East Riding of Yorkshire Libraries has designed and introduced mobiles which provide the same range and quality of services as that found in its branch libraries. This conscious effort to level-up the service offer in rural areas with that delivered in urban centres includes full broadband internet connectivity.
The Council had branch libraries in its market towns. Outside the towns it delivered library services with an ageing fleet of mobiles, including from a trailer which visited six of the larger villages. A haulier had to tow this onto site at the start of each day and away at the end. Moreover, these mobiles were unable to provide certain library services, such as checking online whether a requested book was in stock. Councillors felt that this was inequitable and they were providing a two-tier service. They wanted to offer a parity of service (or as near as possible) wherever residents lived.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council began a libraries review by consulting with communities and asking what it was they wanted from a modern mobile. Amongst other things, they concluded it should provide a high quality environment, have access to library management systems and have People’s Network (computer) terminals. This wish list enabled them to determine design features, such as IT connectivity and facilities that would enable staff to be on board all day. They spent a year getting the specification right before going out to tender.
This work coincided with the roll out of the People’s Network. The Council sought and gained agreement from the New Opportunities Fund, who distributed its funding, that they could use some of their allocation to purchase equipment that enabled internet connectivity in the new mobiles (or travelling libraries).
The first two of these vehicles arrived ready for service in 2003. The 10 metre long vehicles have a light and airy feel, modern heating, disabled access, hearing loops, full staff facilities (a toilet and kitchen) and terminals for internet access.
They spend a full day on site and so each visits five villages per week. Six are villages that were previously served by the trailer. In the other four the travelling libraries replaced small branch libraries which were in unsuitable premises – typically a room in a village hall. The Council was concerned that residents in these four locations might perceive mobiles as providing a poorer quality of service, so they visited with a similar sized vehicle and discussed the service which would be offered. This got a positive response.
Skirlaugh is a village on Holderness, between Beverley and Hull. The travelling library visits from 9.30 am until 7.30 pm each Wednesday, where it parks in a bay outside the local council offices. These opening hours reflect the wishes of local people. The Council found that village populations were changing and there was demand from commuters and schoolchildren for evening access.
Further west at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor the travelling library uses a village hall car park. A wireless (IT) link installed on the hall enables the internet access. An added benefit is that this link can be used at other times for activities such as adult education classes in the village hall.
Two further vehicles have since been leased by the Council. An additional feature on these later vehicles is an onboard video-link facility to its Customer Service network, so users can speak with Council and other service providers. This is screened from the main library area.
The Council notes that operating large travelling libraries means one of the two members of the onboard team must hold an HGV class 3 driving licence.
It is proud to note that its fleet of travelling libraries has since won awards and has gathered considerable interest from library services in the UK and abroad.
Benefits and outcomes
There have been two obvious benefits for library users in these rural areas. One is that they now have a high quality environment with more space and the look and feel of a branch library. The other is that they can access the full suite of library services, including those which require internet connectivity.
The improved service has resulted in far greater levels of user satisfaction and the number of library visits has increased at rural locations.
“The access to a computer and the internet are wonderful … Well done library service!”
“I cannot praise the new van and service enough. It is a truly excellent layout …”
Two quotes from library users
There have been various other spin-off benefits. Some of the village halls used by the travelling libraries have made use of their wireless links to create local IT suites (at no additional public cost). Police Community Support Officers have used the travelling libraries as a base for making rural visits. Village schools arrange visits to the travelling libraries to introduce pupils to the public library service.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council feels that it has met its ambition of providing a high-quality library service to its rural communities.
The capital cost of each travelling library is around £100,000 to £120,000 (excluding the book stock and IT equipment). East Riding of Yorkshire Libraries has these vehicles on a ten year lease through the Council’s fleet management section. The main running cost is for the two members of staff who are on board each vehicle at any one time, one of whom must be a driver.
Whilst this approach may sound like a significant investment, it is notable that the old trailer library had become expensive to operate. Like other councils East Riding of Yorkshire now faces significant budget pressures, but its aim is now to reduce the cost of provision without detrimentally affecting the services delivered to local residents.
Lessons for others
East Riding of Yorkshire Libraries says that IT connectivity is key to its approach. It parks the travelling libraries at appropriate locations, such as village halls and schools, where wireless provision with a good line-of-site to the antenna is possible. Even so there have been unforeseen issues, such as when a school’s connection was switched off during the summer holidays.
Another lesson it has learned is to check what weight the ground can take at proposed locations for the travelling libraries. It has discovered that school play grounds are not always suitable; one site became quite damaged by the vehicle.
The Council also stresses the importance of involving and listening early on to the libraries service staff affected by such major changes in provision. Change always creates some uncertainty and there were new skills that their mobile staff had to acquire, such as driving and IT skills. They were delighted with how well those staff adapted.
East Riding of Yorkshire is now reviewing its (almost) ten years of experience with travelling libraries to see what further it can learn.