London, United Kingdom

Future-Proofing the Library: The Idea Store

Tower Hamlets Council

August 18, 2015

An aging library system’s dramatic re-invention delivers better service for its community today—and into the future

ideastore_whitechapelBy the late 1990s, the Tower Hamlets borough in London’s East End had the worst-ranked library service in the city. When asked, the community acknowledged the importance of its libraries, but usage rates just didn’t add up. Buildings were inconveniently located, required a lot of upkeep, and weren’t physically accessible. A system that had been designed 100 years ago was struggling to meet the needs of its current community.

Tower Hamlets is one of London’s most diverse boroughs. The 2011 census reveals the largest Bangladeshi population in England, with British Bengalis making up 37% of the local population and white British less than a third.  Dynamic, growing and poor, the borough was also facing high levels of unemployment and social exclusion. Tower Hamlets had a library system with the potential to provide its residents with learning opportunities to improve work and career outlooks, a meeting place to encourage social cohesion and connection, and support for families and young people—if only the system could re-invent itself.

And it did just that. After an unprecedented two-year consultation with the community, Tower Hamlets Council completely overhauled its libraries. From bricks and bookshelves to the Idea Store, an entirely new conception of the library  was born. The innovative Idea Store concept positioned the library as a dynamic, evolving form of public space, wired to respond to 21st century users. Today, Tower Hamlets’ internationally recognized Idea Stores occupy a central position in the community and are considered among the best libraries in the country.

Consulting the Community

The Idea Store concept developed partly in response to the British government’s focus on encouraging urban revitalization in the late 1990s, capitalizing on the priorities of providing lifelong learning and library and community renewal. As a public service, the library’s target audience was everyone in Tower Hamlets, but the redevelopment process paid particular attention to ways of drawing in non-users: less than 20% of residents used the library, which was markedly lower than the national average.

Over two years, Tower Hamlets Council’s Arts, Leisure and Sports Committee undertook its largest public consultation ever to learn what residents wanted from their library—and, for those who weren’t library users, what it would take to make them more likely to do so.

The comprehensive consultation included an awareness campaign (including roadshows and public exhibitions), questionnaires distributed at libraries and to households, an independent market research questionnaire, and canvassing schools and students for feedback. To increase the scope, many of these initiatives were offered in languages other than English, including Bengali and Somali.

The feedback from Tower Hamlets residents was impressive. One in 10 households in Tower Hamlets participated in the consultation, yielding vital information. Residents overwhelmingly agreed that the library was a critical community service, but many didn’t use it: they didn’t have time to travel there specifically, its hours were inconvenient, its holdings were of little interest, and the buildings were run down or unwelcoming. Residents wanted to be able to combine a library visit with other activities like shopping; they wanted more books, services, and access to computers and IT; and they wanted a modern, inviting space with good service that felt like it truly belonged to the community.

“Refreshing” the Library

In an effort to create these inviting spaces, the library studied retail stores to determine what made the retail experience so compelling. Changing how people think about the library was also important. Re-branding was a critical piece of the library’s re-conceptualization process to incorporate strong customer interaction and ensure that the space, its people, and its resources would clearly communicate the new library’s values to its patrons.

Through detailed market research and consultation work, a new idea was born: keep all the best parts of the traditional library, but re-brand it to attract new users while keeping current ones. Expand the range of services, and offer more community spaces and events. Make the spaces as inviting as retail stores, and embed them in places where people already go about their daily lives, at the heart of the  neighbourhood, “near or beside supermarkets wherever possible, ….  where people can come for a coffee, to meet friends, to take a break from shopping and to enjoy the many facilities”

“We want a visit to the library and lifelong learning centres to become a regular part of people’s lives – to act as a focus as well as a resource for the whole community. The Idea Stores will engage people our current facilities don’t reach.”

To realize that vision the Idea Store facilities would be designed “to be attractive to look at and pleasant to be in,” using the best of modern architectural and graphic design and incorporating the best ideas from other councils and education bodies as well as the retail and leisure industry.

To achieve their goal of maintaining the best traditions of the library movement and education sector, the Council partnered with the Council’s adult education service, which was facing similar issues, and Tower Hamlets College to pool resources and work together to make “lifelong learning” an integral part of the community.


The first Idea Store launched in May 2002. Since then, five more have appeared and the newest, Watney Market, opened in 2013. The new, modern buildings are beautiful, inviting, better located, and accessible. Idea Stores retain the core services of the library, but expanded: clubs for homework, jobs, and books; hundreds of adult learning courses in everything from career skills to cooking to dance; Children’s Centres, which offer programs and support for families; cultural events and performances; community meeting spaces; cafes; access to computers and information technology; and much more.

The Idea Store concept proved a fantastic success. By 2009, the Tower Hamlets library system had some of the highest visitor numbers in the country. It was ranked 3rd in London and 4th in England for percentage of residents who used the services. It was also highly successful in attracting users from a wide range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. Between 2001 and 2013, visitor numbers increased by an impressive 240 per cent. Idea Stores have also won numerous awards, including the 2003 LGC Innovation of the Year, the RIBA London Award in 2005 and 2006, and the Academy for Sustainable Communities Award in 2007.

To “future-proof” the library, Tower Hamlets continued to use market research and community consultation to inform their 2009 strategy review, ensuring that Idea Stores are at the forefront of innovation by delivering services that residents truly need and want. As Judith St. John, the head of Idea Stores, said in a TEDxEastEnd talk in 2012: “[W]hat we actually want to be doing, which I think we’ve done quite well in the Ideas Stores, is communicating with people, creating spaces of social cohesion that allow people to come in and create the things that they need in their lives. So for me, it’s not about saving libraries across the board—far from it. It’s about creating excellent library services that have relevance to people in the future.”

Making it Work for You:

  • To future-proof your program or service, ensure your strategy is based on real market research and consultations with the population you serve. Are you providing them with what they really want and need?
  • Is it easy or convenient for your target group to access your services? Get to know your target group’s particular lifestyles and challenges, and envision how you might best fit into them.
  • Consider what your brand says about you, and whether it’s currently effective. Does your service communicate its passion and values through the user’s actual experience with it—through the space it’s housed in, the people who work there, and the resources available?

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