With public libraries in England receiving a boost in Wi-Fi funding in the 2015 budget announcement, we look at the work left to be done to meet the Sieghart report’s recommendation of Wi-Fi availability in 100% of libraries. We also consider the opportunities that this will create for libraries and their users and look at examples from Nottinghamshire's and Fife's library services.
According to our customer research late last year, 60% of UK library authorities were yet to roll out Wi-Fi in all library branches. Funding has often been responsible for the delays in realising expansion plans. The 2015 budget provision of £7.4m for library Wi-Fi will help achieve progress faster, but there are other factors and opportunities that add complexity to these important projects. In this blog post we consider these factors. The opportunity to build on Wi-Fi networks and introduce wireless printing in libraries is a further important consideration and one that we aim to explore in our blog next month – watch this space!!
Wi-Fi roll out progress
Firstly, where have libraries got up to in terms of roll out? Based on research across a third of all UK library authorities, it’s estimated that 60% of branches now offer Wi-Fi. However, library authorities with Wi-Fi in 100% of their branches are in the minority - only 40% of authorities have achieved this. A further 20% have achieved roll out in a majority of branches, but plans may be lacking for smaller branches, for example due to uncertainty for some authorities over future community branch funding or management arrangements.
It may be a natural priority to offer new services such as Wi-Fi in larger branches first, but as Wi-Fi provision attracts higher footfall, it’s a vital service for all service points to offer and will help promote their viability. As the Sieghart report highlights, greater Wi-Fi provision has the potential to invigorate the library service and encourage new generations of users. It’s been seen that this is increasingly the case as roll-out progresses.
Meanwhile, 30% of authorities have Wi-Fi in only a minority of branches. These authorities are more likely to have firmer plans for expansion though, mostly within the next 6-12 months, although a few authorities are looking longer term to the next 1-2 years. 10% of library authorities are yet to clarify their timelines for Wi-Fi expansion, and there is a small minority of authorities who haven’t begun their projects at all.
Challenges and opportunities
Longer lead times are often due to libraries being part of authority-wide wireless network agendas. Over recent years and with restructuring continuing into 2015, ICT staffing at the library level has been declining. Increasingly technology planning and decision-making takes place at a centralised corporate ICT level. 60% of library authorities’ ICT resourcing and support is completely centralised within councils, and a further 25% outsourced. For Wi-Fi roll out, this centralisation may bring cost-savings, but the projects can become a lot bigger and less tailored to library needs.
Some Wi-Fi projects buck this trend though. There are Wi-Fi solutions administered at the library level that provide valuable filtering, usage reporting and session control that may have not been facilitated if the project had been at a corporate level. Particularly, the ability to measure and report on library Wi-Fi usage helps to monitor the importance of providing this library service and contributes to validating libraries’ futures.
Achievements at Nottinghamshire and Fife
At Nottinghamshire Libraries, ICT personnel facilitate access to public PCs and Wi-Fi throughout and beyond library branches. Library-based expertise and their use of netloan software makes it possible to set up and extend access throughout local authority sites. As Wi-Fi needs grow, the library continues to add new Wi-Fi hotspots to cover youth centres, childrens’ homes and day centres. The netloan Wi-Fi software requires login credentials that use library membership details for authentication, resulting in more library membership registrations and visits from younger members following Wi-Fi roll out in their clubs and homes.
Steve Baker, Principal Librarian – Information and Systems, Nottinghamshire County Council says: “The solution that was developed to enable libraries to offer public access to computers, including the use of netloan, has proven so successful that it has been used as the default model for other parts of the Council who need to provide computer access to members of the public.”
Certainly the expansion of library PC and Wi-Fi networks, with coverage increasing to include community centres and other council-run buildings, helps extend the reach of libraries as hubs within the community. At Fife’s libraries, which also uses the netloan Wi-Fi solution, new library memberships have increased by 10% over the previous year as Wi-Fi roll out has expanded from an initial 8 sites to include all 50 library sites. Wi-Fi provision has also encompassed police and fire stations, leisure centres, schools and children centres. Wi-Fi sessions have increased exponentially from 5,300 in 2014, to 113,000 in just the first four months of 2015. Its widespread provision is considered timely given welfare reform and increasing needs for library customers to get online.
Yvonne Melville, Service Development Team Leader for Fife’s libraries, comments:
“Over the last year Fife’s libraries have been fortunate to secure additional funding from Fife Council and the Scottish Library Information Council which has enabled us to install Wi-Fi in all of our libraries. We have seen computer use continue to rise as welfare reform is introduced - being able to offer Wi-Fi has given us another option for our customers.
“Fife’s libraries vary in size and opening hours quite dramatically from 23 to 200 hours a month. Quite often our libraries are one of the few public buildings in small villages. Due to the restricted opening hours in smaller villages it has been a great bonus to the community that our Wi-Fi is available 24/7 if it is able to be picked up outside of the building. This is especially important over public holidays, which enables customers to meet their claimant commitment without having to incur any travel costs. The other benefit is for colleagues who offer job clubs in our buildings, while we have a limited number of desktop computers they can access they are now able to bring laptops to supplement our IT equipment and help more customers.”
Technology in libraries – investing in the future
The opportunities for libraries as they roll out Wi-Fi availability are considerable, especially with the right planning, support and technology in place. For further data and discussion on the status and opportunities for library technology see our whitepaper ‘Technology in Libraries: investing in the future’.