Yesterday I attended a CDG organised visit to Swindon Central Public Library... I work in the neighbouring county and it isn’t very often that there are visits set up to other public libraries and this provided an opportunity to see how another authority operates, a chance to pick up fresh ideas. The borough has 15 libraries which serve 200, 000 people. Swindon Central has been open since 2008 with a budget of £10 million and walking into it 4 years later it still feels like a new library.
Swindon libraries differ in one obvious way to Wiltshire’s in that there layouts are approached differently. Walking into Swindon Central is like walking into a bookshop whereas Wiltshire libraries still have a stereotypical library look. This is by no way a criticism to either authority; the bottom floor of Swindon Central is a buzz of activity, there are express choices and fast backs (1 week loans on bestsellers), express public network terminals plus newly arrived Tourist Information and all sorts of merchandise on sale. They have a busy cafe on the bottom floor and the Children’s Library is easily accessible. The ground floor acts as an express zone, with the front part of the library staying open 24hours. This is definitely a 21st century library. One observation that surprised me was the number of computers in the Children’s Library (ten in total) which can only be accessed by child tickets and the majority of which are the opposite end to staff counters. It would be interesting to look at the usage statistics for these to see whether they were all necessary.
The first and second floors hold all adult book stock which is categorised into zones; fiction and popular non fiction on the first and the rest of the non fiction on the second along with an extensive local studies collection. There is also a selection of popular non fiction, gardening and cookery on the bottom floor... I wouldn’t want to try and find shelf checks. The non fiction has been grouped into zones as aforementioned with each zone having their own colour. I can see that this makes stock more browse-able, for example travel guides, travel writing and language courses are found in the same zone but it must take a while to get used to and it is a different type of thought process to find stock than using good old Dewey.
Each floor has public conveniences and a help point in the same place but there is no counter as such on the upper floors. It is planned for these help points to be taken out in the future and for all enquiries to be dealt with at the bottom floor counter with library assistants and information assistants roving around the building. Current practice is that initial enquiries taken on the ground floor are passed up to the first and second floors dependent on their subject and that complaints are sent up to the help points. If I was a frustrated customer I would not want to then have to walk up a flight of stairs to explain my complaint again to another member of staff. The solution they are planning to implement should work theoretically but I’d like to go back on a busy Saturday afternoon and see whether staff have the time to floor walk and how long a queue there is at the ground floor counter.
In the same vein there are only two issues machines and two returns machines for the entire library which can be found on the ground floor. There is an additional exterior book drop machine for when the library is closed. For a building of this size I would have expected machines on each of the floors but when asked staff commented that it is very rare people have to wait to use a machine. The whole library has a feel of an HE or FE library rather than public use.
After a general tour of the building we had two talks; one a very passionate talk about the promotion and collection of local studies, the second regarding Swindon’s RFID machines. The latter covered the basic operation of the machines. Swindon borough has four different versions of RFID machines throughout their branches which I would find very confusing as a customer. There seems to be a machine for everything... one for issues, one for returns, another for releasing public network prints and a general photocopier. I can’t help but think new customers must be quite overwhelmed on an initial visit. The local studies talk was given by an animated member of staff who was obviously passionate about his role and gave me hope for librarianship as a profession. Yes i know it sounds corny but this was a young professional who was passionate about his role, about promoting the collection and making lasting relationships with local history contacts and you can only hope that every library has at least one staff member like this.
This is the first time I’ve been on a visit to a public library as a professional (obviously with the exception of having a snoop when you’re on holiday) and I surprised myself with how much I picked up, how many ideas I left with and the chance to make connections with other public librarians who understand the every day workings of public libraries.
I want to thank CDG for another brilliant visit and all the staff at Swindon Central Library for giving up their time on a Friday afternoon... lots to mull over! There's still a lot I want to say about this but I need to get it straight in my head first... and I need a glass of wine so may muse more tomorrow!