Will the DCMS ever get its library survey right?
Yes, it’s time to collectively bang your heads on your desks, the DCMS has published the latest Taking Part survey. As with last year, the statistics appear to show a further decline in usage amongst adults. However, as with last year, the survey has been conducted in a rather shoddy fashion resulting in statistics that are barely worth drawing conclusions from (although that won’t stop some people from doing so of course). The reason why the results are so unreliable? Well, a major factor in this is simply the question that was asked.
Following on from last year’s survey, the question that was asked was as follows:
During the last 12 months, have you used a public library service at least once?
INTERVIEWER: IF NECESSARY USE ‘DEFINITIONS CARD’ FOR DEFINITION OF PUBLIC LIBRARY
There are many problems with this question, chief amongst them is people’s understanding of what ‘using a library’ constitutes. Not unreasonably, most people would assume that this meant visits to the actual library. Only if they query what the question actually means are they then provided with an explanation of what this includes (via the ‘definition card’). So, what would it include?
Having had a bit of a think (and asking Twitter library types for some help!), here is a list of things that do not involve visiting the library (or, in some cases, not even require library membership):
- Emailing/phoning a query to the library.
- Using a library’s online resources.
- Using the remote ‘Ask a librarian’ service.
- Downloading an ebook.
- Downloading an e-audiobook.
- ‘Tweeting’ a question to a library’s Twitter account.
- Asking a question on a library’s Facebook Page.
- Following a link that you obtained via either a library’s Twitter or Facebook accounts (you may not have been aware of that link without the library service pointing you to it).
- Accessing a library’s Flickr account.
- A library visit to a school or community centre.
- Using a library’s smartphone application.
- Attending an event organised by the library.
- Accessing community information on the library website.
- Receiving a box of library books at a care home.
- Receiving books as a result of a housebound service.
- Viewing the library catalogue.
These are just a few examples of things that could reasonable be considered as ‘using a library’ without it being immediately apparent that the member of the public could accurately say ‘yes’ in answer to the question. I would argue that if a member of the public engaged in most of these activities just once over the course of a year, they would not consider that they had ‘used a public library service at least once’. Furthermore, one-off visits to the library may include:
- Collecting Bookstart packs
- Asking directions
- Collecting a bus timetable or other publication
- Using the library fax machine
To name just a small handful (I don’t want to make this post a series of long lists!). Who would honestly be able to recall in December that they once visited a library in January to make use of these services? It does not matter if they are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, they count as at least one library visit which is what the survey is seeking to discover.
Now, of course the question attempts to cover this by using the phrase ‘library service’, implying any service that the library provides, but is it a satisfactory question without providing the definition of what this includes as part of the process rather than as an optional addition? I don’t believe that it is. With a wealth of library services being provided outside the traditional library space, it is clear that this question is not really satisfactory.
I have also been in conversation with someone who has taken part in one of these surveys. Apparently the library question was left until last and, unlike other questions, was a standalone without an opportunity to explore further. It seems obvious to me that this question needs more exploration than a simple ‘did you use the library last year?’ affair. Surely if we want a proper exploration with a meaningful result we would want it to explore the area more thoroughly?
But it is not only the lack of clarity over the definition that is an issue. Every year there are fewer service points. Research in the past has demonstrated that people who see their local library closed do not necessarily use the next nearest library, they just stop using the library altogether. Therefore it is natural that library usage would decline if library closures are increasing. Let’s make a crazy prediction. Would argue that next year, once library closures have hit, we will see a big drop in the library usage figure this report seeks to uncover. It’s not even worth debating, it will happen, even if there is investment in the remaining libraries.
Finally, another point to keep in mind. Book issues are higher than two years ago and actual library usage as a whole increases year on year. Despite this, library usage amongst adults as defined by the DCMS is apparently declining (according to this survey). This suggests (if the figures are to believed) something interesting. Those who are using the library service are using it more than ever. It suggests that the library service is providing exactly what their regular users require. If users are down but usage is up, it rather indicates to me that there is a core group that is using the service regularly and to an increasing degree. It would seem that libraries are meeting the needs of existing users, they are just failing to attract new ones. That’s not to say there aren’t problems, it is just that the solutions aren’t as simple as they may first appear. But hey, that’s statistics for you.
Thank you to the following on Twitter for helping to create those lists:
@the_librain, @girlinthe, @nunuthunder, @annie_bob, @LFairie, @philippaprice, @michaelstead, @chrishall62, @ricaird, @grahamdash, @robertsdj, @booksurfer, @calire, @libraryweb, @toonsarah, @thomasconnelly
When I’m less lazy I’ll hyperlink each and everyone one of those! Thanks all for your help!