Staffless libraries? Don’t panic!

In recent decades, libraries have increasingly sought opportunities to automate their processes. Self-issue machines, Google-style discovery systems and remote access to digital resources mean that the role of library staff in supporting access and use has undergone fundamental change. In my experience, librarians have tended to embrace technological developments and have resisted any fears of the Ned Ludd variety by seeking to upskill themselves. But I did experience some trepidation when I came across a report on ‘staffless’ libraries when researching a recent MA assignment.

Faced with the familiar pressure of maintaining public library services on reduced budgets, Danish politicians trialled ‘staffless’ or ‘open’ libraries, defined as branches where a proportion of opening hours are un-staffed by paid professionals (volunteers present did not count as staffed). With the 25 libraries involved able to open longer without additional staffing costs, community access to the physical library building, book stock, computers and meeting rooms was increased, resulting in 23% more visits by library users and 14 branches reporting increased borrowing of material. The concept proved particularly popular with younger users, with around a third of visitors aged below 35. Remarkably, and perhaps due to Denmark’s relatively high level of social capital, vandalism to staffless libraries was minimal, with the handful of reports falling far short of predictions.

But don’t start printing copies of your CV yet. The researcher, Carl Gustav Johannsen, points out that the higher visitor numbers reported were ‘not sensational’ when opening hours were increased up to 300%. And crucially, there were no cases where the number of visitors per hour during unstaffed hours surpassed the number of visits when staff were present. On average, there were four visits per hour when libraries were unstaffed, compared to 29 visits per staffed hour. People also borrowed more books when staff were present. Johannsen’s conclusion? ‘This pattern indicates that the presence of staff still is a factor influencing public library performance.’ It seems that, given a choice, people prefer to use libraries staffed by professionals.

Additional research by Johannsen further emphasises the importance of library staff, with mystery shopper data suggesting that knowledge, competence, friendliness and positive attitudes of library staff can significantly add value to the library user’s experience. Proactive approaches to customer support, including making suggestions and recommendations, and ‘floor walking’ similar to The University of Manchester Library’s roving support offer, were highly valued. It would be interesting to compare these experiments in Danish public libraries with experiences in UK academic libraries, especially those such as Manchester with 24 hour facilities available for independent use, but it seems that supportive, welcoming, innovative and skilled library staff are as highly valued today as they have been in the past.

Lucinda May

References

Johannsen, C. G. (2012) ‘Staffless libraries – recent Danish public library experiences,’ New Library World: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/03074801211244959

Johannsen, C. G. (2014) ‘Innovative public library services – staff-less or staff-intensive?’ Library Management: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/LM-01-2014-0006

Image credits: Hart, Will (1990). ‘P_36 Cambridge – The Widener Library (1915) – Harvard University – Massachusetts,’ via Creative Commons.