The future of English public library websites?

Editorial

The report on the digital side of public libraries was released today. At first sight, it is a solid and useful report on public library usage that will fall firmly into the “too long, didn’t read” report for many. Certainly, I’ve only skimmed it. I can report that it looks thoroughly researched, although it looks surprisingly insular and seems focused on technological explanations for library usage. There does not appear to be any international comparison with library services which may have helped change some of the assumptions: for example, the decline public library use is blamed fairly and squarely on technological change while it is fairly obvious from other countries that usage can increase in public libraries which are consistently funded. I’m sure a few other countries may have researched going down a unified library website approach as well (although, I can’t think of many off hand) which could be learned from.  Not having it read it fully, I can also not comment on the recommendations, there may even be an international section (although words like USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand or “international” or even “Wales” or “Scotland” are entirely absent when doing a word search).  The big question, though, is that many would find it hard to believe that £20 million over three years will be found willingly from public library authorities facing budgetary decimation. Either that money therefore won’t come at all and nothing will happen or it will come from other, as yet, unknown, benefactors, possibly even the obvious choice (at normal times but possibly not in austerity Britain) of the Government.

It will probably take a few days for me to read the full report and I’d welcome any feedback on the report in the meantime: please comment or email me at ianlibrarian@live.co.uk. Confidentiality, if desired, is guaranteed.

Idea

More >

Hereford and the Library of Things.

Editorial

Good to see Herefordshire finally ordering the removal of asbestos at Hereford Central Library.  It has been closed since September and, combined with the proposed other cuts to the service, the council was beginning to strain any credible definition of a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. The council is now working with a library user group to work out plans for the library.

The “library of things” idea, where one can borrow all sorts of items (from lawn mowers to pictures to fishing rods) seems to be, if not fully accepted, in the USA then at least at the stage that Maker Spaces were two or three years ago there.  See the article in the international section below. And, like with Maker Spaces at the same time, UK public libraries haven’t touched the idea yet, with those examples I’ve seen not being in public libraries.  We will see whether it is a flash in the pan or a trend that we should be picking up on in due course, and hopefully not too late.

More >

Help keep the barbarians from libraries by signing the petition

Libraries: “The thin red line between civilization and barbarism” Neil Gaiman

Editorial

No more news of cuts, thank goodness, although many reverberations (especially in Lancashire) from reductions already announced.  On the good news side, Access to Research, the (in my view anyway) under-used and under-publicised but very useful e-resource will be continued in public libraries.  Next week, apparently, we will be reading a report on a possible £20 million “unified digital platform” for public libraries.  This sounds great but the devil will be in the detail like (a) who pays, (b) will it simply be a cumbersome addition on top of existing library webpages and (c) will BiblioCommons who is writing the report win the contract for the service they themselves recommended.  Should be fun.

Great to see the CILIP petition break through the 5,000 mark today, helped by a wonderful quote by Neil Gaiman.  Do sign yourselves and encourage others to do so if you can.

More >

Wrecking libraries in Telford … plus a thought or two on dodgy library censoring

Editorial

Some major cuts announced in Telford & Wrekin as well as in Flintshire today. In other news, there’s a heap of blogs on the Libraries Task Force webpage, although they are of widely variable quality.  The best is the one on Amazon lockers because, although it does not point out the obvious downside of advertising the ethically dubious and cut-throat competitor to libraries, it provided usable statistics and analysis.  The danger with some of the others produced is that they read awfully like press releases (and in one case something like a holiday postcard) and, being they are on the gov.uk site, will be give more credence than if they were directly published by the councils themselves.  Libraries don’t just need ideas and innovations, they need evidence to work out which options are best to go down … and that means statistics and analysis, not just blurb.

One problem caused by library services not sure as to what to do is in internet filtering their public access machines.  Recent research shows that such filtering not only can block useful search terms (including LGBT) but also cost a fortune as well.  As librarians we should be able to work out what keywords make sense to block, if any, ourselves. It’s notable that some services don’t filter at all and yet have somehow managed to avoid imploding. Library services are often shamefully unsure about the IT side and, to be fair, sometimes these filters may be put on by corporate IT without even any consultation with librarians. However, spending a load of money on services that may block genuine searches is perhaps not the best thing to do, let alone what it may be say about our willingness to censor when we should all be about freedom of information.

Changes

More >

Library spending and usage: or, for goodness sake, don’t increase the e-book budget quite yet

Editorial

Statistics can be made to mean anything but, sometimes, they provide very useful clues to what is happening and sharp reminders of the truth. So, while me and Tim Coates would, and have, strongly disagreed on the reasons for the decline in library usage (he squarely blames senior librarians and, by extension, the whole library profession, I’m a tad bit more complicated), I am indebted to him for his further analysis of the recent CIPFA figures.

There are a few things that seriously stand out in his presentation. The first key set of statistics are, sadly, the ones we all know about: the decline in library usage (visits down one fifth and book loans down by an astounding nearly one-third in the last three years). The explanation for this, often superficially accepted by politicians, is that this is a historic trend, due to the introduction of computers etc. The fact that library usage is not facing such drops in other countries (it’s doing very well in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand) does not fit into this narrative and is not often pointed out. In those countries, they stand a chance in changing with the times. Here, we stand less of a chance because we’re constantly looking for how to deal with the next cut.

The second key statistic gives a strong clue as to why the UK is an exception to healthy usage in that, in England for example, the total library budget has gone down from £1055m in 2005/6 to £880k now, on the face of it a reduction of 16.7%. Add in inflation (33% in that same period) and that increases to a reduction of 38% in real terms. Now, the actual cut may be less than that (public sector wages and book prices were not increased by the same amount for example) but that’s a major major cut. Add on that reduction the temptation in many councils to milk the library budget for increasing support for central corporate services (from 7% of total budget to a whopping 14% since 2000) and you get an idea of what a disaster has befallen libraries. Wow, that makes the maximum reduction experienced in public library budgets a possible 45%. Nearly one half. No wonder we’re not doing so well, eh?

The third key statistic is a really surprising one and that is exactly how bad an investment e-books are. They account for 17% of the total bookfund in England but only 1.2% of loans. One POINT two percent, not 12. That’s truly awful. Seriously, what a terrible way to spend the shrinking (from nearly £80m in 2003 to less than £50m now) bookfund. The reasons for their poor performance are manifold: many of the best titles are not available, ebook prices are artificially high, e-loan platforms (such as Overdrive) are not user-friendly and publicising of library e-book services is pretty much non-existent. What gets me here is why, faced with such barriers, library services are still ploughing in such large and increasing amounts of money into a high-cost low-return medium. Stop it. It may be glamorous and smack of the future but it’s a darn poor return on investment. Library services should stop being complicit in their own ripping off, putting up with such a system and shame the publishers into being fair, even resorting if need be to launching their own systems and reaching their own e-book agreements. That’s something the SCL and concerned on-lookers could usefully do. My suspicion is that the DCMS and the Task Force will not touch such a thing (messing with private enterprise, you know) until it is pushed for strongly enough.

So, in summary, library usage is down but a very large part of that is due to the budgets being drastically cut. And the next time you see librarians cutting the book fund while increasing e-book spending, tell them it may gain them kudos but it’s unlikely to gain them usage.

Changes

More >

Lancashire prefer consultants to libraries and another authority fails to Buck the trend

Editorial

It’s that dead time between between Christmas and New Year but it gives me a chance to catch up on a round up of the last week.  Stand out news for me are in the counties.  The ridiculous news that Lancashire is paying £6 million to consultants in order to be told by them how to save money (answer: do it yourself and don’t pay consultants) is the one I’ll remember. That money could pay for 200 people on more than average national wage for a year by the way.  Or, at the moment, goodness knows, for a lot of much-needed flood defences. More to the point, it’s more than the £4.1 million proposed cut to the library service. Good to know the consultants are doing well out of austerity anyway I guess. Not doing so well is Buckinghamshire who have been taken aback but how much money the government is taking back, or rather the speed which the Government is not going to give them money in the first place.  This is the county most synonymous with volunteer libraries and have been resolutely cutting library budgets year on year since I started tracking them in 2010. It’s not hard to worry about their surviving libraries when push comes to shove over the next couple of years.

Changes

Ideas

More >

Merry Christmas everyone

Editorial

There’s a fair bit of coverage of the CILIP campaign, although notably it is only the libraries-friendly Guardian that has covered it. Please sign the petition and tell your friends if you can. In other news, Somerset have announced what appear to be significant cuts, although wrapped up in the language of co-locations.  We’ll see what transpires there.

Anyway, it’s Christmas week.  I wish you all a very good festive week and a few good days of frivolity away from the concerns of the sector.  Here’s to 2016.

Changes

More >

Campaign overview of "My Library By Right". Will you be in?

My Library By Right: CILIP launch key campaign to protect public libraries

Editorial

I normally don’t give so much space to one person writing a guest blog but I have done so today for two reasons.  One, it’s the chief executive of CILIP and I’ve never had that honour before (Ed Vaizey, you know I’m here for you if you want to write something, ah go on).  Secondly, and far more importantly, the statutory nature of libraries is one of the most important weapons in the library armoury but it has been systematically ignored by government and councils for years. Everyone knows, including crucially the councils that this Government that will never intervene (regardless of what its new guidance, published just yesterday, may suggest). In addition, barely a week goes by without some news article saying that branches are at risk because the money needs to be kept instead for “statutory services”, not realising that that is precisely what a library is.

A campaign on the subject will remind everyone that libraries should not be so easy to cut and may even, if one is optimistic, encourage the government to actually start obeying its own laws. If we do not, not just as a profession but as a whole sector, stand up for it now then the cuts which are wiping the service we love out will continue.  What, frankly, do we have to lose? This campaign should have been done years ago, it is true (and it’s timing just before Christmas is going to raise an eyebrow or two) but let’s not carp about that.  We cannot change what happened then or now. What we can help influence is the future.  So get behind this and stand up for the public library service. After all, folks, it’s the law.

More >

The eleventh library trend of 2015

Editorial

Thanks for all the positive comment on the top ten library trends of 2015.  It’s a big subject and you’re quite right that I could have included more, including on health and wellbeing, which is an increasing presence in the public library profession at the moment.

One thing which stood out as an omission to me when mentioned (thanks Sarah Wilkie) was the lack of mention of the increase in trusts in public libraries.  With the apparent success of Suffolk and York as library mutuals, a fair few more authorities are thinking the same way, with probably eighteen more (and those are just the ones the media knows about, I know of others privately) considering making the move to non-profit. Bear in mind that there are already 30 or so trusts running library services in the UK and you can see what a force they have become. For the reasons for trusts see this page and against see this one, although I did both pages a while ago and they could do with updating.

One factor which could be pro or con for trusts, depending on your point of view, came home to me this week when I asked Warrington LiveWire for some information on the relative size of their new Central Library compared to the old one (I suspect it’s going to be a lot smaller as no mention of the size is mentioned in their press releases), reductions to their bookfund in the last few years and to the extent of their professional staffing. They simply pointed out to me that as a Trust, they are not obliged to answer Freedom of Information requests.

Changes

More >

The top public library trends of 2015

Editorial

Every year, for three years now (see 2014 and 2013) I’ve had a think about the trends that I’ve noticed over the last twelve months. Such observations are obviously subjective and liable to the whims of the moment but hopefully give you a snapshot of what is happening. I’d be delighted to hear your views on the ones I included – and any that I have missed – by email via ianlibrarian@live.co.uk.

1. The General Election.  The election of the Conservatives for the next five years means deep cuts to local council budgets up to 2020.  We have seen what that has meant since 2010.  The vote is the most important thing that has happened to public libraries this year, and for the next five.  Expect deep cuts to public libraries, with as hands-free direction as possible from central government. Councils are going to find it very hard to maintain libraries (indeed some, like Herefordshire and Lincolnshire, are barely trying now) and, with library services already cut to the bone in many places, it hard to see much light at the end of the tunnel for smaller branches nationwide.

2. The Leadership for Libraries Taskforce begins.  This got up and running this year, with the main thing resulting from it so far is a whole ton of visits to public libraries and interested agencies, including government departments.  Not overly much else has been achieved yet (with the debatable but not insignificant exception of finally getting pretty much every public library to receive WiFi) and the fear of many is that the group will have insufficient actual leadership.  However, at the very least, they’re another voice supporting libraries and they have started making a (limited) impact.

3. CILIP taking a more active role. It’s been a pleasure to see Nick Poole take over as CEO with a new bunch of trustees. The organisation has finally started commenting on the news when councils announce big cuts to libraries. I know from conversations held that they also have big plans for campaigning in the future, including on the all important statutory nature of libraries (on which they have received pro bono legal advice). I just hope that the organisation can avoid the obsession with internal matters that so dogged the previous five years (rebranding anyone?) and actually start doing things for public libraries. Fingers crossed. [declaration of interest: thanks very much for the honorary fellowship this year, CILIP – Ed.]

4. Remote control libraries. For better or for worse, the Bibliotheca Open+ system has attracted the attention of many authorities. This allows for an unstaffed library to be open to the public, with CCTV remotely supervised buildings and the public getting in via their library card and PIN.  A big problem is that it looks like under 16s are not allowed in without a parent (and that’s a massive issue) but for councils who see only the headline of “library kept open” or even “library opening hours extended” and not the deeper issue of the quality of service, it’s very tempting.

5. Decline in usage and funding. The recent CIPFA figures show a big drop in usage, most notably in children’s issues.  This is very distressing. My suspicion, strengthened by seeing what is happening in other countries where there is no such drop in popularity, is that usage depends on budgets and, at least five years into an absence of money, people are seriously starting to notice the “hollowed out” nature of many library services. My worry is that politicians, and insufficiently interested observers, will see only the decline in visits and not the reasons behind them and draw the entirely erroneous conclusion that libraries are declining entirely by themselves.

6. CIPFA in need of reform. It’s not just a case of shooting the messenger but an increasing realisation that data on public library performance is in an awful state. For the full figures to come out a full eight months after they are collected is abysmal in 2015 and for them to be available to the public for the massive cost of £475 (plus VAT, naturally) is positively hateful. Then we have the lack of easy comparison with previous years, avoidance of anything on outcomes (it’s all outputs, folks) and the realisation that this whole mess is about a sector which should specialise in giving out relevant information to the public and one realises something needs to be done.  Thankfully, the Taskforce and others appear to be on the case on this one.  We’ll see what influence they have this time next year.

6. The joy that is Manchester Central Library. This was the most highly visited library in the UK last year and the reasons are obvious. I am highly privileged to visit this library on a regular basis and it is always a pleasure. After a major refurbishment, the place is positively palatial and packed. There’s a ton of different things on offer, from the essential (but sometimes overlooked) big quiet study space to a media lounge, big events and, interestingly, quite a lot of income generation (donation boxes, café and library shop).  Their recent collaboration with Google won’t hurt their reputation with the bosses, or with business, either.

8. The embarrassment that is the Library of Birmingham. This place should have been the most highly visited library last year, considering its new build and massive cost, but instead does not even make the top five. The reason is not hard to see: cuts to the budget.  Opening hours were almost halved to a pathetic 40 hours per week due to lack of money. To make up for this, the LoB is now looking to moving a foreign language school into it – losing a lot of space in the process – to make ends meet.  The sad thing here is that the new Library should have been a symbol of how superb the city is, instead it’s a byword for its incompetence. Let’s hope that lessons are learned and the library returns to its rightful place in the forefront of the city’s civic pride.

9. Coding, lego and makerspaces.  It was great to see the very useful (if strangely named) Code Green guidance from SCL about coding being very useful and a statement of intent.  It’s also been good to see a smattering of 3D printers and other Maker facilities being made available but, well, they cost money and code clubs are low-cost thanks to the volunteers.

10. Cuts seriously start hitting Wales and Scotland. One of the things that have been highly notable over the past five years is how the experience of austerity in English libraries has not been so notable in the other nations of the UK.  All that came to an end this year, with their being big reductions to library numbers in Wales (a 11% cut no less) and the announcement in Fife of the lost of 16 branches.

More >