Prototyping Library Enterprises with Essex Libraries

Essex County Council (ECC) currently operates a traditional public library service through 74 fixed sites and 11 mobiles, but as with every local authority in England, must deliver and evolve the service with a significantly reduced revenue budget in future. Specifically, Essex Libraries has already undergone a transformation to deliver savings, but must identify a further £1.7m during 2015-17 – whether in the form of savings or through new income generation.

National policy, research and emergent practice points towards the merits of

  • Establishing a national digital library service offer (see: the Sieghart Review);
  • Transforming local library assets into Community Hubs or ‘one-stop-shops’ for numerous public services (see: the work of the Libraries Task Force);
  • Establishing library service mutuals or mixed public/community provider landscapes to harness library user involvement in service funding/provision (see: developments in Suffolk, York and, more recently, Devon but, also, in North Yorkshire);
  • Continued commitment to delivery of SCL’s Universal Offers – which now includes a digital making and learning offer for young people in the form of ‘Code Green’; and
  • Investment in Wi-Fi infrastructure within libraries/workforce development to reflect the need to improve its digital skills base and associated competencies.

However, in and of themselves, none of the above is liable to

  • Significantly increase traditional library service usage at the local level (which has been in decline, now, for almost a decade – albeit usage of internet-based services continues to grow year on year);
  • Fully address – let alone reverse – the reduction in revenue monies projected to impact local library services during the period 2010-20 and beyond; or
  • Underpin a thoroughgoing evolution of library services offered in tangible local settings without significant and/or continued investment.

Key ECC personnel are, therefore, tasked with prioritising service co-location at present – with a view to maximising rental income from services that are operated by other public bodies – but have also been asked to stimulate Civic Innovation opportunities where this is liable to contribute to the evolution of library services working in partnership with library users, Essex businesses and communities more broadly.

It is in the spirit of championing Civic Innovation that ECC’s Director for Customer and Information Services, Sophia Looney, invited us to present the findings of the work we undertook with Locality for Arts Council England concerning Income Generation in Public Libraries to Elected Members and colleagues, and to pursue one of the key recommendations made integral to the same – namely, to explore the scope to develop income generating library services for ECC underpinned by new/emergent technologies. The aims of this activity were to stimulate discussion about what more/different ECC might do to

  1. grow library service usage by targeting new audiences/users;
  2. address reductions in revenue monies available to Essex Libraries through social enterprise (albeit, in keeping with the ethos of a public library service); and
  3. evolve the traditional library service offer to help future-proof it for diverse communities living, learning and working in Essex to 2020 and beyond.

Having introduced colleagues to the findings of the work we undertook with Locality, we engaged them in a discussion about x10 ideas for income generating library services underpinned by new/emergent technology. We then undertook a high-level options appraisal before recommending the focus for the project concept development activity we believed we might usefully undertake and, ultimately, agreed to explore the scope for ECC to establish a Drone Loans scheme.

We’re delighted to report that colleagues were enthusiastic about exploring a number of the ideas we outlined. So, we’ve incorporated them in a proposal for joint working that is now being considered by ECC along with representatives from x9 local authorities elsewhere in England, and will keep you posted about developments over the coming months.

For further information, please Contact Us.

Our National Library Science Experiment Concludes

The Common Libraries initiative was established to ‘prototype the library of the future – today’ – to explore, develop and test new ways of working with library users, to support innovation and the evolution of library services, and expand our knowledge or information commons.

Accordingly, we conducted a ‘National Library Science Experiment’ and supported x5 ‘Hack the Library’ days to better understand the potential for Common Libraries to enhance the appeal, resilience and sustainability of libraries in future, before presenting our work at two national events for further discussion, with funding from Arts Council England.

Today, we’re delighted to publish the findings from our recent activities working with library authorities around the country.


Our ‘National Library Science Experiment’ successfully demonstrated the resonance of the Common Libraries message with a cohort of public library personnel – with 20% of library authorities in England expressing initial interest and 10% actively participating.

Maker Instruction Set loans proved of interest in places as diverse as NewcastleNorthamptonshire and the City of London. And, we were particularly pleased to learn that, in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, staff opted to use the Baking Macaroons Instruction Set in a group setting and, as a result, a library user stepped forward and now runs a fortnightly ‘We Can Make Club’; so far, those involved have made lava lamps, planted seeds and, even, made a bird house!

We’d hoped to see better sales figures for those Maker Kits that were ‘Made in the Waiting Room’. But, we were heartened to learn that staff in South Tyneside prototyped 7 Maker Kits of their own (Keith Dickenson’s Sand Garden, Susan Inskip’s Greetings Card, Angela Boyack’s Beading, Cheryl Bradley’s Salt Dough -‘Singing Hinnies’, and Tracey Watson’s Bath Bomb), sold x5 at their South Tyneside – Hack the Library Day, and plan to work with Tyneside & Northumberland MIND to develop more to improve mental health outcomes for library users in future.

hack the library poster - Mersea LibraryIn supporting x5 programme participants to organise a ‘Hack the Library’ day, we sought to test interest in each locale in establishing Common Libraries, as well as the effectiveness of different approaches to brokering relationships between libraries, hackers, makers and creative communities. We worked with them to deploy Resources developed during Phase I and, in particular, to adapt the Maker Thursday event format successfully deployed at the Waiting Room in Colchester. The events underlined the significant scope for libraries to anchor ‘skills sharing’ opportunities in future. They also pointed toward the potential for staff and user-generated content to flow from programmes of structured events and group activities over time, which when cross-referenced with the findings of our ‘National Library Science Experiment’, would appear to indicate that Common Libraries could be established and grow around the country in future. However, we believe a greater emphasis upon engaging a core group of people with whom to co-produce makerspace facilities and Common Libraries is needed in future, as per the work of Cultural Community Solutions to support the establishment of Creative Workspaces in London, if libraries are to move beyond event management for existing library users towards an approach which truly integrates hacking and making, knowledge/skills sharing and community publishing.

We organised two national events to introduce Common Libraries to library leaders around the country. Here’s what Kate Smyth (Library Development Officer, Oldham Libraries) had to say about our Newcastle event, shortly before the launch of Hack Oldham:

“The Maker Space event in Newcastle was really useful for Oldham Library Service. We are establishing a maker space within our Central Library and are partners with Hack Oldham, the local hack space. Visiting the Newcastle MakerSpace and finding out more about The Waiting Room was great and has certainly informed our plans. Oldham has embraced the Common Libraries project and are building our own instruction sets provided by the local community. The Common Libraries project, coupled with our maker space plans, will see Oldham Libraries adapt and evolve. The ideas have proved popular with our community and fit in with our corporate values of working with a resident focus.”

Hack Oldham Launch - June 2015

In total, 50 people registered to attend our national events, and a series of vox pops captures participants’ learning from the day, together with their thoughts about possible next steps – as per this short film featuring Joanne Moulton (Library Service Development Manager, LB Lewisham):


You can also watch an overview of the ideas that were discussed at the events which highlights understanding of as well as interest in the scope for libraries to encourage contributions of knowledge and know-how from library users going forward:


So, what’s next? We’ve summarised the key findings from our recent work with library authorities in the Common Libraries: Phase II – Project Report, and made recommendations based upon the lessons learned and feedback received (for which – thank you – everyone!).



We are eager to extend our prototyping activities. In particular, we are proactively seeking to explore, develop and/or test new services underpinned by emergent technologies with library services across the UK. As such, we hope interested parties will contact us to discuss how they might become one of our trailblazers. We also want libraries to become more self-sustaining so that they are capable of adapting and innovating in the face of declining revenue budgets. Accordingly, any project library service providers opt to pursue with us will build upon the work, to date, of the Common Libraries initiative, and seek to evolve library services through greater involvement of library users in service provision, as well as modernising the way in which local people interact with their local libraries. Crucially, we believe these changes will help mitigate against projected budget reductions by growing appeal amongst new audiences. Ultimately, our aim is to establish Common Libraries as an independent social enterprise in which local authorities and other relevant bodies have a formal governance stake. That way, all concerned will benefit from closer working to nurture innovation, replication and agile iteration, and be well-placed to attract funds and social investment to further support the evolution of public libraries in future.

Download the Common Libraries: Phase II – Project Report:

Common Libraries: Phase II – Project Report (low res)

Common Libraries: Phase II – Project Report (hi res)

Lessons learned from the Common Libraries and Tunapanda Institute Mesh Network project: Update – March 2015

Late last year, Tunapanda Institute and Common Libraries launched a campaign to fund the creation of a mesh network in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya.

The mesh network was to serve as a community network that would bring online open content to a free platform available to everyone in the community. People would be able to freely download on their smartphone or computer the information available on the network. This would include everything from community job information to online courses and books.

Tunapanda and Common Libraries remain committed to increasing access to open education, information, and the enjoyment of reading to Kibera. And, as we shared our campaign with our friends and partners, we found a lot of support for this project. Many thought that it was an interesting project and worthwhile. However, the support did not ultimately translate into funding for our crowdfunding campaign, and both organisations learned a lot from the process.

First, many people may not fully understand what a mesh network “is”, how it could be connected to future libraries, and how this could be beneficial to an informal community like Kibera. It can be a little confusing to someone not used to the idea of a network that is not connected to the internet but, instead, brings the educational content that is online to a free network platform. This kind of network means that individuals will not have to pay the exorbitant prices for downloading data on the smartphone or other device. In Kenya, data prices from the mobile providers are too expensive for the average customer, especially to those living in the low-income area of Kibera. Kibera also doesn’t have the free WiFi hotspots in cafes that are available in other parts of the world.

The Tunapanda and Common Libraries mesh network would bring free access to educational content, community information and open access e-books and journals. This kind of resource is incredibly hard to find in Kibera. We do not want to build the usual kind of “bricks and mortar” library. We want to build the flexible resource of a library and community notice board, without having to pay the rent on space. In this campaign, we needed more time to convince people that this is the type of resource that Kibera needs and can build from.

Some further work will be needed to convince people in more-developed countries that digital technology can provide some benefits of traditional libraries in places that lack the space for bricks-and-mortar buildings. For example, Kibera is about 1 square mile and home to 400,000 people or more (nobody is really sure how many people live in Kibera). But, the most important thing to remember is that it is difficult to turn interest and enthusiasm into funding. I think that this project piqued the interest of many different kinds of people. It is about bringing the joy of books and literature to people who don’t have access to a normal library. It also interests the tech-minded, those who want to see this technology used in a new part of the world. We have to remember just how difficult it is to bring a complex project into fruition.

We are happy to say that both partners are committed to the project and we are seeking other opportunities to build the network. Through additional partners and other funding streams, we will make this happen, because we know that this will make a difference in the lives of Kibera residents. In the interim, we’d like to extend our thanks to all those who supported the campaign and, in particular, to those who managed and contributed to it.

Open Network Pioneers: Digital Merthyr

Digital Merthyr





Back in April 2013, we visited the ambitious and determined folk spear-heading the Fibre GarDen initiative in the North West. There, two communities had come together to provide super-fast internet connectivity to around 750 households – to alleviate digital poverty and take what may yet prove to be the single most important step towards preventing the area’s decline. We would support them to bid for funds from the Adventure Capital Fund, and the tenacity of local residents has since paid off, with the ‘big dig’ now imminent!

We’ve also worked with the Lyme Regis Development Trust (LRDT) to explore the potential to install a community owned and managed telecommunications network on the Dorset coast over the course of the past eighteen months. The work to establish “Digital Lyme” built upon the pilot LRDT undertook in conjunction with the Creative Coop and during 2011-12, is intended to enhance the Trust’s ambitious plans to establish a Jurassic Coast Studies Centre working with an array of local as well as national partners, and culminated in national coverage which we hope will help them move to scale over the coming year.

But, today, we’re especially pleased to share the outcomes from the pioneering Digital Merthyr initiative – where local residents have successfully worked with partners and key stakeholders to deliver affordable broadband and local digital services underpinned by a community-owned open, hybrid and symmetrical telecommunications network with support from Nominet Trust.

We’ve talked before about the need to rethink broadband infrastructure investment and development in the UK. We’ve followed disgruntled communities seeking government funding for rural community broadband projects in the interim. We’ve also commented upon the way in which official statistics unhelpfully (and, in many respects, inaccurately) portray deprived communities as ‘uninterested’ in accessing the internet.

Digital Merthyr demonstrates that communities can tackle digital exclusion for themselves, develop their digital ambitions, and acquire vitally important STEM skills along the way. And, with plans to scale and replicate the initiative over the weeks and months ahead, as well as considerable interest from communities elsewhere in the country, we look forward to the next chapter in the story of these Open Network Pioneers!

Download: Digital Merthyr – Final Report

Our Data Coop: Intelligent Sharing for Community Benefit

Our Data CoopTechnological change is transforming the operations of private business and the public sector and has created a new asset class in the form of data. In the Voluntary and Community Sector, we suspect many organisations are not currently making the most of the information to which they have access, generate themselves or could access. And, yet, data represents a potentially very significant asset insofar as it can improve services so that they fully meet the needs of users, and the knowledge derived can also open up dialogue with public policy makers or help unlock investment by funders and commissioners.

Our Data Coop is a research project designed to explore the feasibility of a cooperative model for data collection, storage, analysis and use by and for the voluntary and community sector ­- the ultimate aim: to enable data sharing between organisations to improve what they do and help them advocate for users of VCS services. First, we need to know whether you agree that data represents a challenge for your organisation, and whether the development of dedicated services and support to help you make better use of data would be of interest ­ so, we need to collect some data of our own!

Our survey aims to find out about the collection, analysis, storage, sharing and use of data by the Voluntary and Community Sector to inform the design of any Data Coop that might result from our work. Please take the time to complete the survey online: You can contribute even more, if this idea is of interest to you, by expressing interest in participating in a related workshop and/or helping to co-design a data coop in practice in Spring 2015.

Our Data Coop is a project led by the Creative Coop and Common Futures. It is funded by the Social Investment Business and supported by Locality .

Valuing Local Knowledge and Know-How in Kibera, Kenya

Tunapanda InstituteWe’re passionate about the value of local knowledge and know-how and strive to support its capture, curation and exchange on a peer-to-peer basis in new ‘common libraries’. So, we’ve been working hard to identify enterprising organisations with whom to establish the first Common Libraries over recent months, and we’ve been lucky enough to find ourselves surrounded by positive, thoughtful and creative groups of people — all of whom share a sense of optimism about what it is we are trying to accomplish.

Today, we’re excited to announce that we have joined forces with Tunapanda Institute – an organisation supporting change and working with Kibera residents to tell an inspiring story.

About the Partnership

Together, Common Libraries and Tunapanda Institute will establish a Common Library in Kibera over the weeks and months ahead. This initiative builds upon the work that Tunapanda are already undertaking in the area, as well as the passion and determination of the community it serves.

We’ve begun by launching a crowd-funding initiative, because residents need a wireless mesh network to access existing digital content via their mobile phones in the face of inadequate and costly broadband provision. If the campaign proves successful, funds will also be deployed to enable Tunapanda Institute students to begin producing their own digital educational materials – to be shared across the local network and, eventually, beyond.

Use of Funds

We’ve launched our crowd-funding campaign with Goteo – a social network for crowd-funding and distributed collaboration that encourages independent development of creative and innovative initiatives that contribute to the common good, free knowledge and open code.

In short, we are eager to raise money for

  • the equipment to open up at least 4 wireless mesh network access points in Kibera, which will be connected to local servers pre-loaded with learning content (text, audio, video, graphics, tutorials, etc). All residents will be able to access content for free, upload their own learning content, or connect their own server.
  • 15 full-time trainees at Tunpanda Institute for 3-6 months. Trainees from marginalized backgrounds will rapidly develop marketable skills and learn by doing through the creation of local content for the mesh network and the world at large.
  • Equipment and an open-content “history and future of libraries” DVD-length mini-course – to be created by current and future Tunapanda trainees in English and Swahili to help people appreciate the global history of libraries. The mini-course will also demonstrate how anyone can extend the Kibera mesh network or create a network in their own community to promote Common Libraries both locally and further afield.

We hope you’ll join us in helping the valuable knowledge and know-how in Kibera rise up!

Please contribute generously:

Thank You

Common Libraries: #LOTE4 – Matera, Autumn 2014

Last year, we joined Edgeryders at the UnMonastery in Matera for #LOTE3 and began talking about the scope to establish Common Libraries with hackers and makers across the EU. Twelve months later and we’re back from #LOTE4, where we led a dedicated workshop to talk about the progress we’ve made in the interim. LOTE4 - Matera, Autumn 2014The workshop covered the initiative’s origins, current focus as well as our forward plans. We asked participants to comment on the build methodology and MakerKits we’ve developed for Phase II activities in the UK. We also explored appropriate licensing regimes for Common Libraries content, and talked about the ambitious tech prototyping projects we currently have under development with a number of local authorities. Crucially, we spent time with the Matera 2019 team talking about plans for Common Libraries in Basilicata – we’re absolutely thrilled they were successful and really look forward to being a part of the town’s cultural journey over the years ahead. A massive thank you to all the Edgeryders, UnMonasterians and terrific hosts at the Fra i Sassi for (another) inspiring time enjoyed and well-spent ‘Living on the Edge’!

Common Libraries: OuiShare – Paris, Autumn 2014

Earlier this year, we joined the OuiShare Fest in Paris to learn more about the collaborative economy. We were thrilled to be invited as finalists in the OuiShare Awards – with 127 entries from 31 countries, competition was certainly intense – and totally blown away when Common Libraries was voted one of five winners! OuiShare AcceleratorWe’ve since benefited from an intensive 5-day accelerator programme organised by the terrifically supportive OuiShare team. During a packed week in Paris, we worked closely with sharing economy entrepreneurs from CopassGuerrilla Translation, Sofa Concerts and Symba. We quizzed some outstanding mentors to help shape our forward plans, participated in broad-ranging workshops to learn more about collaborative governance and community development, and even spoke to Parisian business students about our MakerKit prototyping work. We’re incredibly grateful to the OuiShare community for organising such an enriching learning experience – and, look forward to collaborating over the months ahead.

UPDATE: Developing Data Coops for Community Benefit

We first talked about developing data coops for community benefit when we joined Edgeryders at the UnMonastery for #LOTE3 last Autumn. Our experience of supporting the Our Digital Community initiative with the Creative Coop, membership of the Local Public Data Panel, as well as conversations with local government colleagues in the UK had led us to conclude that the third sector lags behind its public and private counter-parts where establishing a reliable and effective intelligence capability is concerned.

Collective thinking evolved and we posted a detailed update back in June 2014 – in relation to which we were genuinely overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received from people interested to understand our ideas in greater depth (for which, thanks everyone)!

We’ve since benefited from discussions with Mydex CIC about its personal data exchange initiative; New Philanthropy Capital about its involvement in establishing the Justice Data Labnquiring minds about fit with the range of exciting projects it’s taking forward at present; the (ever supportive) Mark Braggins from the Hampshire Hub as well as Steve Peters and colleagues from Legsb and the LGA. We also contributed to a fringe event kindly organised by Open Data Manchester at the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin back in July which helped us to further refine our approach.

So, we’re incredibly pleased to announce that the Social Investment Business has agreed to support a targeted piece of work in relation to Data Coop development over the coming months – to be led by the Creative Coop working with Common Futures and Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP. The project website will go live in October and carry the detail…

But, for now, we wanted to provide everyone who has taken an interest so far with a brief update (and, underline that we are greatly indebted to our close working relationship with the Creative Coop, the geekery of Alex Fink at the OK Cast and Marco Menendez of The Good Data, the encouragement of Professor Ewan Klein from the University of Edinburgh, and the stalwart support of Steve Clare from Locality).