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.

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A model of St Just Library (seen behind) in Cornwall that is also part of a mini golf course http://www.jonathanallen.info/golfinfo.html

If you take the money away, people don’t come as much: CIPFA figures 2014/15

Editorial

The annual CIPFA figures detailing changes in UK libraries has come out, a mere eight months after the end of the financial year they are supposed to record and with a huge price tag (£475 + VAT just for the set for one year) if you want to actually drill down into the figures. That’s shame enough  but then you see what the figures actually show – that the decline in library funding (16% since 2010) has, unsurprisingly enough, gone hand in hand with a 14% decline in visits over the same time, with the 106 libraries closing in that year certainly not exactly helping usage. That the head of CIPFA then goes on to say, widely quoted, that the only hope is that lots of unpaid people are replacing employed staff, does not fill me with a warm glow either.  Neither does the LocalGov reporting that the library figures bring “into question their long-term sustainability” of the sector.  Well, of course it does, Mr LocalGov.  That tends to happen to any service when you take all the money away.  However, I’m not seeing such drops in usage in other countries where funding hasn’t been cut.  So, the decline in usage is not because people are naturally not using libraries any more but, rather, that, completely unsurprisingly, money is important.  That the money isn’t there is nothing to do with the viability of libraries and everything to do with political decisions at national level.

Changes

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Library-related items for sale at Manchester Central Library shop, December 2015.

Closures, cuts, a new library, more e-books, LibraryLabs … and a SCL tender

Editorial

Scotland faces its deepest cuts to public libraries since at least 2010 (when I started PLN) with the confirmed closure of 16 libraries to “save” £500,000 per year. Recent research from Canada, also below, suggests that the cut will reduce the local economy there by £2.5 million per year. In other Scottish cuts, Falkirk are cutting a similar amount to Fife by hollowing out libraries.  South of the border, East Sussex are suggesting a deep 25% cut in opening hours for that same, seemingly magic, £500k per year figure. More details from Croydon suggest up to 9 libraries are under threat, although this time the annual budget reduction is a “mere” £217k. On the positive side of the ledger, Wolfson Foundation have given £250k (not annually alas) to beef up some children’s library in cash-strapped Birmingham and Derbyshire have opened a new library, boasting a health and wellbeing zone, no less, in Heanor.

In the broader picture, Penguin Random House have announced all of their 23,500 ebooks are available for libraries to lend, as long as they’re willing to pay.  What will be charged is something I’ve not had time to check out yet.

The Society of Chief Librarians have put out a £8,500 tender today for someone to work out how to share best practice in public libraries. Hang on, I thought that was me, but if you do have any other ideas (and I’ll just mention SharePointFacebook groups and/or Moderated Forums here) then do let the SCL know before 20th December.

Finally, I’m very pleased to have Aude Charillon writing about her experience of being a Carnegie UK LibraryLab innovator over the last year. I know that many authorities are already thinking hard about their entries so innovation is still thriving, despite the best that councils like Fife, Falkirk and East Sussex throw against it.

Changes

A LibraryLab winner writes

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Twitter3794dd1

Vlogging and library data

Editorial

I’ve just been sent some amazing pictures from Manchester showing crowds and queues for vloggers (video blogging) outside the central library.  I included a description of what it is in the previous sentence because I wasn’t all that sure myself. But the thing is, vlogging is hugely popular. Vloggers get to the top of the bestseller lists and many people, including librarians, have never heard of them.  Mu daughter, nine years old, though, has, and said Joe Sugg, Alfie Dayes, Zoe Sugg, Tanya Burr, Jim Chapman, LD Shadowlady, Smallish Beans and Stampy Longhead without even trying. These people have millions of followers each. Vlogging is a big new media form and libraries run the risk of missing out on it.  And, look at the pictures below for the result when libraries do get on board: these are precisely the age of people we often find missing in our libraries.  The events were arranged with Waterstones and Hodder, thus showing the need for links with partners too.  I understand one thousand tickets were sold online in one hour, with the queue going around the back of the library then looped back past the Midland Hotel and along St Peter’s Square. Security even had to be provided by G4S. And if you’ve never heard of Joe Sugg (2.6 millions followers on Twitter – his signing took four and a half hours) or Tyler Oakley (4.79m) now is perhaps the time to find out more.

The English public libraries taskforce is having a meeting this week on what data is needed on the performance of public libraries.  For many years, the only real data available has been the Cipfa figures, which normally arrive over half a year after the period they cover and, crucially, cost a fortune to obtain. I’m writing my own submission to the task force on the subject but if you want me to add anything from yourselves then do let me know, along with any other news, views and comments, via ianlibrarian@live.co.uk.

Queue around the block for Tyler Oakley at Manchester Central Library

Queue around the block for Tyler Oakley at Manchester Central Library

Enthusiastic fans of Joe Sugg. Note the age range.

Enthusiastic fans of Joe Sugg. Note the age range.

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Fears of a monopoly of library technology companies may be exaggerated

Google Digital Garage, getting rid of fines + big cuts on the horizon in Bradford, Croydon and Swindon

Editorial

There’s a lot in this post.  There’s two short articles for a start: I have a quick look at the Google Digital Garage at Manchester Central Library and also give a guest spot to a library technology company to speak about the implications of the 3M/Bibliotheca merger.

I’d also like to point out the fascinating experiment in Fife where late fees have been abolished on the same day as a non-profit trust takes over.  Library fines have always been an integral part of public library culture but I’ve noticed a fair few US library services getting rid of them and now it is happening in the UK.  The argument is that you gain more in increased usage, better public relations and (counter-intuitively)  late books now returned as people had previously been too afraid of the charges.  It’s a risky and gutsy move, and it may blow up in their faces or just be opening PR,  but how great it would be if it not charging made libraries more money. It would certainly make he service more open and inclusive. For more on library fines, fines recovery and the underpinning ideas behind charging and not charging, see this page.

Then there’s the, what feels like, standard bits of bad news for English libraries. Bradford, Croydon and Swindon are all announcing pretty big (even for these days) cuts to service, with the ones in Croydon and Swindon being potentially utterly devastating. There’s also a smaller, but still significant, cut in Worcestershire. Then there’s the next instalment in the ongoing Lincolnshire saga, with the council – after fighting it tooth an and nail for years – finally accepting non-profit trust GLL taking over its remaining council-run libraries and hoping for further cuts (£500k is mentioned) in return. I suspect I’ll be covering that county for years more in PLN.

Changes

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Record Breakers not Record Breaking

Editorial

I was sorry to see the reduction in the take up of the Summer Reading Challenge, even though it was officially called a success. This children’s side to public libraries is the high spot of the public library year and shows the sector at its best. So why the cut in usage? Well, first thing to say, is that it’s just a small reduction (barely over 1% according to one interpretation) which is pretty good going considering the fall in library budgets and opening hours. The actual take-up has reduced more than 1% due to the Republic of Ireland doing its own challenge (fair enough) but also because Lancashire decided to do the same (the “Lancashire Reading Trail” allowed the library promotion to be far more locally focused). The Reading Agency is not taking these defections lightly and is looking at a fresher look for the reading challenge next year – after all, the format hasn’t in essence changed for a decade – and the link to Roald Dahl will doubtless help. Let’s hope so because the Challenge is one of the few national promotions of library services out there, people love it and libraries can do with more.

Changes

Ideas

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Budget cuts will continue, but ACE and the Task Force protected

Editorial

The Spending Review has now come and gone and it’s no worse than expected, but little better.  The settlement for local councils will be decided nearer Christmas and we’ll see what happens.  Expect another five years of restructures, cuts and, hopefully, innovation, in order to meet the punishing targets certain to be set.

It’s at least good news that ACE have received a protected settlement. While it is often a bit odd to report on great new theatrical experiences or animatronic sculpture in the same library service as is at the same moment closing libraries, it would be churlish to not appreciate the good things that they do. Similarly, the news that the Task Force, now celebrating six months on the job, will have funding for another four more years if it needs it is also good news. While not being as quick about things as some have liked, and – obviously – not going to in any way criticise the government, they have achieved a few things in the last few months and I earnestly hope for more to come.

Whatever happens, there is certainly going to be a lot more public libraries news.

Changes

Ideas

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Testing times

Editorial

So the day is here. The Spending Review will give us an idea of exactly how much more councils will have to cut from their budgets. At time of publishing this post, guesswork from various sources suggest that it will be around one quarter but we don’t really know yet.  Assuming this does not transpire to be far off the mark, these will represent the deepest peacetime cuts to councils in history, especially after taking into accounts the cuts that have already happened. This will affect some councils more than others but it will present real difficulties for many, with the temptation being to remove spending from things like libraries.

Let’s be clear that there’s no easy options here.  Those who claim that there are yet more “savings” to be made from efficiency are deluding themselves, if not others. This time, even in those authorities whose front line services have been protected before, it’s going to be very hard not to be noticeable. The test for the sector is how we respond to this. The test for CILIP and campaigners will be how they mobilise support for libraries. The test for senior managers will be to explore every avenue to minimise the impact and to remain human and sane while they go about the tough job, which none of them want, of cutting services. The test for other public library staff will be how to be professional, to keep morale and to soldier on. The test for the country will be how people respond to the cuts and, ultimately, how local public library services survive. So, testing times. Keep tuned to see how well the country passes.

Ideas

  • Story walls – Projecting images showing stories on large surfaces outside the library.

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Scotland … Edinburgh … and Lambeth?

Editorial

I missed doing a blog post last week because I had the pleasure of attending the CILIPS Autumn Gathering in Glasgow. My presentation was on lessons learnt while doing Public Libraries News so if you want to learn how it started, why I do it and exactly where I fit in the time then I’d recommend seeing the slideshow here. They were all a lovely bunch of people, with lots of great things happening (not least in the school libraries) and it’s quite a notably different political climate up there, with both a national library strategy and – whisper it in awe – public library standards.

I’m therefore sorry to see that Edinburgh libraries are being slated for budget cuts.  I went up there earlier this year and was impressed by the quality of their libraries, their staff and their achievements in innovation.  Due to fewer budget reductions there, Scotland may be at the stage English libraries were at four or five years ago. One hopes that the nation will do better than their southern colleagues: the national government there is obviously far more keen on public services and, possibly due to the smaller size of the country, things seem far more close knit to me. In addition, Scotland has a national library strategy and public library standards.  We’ll see very soon if those count for anything when the knife is out.

The council dominating the English stories since the last post is Lambeth, with a strike and particularly raucous council meeting. It’s worth noting that one of the libraries – which is about to be turned into a gym, with some bookshelves – was visited by Ed Vaizey just last year as it was part of the Libraries Change Lives Awards. This was due to how accessible it had been made for blind and visually impaired customers. All that exercise equipment is likely to mess that up a bit. One comment in the article, not spoken by Mr Vaizey, but now blaring out with massive tragic irony is “I hope that Lambeth libraries become like a beacon for library authorities across the country.”.

Changes

Ideas

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Lancashire go for the record: 40 branches may be lost

Editorial

Good news and some quite stupendous bad news today.  The good news comes in the form of two initiatives, both with the Reading Agency and SCL support: the BBC is launching a big reading promotion next year and also money has been obtained to see about extending the reading challenge idea to older people. The bad news is, well, pretty bad and I had to check my figures to see if it was right: Lancashire are threatening to close (or more likely pass to volunteers, parish councils or anyone else who would be interested) no less than forty branches. I’ve looked at the lists and I think that’s the biggest number ever put in threat at any single time, although North Yorkshire has over the course of the last few years, probably divested itself of more, especially if one includes mobiles.

Changes

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