Public library innovation: Idea Stores - so last century?

Interior of idea stores library in Tower Hamlets

The concept of Idea Stores – combining libraries and adult education services under one roof – was developed at the end of the last century. The world then was very different. Younger readers may struggle to imagine the optimism in the public library world in the late 1990s – with a revived sense of purpose and government (or at least Lottery) money to match. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

Idea Stores were a product of that time. ‘New Library: The People's Network' (proposing to use libraries to make the internet accessible to everyone)was released in April 1998 by Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A year later he launched the Idea Store project, supported by Tower Hamlets Council which was prepared to invest £20 million in library and learning services for local people.

No-one needs reminding that a lot has changed since then, and not just for public libraries. The banking crisis followed by years of austerity, has seen unprecedented challenges to local authority funding. The other great change of course has been the development of ICT in ways unimagined by the authors of The People’s Network (or anyone else for that matter).

This is clearly a very different environment – with public libraries apparently reeling under existential threat. Last year’s BiblioCommons report on the digital future quoted two representative negative views on public libraries, one from a member of the public "Waste of money. No need for libraries nowadays, just google what you want."; and second from bestselling children’s author, Terry Deary, "I'm not attacking libraries, I'm attacking the concept behindlibraries, which is no longer relevant."

Glass building

How are Idea Stores managing in this harsher era? Are they still relevant?

Idea Stores have actually proved highly resilient. The Council recognises the importance of the service so there have been no cuts in (our very long) opening hours or paid staff replaced by volunteers. And local people value the service: 92% rated Idea Stores as being ‘good’ or ‘very good’in last year’s CIPFA Public Library User Survey – and Idea Stores also rate very highly in the council’s own Annual Residents Survey.

There are two main reasons for this. First of all, the original concept was right and has proved adaptable. Secondly we have never stopped developing, learning – from others, from our own experience and most of all from our customers.

Merging education and library services

The Idea Store concept brought together two different services: adult and community education and libraries. Importantly this was to be an integrated service – not just a marriage of convenience to save on shared bills (although that helped). We have spent a lot of time thinking about what – and especially who – we’re there for and how we can work together to deliver more than the sum of our parts. We don’t see separate library customers and adult education learners: they’re all the same people.

For some services spending time thinking about our philosophy could seem a bit of a luxury. For us it’s been vital and essential for advocacy: we know exactly what we are aiming for and how we can support the council in achieving its aims.

High specification buildings in the perfect location

Another part of the original concept – and this was based on extensive public surveying – was the replacement of numerous buildings with a much smaller network of purpose built, high specification Idea Stores in the perfect location.  I can’t tell you how glad we were that we went ahead with that idea when we did. Shutting poorly used uneconomic libraries is much easier when it’s part of an investment programme (and easier of course in a small London borough).

We made sure that no old buildings were closed until the replacement opened. Each new Idea Store has had longer opening hours than the libraries they replaced and people definitely prefer Idea Stores with hours and locations that suit the way they live.

A retail approach

Opening hours and locations that suited the customer fitted into another element of the Idea Store style: having a retail approach. That meant ditching the municipal look of many libraries and creating a place that people would actually choose to spend time in. We happily waved goodbye to bossy notices, pointless rules, blu tack and council-approved furniture.

Cafe at Idea Store in Tower Hamlets

3 main areas of development

So how have we developed – and what have we learnt -  since our first Store opened? I don’t have room to list everything so I’ll concentrate on three main areas:

Common approaches to different areas

Libraries and adult and community education have continued to converge in ways that we’d never imagined. We were never simply a co-located service and have always had cross service front-line staff and shared admin support. But over the years we have developed more and more joint working and common approaches to different areas. This has led to innovative work in areas such as health, employability, digital services and volunteering. 

All of this work is part of our core service and offered as standard across the board. This is not a traditional library service with some initiatives or projects as add-ons. In developing our Health Strategy for example we looked at the shared contribution to well-being of all aspectsof Idea Store and were able demonstrate a coherent Idea Store offer that includes a wide range of services, including health information; fitness classes; therapeutic reading groups; healthy eating; dance; bibliotherapy all under one roof. This whole Idea Store approach has made us a highly effective partner and has resulted in Public Health funding for Health Outreach workers operating out of Idea Stores.


The second area of development  - not surprisingly - is in ICT. Like everyone else we’re thrilled with the potential but frustrated at the pace of change. Joining the London Libraries Consortium (LLC) in 2007 was a good move. We’ve benefited greatly from shared procurement including stock, transport and our LMS.Technology has underpinned improvements in services to the LLC’s shared population of 4 million residents. At the same time we’re keenly aware of what more we could be doing (the BiblioCommons report argued this forcefully), especially for an integrated library and learning service where ICT is the platform for the delivery of so much. An awareness of what we could - but aren’t able - to do is exasperating so we’re really happy that the Libraries Taskforce is starting to do so much work here.

The library building as a 3rd place

Moving away from the virtual, the third area of development is our growing awareness of the importance of Idea Stores as physical entities. There’s been a lot written about libraries as community hubs, which they are (although some are morphing into vague customer service centres, a name that makes the heart sink). We’ve been very interested in the idea of the library as a ‘3rd Place’. This was a phrase coined by Ray Oldenburg to describe a place that is neither work nor home but a socially inclusive environment that people like to spend time in. The third place is about neutrality, equality, social inclusion, making a home from home and bringing the community together – something particularly important in an inner city environment that can often be alienating.

Reading comments from our customers in Public Library User Surveys, we have been taken by the emotional attachment that people feel to Idea Stores. So many of them - from very diverse backgrounds - describe their store as ‘home’ for them, or ‘a haven’ ; others describe the stores as a linchpin of the community  “integrating people and getting local people out of their houses to talk together”.The environment in Idea Stores has many of the characteristics of a third space 

We’re not claiming copyright here. Many libraries are a third place. However, budget cuts and hollowed-out services can mean others are in danger of becoming “soup kitchens for the written word” used only by those who have no alternative – while those who do, choose to spend their time elsewhere. This includes the opinion formers who – as pointed out in the Sieghart report – stay away. 

So we do make sure our buildings look and feel good. This is hard work: two million annual visits take their toll. And – stung by an awful review of our collection - we put a lot of effort into providing an excellent and well-presented bookstock (we tried supplier selection at first, but it’s not for us).

People reading in Tower Hamlets Idea Store

Idea Stores are still thriving in the 21st Century

Idea Stores were innovative from the start. The power of the original vision has proved adaptable and allowed us to respond to changing times. We have never taken our customers for granted: we began with the biggest ever library consultation and have been listening to local people ever since. We are proud to be a service that people choose to use.

This combination of a strong and radical concept and our ability to develop has meant that Idea Stores are still thriving in the 21st century. This is why librarians from around the world still come to east London to learn from our experience.

People reading
#VisDom2016 conference

I’ll be talking about the Idea Store concept at this year’s #VisDom2016 conference in Potsdam on 27th-28th May. The main theme is ‘Smart Libraries’ looking at innovation and examples of best practice internationally. 

The Call for Papers has three main topics:

  • Scope 1: Digital Services of Smart Libraries
  • Scope 2: The Library as a Third Place
  • Scope 3: Librarians in Flux.

You can submit your proposals until 24 March 2016. The registration for everybody will open on 29 February 2016.


Image source: Idea Stores


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