Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by London Borough of Tower Hamlets

  The Idea Store strategy, developed by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to achieve radical step-change in levels of participation in libraries and adult education, has proved highly successful. Tower Hamlets Council suggests that this strategy offers some useful lessons which may be of interest to the Committee.

  The strategy was born out of an independent market research and public consultation exercise using a variety of methods, to which one in 10 households in the borough responded. The research led to the identification of a series of factors which would encourage local residents to use their library and learning services more.

  Key issues were:

    —  Accessibility in terms of location (ie High Street locations).

    —  Seven-day opening at times to suit the community's needs.

    —  Seamless, customer-centred service provision meeting "Library Learning Information" needs.

    —  Safe, neutral, welcoming spaces for the entire community with a view to attracting non-users and reluctant learners.

  In 1999, the Council adopted a strategy to reprovide its entire library and adult education centre services with a network of seven Idea Stores to meet the expressed demands of the public. Central to this strategy is the use of retail-style design and marketing techniques to reach out to today's potential service users.

  The Council's commitment to the strategy when adopted was signalled by its allocation of significantly increased revenue resources to support the Stores' longer opening hours and higher standards of maintenance.

  The first Idea Store opened in May 2002 in Bow, followed by the second (Chrisp Street in Poplar) in July 2004. The flagship Store at Whitechapel is currently under construction and due to open next year, and plans for the remaining Stores are at varying stages of development.

  Both Idea Stores have more than trebled visitors compared to the two libraries they each replaced. Stock issues have held their own at Bow in the face of decline elsewhere nationwide, and have increased dramatically at Chrisp Street.

  In terms of community cohesion, the Stores are attracting hard-to-reach groups with outstanding increases in membership from under-16s (a previously under-represented group). The profile of membership fully reflects the highly diverse profile of the local population. The café space of the Bow Idea Store has become a "community hub"—a safe space to meet friends. This space is therefore used to promote services in the Store and to engage new users.

  The Idea Store strategy has delivered many of the aspirations of Framework for the Future and attracted significant national and international professional attention.

  One of the strategy's successes has been the achievement of libraries and adult education objectives through very close partnership working and seamless service delivery. While education has always been central to libraries' core purpose, we recognise that today's consumers have a choice as to the way they spend their leisure time. By working with our education colleagues to promote our services using retail-style techniques we can communicate with potential customers in a way they understand and to which they respond. We use "Idea Champions" and "Learning Ambassadors" to act as peer motivators and communicators to great effect.

  Idea Stores are achieved entirely through partnership working: between Council departments, with the local College, higher education and voluntary organisations, and with a wide range of funding bodies. By linking libraries, adult, further and higher education so closely, we are integrating a wide range of resources, exploiting library stock to the full and ensuring joined-up planning and service provision.

  However, there are a number of challenges. Idea Stores are assisting in the achievement of many Learning and Skills Council objectives, and receive LSC funding to do so. However, there is a conflict between the creation of easy-access learning opportunities to reluctant learners and highly outcome-driven funding regimes. There is also the danger that the LSC funding framework cannot meet the surge in demand being created by these new services.

  The parallel and complementary development of the People's Network has been fully exploited in Idea Stores through the provision of training and support for new ICT users and provided a gateway to e-government in non-threatening surroundings. The challenge however is to ensure that the high-quality ICT equipment which has proved highly attractive to date is continually updated.

  Idea Stores have highlighted the need for a new skill-set for staff working in library services today: empowered staff with a customer focus, who are ICT aware and marketing-driven, able to develop a culture of self-help and self-development. We have been delighted that Idea Stores have attracted many highly talented and enthusiastic staff from the retail sector and have been pleased to train them in the necessary library skills. Our challenge is to manage the change process so that traditional library skills are matched with enthusiasm and retail experience.

  Idea Stores are unique: seeing is believing! We would be delighted to showcase this innovative and highly successful strategy in support of your Inquiry.

12 November 2004

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