Suffolk Bungay

Developed Countries Libraries down, Developing Countries Libraries up?

Some more disquiet on the decision by ACE/SCL to commission a survey to promote their new public library that resulted in research that suggested most people would not mind that they would close.  Most notably, The Reading Agency has dissociated itself from the research. Having said that, it is worth pointing out that the website (Bookmark Your Library) itself is a useful initiative and something that has been needed for years.  In addition, it is hardly the fault of ACE/SCL if the public are turning away from libraries.  However, without knowing the methodology of the research it is hard to know for sure, although the large sample suggests it’s accurate.

Two more items along this line are worthy of note.  The first is a newspaper article that argues that so many libraries as we currently have are not needed any more and so it makes sense to close a few in Sheffield.  The second is all the way from New Zealand and reports a big drop in usage, brought about by e-books and the internet.  This suggests a reduction in usage may be worldwide, which makes sense if the technology (and access to it)  is same everywhere, which in the developed world it largely is.  The increase in library usage in the USA would argue against this until one notes that there is an extreme poverty gap there and also that there are not the job centres that we are used to here, with libraries taking on their job search/application role.  On the other hand, in less developed countries, libraries seem as important – or possibly more so – than ever.  Articles today from Romania and Pakistan suggest that it is recognised that more money is needed in libraries there.

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National “Bookmark Your Library” website opens for business, with some worrying survey results

The official launch of the Bookmark Your Library website was marked today by the launch of a survey into attitudes to public libraries.  The survey showed that a large part of the respondents (a respectable sample at 2000) have not recently used libraries and were not aware of what they had to offer.  This is hardly surprising considering the lack of publicity and marketing that has been carried out but it is depressing.  More worryingly even than that though was that only a relatively small number said that they would be upset if the library closed down.  Perhaps because they did not know what was within it. Being that the website is a joint venture by several key national bodies concerned with libraries, this could be seen as somewhat shooting oneself in the foot, as one observer noted to me via email:

“One has to ask oneself (and I’m happy to be quoted) why the outfits behind Bookmark Your Library – inc. ACE,  part of whose remit is to ‘promote’ public libraries – have used their first Press Release to encourage negative reports in the media.” Shirley Burnham

Those behind the website hope, of course, that it will boost the opportunities for others to see how important libraries are. There’s some useful stuff on the pages and I recommend it to you to have a look at.  It allows you, for instance, to find your local library or even the nearest one which has the book you’re after.  The searches I did on the site showed that it was not overly user friendly and could be said to be downright wonky, but it’s better than nothing and at least provides ground for improvement.  Let’s hope that happens.  At least before any more similar research is published by library bodies that could be used to argue against libraries rather than for them.

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Book review: “3D Printing, The Next Technology Gold Rush” by Christopher D Winnan

There are many who advocate 3D printers as a logical next step for public libraries.  Others (such as this notable article) argue it is a distraction.  Whatever, odds are the technology is going to play an important part in all of our futures, in libraries or not and I was therefore very happy to read this book when I was sent a copy by its author.

It’s clear from the book that 3D printers are moving out of the early adopter stage and into the realm of “I know someone who has one”. I can attest to this from personal experience. A chap came into the library I work at today and chatted to me about a 3D printer he has – he’s not wealthy, he’s not a notable mad scientist, he’s just a normal person and the library I work at is not in a big city.  He was just interested and there must be many more like him. This is not to say 3D printers are mainstream yet of course. Almost all of the other people in the library probably had no idea what they are.  But that one chap is a harbinger of things to come … and it’s possible it’s going to be big. So, it’s worthwhile knowing about it and at only $3.31 for 120 pages, this book will not be a big cost to either your pocket or your time.

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Use it or lose it

The overarching concern of many articles listed in Public Libraries News is the cuts in public funding.  This is not surprising in that they are probably the deepest in modern peacetime history.  However, there are two more interlinked concerns that are not covered so much but are equally as important.

The first is, of course, technological change.  Those queues of people who asked me for answers and information when I joined the profession twenty years ago are no more.  There are people who require this service but there are notably less than they were.  I can easily deal with more computer-related queries than I can information-related ones during the course of a normal work day.  The internet has, largely, removed the public library from the essential list of many people when they come to find an answer to a question.  “Just google it” is the new “ask a librarian” for many people.  That has, to a large extent but by no means completely, removed the reference function.

This challenge to the librarian has recently been joined by the advent of the e-book.  I am seeing an increasing number of people now who use a Kindle or an iPad rather than printed books.  A new shock occurred yesterday when someone came up to ask for an author’s books and it turned out that they were only available on e-book.  Only 70% of UK libraries have e-books at all and many of those have a limited selection, with every single one not being able to lend every book due to restrictions by publishers.  It is to be hoped that the Government Sieghart Review will get to grips with this and we all look forward to its arrival.  Soon please.  Even worse, even if a printed book is required,  if it is not available in the branch, many people will buy it on Amazon rather than reserve it – it often costs no more and it can take less time.  And, of course, you get to keep the book.

These are very serious challenges to the need for the continuation of so many public libraries and bring us on to the second overarching concern.  This is of course that, faced with a reduced need for public libraries, less people may use them.  This is not helped by budget cuts which mean that many libraries are not well-maintained or have sufficient bookstock.  If a councillor or a MP walk into a library and it is quiet then they may question its continued funding even if lack of funding helped make it quiet in the first place.

This is why in the recent Capita report, I said that the “reduction in library funding combined with new game-changing technology have together created the perfect storm.”.  A reduction in the perceived need for libraries, coupled with a reduction in usage is coming at the exact same time as councils are looking around to cut budgets.  Faced with such a dire conjunction of events, those who support libraries need to do the most important thing of all – use them. It is only by demonstrating that the institution is still relevant that we can ensure that they will continue into better times.  A major aspect of this is the search for different services that libraries can provide, be it council information or online benefits or as maker spaces or as business incubators or as arts venues or as … well, a whole pile of different things.  Let us hope that all of this works and that people continue to come in without compromising the core purpose of libraries in the first place or we will lose libraries as surely as if they were boarded up.

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Birmingham old and new

This pictures of Birmingham Central Library shows how close it is to completion.  I include them here because it’s (a) a slow news day and (b) that new building looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen.  People are not going to be able to make up their minds about whether they like it or not.  I really look forward to visiting it when it’s open to decide for myself.

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Protecting library services? A look at the new Capita report on public libraries

capitaCapita have launched a new report,  ‘Protecting Library Services’ today.  It looks into the largely technological ways that libraries can survive in a time described in its executive summary as when “they are facing the biggest set of challenges they have ever had to face in their history”.  Before I look at it though, please be aware of three caveats.  The first is that Capita is a private company so they clearly want to sell the technology.  The second is that some would argue that accepting the budget cuts to libraries is defeatist and that one should fight to the last to protect libraries rather than changing its essence.  Finally, the third, is that I was consulted when the company wrote it and, indeed, I’m quoted in it and so this cannot be an unbiased summary.

Given all this I would still argue that the report is useful in that it looks at what Capita and senior library managers believe are “the most innovative practice within this sector”. It’s worth a look, in other words, even if you don’t agree with it as it shows what the people in charge are thinking and planning. It includes shared services, online library services and social media and “examines how technology is helping libraries adapt, survive and innovate to defend front-line services in this time of change”.  The options put are simply (a) cut services or (b) innovate.

Things that stand out are:

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Southend, Cambridgeshire, Accra and Schrodinger’s Cat

The papers report in detail on the cuts in Southend and there’s a battle in Cambridgeshire between the union and the council on the effect of cuts to libraries. Further up north, Nick Clegg blames the Labour party for cuts to his local Sheffield libraries while local Labour officials imply he may be partially to blame himself. Moving to a different continent, a radical new library for Ghana is proposed via KickStarter and research shows the wonderful impact libraries have in such areas.

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the bell jar anniversary

Southend and Trafford will have more volunteers, Derby will have a new library.

Plans in Southend and Trafford will lead to more volunteers, although the latter council is at pains to say that all libraries will have at least one paid member of staff.  This will presumably have something to do with the large protests last year against turning some libraries entirely to the unpaid. Southend is aiming for a large central library, jointly inhabited with the local college and university and two “hubs” while the rest are offered to volunteers or closed.  A different approach is evident in Derby where a new local library building is opened.

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It figures? A look at the real spending on English public libraries 2007/12

There has been some debate about Ed Vaizey’s claim of £820m “investment” by local authorities into public libraries over the last year and the figure of £1 billion or more I mentioned yesterday as the high water mark a few years ago. Tim Coates has very kindly provided me with the Cipfa figures for the last five or six years that sheds some light on the matter.  First off, it’s important to say that these figures are for England only:

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“I don’t think so” – Ed Vaizey on UK public libraries

It’s tough being a Minister having to put as good as possible spin on things when there’s a crisis.  The basic first step, of course. is to deny there is a crisis at all.  This is what Ed Vaizey the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries did when he spoke at the Local Government Association Conference on 7th March.  He admitted that authorities face difficult choices, caused by a crippling budget deficit and that this meant that everyone had to “cut their cloth” accordingly but then put the best possible of glosses onto the effect of this.  This is not to say that the speech falsifies real or important improvements in the sector: Mr Vaizey was quite right that there are some and that they are very real, notably the pilot introducing library cards to all schoolchildren and the work being done partnering libraries with businesses. Rather, the speech resolutely avoided all mention of anything else and then claimed that, therefore, nothing bad was happening. The first half of the speech took this line about the Arts and then the second – more relevant to the purposes of this website – took the same line about libraries.  This must have been especially difficult for Mr Vaizey, and his audience, considering the LGA have just a few months ago said that libraries could become “almost unsustainable” due to cuts and with rises in other costs.

Let’s look at Ed’s point in detail, in the order he mentions them,  I have added in links and put in my comments in italics.

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