The Public Libraries Debate

The debate over what areas of the public sector should be cut has begun in earnest.  Unsurprisingly, libraries are at the top of the hitlist.  So much so that on Newsnight on Tuesday, somebody was forced to defend libraries from “swingeing cuts” in front of a panel of three politicians/advisers.  Unfortunately, it was not someone from the library profession or a CILIP representative (although they may not have been given the opportunity to appear), so it was left to Tim Coates to defend the service.

Although I have my disagreements with Tim, I was really rather hoping that he would ride to the rescue of a service under siege as a result of prospective cuts to public services.  Sadly, there was a lack of passion or a will to go on the offensive and pick up on some of the ludicrous comments that were made in advance of his introduction (ie “who needs libraries when everyone has broadband?” and “why borrow books when we have Amazon?” – two incredibly ignorant statements).  Yes he spoke eloquently and methodically, but debates like those on Newsnight call for something a little bit more passionate and forceful.  Maybe this was not the forum that Tim Coates was led to believe it would be, but a stronger individual was needed to force home the case.  But, to be fair, at least he stood up for the service.

There are a number of issues that I have with the debate as framed on Newsnight.  For example, the idea that everyone now has broadband so that eliminates the need for libraries is a joke.  Despite the belief of one of the advisers on the program who questioned the need for libraries, not everyone has broadband and a significant proportion of the population have no internet at all.  Consequently, public libraries provide a key role in both facilitating access to information via the internet, as well as providing free internet access to help bridge the digital divide (which politicians seem to believe only exists between industrialised nations and developing ones, not within a Western nation).  Take away this important role and suddenly you have a lot of disenfranchised people with no internet access and no way of accessing the information available without recourse to a commercial provider….which costs money.  Given that those most disenfranchised would be the lowest paid in society, how can anyone morally argue that there is no longer a need for libraries to provide free internet?  Such a move would only exacerbate the disparity between the information rich and the information poor.

Furthermore, there seems to be a growing, mis-placed belief that once everyone has broadband the problem will be solved and information will be freely available to everyone.  But this is simply not the case.  Providing broadband is one part of the problem, the other is ensuring that people have the skills to use the internet properly.  As far as I can see at present, even those that do have an internet connection and consider themselves to be reasonably IT literate, still don’t know how to search the internet properly.  Many people just plump for the top result in Google rather than bothering to ensure that their search terms are appropriate and that the resource is reliable.   This includes respected journalists who seemingly fail to grasp the intricacies of search engines.  Take, for example, this piece by Evelyn Gordon:

Neither Amnesty nor HRW has issued a single press release or report on Congo so far this year, according to their web sites. Yet HRW found time to issue two statements criticizing Israel and 12 criticizing the U.S.; Amnesty issued 11 on Israel and 15 on the U.S. To its credit, HRW did cover Congo fairly extensively in 2009. But Amnesty’s imbalance was egregious: For all of 2009, its web site lists exactly one statement on Congo — even as the group found time and energy to issue 62 statements critical of Israel.

I don’t want to get into the politics of this piece, but it is one that sticks in my mind as a member of Amnesty International.  What appears to have happened here (and lets trust that the journalist isn’t being deliberately misleading) is that the journalist in question used the search term congo amnesty international and clicked on the link Congo | Amnesty International which does indeed produce one result for 2009.  However, this refers to the Republic of Congo not the Democratic Republic of Congo which is what the article itself was referring to.  A simple error in using Google has led to inaccurate information being imparted via a supposedly experienced journalist (which was then repeated by another journalist, Melanie Phillips).  If a trained journalist makes such basic errors using a renowned search engine, how can we expect the general public to do so without some training or the support of trained professionals such as librarians?  Incidentally, if you are interested, there were actually over twenty statements by Amnesty International on the DRC.  See, being trained in these things is quite useful!

Then there is the question of how libraries demonstrate their value.  Despite common beliefs, it is not simply a case of relying on verifiable statistics to determine whether a library service is performing or nor.  There are many intangibles in play when looking at how the library service meets the needs of its users.  One certainly cannot rely on issuing figures to determine whether a library is performing or not.  There are a great many functions within a library that cannot be reflected by issues: making use of public computers, accessing local studies reference materials, making informational enquiries at the library’s enquiry desk etc etc.  These interactions between the public and the library service are simply not reflected in an analysis of book issues.

Not only are book issues a poor way of assessing the delivery of the library service, footfall is also a poor measure.  While some people look at declining visits to the library service as proof that the service is no longer in as much demand as before, they overlook a number of crucial factors in why this decline has been happening.  In the past, members of the public would not only visit the library to take books out, they would also visit to renew items, make use of reference materials and to make reservations.  Now, however, these services are also provided remotely via the library website.  No longer do you need to visit the library to reserve an item or renew your books, you can do all this from the library website.  Needless to say, this obviously has a big impact on footfall.  Someone making a reservation before would have made two visits: one to place the order and one to collect.  Now they need only make one visit.  That’s a 50% decline in visits (I probably didn’t need to spell that out!).  And book renewals….before a customer would visit once to take the items out and maybe as many as four further visits to renew.  That’s a potential 80% decline in visits (this is where my maths starts to get a bit questionable so I’ll leave it at that!).

Sure, there is a possibility that there is a decline in visits due to these factors…but if this was really the case, would there not be a massive increase in accessing the library service remotely?  Well, yes.  Looking at the latest figures for accessing library websites shows that many have demonstrated a 100% increase on access compared to the previous year.  So, I would argue, that there is not a decline is usage of the library service, there is simply a change in the way the service is used.  But it does not then follow that we need to abandon libraries as they are now, and shift everything online.  This would be a disaster for the service and for society.  We need to continue to provide a highly skilled service that is able to meet the needs of the general public.  We need to continue to innovate to take advantage of the way in which people are interacting with the service in a different way.  We need to ensure that we can continue to bridge the gap between those that have access to the Internet and those that do not.  If we do not, we run the risk of becoming a society that is ill-informed and ill-equipped to prosper in the so-called “information age”.  Libraries are the barrier to this becoming reality and they need reinforcing, not dismantling.

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3 thoughts on “The Public Libraries Debate

  1. Pingback: thewikiman » Blog Archive » Hot topic! CILIP and the Media

  2. Pingback: The ‘Thoughts….’ Annual 2010 – Part I | thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian…

  3. Pingback: The ‘Thoughts….’ Annual 2010 – Part I | thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian…

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