Alex said that libraries nowadays have to be offer more than just books to find other ways of utilising their space to draw in people.

He said: “I was chatting with someone about drones and about how you can fly them indoors, and I was thinking that with the layout of a library, you can get great obstacle courses to do drone racing which would be great fun.

“Why do this in a library? We you can get young people in and as they are learning about drones and how to fly them, we can show them books talking about it, they can print their drone on a 3-D printers, and then they can become the engineers of the future. And that is just reference books, let alone all the fiction books, and it is something that excites people.

“We have lots of ideas for how we can better utilise our libraries. We’re up for trying new things to help reach our communities and to increase our income to ensure a sustainable future, although we need to carefully weigh up our options and develop strong business cases for each.

“With drones, I believe there’s huge opportunity for children to come to libraries to develop new science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, just like the way that Code Clubs teach children coding.”

Other suggestions mentioned at last month’s council meeting included running children’s parties and personal shopping experiences. He said: “Kids like books but sometimes schools turn them off as they tell them what to read. But if you like reading, we can tell you what other kinds of books you may like. It may be the wrong level or what they say you should be reading, but if you have a love of reading, our expert librarians can point out what other authors they may like and want to read.”

He added: “I expect we will see some new ideas implemented sometime in 2020. If any of your readers have an idea that will help our libraries generate income and increase our community impact at the same time then please let me know on info@librariesunlimited.org.uk

“Books were in the library before they were in the home, the same with computers and the internet, so what next? We already have Code Clubs, 3D printers and laser cutters in some of our libraries, and over the next year or so we plan to introduce virtual reality amongst other exciting developments.

“It is about making things accessible and providing the inspiration and aspiration that libraries can have and a legacy we can leave for the next generation.

“What you can be sure of is that over the next few years there will be friendly, knowledgeable staff and lots of books. My hope is that libraries will be increasingly used as community hubs and the impact they have on our quality of life, our health and wellbeing and our community cohesion will be better understood.

“My experience of libraries in Devon is that they are not always quiet and the impact they have is less to do with the books on the shelves and more to do with the relationships they facilitate.

“But we need to also go out to the people who aren’t reading, rather than making them come to us in what are some intimidating looking buildings, either because of the structure or the people in there.”

Although library visits fell two per cent last year, there was a 10 per cent increase in visits to the smallest group of libraries, with Topsham Library, where they opened a brand new library in the Nelson Close Community Centre, up 49 per cent.

He said: “Since opening the library has attracted lots of visitors and we’ve seen a real increase in usage. This is largely what it is behind the 10 per cent increase, although Uffculme Library has also seen an increase due to Library Extra sessions run by volunteers which has helped to increase the hours that the library is open.”

But he warned: “The short message to people though is use it or lose it. I think we have a good chance of keeping Devon’s libraries open for the long term with the support of our commissioners and local councillors at Devon County Council. However, we will continue to need the support from our volunteers and Friends Groups and will need to take an entrepreneurial approach to ensure we aren’t too reliant on public sector funding. We will also need to be ahead of the game when it comes to new trends and developments so that libraries remain relevant.

“I don’t know what will happen to our libraries for sure, but if they aren’t being used, then clearly there is not a demand for them, so we could lose so of them. So let’s encourage people to use them, not just occasionally, but regularly, and to get your neighbours as well and not just your kids but other kids as well.

“We need to encourage people to continue to use the library. What you can buy on Amazon and have delivered at home may be more convenient, but you can borrow it from a library and keep them open.”

While all of Devon’s libraries have remained open, the library budget in 2010 stood at approximately £10m, was down to £3m in 2014, and as part of the contract, Libraries Unlimited were required to reduce the cost of the library service by a further £1.5m, with a further £300,000 of reductions targeted over the next two years in line with the Council’s wider financial pressures.

Alex said: “Austerity has been going on for a while, and libraries have faced significant funding cuts over the past 10 years. However, I think we are only just beginning to feel its effects. The reduction in funding has been devastating to our local authorities and in turn to library services, library staff and most importantly, the people of Devon.”

Devon County Council is currently developing a new library strategy, and Cllr Roger Croad, cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, said that he was keen that Devon responded to the national decline in book lending and buck the trend by getting more people back into libraries.

Speaking at the CIRS meeting, he said: “We want to maintain a love of reading through physical books, but we do need to respond to changes and deliver a digital offer and recognise what people are doing in their leisure time. We need to ensure they are used as community assets and are a place for the whole community.

“Will we still have 50 libraries next year? We haven’t closed any in the last 10 and I don’t intend to close any in the next 10 years. Our event attendance is well up as well so proves that libraries are being used as a community space.”

Cllr Ian Hall added: “People used to go into libraries, but things have changed. We need to find out what the communities want their libraries to be and we need to be engaging with them.”

Cllr Martin Shaw said that he had concerns about the way service is going and he didn’t think digital borrowing can stand up for decline in physical issues. He added: “Book issues are down seven per cent this year and they have been going down for 10 years due to the decline in funding for the service and cultural changes. This remorseless reduction in funding year on year cannot continue if we are to have a credible service.”

But Cllr Kevin Ball said that he thought the figures were ‘alright’. He added: “There are some areas for improvement, but they are not as bad as they could be and are elsewhere, and there is lots of good news. Events are exactly what we should be doing to draw people in so they can become readers, and I want to sign up for racing drones.”

And Libraries Unlimited has also been named as one of three finalists in the Tesco Bags of Help Centenary Grant initiative, a community funding scheme that supports community groups and charities to deliver projects that have a positive impact on communities

In celebration of Tesco’s Centenary, the supermarket has teamed up with Groundwork to deliver a special voting round which will see grants of £25,000, £15,000 and £10,000 awarded to community projects.

Voting is open in all Tesco stores in Devon during October, November and December and customers will cast their vote using a token given to them at the check-out in store each time they shop.

A taster of activities taking place across Devon and Torbay’s libraries this week includes:

  • Colyton Library, Thu 10 Oct, 10.30-11.30am, Grown Up Coding, Cake & Coffee, free
  • Dartmouth Library will be launching their informal IT help sessions for all ages during Libraries Week.These will be free drop in sessions every Saturday, 10-11am.
  • Exeter Library, Thu 10 Oct, 7-8.30pm, £8/£6 – StoryTalks: Graphic Novels

Polarbear will be joined by two of the country’s most exciting and talented graphic novelists, Joff Winterhart (Driving Short distances – Penguin Books) and Katriona Chapman (Follow me in – Avery Hill).

Together they will discuss their inspiration, and how they are breaking new ground in their use of graphics and storytelling to create 3-dimensional work for this ever popular medium.

  • Holsworthy Library, Sat 12 Oct, pm – Gaming Session for Children
  • Mobile Libraries – Find out about digital resources when you visit the Mobile Library during Libraries Week
  • South Molton Library, Thu 10 Oct, doors open 6.45pm – Digital screening of ‘Vitamin Sea’ by Plastic Free South Molton

With a special recorded introduction by star Cal Major.

  • Paignton Library, Thu 10 Oct, 1-3pm – Torbay Stroke Survivors Computer Group

Throughout the week activities with a digital focus for adults and young people will be on offer including coding clubs, Bring Your Own Device, an introduction to digital skills, digital screenings, live streaming of events, one to one digital help clinics, assistance to access digital books and audio books.

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