Essex Library of Things

Project description

Creating a catalogue of items for Essex residents to borrow from six Essex library locations including the mobile library service. Items available were purchased based on being durable high-quality items that could be easily transported, maintained, and repaired. Items selected tend to be infrequently used if owned by an individual. Users could select items from either the online or printed catalogue, collect the item from one of the participating libraries and return within a week, all free of charge.  

The chosen categories of items were:

  • DIY (E.g., drill, vice, pressure washer)
  • gardening tools (E.g., leaf blower)
  • home appliances (E.g., carpet cleaner, cake tins, food processor, sewing machine)
  • outdoor and hobby (E.g., tent, gazebo, sport sets, games, microscope, telescope)
  • musical instruments (non wind) (E.g., guitar, portable drum kit, portable keyboard)

Aim

  • To encourage Essex residents to borrow and return items from the Essex Library of Things, instead of buying new items. This is to support residents to keep items in use for as long as possible and reduce the amount of waste being thrown away.
  • To support residents on a low income to access good quality items from central locations.
  • To increase libraries footfall.

Target audience

Essex residents 18 years old and over.

Specific goals

No specific performance targets were set out.

Timeline

September 2021 to May 2022.

Platform

Digital/face to face.

Who was involved in this project?

Lead organisation: Essex County Council.

Organisation contact

[email protected]

Responsibilities

  • Officers from the Circular Economy Team.
  • Communications Officer.
  • Library Support Assistants.

Other stakeholders involved

  • Libraries Communications Officer.
  • Library Supervisors.
  • Data Analyst.
  • Legal team.
  • Finance officers.

Where was the project piloted and why?

  • Chelmsford.
  • Witham.
  • Clacton.
  • Harlow.
  • Laindon.
  • Mobile libraries.

Essex libraries were identified as suitable locations for the Essex Library of Things, this is because they provide central locations making it easy for residents to access. They also have suitable storage space for items, with logistics in place for transporting books and other resources that could accommodate items for the Essex Library of Things.

The five Essex library locations and the mobile library service were chosen for the pilot based on geographic spread across the county, and areas of depravation. The online catalogue for books could also be used to list items for the Essex Library of Things.

Why was the project created?

Why we did the project

An electric drill is used on average for 18 minutes in its whole lifetime. Experience from other ‘Libraries of Things’ showed that many items can be borrowed rather than owned. Previous experience with Freegle in Essex showed that local residents are open to reuse and sharing.

Expected value to the circular economy

People are already used to borrowing and exchanging books from libraries. The project wanted to build on existing behaviours and show that other items can be used and reused in the same way. Sharing items, instead of buying new, also means reducing packaging and materials during the production phase.

Library drivers transported the Essex Library of Things items in the same vehicles and on the same routes as books. This ensured that no additional emissions were created.

How was the project implemented?

  • Background research: The team collected information from existing Library of Things initiatives in the UK and abroad. They also met representatives from ShareOxford to ask specific questions and receive advice.
  • Set up working group: A working group made of representatives from the various teams involved and operational colleagues, met for 15 minutes every day on MS Teams after launch, for two months. This was very useful to address any issue immediately and identify the best person to find a solution. The meetings were then moved to bi-weekly for the remainder of the pilot.
  • Scope target audience: The service was available to anyone over 18 living or working in Essex. The team did not target any particular group. On the contrary, they chose items that could be useful to anyone.    
  • Identify targets and monitoring systems: As this Library of Things was different from already existing ones, the team did not set any specific target for loans or holds. The Intelligence team, who already collects data for ECC library, monitored the use of the service, demographic data of users, geographical spread, and footfall in libraries.

The calculation for “waste saved from landfill” was based on the assumption that instead of borrowing, residents would have: bought a new item, used it a few times, and thrown it away.

  • Define processes and training needs: The team decided to follow existing library processes and structures as much as possible, to simplify tasks and reduce the need for training. They only needed to share a process flowchart and Frequently Asked Questions for staff and customers. These documents were updated throughout the project.
  • Health and Safety colleagues advised on the process to follow with electrical items or items that harmful if incorrectly used.  
  • Source equipment and materials: The team purchased all items new and in bulk when possible. It was decided not to accept donations of second-hand items to avoid risks to users.
  • Create webpages and promotional materials: The items were added to the existing library catalogue. A new section was also created on the Love Essex website, to include a more detailed description and pictures.
    For promotion, the team created posters to display in every library and physical catalogues for participating libraries. There are also existing social media channels for BLUEPRINT, Love Essex, and Library channels.
    The team received many invites to talk about the project at internal and external events.

Cost and staff resource

  • 1 FTE + contributions from other teams.
  • £10,000 logistics.
  • £11,000 equipment.
  • £1,000 promotion.

Compliance

  • Data Protection Impact Assessment.
  • Section 151 Officer approval.
  • Cabinet Member Approval.

Monitoring

Following launch, the working group monitored number of reservations, loans, and renewals. Data also showed demographics of borrowers and footfall in libraries.

When customers returned an item, they were asked to fill in a very short survey on their experience, while library staff checked the items.

Customers were surveyed at various times:

  • before the start of the project
  • after two months (November)
  • towards the end of the pilot (April)
  • survey questions included feedback on the items in the catalogue and on the process, as well as more general questions about motivations to use the service

Social media engagement and access to websites was registered.

Results

Between September 2021 to March 2022 the Essex Library of Things monitored the impact through a range of measures. There were:

Impact:

  • 130 unique users.
  • 228 holds (items reserved).
  • 98 loans (items collected).
  • 497 kg diverted from landfill.
  • 10,775 unique page views (Note: data for November and December 2021 were not available).

Results from the start to end impact analysis (WPT.3.3):

  • Average of 41 item requests per month. Lower rates in the winter months (December to February), and higher from March onwards. This is likely due to the season (colder weather, less inclined to travel etc), as well as a slight decrease in promotion.
  • Social media engagement from September to March:
    • BLUEPRINT Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn: 3,614
    • Love Essex Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: 2,315
    • Libraries Facebook and Twitter: 14,482
  • Stock increased from 39 original items at launch, to a total of 90 items by the end of April. Copies of the most popular items were added to the catalogue in response to demand.
  • There was an average of 16 loans each month, both from new and returning customers. Customers interested in the very popular items had to be added to a waiting list and some changed their mind or did not receive the item in time for when they needed it. 
  • Customers returned to borrow more items, showing that they were satisfied with the service and the process. This was also highlighted in the surveys with overwhelmingly positive scores.
  • Users’ interaction via feedback survey was low, with only 14 post-loan surveys returned, and 2 stock suggestion forms submitted. Customers responded well to the surveys carried out at the beginning, middle and towards the end of the pilot, indicating that the channel or timing of the interaction made a difference. Paper surveys to fill in at the library did not seem to work.

Lessons learnt

The strengths of the pilot have been:

  • having a good range of items and being able to expand stock on demand
  • being able to run on a low budget
  • receiving all-round support from Libraries staff and drivers
  • using the same process as book loans meant that staff and volunteers were confident, and didn’t need much training
  • damage to stock was low
  • no items were lost
  • engagement with age groups who didn’t often use libraries was positive
  • residents appreciated the initiative and showed support for the sharing economy
  • high engagement on social media
  • support from leadership and interest from other local authorities
  • residents identified reuse as a way to protect the planet

The weaknesses of the pilot have been:

  • limited number of locations
  • long turnaround between booking time and collection time, especially for electrical items
  • some customers were put off because they could not book items for a specific date
  • lack of transactional data during the first six months of the project
  • lack of maintenance and repair – we could not appoint an external contractor who could take this contract

How we could further improve and remove barriers:

  • ensure all items can be safely lent to customers
  • train internal staff members to carry out regular PAT testing
  • deploy a higher number of pick-up locations that have parking
  • contract a repair service from the beginning of the project
  • provide more guidance on Health & Safety and COVID-19 (still in place when the pilot ran)

Risks

Some items could not be loaned, as they could have posed a high risk to inexperienced users. The Health and Safety service should be engaged from the beginning of the project when the stock was being defined.

As the scheme was launched during the COVID pandemic, some customers had concerns with borrowing items that had been used by others. Although a minority, it would have been useful to provide more information on the procedures used to ensure items were safely cleaned and stored, and therefore safe to share, and that our processes were the same as those in place for books.