What's the big Idea?

Tower Hamlets libraries are to undergo a transformation in culture and appearance. Anne Cunningham, head of libraries, explains the rationale behind the Idea stores

In 1998 Tower Hamlets initiated a strategic review of its libraries, an analysis that was to drive a radical rethink of how it would house, project and deliver its services. The result will be a network of seven outlets, branded "Idea" stores, offering a complete, lifelong, learning package for the Tower Hamlets community.

The review was born out of a backdrop of poorly located, Victorian, institutional buildings and unsustainable opening hours. Services and facilities had stood still for decades, the library computer system was obsolete and our book fund was one of the lowest in London.

Despite the dedication and commitment of the staff, this cocktail resulted in the under-utilisation of resources, declining usage and plummeting issues. In the main, expectations were low, users were appreciative of our efforts, but without a vocal resident population the plight of the service went largely unnoticed.

We tried every trick in the book to reverse the decline and to maximise our two biggest assets: the staff and the stock. Full-time posts were converted to part-time to enable flexibility in staff rotas. Paperbacks, circulating stock and donations kept our stock levels up, but the effect soon wore off and could not be sustained. The overall impression, therefore, was of a tired, undervalued service attractive only to dedicated users of public libraries. In Tower Hamlets this meant the opposite ends of the age spectrum: children and older people.

Those of us who have chosen librarianship as our profession know the vital role that libraries play in contributing to the quality of life, be it social, educational, recreational or cultural. We have the potential to influence people's daily lives, to contribute to their well-being, their employability, to answer a million and one queries and to serve up a good dose of old-fashioned escapism. The revolutionary vigour of our forebears needed to be rekindled and re-engineered for the new millennium. What was needed was hard facts not anecdotal evidence.

Public consultation and fact finding

Our biggest allies, users and potential users, needed to be consulted over the library services they wanted, so we set about a high-profile public consultation exercise on the theme of "Your Libraries, Your Future". Launched with a teaser poster campaign the consultation was extensive: user questionnaires; roadshows; a general questionnaire that was distributed to every household, school and business in the borough; workshops with school classes; and independent market research. One of the questions included in the research asked respondents to rank in order of priority what they wanted from their libraries in the future. Increasing the book stock was the top priority followed by investment in IT, convenient opening hours and educational support.

The comprehensive data gathered showed us that the overwhelming majority of people interviewed, including non-users, considered the library service to be very important for their community. Our libraries were, however, seen as out-dated and inaccessible in terms of location and opening hours. It was clearly demonstrated that libraries had to fit in with modern lifestyles; people wanted to be able to combine a trip to the library with a trip to the shops or post office, to and from work or school or visiting friends, and this would encourage use.

More importantly, if the library did not meet their expectations and aspirations in terms of services, facilities and the daily pattern of their lives, it did not matter that the library was right on their doorstep. We were able to draw many conclusions from the market research and consultation exercise, and the wealth of information collected provided us with a mandate and a platform from which we were able to develop the Library and Lifelong Learning Strategy for Tower Hamlets.

Synergy with adult education

Armed with the fact that our research identified a strong demand for educational support, and given that our Adult Education Service faced similar challenges, it seemed logical to join forces. We recognised that together we could reverse the decline in take-up and usage and address some of the wider issues of social exclusion, poverty and unemployment that exist in Tower Hamlets, while exploiting some of the natural synergies that existed between the services. Thus emerged the concept of an entirely new and potentially highly effective generic type of building, combining libraries and lifelong learning.

As officers looking to the future, the first question we asked ourselves was whether, in fact, there would be a need for libraries and adult education in the future. We debated the buzz about electronic books and magazines, information at the click of a button, and online courses and tutoring through the box in the corner of every living room. This focused our minds on the quality of life and social interaction that libraries and lifelong learning offered, and the potential of the digital revolution for isolation and exclusion.

Given that learning does not start and stop at school, that information and communication technology (ICT) co-exists happily alongside traditional services, that bookshops are reinventing themselves and that the book trade is flourishing through e-commerce, our conclusion was that we were here to stay.

Location was paramount. Our market research and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology determined the true catchment areas of existing facilities and plotted the natural "centres" of activity and density of population. We drew on the experiences of other local authorities, which showed increased take-up and usage as a result of relocating services to high-profile shopping locations.

Our benchmarks for location became Lewisham Central Library and the Learning World in Gateshead. Retail and leisure outlets do not sit back and wait passively for customers but sell themselves constantly through siting, promotion, opening hours and branding. By incorporating these techniques and adopting the best from the public and commercial sectors we developed a model that met the emerging policies of central government.

Branded as "Idea", we proposed a £20m investment in a network of seven stores providing seamless access to integrated, quality library services and lifelong learning.

Books will be at the heart of the Idea stores. But there will also be classrooms and lecture rooms, adult education workshops, study spaces, homework clubs, multimedia lending facilities and complementary retail outlets. The public asked for, and will get, cafés, crêches, open learning and public ICT suites. There will be community rooms, hot-desking facilities for the vibrant local voluntary sector, advice on healthy living, art and performance space, leisure promotions, and employment and careers information.

Physical high street presence

Video walls, visible from the street, will be used to promote Idea, carry advertisements, news and maybe even a real-time image of what is going on inside the stores. And of course each Idea will offer access to the local studies and archives service, and the reference and information service. Idea will have a physical high street presence alongside Idea.net which will be the "community portal" linking Idea stores with home, school, outreach services and community centres.

The objectives of Idea are many and include the creation of a brand that is neither municipal nor institutional. Statistically, we expect a doubling of take-up and of usage of libraries and adult education services, and an increase in the number of students participating in further or higher education.

Idea will contribute to the raising of the educational attainment and basic skills of the resident population and as a result will help to achieve a reduction in unemployment. The provision of a truly accessible, highly visible, attractive and exciting environment, such as we intend to offer in Tower Hamlets, is at the forefront of the government's initiatives and strategies for libraries, lifelong learning and modernisation. Opening hours will reflect those of the surrounding retail outlets and leisure centres and will be based on a seven-day-a-week operation. The staffing structure and management will reflect the functions and ideology of the brand.

Breaking the stereotype

The strong retail-style branding and image promotion is designed to reinforce the complete break with Victorian municipality and with the stereotypical images associated with libraries and learning. More importantly, it will ensure that Idea can evolve with the community and stay fresh, exciting and relevant in a way that architecture alone cannot effect.

Our three core brand values are based on engaging the public, empowering them and providing a rewarding experience. By being highly visible, inclusive and non-threatening we aim to appeal to passers-by. Users will be helped to help themselves, whether in learning to read, pursuing hobbies, becoming more employable, learning about healthy living, seeking a job or gaining qualifications. And we aim to ensure that a visit to Idea is enriching and that individuals will want to return again and again.

Off the starting block

Our Library and Lifelong Learning Strategy, launched by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Chris Smith in April 1999, will take five years to implement. Already the results of the public consultation exercise have had an impact on existing service provision, the book fund has been doubled over the past two years, the library computer has been upgraded and public ICT facilities introduced. Private and educational sector partnerships have developed and now include the London Guildhall University and Tower Hamlets College (the main further education provider in the borough), Sainsbury's and Canary Wharf.

The funding package for the first phase of the implementation has been secured and the first new site at Whitechapel has been acquired.

Keeping the public on board remains uppermost in our minds and ongoing consultation is essential to ensure ownership of Idea stores. A hotline has been set up and the first Idea magazine was launched in January. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets authority is committed to keeping existing facilities up and running until they are replaced by an Idea store, and already our commitment to keeping many much-loved buildings in community use has been successful. The lesson we have learnt is that the views of users are to be respected and valued. Just as important, however, are the views of non-users and particularly those of the non-returners who have voted with their feet.

Although elements of Idea may be found up and down the country, in public libraries and learning centres, in bookshops and other high street businesses, our research has not found any examples that come close to our approach. The Idea store concept is quite unique: the creation of a network of seven "department stores" dedicated to learning, the written word and the arts. Interest in the strategy has been expressed from across the world and from other authorities and educational bodies. Government ministers and their departments have been unstinting in their praise and support.

Developing a flexible brand

We are not developing buildings that will become outdated and inflexible but a brand that will be recognised in years to come as symbolising a fun environment in which to participate in reading, culture, learning, information and social activity. At a time when the roles and functions of book retailing and lending are becoming blurred, we believe we have created a role for Idea that encourages browsing over a cup of coffee, debating books and coursework around a table, of inspiring, in a public arena, friends, neighbours and family to participate in self-help, mutual help and enjoyment.