One of the things I found frustrating about my recent Guardian piece was that I had to condense everything I wanted to say in just 800 words. And guess what….it’s really not much to play with. Thankfully, the comments picked up on much I had wanted to say (and some things I definitely did not want to say!), but didn’t have enough space to say so myself. One of things that really stuck in my mind was the lack of understanding of the change in behaviour of library users over the past few years. There is a belief that libraries are not being used quite as much as they used to which is patently untrue. Don’t believe me? Well, I’ve been digging out some stats to prove it to you! I’m good like that! By the way, these stats are all obtained via CIPFA and cover England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Ok, let’s start with the not so good stuff:
2007/8 – 328,485,042
2008/9 – 324,991,354
Decrease of 1%
Sure, that’s not great, but it’s a decline of only 1%…and as I will explain later, that is easy to account for.
2008/9 – 310,776,757
Yep, despite what the politicians and the media would have you believe, there was a 1% increase in issues last year on the year before…the first such increase for some time. Who would have though it eh? And now comes the really good news……
2007/8 – 76,192,142
2008/9 – 113,489,115
As I tried to get across in my piece, libraries aren’t in decline, people are simply changing the way they are using them (as these figures underline). It is worth underlining a couple of points in relation to these figures. Firstly, the decline in physical visits is easily explainable. In recent years, libraries have allowed patrons to both renew and reserve books online, saving them a trip to the library. It seems fairly obvious that this would result in a slight decline in visits. After all, a patron making a reservation before would have had to make a trip to reserve an item, and a further trip to collect it. Now they only have to visit to collect the item, resulting in a 50% decline in visits for just this person. Extend that on a national scale, and you can see the effect that this would have – a slight decline in visits.
What these figures also suggest is that patrons are using the library as much as ever (if not more) and there is a great opportunity for libraries to expand their services online to cater for this demand (as opposed to reducing the service as part of a general cost-cutting drive). With the growth of online access there is the potential to expand provision of ebooks and digitisation projects. Of course, if the narrative of a decline in the service were to persist, funds would dry up making it difficult for the service to meet the changing needs of the users.
So, in short, are libraries in decline? No. However, the narrative is not being controlled by the profession but by those who either do not understand the service or are trying to undermine it for their own ends. The best way to challenge these myths? Personally, I agree with others who say there is a need to break out of the ‘echo chamber’ and take back control of the narrative. Only then can we bury the myth that libraries are irrelevant in the digital age.