A blog from the Ontario Library Service

Unlocking the Possibilities When Closing a Branch

Read our guest post from Coleen Lipp, CEO of Caledon Public Library, on thinking out of the box (or maybe in the box?) when faced with a branch closure.

What does a public library system do with a much-loved community branch when that love doesn’t translate into use? This is a question that the Caledon Public Library had been grappling with for some time.  Funnily enough, once we began thinking outside the box, we realized that a box – or a series of them really – was exactly the solution we needed..

Until just recently, the Caledon Public Library offered seven branch locations – many of them small spaces staffed by just one employee.  Serving a municipality that amalgamated back in 1974, most of these branches were inherited from the original villages and hamlets.  Our Belfountain Branch was shared with the local elementary school and as such, public were only allowed access after school hours and on weekends.  Efforts to close the branch more than a decade ago prompted a rallying cry from residents but resulted in no change to the status quo.

In a town that covers more than 700 square kilometers, we take great pride in the fact that you are never more than a 15 minute drive from a library branch but we were challenged by the need to provide consistent and efficient services at our smallest branch.  As of 2015, circulation accounted for less than 2% of all items borrowed across the system, programs were regularly cancelled due to lack of registrants and staffing costs of each transaction were double that of any other service point.  Something had to give.

In July 2015, the Library Board approved a pilot project to reduce the hours of operation from 19 hours per week to just 10 hours and supported staff’s recommendation that we begin investigating other means of delivering service to the hamlet. We also widely communicated news of the pilot and our reasoning for investigating new service options.

Enter the lockers.  We had first seen remote holds lockers in Niagara on the Lake, where they were successfully installed in a local fire hall.  For those unfamiliar with these units, NOTLPL and Bibliotheca created a brief video highlighting the technology – and the benefit to the community.  In Caledon’s case,  branch patrons visited most often to pick up holds – but rarely browsed the collection – so the lockers were well suited to the community’s needs.

More than a year after the initial report and resulting reduction in hours of operation, the Board approved staff’s recommendation to close the branch and supported a budget request to purchase remote holds lockers. Over the course of the year, we had also completed a comprehensive Service/Facility Review of all branches and the consultant-drafted Master Plan confirmed our assessment.

But where to house them?  In a community with only two stops signs, a general store, a coffee shop and a small inn, there weren’t many options. As luck would have it, a Town-owned community hall that had fallen into disrepair was being renovated.  As the original home to the community’s Mechanic’s Institute, the 1893 building offered not only a location to house the lockers, but a homecoming of sorts.  The Town was also rolling out key-pad access to remote facilities.  This would enable library members to access the lockers any time of day or night.  Emails notifying patrons of their holds include a key code that allows access to the secure space so that they can pick up or drop off their materials.

Nearly two years after the original recommendation was received by the Board, the Belfountain Branch closed its doors on May 30, 2017.  The lockers were installed in April, providing a nice transition period, and were officially launched with a ribbon cutting by the Mayor and Board Chair in July.

Remarkably, the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Community members recognized that this solution offered improved access, allowing them to pick up or return items whenever it was convenient.  Our third-party courier was trained on how to load and empty the lockers and after a bit of initial hand-holding it seems to be going well. And from the perspective of the Board and Council, the lockers offer a much more efficient means of providing service to a small community than a traditional branch.

We had also reallocated staff hours from the closed branch to two nearby locations so access improved across the system and there was no negative impact to staff levels.  Patrons had become very fond of staff working at the Belfountain branch and were pleased to learn that they can still visit their favourite library staffers at nearby Alton or Caledon Village branches.

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.  Notification of locker holds can only be sent via email and are not supported by our telephone notification system.  Branch staff worked with patrons to update their contact info and preferred method of notification in advance of the locker launch.  Unfortunately, there are still a handful of members who don’t have easy access to the Internet and email so can’t take advantage of this new service.

As is the case with any new technology, there’s a learning curve; one made much steeper by the remote location of the lockers in relation to our key public service and IT staff.   Luckily Caledon staff are used to travelling between branches and staff who live nearby have been very gracious when asked to stop by on their way home to confirm that a locker door is shut or implement some other quick fix.  That said, any down time has been minimal and vendor support has been impressive. Given the nature of the community served, we’ve taken a personal approach when communicating any technical issues.  Public service staff call any impacted patrons, advising them of any service interruptions that may impact their ability to retrieve their holds.  Admittedly, this wouldn’t be feasible for a higher traffic service point.

Are there any other areas in Caledon that would benefit from remote lockers?  You bet. From small rural communities not currently served by a branch to a quickly growing urban neighbourhood with a branch slated to open early in 2019, there are many possible applications. So, do we have plans to launch more lockers?  Not yet.   In the short term we’re committed to monitoring and assessing the Belfountain lockers before determining if and how to roll this service out elsewhere. It’s early days, but so far… so good.