Newcastle Libraries in New South Wales, Australia, serves over 110,000 members from two main libraries and eight smaller neighbourhood branches. Member satisfaction surveys have long indicated that members and even non-members are extremely happy with the library services but constantly ask that the libraries be open longer hours and on more days of the week.
“With a large library system of 10 sites throughout the Local Government Area, staffing can be challenging,” says Julie Baird, Director Museum Archives Libraries & Learning, City of Newcastle. “We have to move staff between branches, so some of the smaller branches cannot be open five or six days a week.”
The little library that could
Library access was a particular problem at the Lambton branch. Due to staffing challenges, the tiny neighbourhood library was only open 14 hours a week.
“This little library was only open two and a half days per week and had an active residents group who wanted more!” says Briana Elliot, Manager, Digital Services & Innovation, City of Newcastle.
Lambton Library is housed in a picturesque cottage in a large community green space. When the branch underwent a major refurbishment in 2020 – 2022, the City of Newcastle took the opportunity to implement open+ to offer extended library access to residents. Designed to complement staffed hours, open+ is a comprehensive technology solution that allows libraries to extend library access even when staff cannot be present. Though open+ is being used by more than 850 libraries around the world, this was the first initiative of its kind for the City of Newcastle, and Lambton was the first Library in Australia to use the fully integrated open+ system.
“Putting new technology in an old building had its challenges – but the technical team were amazing, and no issue was insurmountable,” says Briana Elliot, Manager, Digital Services & Innovation, City of Newcastle. “The Bibliotheca team were able to work through all our concerns with us and propose workable solutions.”
Using open+ to increase open hours by 700%
The results of open+ have been astounding. Now open from 7 am – 9 pm seven days a week, the Lambton Library has experienced a 400% increase in visitors and a 102% increase in circulation since reopening a year ago.
“Members from all walks of life are now taking advantage of the Lambton Library,” says Julie Baird. “We have older people who will take their dog for a walk in the morning, go and pick up their book at 7:30 am, and pick up their coffee at the café down the road. We’ll have university students in the library studying at quarter to nine at night.”
Lambton is a suburban area with a very diverse socio-economic demographic. There are primary schools within walking distance, a university just over the hill, and a vibrant strip of shops and chemists. Though there were originally some community concerns about the safety of opening the library during unstaffed hours, the results have been uniformly positive.
“If anything, the only issues that have come up are around how popular the space is now,” says Julie Baird. “People are using it for all sorts of things. People are using to come in as an alternative to working from home, using it to study, to spend time with their children while borrowing books.”
And though there can be a misperception that open library systems like open+ reduce staffed hours, Julie Baird says this could not be further from the truth. “open+ certainly hasn’t led to any cuts or reductions in staff hours. We’re finding that, if anything, the library is so busy now that we’re in there more often to stock up on holds and deal with the returns.”
Improved service and increased morale
In addition to providing sought-after service to the community, the success of open+ has boosted staff morale and shown them just how important the library is to the community.
“It’s wonderful to feel more valued by the community,” says Nuatali Nelmes, Newcastle Lord Mayor, City of Newcastle. “In the beginning, there were concerns that open access wouldn’t work, that people might destroy or damage the library. But that hasn’t happened at all. People have such a sense of ownership over the library now, and it’s given us much more confidence about our value to the neighbourhood.”
That sense of community ownership was on full display when Julie Baird visited the library recently: “I saw a child entering Lambton with their parent, and as they skipped through the door, they said, ‘This is the best library ever!’ Though we have much larger libraries with toys and screens, this library is in their neighbourhood. They can access it on their own and get the books that they want and that makes it the best library ever.”
open+ has been such a success for Lambton, the City of Newcastle is looking at ways to expand the model to other areas within the community.
“Everybody who works for libraries feels very strongly about what they give to the community,” says Julie Baird. “In situations where we have limited open hours, it’s difficult when we’re unable to give more than we have in terms of human resources. There are other locations in our community where we think this could be a fit, but that will come from community consultation.”
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