A little less conversation: Nick Poole from CILIP writes about the problems with public libraries and action needed

CILIP CEO Nick Poole writes about what we can learn from the current generation of reports and research about public library usage in the UK and suggests that it is time to move on from talking about the challenges to taking action to address them.

"A little less conversation" says Nick Poole

Nick Poole

A little less conversation, a little more action

Like buses, reports on public libraries all tend to come along at once. This time last year, we were calling for more, better data to give us a richer picture of how public libraries are viewed and used – across the whole of the UK and specifically in England.

Data, data, everywhere

In 2017, we are awash with insight, data and evidence. The Carnegie UK Trust’s excellent report ‘Shining a Light’ puts evidence behind what many of us have long known: libraries are seen as a public good by more people than use them, that they are used across a wide range of demographics and socio-economic groups, that they are used most by people who have the ‘reading habit’ (and more likely to be used by people who were exposed to libraries in childhood).

The DCMS’ own ‘Focus on…Libraries’ report (April 2016 as part of the annual ‘Taking Part Statistical Release’) confirms many of these messages. It is striking that among library users, 94.2% said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied with the service they received.

Less well-known, the Local Government Association’s annual survey of resident satisfaction with Council services noted a drop in satisfaction with libraries from an all-time high of 71% to just over 61% in 2016. Evidence, perhaps, of the increasing public awareness of the impact of austerity on library services yet still a high-performer relative to other Council services..

Front page of the Shining a Light report

Yet another beacon in the darkness. So how come it’s still so dark?

Another report which offers some really valuable insights is the Axiell Review of UK Libraries in 2017, which again describes a sector that is widely loved and used but that needs to change and adapt to address economic pressures, community needs and to take advantage of technology.

While the issues with Cipfa and the long-awaited release of the Libraries Taskforce are well-documented elsewhere, they too contribute to the fact that we now know an awful lot more about what is happening in the overall picture of public library service provision in the UK.

Tim Coates’ comparative analysis of figures for public library visits and circulation shows the stark contrast between trends in Australia and the US and those in the UK (as well as between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). While the figures themselves merit further analysis, the headline message is clear – things don’t have to be this way. There is nothing natural or inevitable about the picture of declining usage in public libraries in the UK – it has a cause (or causes) and because of this, it can be changed.

“things don’t have to be this way. There is nothing natural or inevitable about the picture of declining usage in public libraries in the UK – it has a cause (or causes) and because of this, it can be changed”

All of these reports point to one thing – that now is the time to stop talking about the situation and to take swift and decisive action to change it for the better.

Find the cause, solve the problem

I genuinely believe there is consensus across the library leadership, National and Local Government, campaigners and policymakers that we want and need – and in many places across the UK we already have – brilliant, thriving public libraries. Places like Kingston upon Thames – where a £500k investment in library modernisation and stock by the Council is delivering increased visits and engagement – show what happens when librarians are given the opportunity and resources to design future-ready services.

Our view on the future of public libraries must be open, inclusive and progressive. It should not be defined by what we want to defend but by what we intend to build for the future. We should want and expect the best for all users, everywhere and on equal terms.

“Our view on the future of public libraries must be open, inclusive and progressive. It should not be defined by what we want to defend but by what we intend to build for the future”

At the same time, it has to be realistic – despite this broad consensus, there are specific decisions being made about libraries which damage our national, local and community interests, undermining literacy and closing off opportunity.

Our position should not be to seek to protect these services for their own sake, or for the sake of nostalgia, but because of the role they play in the overall picture of universally accessible, high-quality library services and the value these deliver for users.

So if we are to move from reflection to targeted action, there are two questions we need to answer:

  1. Why are visits and circulation in public libraries going down across the UK and specifically in England, and;
  2. By what precise, targeted actions will these contributing factors be addressed and changed for the better?

Why have visits and circulation declined over the past two decades?

Debate about these trends is often polarising. People attach themselves to one specific group of causes and end up defending them as ‘the’ problem. All of the following have, at various points, been presented as the root-cause of challenges facing public library services:

  •  A decline in readership
  • The impact of the Internet
  • Changes in demographics and socio-economic status
  • Competition for free time
  • Under-investment in buildings and stock
  • Trying to be all things to all people
  • National under-investment
  • An active ‘anti-intellectual’ agenda
  • Local financial pressures
  • Lack of national marketing and promotion
  • Lack of political awareness and recognition
  • Failure to adapt to changing needs
  • Reluctance to embrace structural reform
  • A lack of recognition of professional skills and ethics

In deciding to address these in a joined-up, systematic and tactical way, we need to differentiate between:

  • Specific decisions within our control, such as how we invest the available resources to meet user needs, how to promote and develop our services and the value we place on professional skills and ethics;
  • Areas where we need to be able to influence others to act in our interests, such as lobbying National Government to restore the funding lost to public libraries through austerity;
  • Developments in the wider world, such as the changing behaviours of consumers, to which we need to be ready to respond and adapt.

Who is leading?

“there is no single, central national organisation with direct control “

One of the great unanswered questions about library development in England is ‘whose job is it?’

While this seems redundant in a situation where there are several national organisations and agencies, in reality, we currently have a ‘doughnut-shaped’ leadership model – different organisations are responsible for their respective sphere of influence, but there is no single, central national organisation with direct control over or responsibility for all aspects of the development of public libraries (again, noting that these comments relate to the sector in England).

Definitely not him

Definitely not him

When people call for ‘someone’ to ‘do something’ to revitalise and promote public libraries in England, in reality they are calling on a group of organisations each of which holds a piece of the overall puzzle, none of which is in a position to make a firm overall decision for ‘all public libraries’.

This is compounded by the fact that public library policy is increasingly devolved to Local Government, meaning that while individual Authorities may be able to make clear decisions about the services under their control, there is no central ‘hand on the tiller’ to see how these individual decisions come together to form the overall direction of our public library network.

Hence, while many of these reports paint a picture of public libraries as an unified network, in reality, our current management and funding model treats them as a series of more or less autonomous domains.

What actions are needed to change this picture?

So if we are agreed that action is needed to change the negative aspects of the picture which Cipfa and other statistics present, what is it that needs to be done?

Firstly, as a sector we have an opportunity to do a better job of acknowledging the actions already being taken. Every day, in Authorities across the UK, library staff are developing their services, meeting user needs, improving the way they work, managing and updating collections, looking for opportunities to do more and do it better. This is not white-washing the challenges – it is a material fact, and one which we ought to acknowledge whenever discussing the future of our public libraries.

It is, rather, at a national scale in England – working in partnership with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – that there are opportunities to take action now which will have a transformative long-term impact on the success of public libraries.

 Actions which we could be taking today include:

  • Making a clear affirmative and confident statement of intent. A shared statement that we intend to be a great nation, that great nations are built on great libraries, and that is what we intend to deliver for everyone;
  • Re-articulating what we know about what people need, want and expect from their libraries based on evidence from the user, rather than our own expectations;
  • Taking a hard and dispassionate look at how we spend taxpayer’s money on library services today – whether on a local, national or UK-wide level – and ensuring that we have taken every opportunity to minimise costs, collectivise our buying-power and modernise outmoded, expensive practices;

“A shared statement that we intend to be a great nation, that great nations are built on great libraries, and that is what we intend to deliver for everyone”

  • Setting out a clear programme for investing in our public libraries on a planned basis, including managing our physical footprint, investing in technology, modernising (and where necessary relocating) our premises and delivering the high-quality book stock and electronic resources that users want and expect;
  • Working with Local Government to manage and minimise the impact of cuts to local spending – helping Councillors and officers to see that libraries are a vital part of the overall provision of health, wellbeing, civic engagement and community life, not a separate line on a balance-sheet;
  • Putting time and effort into securing political visibility, influence and support – again at a local, national and UK-wide level – so that our funders and political stakeholders are really excited about what libraries deliver for their constituencies;
  • Lobbying for new investment to restore the funding lost to public libraries as a result of reductions in Local Government funding, and ensuring that funding is released to support core resilience and sustainability in addition to innovative projects and initiatives;
  • Pooling our resources to develop national initiatives and campaigns which ‘cut through’ to excite and engage the public and either reinforce their habitual use of the library or inspire new visits, in person and online;
  • Engaging the media on a systematic basis to move our stereotypes and tropes on and encourage a more realistic and informed portrayal of our sector
  • Publishing the data we generate as open data so that other people can access and share it, learn from it and help us as a sector to find new ways to improve and develop our services.

None of these actions is radical, but if we as a sector want to look back in 20 years time and see a transformation in the usage and visibility of our sector, they need to be done as a matter of urgency.

“None of these actions is radical, but if we as a sector want to look back in 20 years time and see a transformation in the usage and visibility of our sector, they need to be done as a matter of urgency.”

CILIP is happy to commit to playing our part in this process of transformation. We welcome the steps that have already been taken by our colleagues across the sector to implement some of these actions. As we look ahead to a new Parliament, we think there is an opportunity to take a fresh look at how we want to move forward as a sector.

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