Our visit to the Barbican Library gave me an overwhelming wealth of information and insight into the operation of a public library in England. And, this library is unique, because it is made up of very strong individual sections (Arts, Music, Children's, and Adults' Services), and because of its important integration with the Barbican International Arts Centre. It was the only lending library that we visited, so I treasured this opportunity for its relevance to my career path.
The Barbican Library was opened in 1982 to provide lending services in fulfillment of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museum Act. It lends around 500,000 items a year. An average of 1,200 patrons per day visit the library, and most of the patrons tend to be business people who work in the city, often stopping by during their lunch break. The patron demographics are not what I expected: typically, there are more males than females, and the average age range is between 25 and 45. What an entirely different population than we normally serve in most American public libraries, which is mainly female, and below the age of 25 or over the age of 45.
ORGANIZATION: There are four counters, recently reduced from seven, which is easier on staff and less overwhelming for visitors. There are 44 people on the library's staff, including 10 chartered librarians, 6 senior library assistants, and 12 library assistants. This library is also funded by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. Under the Opportunities Fund, they have to provide free access to the Internet and "self-booking." There are no limits to what visitors can access on the public terminals, but they are allowed only one hour per day. The catalog, CD-ROMs, and databases are all available on the web, but limited to library users. A neat new feature that the library has installed is radio-frequency identification--tagging each item with a radio-frequency ID, it can be checked out or returned simply by being placed on a mat. With this up-to-date technology, the computers are able to identify the books without having to scan a barcode.
ARTS: The temporary art exhibitions are a high honor, since getting artwork on display there is very competitive. The Arts Library is managed by one of the senior assistant librarians. It has a reference desk, art periodicals, and 14,000 books in its collection. It does face some distinct challenges, however. First of all, it is difficult to organize the materials in a logical sequence, because art books are often varying sizes. Secondly, the arts section still has quite a formal structure, but the staff would like to see some changes in that aspect.
ADULT SERVICES: The Skills for Life collection is a special feature, containing audio, fiction, and non-fiction materials. There is also a large collection of maps and tourist guides. A special collection of finance materials is another popular section. The library's goal is to make sure that every item on the shelves is actually what the public currently wants, not what the public from five years ago wanted. I found it very surprising that the non-fiction collection is actually used more frequently than the fiction collection.
CHILDREN'S SERVICES: The Children's Section serves children from newborn to age 14. The Young Adult section is part of the Adult collection. Apparently, it is difficult to get teenagers involved in library activities, like reading groups, because there is such a small population of them in just the square mile that is the City of London. Within the Children's Section, there are two full-time staff members, the Senior Library Assistant and the Children's Librarian. In addition, there are about 10 staff members who also work there part-time. With 25,000 loanable items, this is the largest children's library in London. The stacks are organized according to age group: 5-10s, 10+, 13+. This section does have filtered Internet terminals, which I was glad to hear about.
Most of the local schools use the library's services, since they don't really have extensive libraries of their own. The Barbican Children's Library supplements the schools' collections with project boxes (40 books in each box) that are compiled and sent out every term. It was interesting to learn about this relationship between the schools and public libraries, since it's completely different from American schools, which tend to rely on their own resources. The Children's Library seems to be doing some great things in its community. For example, it hosts events and workshops for free, once a month. The librarians lead a Story-time three times a week for different age groups (and they get an average of 25 kids each time!). There is a school-age readers' group that gets involved in creative projects, like providing input for the Carnegie and Greenaway awards. I was impressed with the Bookstart program, funded by the National Book Trust. They give out bags with free books, library membership applications, resources, etc. to parents to encourage them to start reading to their children at an early age. I would love to know more about this program, how successful it has been, how it is implemented, etc. Knowing how essential it is for children to be immersed in literature before they start school, I am curious about how a program like this might be applied in the States.