Devon libraries could host drone racing, virtual reality and children’s parties as part of plans to buck the trend of declining use.
The number of people visiting libraries in the county fell by six per cent last year.
However, the number of activities that took place rose by 14 per cent and there was a 32 per cent increase in events attendance.
And while while physical borrowing of stock dropped by seven per cent, eBook issues rose by 25 per cent.
Alex Kittow, Libraries Unlimited’s new chief executive, has plans to reverse the decline in visits.
Drag Queen Story Time and live streaming events from the Royal Shakespeare Company have already taken place.
Speaking at last month’s Devon County Council (DCC) Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Committee meeting, he floated ideas around children’s parties, personal shopping experiences, and even drone racing as potential future fun.
He said introducing virtual reality was also on the cards, among other exciting developments, in the next year.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service this week, Alex said: “Our library service remains the envy of other places.
“We’re absolutely focused on bringing more people into our libraries and to encourage people to read for pleasure, so of course we will do our best to reverse the decline.
“However, we have to be realistic and accept that the way we live our lives is changing, high streets are used less, increasingly more shopping and borrowing of books is done online and we all lead busy lives which means convenience is a priority.
“We see significant traffic going through our websites and we’re always looking at ways to improve our digital services so that we can meet people’s needs.
“At the same time, we’re continually expanding our services and events within libraries to encourage people through the doors to explore what we have to offer.
“Events and activities massively increased last year though and the main reason is because we have been working hard to bring new people into libraries through a diverse events programme.
“We’re trying new things all the time, like Drag Queen Story Time and live streaming events from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“We want communities to look to the library when they want something to do, whether it’s parent and toddler groups, Lego and Code clubs, knit and natter, dementia cafes, author visits or fundraising events organised by one of our supportive friends groups.
“Is this the future? I think this will be a way that libraries and their buildings can be used to serve our communities more, by providing events and experiences that people might not be able to access elsewhere.”
Alex said that the majority of people who use libraries are either from the older or younger age of the spectrum.
He was thrilled this summer to see a nine per cent increase in the number of people participating in the summer reading challenge and that a large number were from schools that had not engaged before.
Alex added: “Young kids still love physical books and turning the pages, but we don’t mind if people prefer physical books or digital books. We are passionate about reading for pleasure and we know that reading and stories in any form can help to improve people’s lives in many ways.
“Technology is changing the way we live and we therefore want to continue investing in our digital offer as we know that enhancements in digital services with continue to change the way we interact with books and information.
While the core service of a library remains around book issues, Alex said that libraries nowadays have to offer more.
He added: “I was chatting with someone about drones and about how you can fly them indoors, and I was thinking that with the layout of a library, you can get great obstacle courses to do drone racing which would be great fun.
“Why do this in a library? We you can get young people in and as they are learning about drones and how to fly them, we can show them books talking about it, they can print their drone on a 3D printer, and then they can become the engineers of the future. And that is just reference books, let alone all the fiction books, and it is something that excites people.
“We have lots of ideas for how we can better utilise our libraries. We’re up for trying new things to help reach our communities and to increase our income to ensure a sustainable future, although we need to carefully weigh up our options and develop strong business cases for each.
Although overall library visits fell by two per cent last year, there was a 10 per cent increase in visits to the smallest group of hubs. Use of Topsham Library, where brand-new facility was opened in the Nelson Close Community Centre, was up 49 per cent.
Alex said: “The short message to people though is use it or lose it. I think we have a good chance of keeping Devon’s libraries open for the long-term with the support of our commissioners and local councillors at Devon County Council.
“However, we will continue to need the support from our volunteers and friends groups and will need to take an entrepreneurial approach to ensure we aren’t too reliant on public sector funding.
“We will also need to be ahead of the game when it comes to new trends and developments so that libraries remain relevant.
“We need to encourage people to continue to use the library. What you can buy on Amazon and have delivered at home may be more convenient, but you can borrow it from a library and keep them open.”
While all of Devon’s libraries have remained open, their budget has dropped from around £10million in 2010 to £3m in 2014.
As part of its contract, Libraries Unlimited was required to reduce the cost of the library service by a further £1.5m. A further £300,000 of reductions is targeted over the next two years in line with DCC’s wider financial pressures.
Alex said: “Austerity has been going on for a while, and libraries have faced significant funding cuts over the past 10 years.
“However, I think we are only just beginning to feel its effects. The reduction in funding has been devastating to our local authorities and in turn to library services, library staff and, most importantly, the people of Devon.”
DCC is developing a new library strategy.
Councillor Roger Croad is keen that Devon responds to the national decline in book lending and bucks the trend by getting more people back into libraries.
Speaking at the Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Committee meeting, he said: “Will we still have 50 libraries next year? We haven’t closed any in the last 10 and I don’t intend to close any in the next 10 years. Our event attendance is well up as well so proves that libraries are being used as a community space.”