Of the many barriers people face in using libraries, probably the most obvious is a locked door. That’s why I found it funny that maybe the most consistently available library branch in BC is usually locked. According to their website, the Piers Island branch of the Southern Gulf Islands Community Library is available “at all times,” provided the user has the code to a lock box that contains the front door key (the website instructs the visitor to “contact Lynn or Pauline for [the] code”). Now, Piers Island is a volunteer-run, community library, on an island with very few amenities. There aren’t a lot of other local options if you’re looking for free wifi and computer access, study space, or programs.
Most library branches in the province aren’t so isolated. In fact, three quarters of them have at least one coffee shop, bank branch, and recreation centre nearby. And while none of these institutions provide all the services that a public library offers, they do provide space, expert advice, and a wide range of programs, respectively. How are we doing on keeping our branches open, relative to these ‘competitors’ in our communities, and what can we learn from them?
To try to find out, I combined open data on all 246 BC library branches with self-collected data on their regular opening hours, and then did the same for the community’s nearest coffee shop, bank branch, and recreation/community centre. That way I was able to get a better assessment of how library opening hours compare to other places in each community a resident may choose to visit. For the purpose of comparing libraries to other institutions, I only included those in communities that had a coffee shop, bank branch, and rec centre that fit my requirements.1 This left me with 185 branches to analyze.
Ideally, libraries would have long, consistent hours so that patrons can visit at a convenient time for them, while being confident that the library will be open at that time of day. Libraries in my sample most closely resembled bank branches in terms of opening hours and the consistency of those hours.2 Among the institutions, libraries had the second shortest and least consistent opening hours. Coffee shops had notably more consistent hours, as they were frequently (95%) open seven days a week. Library hours and consistency were found to be different from each of the other institutions in the sample at a statistically significant level (p<0.05).
Also similarly to banks, libraries in my sample were virtually never open in the early morning, between midnight and 9 A.M., with virtually no regular hours during this time. Rec centres and coffee shops frequently opened well before 9 A.M., and it’s clear that a large part of their advantage in total opening hours over libraries and banks comes from this difference.
Unlike banks, however, libraries in my sample scheduled a significantly higher proportion of their hours during evenings, between 5 P.M. and midnight. It’s worth remembering that this comparison is of the proportion of hours, so that even though libraries had a higher proportion of evening hours than coffee shops, coffee shops still had more evening hours overall. But, given the hours that libraries are currently open, they allocated a higher proportion of those hours to evenings than either banks or coffee shops.
Similarly, libraries in my sample allocated a higher percentage of their opening hours to weekends than banks. Libraries’ 17.9% weekend hours were much closer to rec centres and coffee shops. So, given these initial findings, let’s take a closer look at library branch hours, before considering each of their ‘competitors’ (and what we can learn about accessibility from each) in turn.
The above visualization represents all of the publicly accessible library branches in the province, with those open longer and more consistently in the top right, and those open shorter, inconsistent hours in the bottom left. They range from the McBride & District Public Library’s Lena Schultz Reading Room on the bottom right, open 5 hours a week, to Vancouver Public Library’s Carnegie branch, which is open 10 a.m.-10 p.m., 7 days a week. The semi-circular shape of the distribution is a natural consequence of the method used to calculate consistency of hours; infrequently open branches are treated as ’consistently closed,’ while branches open long hours also tend to be more consistent since long hours usually imply being open 6 or 7 days a week. Unsurprisingly, as the visualization captures with the size and colour of its points, physically larger branches tend to be open longer, more consistent hours, and open more days a year.
It’s important to note that offering an inconsistent variety of hours can also increase access for patrons, especially in branches with shorter hours. The Osoyoos branch of the Okanagan Regional Library, for instance, is closed on Sundays and Mondays, open late on Tuesdays, open in the afternoons on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and opens early on Fridays and Saturdays (but also closes early on Saturday). This allows residents with varied schedules to find a time that works for them, but it also makes it harder to count on the library being open.
Exploring when public libraries in BC choose to be open, it turns out that even though hours vary widely from day to day and branch to branch, the majority tend to fall within a typical range. It’s rare for libraries to be open earlier or later than Carnegie’s 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours. The above visualizations compare the proportion of BC library branches that were open during each half-hour segment throughout the day. The higher the proportion of branches open at a given time, the longer the colour extends towards the edge of the circle.
It’s clear that Tuesday to Thursday were the most popular times for libraries to be open during evenings, with branches generally closing earlier on Friday. Most libraries were open fairly long hours on Saturday, with fewer branches open shorter hours on Sundays. Overall, 31% of library branches closed on Sundays and Mondays to give staff two consecutive days off while allowing families to visit the library together on Saturdays.
Coffee shops generally provide wifi and space to meet and work, in addition to selling food and drinks. They tend to open much earlier than library branches, while also staying open later in many cases. Consequently, the coffee shops in my sample had much longer opening hours than libraries; the average library-adjacent coffee shop was open more than 60% longer than the library. This large difference cannot be explained by the existence of 24 hour or large-chain coffee shops. If 24 hour coffee shops were excluded, those remaining would still be open 80.15 hours per week on average, while the majority (61%) of libraries in the province are closest to a non-chain, local coffee shop.
Coffee shops are able to maintain such long opening hours since they provide fewer services, and therefore require much less staff than libraries. They can often be opened, staffed, and closed by a single employee, especially during quieter times of day. Additionally, coffee shops generally pay staff lower wages than libraries, further reducing the cost of offering extended hours. The major lesson I see for libraries in examining the hours of coffee shops is that, in many cases, libraries could consider providing work and meeting space to their patrons for extended hours.
Offering extended hours for meeting and study space would require minimal staffing, especially if the library has a meeting room with an external door or another way to open part of the branch space without providing access to the physical collection. Access to meeting rooms can also be provided to community groups during staffed hours before the library’s doors officially open. If the library is able to provide space without opening the part of the library that houses the collection, this makes it obvious to patrons that the library is not providing full service during these hours, while also decreasing the potential for loss and vandalism. Such a consideration has the potential to make library space more flexible and could be implemented into library design in the future.
Another possibility is co-locating coffee shops within libraries, such as Pavia Café within the Halifax Central Library. Perhaps influenced by their experiences at coffee shops, patrons at the Vancouver Public Library have increasingly been asking the library to provide space where food and drinks are permitted, and locating a coffee shop within the library satisfies this demand while also allowing libraries to extend hours to these spaces. Such partnerships recall the co-location of Starbucks locations with extended hours within (but separate from) Chapters bookstores, and would be especially welcome if the coffee shop was community-based and reflected library values in their service.
Rec centres were the most diverse institution included in this analysis, and the category included facilities with gymnasiums, skating rinks, pools, fitness centres, and program spaces that were labelled either as recreational centres or community centres. All provided some combination of space and programming, though. Even the smallest BC communities with library branches had some kind of volunteer-run, rentable community hall, but I only included institutions with regular opening hours in this analysis.
Similar to coffee shops, rec centres generally opened earlier and closed later than nearby libraries. Their hours were more consistent than libraries but less consistent than coffee shops, likely because they were often closed on Sundays. At first glance, it seems unlikely that the same reason could be given for rec centres’ long opening hours as coffee shops, since it certainly takes a fair number of staff to run an ice rink/pool/gym complex. The answer could be that since maintenance costs for a pool or ice rink are fairly flat regardless of how long the facility is open, there is an incentive to make the most of it. Similarly, while rec centres offer many programs, they also rent their spaces to organizations and community members and therefore it makes financial sense to have long hours that can accommodate as much potential business as possible, since when programming is not happening the only service location is generally a single desk.
Libraries could take similar lessons from rec centres as they could from coffee shops, including the high proportion of hours that these institutions allocate to mornings. At present libraries do not compete with fitness centres, pools, or skating rinks for programming before work or school. Changing this paradigm, like many of the suggestions in this paper, would definitely entail staffing issues for libraries. There seems no obvious reason why other institutions can staff early morning hours but libraries could not, and therefore the reason must come down to higher staffing requirements and costs that cause libraries to prioritize later hours.
The paradigm of ‘open libraries,’ where branches schedule no public-facing service staff for a portion of their opening hours, is still “relatively new and controversial.” Proponents argue that offering additional unstaffed hours can extend access to library resources and space, while detractors argue that this approach devalues information services, poses security risks, and could lead to staffing cuts. This approach is commonly used in fitness centres across the province, for example at the Valley Fitness Centre in Invermere where the gym is available for keycard access 20 hours a day, while staffed hours are shorter. Libraries located within community centres could similarly extend hours by opening their space to match the community centre’s hours, even if full information service cannot be offered outside of regular opening hours.
Library opening hours most closely resemble those of bank branches, which makes sense in that both institutions have a high expected service level when they are open, providing expert help to their patrons. Even with the growing popularity of online banking, branches are still a place where customers can get face-to-face advice for big financial decisions. Unlike coffee shops, the majority of bank branches in my sample were not local businesses but members of the Big Five Canadian banks.
While the shortness of ‘banker’s hours’ is idiomatic, 54% of the branches included in my sample were open on Saturdays, and a few were also open on evenings. Interestingly, banks choose which branches to open on Sundays based on the hours of surrounding businesses, taking their neighbour’s opening schedules as a sign of whether there will be enough demand. Less than 9% of the branches in my sample were open on Sundays, and banks generally still adhere to short hours that begin and end during customers’ typical workday. As such, their hours were slightly (but significantly, at p<0.05) more consistent than library branch hours simply by being shorter and more conservative.
The interesting lesson for libraries is that even when most bank branches are closed, onsite ATMs continue to provide access to basic banking services for much longer hours. Sometimes these ATMs are within the branch under video surveillance, and other times they reside on an exterior wall. A book dispensing machine, such as the one used by Richmond Public Library at Hamilton Community Center, represents a potential way to provide this service for libraries. RPL has chosen to use the vending machine to provide library access to a neighbourhood where they have no branch, which is a great way to support an underserved community. It is also a slightly different idea than providing vending machines at or outside existing branches, as banks do with ATMs. Visiting a branch and finding it closed, but still having the ability to pick up a hold or choose from a limited selection of materials could help mitigate the negative effects of inconsistent opening hours. Potentially, it’s a way to afford patrons greater access without extending opening hours at all.
The above visualization shows every institution identified in this study, including those excluded from the earlier comparison. The group averages for the comparison groups are included as large square letter boxes. Banks were the most homogenous group, showing a similar pattern to libraries in that they were generally tightly clustered on the low end of hours and consistency. Both had a breakaway group of branches with longer, more consistent hours that approach the rec centre average. As we saw in the library branch visualization, these represent the largest branches, usually in larger population centres where other institutions were also open longer hours. Still, only one library branch even managed to equal the average coffee shop’s hours, so it’s clear that even the best-performing libraries have a lot of room to improve.
Rec centres were open longer hours than either libraries or banks, but varied widely in terms of the consistency of their hours. This was due to the heterogeneity of the type of facility that fell within the category, with some small community centres only open on weekdays getting lumped in with huge sportsplexes open seven days a week. Nonetheless, rec centres had significantly longer hours than libraries, even when libraries were located in the same building; Vancouver Public Library’s Mount Pleasant Library and Burnaby Public Library’s Cameron branch are just two of many examples.
Coffee shops distinguish themselves with much more consistent hours than any of the competing institutions, while also being open the longest. 28% of coffee shops in the sample were open the exact same hours seven days a week, compared to 11% of rec centres (and one library branch). The remarkable consistency of coffee shop hours allows patrons to visit routinely, without worrying about the day of the week.
Our analysis has shown that libraries currently don’t offer as reliable access to their spaces and services as comparable institutions. By thinking about the services libraries offer individually and finding creative solutions, libraries can address this problem. If libraries hope to compete with coffee shops as a destination for patrons looking to use their space, they must find a way to increase their opening hours and improve their consistency. One option would be to request additional funding to extend opening hours, using studies like this one as evidence that current library hours are insufficient. Modifying minimum staffing requirements may represent a compromise allowing libraries to provide extended hours with the downside of reducing service during those extra hours. An option for improving consistency would be to reduce weekday hours in favour of weekend hours; as we saw earlier, libraries still have a lower proportion of weekend hours than coffee shops or rec centres.
Rather than trying to increase opening hours for the whole branch, libraries could seek to extend access selectively to existing workspaces, similar to the resource-less space provided by coffee shops. Branches could provide access to meeting rooms with external doors for extended hours with minimal staffing, and also allow community groups in to use library space while staff are present (but ahead of normal opening hours). The ability to provide access to space without opening the whole branch could be a worthy consideration when designing libraries. Co-locating coffee shops inside libraries represents a further option to provide extended hours to part of the library space.
Another way that libraries could extend access would be to provide continued access to some services while the branch is closed, like banks do with ATMs. Libraries have done a good job of providing access to library accounts and digital materials through websites and apps, but are only now starting to consider providing after-hours access at branches. Book vending machines located outside branches which provide access to bestsellers and automated access to holds would allow patrons to access the physical collection even when the library is closed. No one expects that an ATM could give them investment advice, but they do expect that when they visit a bank branch they will be able to withdraw cash even if the service area is closed. The vast majority of libraries offer no access to their physical collection or holds when the branch is closed, which, combined with the inconsistency of branch hours, contributes to patron disappointment.
The open library model holds perhaps its greatest potential for increased accessibility when applied to the libraries that I had to exclude from the above analysis (since they lacked nearby institutions to compare with). These rural libraries with infrequent hours are unquestionably providing valuable service to communities with few other resources, but only Piers Island branch has currently adopted something like an open library model. And, excluding Piers Island, these isolated branches average 13.6 open hours per week, and only 135 open days per year; finding a way to increase their opening hours would arguably represent the single biggest improvement to BC library branches’ accessibility.
1. Detailed methodology: I pasted each library address into Google Maps, then used the Nearby feature to search for “coffee,” “bank,” and “recreation centre.” I then selected the first result which had its opening hours available online, was part of the same city or municipality, and was located less than 10 km away.
2. I created a variable for consistency of hours by first calculating the standard deviation of the binary values of whether the institution was open (1) or closed (0) for each half hour segment of the day, across all seven days of the week. If the institution was always open or always closed during that segment, the standard deviation would be 0, but if, for example, the library was closed one day the standard deviation would be 0.378. Summing these segments gave me a total value for consistency of hours where 0 equals perfect consistency of hours across the 7 days and higher values indicate greater inconsistency. I rounded all opening hours that fell on a quarter of an hour up to the nearest half hour.
Greg McLeod is a recent MLIS grad and auxiliary librarian at Burnaby library. He’s interested in using data to explore the intended and unintended consequences of library policies and practices.