Connecting Libraries

Technology giant Fujitsu and telecoms company eir Business NI have partnered to deliver a new ICT infrastructure for Libraries NI. Fujitsu’s Greg McDaid and eir’s Darren Lemon talk to Owen McQuade about the project that will connect all 98 libraries across Northern Ireland and will build a foundation to develop library services into the future.

The discussion starts with McDaid asking the question: “Why are we doing this?” The answer is to be found in the recent OECD report that put the UK 26th in terms of reading skills, with a particular problem in the younger age bands. This is a problem considering the fact that children perform better in education if they read. “Libraries have become an incredibly potent weapon in helping us equip our population to compete in the modern world. Put simply, research shows that children who read for pleasure are more likely to fulfil their educational potential,” says McDaid.

A key aspect of the procurement process for the project was the search for a partner to help Libraries NI achieve its objectives – that was a central part of Fujitsu’s and eir’s approach. “Our obligation is now to make sure that happens, as the project will be a key enabler for Libraries NI,” says Lemon. “This project is really about helping Libraries NI achieve its longer-term objectives. It is not just about the hardware. It is very much a case of ‘are we building a wall, or building a cathedral?’”

The need for the project came about when Libraries NI, thepublic library service for Northern Ireland, was set up in 2009 as a result of the Review of Public Administration creating the biggest library authority in the UK. There are two main drivers for the current project: the authority was coming towards the end of a ten-year PFI contract for its ICT infrastructure which was in need of replacing and a key objective for Libraries NI, linked to the Programme for Government and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s priorities is to tackle poverty and social exclusion. The project’s business case identified the importance of a step change in ICT infrastructure as well as systems and processes as a means of addressing these issues.

The project has an ambitious scope and will replace the authority’s IT infrastructure, including HR, payroll and finance systems, to make the business work effectively and to get the next step change in library service delivery.This is not just about technology but about facilitating the delivery of Libraries NI’s services which range from promoting reading, including providing e-books through to looking at library users holistically and determining who uses what services and tailoring services accordingly. The new infrastructure will also support Libraries NI initiative initiatives such as the free IT training programmes Got IT and Go ON aimed at developing computer skills in communities and helping to bridge the digital divide
“Until we contemplated bidding for this project, I hadn’t gone into a library since my grandfather took me when I was at school,” observes McDaid.

“I have fond memories of the old Carnegie Library in Bangor, which was a forbidding place – very much: ‘Ssh! Silence!’ It was a very traditional place where you borrowed books. Whereas going into it now, or Lisburn City library or indeed any other library in Northern Ireland, they are modern, busy places where people talk to each other and they are very much community hubs.”
The project will see the re-wiring and a complete overhaul of all its entire ICT infrastructure. “For a library today, a robust network is a business must and public internet access is core to a modern library,” he adds. “In addition, public Wi-Fi is now a key component as is giving library users access toIT and virtual library services.”

A new network
For Darren Lemon, this is an important project in what has been a series of public service reform projects for the telecoms provider: “Five, ten years ago these were very challenging projects to get through procurement and implement. As the reform process has matured, this newer generation of projects is much more streamlined. For example, we have rolled the network out to 98 libraries across the province in just six months – that’s breakneck speed compared to 10 years ago.”

The key objective of this phase of the project is to put in place adequate bandwidth that will support library services. The design of the network reflects the dynamic environment of modern libraries that need to evolve and develop as future needs change over time. “Looking back over recent years of the reform programme, what you start with in year 1 is not what you need at year 5 or even year 3,” says Lemon. From a network perspective, it is critical that we have planned and designed the network in a way that enables future change. The network should be the enabler all the way through these projects and that is how we have approached this project.”

Flexibility was a key parameter during the procurement process. The previous contract, although successful, was designed in a different era and was not flexible enough to meet today’s requirements and there was also a constraint around bandwidth capacity. The previous contract delivered an essential service, which has been part of the transition of existing services to the new contract. It “did a very good job and if we can achieve as much as that we will have done a good job,” adds McDaid.

The project is “very much business-driven” and its scope covers the complete operations of Libraries NI, with every business application and the network being replaced including telephony and voiceover IP – with all internal and external communications being delivered over the new network. It also includes HR, payroll, finance and library management systems. It will also include virtual library services and computer access services for library users which give customers a secure internet access with adequate bandwidth, computers and printers and a system to enable users to book sessions.

RFID technology will be used and every item will be tagged. The largest 20 libraries will offer self-service facilities with kiosks for lending books. This change is not driven by efficiency savings. The objective is the automation of regular transactions which will allow staff to be freed up to interact with customers so as to be able to better meet their needs and deliver a wider range of programmes.

The project has also meant keeping ‘business as usual’ services going while the network was being built. The end user will not notice any change until the initial phase of the project is completed later this year. The network will be a foundation for future services, with the network and broadband speeds being the “backbone” of the project. It is very much a business transformation project with benefits realisation in 2015.

The providers will see the changes in technology whereas the customers will see improvements in library services. The technology will enable librarians to better support users, including children, older people and vulnerable adults For example, users will still go into a library and find books, or videos, but they also have supported access to online tutorials on a range of subjects. Many people can access books or information online from their home but not everyone. Libraries provide free access to computers and to the internet. For those who do have access to the internet at home, there will be a ‘Virtual Library Service@ which provides similar services to those available in a local library..

Both technology companies bring their own strengths to the project. McDaid explains that Fujitsu is the fourth largest technology company in the world and its manifesto is to build the “human-centric intelligent society” which means embedding IT in people’s daily lives in a way that enhances their lives and “this project is entirely consistent with that objective,” says McDaid.
For eir Business NI, this is the third significant public sector reform project with Network NI for central government and the Northern Ireland Schools project. “This project is consistent with our goal of enabling digital services to play a vital role in supporting the Executive’s reform agenda,” adds Lemon.

“One thing that catches my attention about this project is the focus on consumer behaviour. Last year’s Ofcom report showed that Northern Ireland has the highest smartphone and tablet ownership in the UK. When people know about the services that libraries can now provide and those that will be introduced as this project is rolled out, such as free Wi-Fi in every library across Northern Ireland, there will be interest from everyone. Libraries NI will be able to better understand their customers’ needs and will be well placed to tackle issues like social exclusion.”
However, with today’s increasing digital world, McDaid says that “physical space still matters, with libraries now becoming community hubs. At certain hours of the day, it will be packed with school kids, who are not all sitting in uniform rows but talking and learning from each other.”

In closing, both McDaid and Lemon are keen to stress that whilst the new network will transform the ICT capability of Libraries NI, there will be no noticeable effect in the short term for library users. They both see the network as a firm foundation on which to build future library services which will see the local library transformed into a community hub for supporting learning and transforming lives. The project will provide the “nuts and bolts” to facilitate what promises to be an exciting transformation of our public libraries in the coming years.