Innovative self-serve program extends library hours in rural Hamilton

With just a scan of a library card, Freelton residents can enter the building during extended, unstaffed hours.

The program "gives the keys" to local residents, and is being showcased nationally this week

A pilot project to extend hours at Hamilton Public Library's Freelton branch was made permanent earlier this year. (Hamilton Public Library)

Rural residents in two Hamilton  communities are being "given the keys" to their local library branches.

The innovative, self-serve program that gives access to the libraries even when staff aren't there, is allowing the Hamilton Public Library to triple the hours the local branches are open.

The program is generating interest from librarians across the country and a group will be in town to tour the sites in Freelton and Lynden later this week.

With just a scan of a library card, Freelton residents can enter the building on their own during the day when staff aren't working.

Once inside, residents have full use of library computers and photocopiers and can check out books and DVDs using an automated self-checkout. A video phone line connected to HPL's central branch ensures help is just a call away, while security cameras keep the branch safe.

The after-hours access is thanks to a program called Open+ run by library management solutions company Bibliotheca. HPL became the first Canadian library to use the program when it launched a pilot project at its Freelton branch last fall.

This spring, the branch embraced the new hours as "business as usual," said former branch manager Dawna Wark.

Longer hours, more visits

Wark said the idea for the Freelton branch came up when HPL was looking to extend branch hours in a ways that were sustainable.

"For a rural location (Freelton) made a huge amount of sense," Wark said.

The small, self-contained building is located in a tightly-knit community of about 2,500. The branch is also a fair ways away from a central location, said Wark.

"It gives people more flexibility to get to it and use it when it is convenient for them."

We've given the keys of each branch back to the community.- Paul Takala, Chief Librarian and CEO

Before the pilot began, the branch was open for just 17 hours a week at various times of the day. That has since been increased to 60 hours a week, giving residents consistent access to library resources that would otherwise sit idle. As a result, HPL said they saw a 19 per cent increase in visits over the first five months.

"In the past, to manage resources, we've had to offer very limited hours in our rural library branches," HPL Chief Librarian and CEO Paul Takala said in a release. "We've given the keys of each branch back to the community."

To access the library's extended hours, residents must have a library card, be over the age of 14, opt-in to the program and agree to the program terms. Children are allowed in with a parent or guardian.

Plans are to bring the program to the Lynden branch next, with a soft launch expected mid-October.