We were tasked with exploring the scope to establish an income generating library service underpinned by new/emergent technology on behalf of Essex Libraries, and we proposed a ‘Drone Loan Scheme’ for discussion because:
1) Libraries are about discovery and unique experiences
Eli Neiburger (Ann Arbor District Libraries, USA) is world renowned as a library service innovator, and has talked extensively about the value of C21st libraries in developed countries flowing from the unique opportunities they can provide users with, as compared with their C20th value proposition, which was to aggregate and distribute commercially produced content. He still regards borrowing – ‘sharing’ – as the underlying mission and distinctive feature of public libraries (as do we). But, he is clear that they need to lend things that communities want/need and can’t find anywhere else, and must also function as non-commercial community publishing platforms (‘inverted libraries’ to which patrons contribute more creative content than they solicit), because they are otherwise anachronistic institutions in our digital age. The downward trend in library visitor and book borrowing figures in many parts of the UK is, perhaps, evidence enough that Neiburger’s point is well made, but even more so when the decline in library users aged 21-50 (save in the form of parents supporting their children to read) is taken into consideration.
2) Libraries facilitate lending and borrowing
A list of ‘unusual stuff’ you can borrow from Ann Arbor District Library is available online and, amongst other things, includes musical instruments, science tools and telescopes. However, a growing number of library services loan seeds, tools and objects, as well as ICT hardware ranging from tablets and laptops to digital video cameras and projectors. In some instances, ‘libraries of things’ generate income – whether from special membership fees or item-related charges – such that there may be scope for libraries to develop comparable or related services where there is a clear read-across to the outcomes sought by relevant commissioners, as well as the potential to appeal to new/under-represented groups to grow library user numbers in future.
3) Libraries promote digital literacy
A number of public libraries in England are beginning to introduce activities and services to support hacking, making, coding and robotics – which is reflected in the recent launch of SCL’s Code: Green. This is in recognition of the role libraries have to play in supporting learning amongst children for whom these subjects are now being taught integral to the National Curriculum. It also reflects the growing trend towards the co-location of makerspaces within libraries, and demand for such spaces amongst young adults for whom the growth in creative industry jobs is particularly important. We’re in full agreement that such services and facilities have the potential to add significant value to public libraries in our digital age. However, we question the likelihood that they will be rolled out save in a handful of flagship libraries, for so long as services are reduced to operating with considerably diminished budgets and/or fail to approach their development on a social enterprise basis. We are also concerned about the confidence and capacity of existing library staff to deliver and support them to a high standard. NB: we understand Libraries Unlimited charges for some of the services and facilities its FabLab offers, whilst CILIP, SCL and the Carnegie UK Trust continue to champion ‘digital leadership’ skills development opportunities for library professionals, and some services have recruited or partnered with suitably qualified individuals/organisations in this regard.
4) Libraries support economic development
If libraries thrive and succeed in delivering those services and facilities outlined above – all to the good. In the interim, however, there is an existing and now well-documented STEM skills shortage affecting employers right across the country about which the Minister for Universities and Science spoke only very recently. Moreover, the implications of some technological advancements are anticipated sooner rather than later (so, in the next five years – as is predicted to be the case for drones, robotics and automation), and there is a distinct lack of provision for people aged 16+ already to develop the skills which would help bolster their (near) future employment prospects; a situation which is likely to be compounded by the challenges facing adult education and the FE sector at this time.
5) Libraries are Ambitious
The Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, recently called upon libraries to embrace the digital age to meet changing needs and expectations on the part of the general public.
So, having encountered an initiative in the US, spear-headed by the University of South Florida’s library, which sought to pioneer a ‘drone loan scheme’ (although, we acknowledge it ran into regulatory difficulties eighteen months ago, in the absence of a considered FAA regulatory framework), we wondered whether something of that ilk might:
- afford UK library patrons (existing and prospective) precisely the sort of opportunity Eli Neiburger champions;
- function as a loan scheme outside the purview of the Public Libraries and Museums Act (1964) and public imagination of a traditional ‘library service’ – such that it could be established from the outset on a chargeable membership or fee-paying basis without undue difficulty; and
- help address the gap in current provision for people aged 16+ outlined and deliver pertinent skills, employment and business development outcomes.
Check & Challenge
Initial ‘check and challenge’ conversations with Essex County Council colleagues proved incredibly helpful. Staff expressed considerable interest in the idea of a Drone Loan Scheme – which was heartening since there is a real need to capture the imagination of prospective service users who may not have visited a public library for a number of years. Some were, understandably, concerned with the challenges implied in establishing such a service and the potential implications of its roll-out; and, of course, we acknowledge the recent media coverage of ‘nuisance drones’ and related incidents (around the world) which must be considered carefully going forward.
Nonetheless, what flowed from our conversations proved useful. Specifically, our discussions resulted in a deep-dive into the range of drones which could be made available via Essex Libraries – together with associated legislation and regulatory frameworks – the combination of which, pointed us toward the potential to establish a related skills development offer, Drone Pilot Licence and Drone Zone scheme to safeguard the Council, would-be borrowers as well as the general public. We now think that, in and of themselves, these service components could help deliver many of the key outcomes sought from the overall Scheme as well as generate income for Essex Libraries if it is designed appropriately.