Public Libraries – The Secret Truth

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.

Library Visits

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.

Library Issues

2007/8 -307,571,240

2008/9 – 310,776,757

1% increase

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……

Web visits

2007/8 – 76,192,142

2008/9 – 113,489,115

49% increase

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.


18 thoughts on “Public Libraries – The Secret Truth

  1. With the recent stats that in the news that 58% of the UK population have library cards (Martha Lane Fox), the thought popped into minb what about the remaining 42%, that’s a lot of people. I’m sure it’s not because the library could do something useful for them [to what extent could the library be of value?]. So why no library card, and why not using the library? Is it because the library has walls around it that we don’t see? There’s a lot more libraries can do for people in this day and age than ever before in the past – is this just some baggage from the past then? Do some librarians still possibly think that they don’t have enough resources to provide a service for everyone? There was a study (can’t cite I’m afraid) I read about a while ago that found non-users often find the library either/or not welcoming / not having the books they want. A US library recently took picture books into a stall in the local shopping mall, catching parents who would never usually go to the library. Etc. etc. ๐Ÿ™‚ (Ok, recitative over ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. 113m visits to public library websites is not a lot to write home about. There are 150 such sites in England – so that makes about 80,000 visits on average per annum to each. My own blog gets more than that. Google gets 400m hits every single day, in England alone. That is the competition.

    Gareth is right. About 70% of people in England read regularly. Yet less than half of these choose to use libraries. That is the big question to address. We can spend a lot of time and money trying to persuade people who don’t read to use libraries- but the library service would be immensely more succesful and valuable to politicians if it simply doubled its use by attracting people who do read.

  3. Sorry my arithmetic is wrong– but even at 800,000 visits per annum on average, public library websites are hardly a mega attraction in the information market.

    It would be interesting to have more detail of the nature of these visits and how valuable they and to whom. I know of no research which is telling us that or how it is developing.

    Literacy has increased and is increasing. So should the use of public libraries. But if you had looked over ten years, rather than one, as the old LISU figures used to do, you would see that a 1% increase in one year hardly compensates for what has happened in the previous nine

  4. 800,000 visits a year is not bad for sites which generally don’t offer much in the way of new and regularly changing content. I’d like to see comparisons with other council websites – how many visits do leisure centres get? People go on to check opening times, see what’s on. After a while you’ll remember stuff like that. I visit my library website to renew books and occasionally for details of events or competitions. I don’t make much use of the online resources because I have most of them at work or in my own right (I’m a librarian too, so others may use them more – if they know about them)

    The one major shift I would like to see in libraries is the same I would say for small local shops who complain about people going to supermarkets. Opening hours – Essentially I can only get to the library after I get home from work or on a weekend, and thats also the only time I have available for shopping, housework, leisure activities – so that’s about 6.30 onwards on a week night. The library is open till 7.30 on two days a week. My bus is at 7.30 so if I wanted to go I’d have about 45 minutes. Which is fine to pick up a book if you know what you want but not to really enjoy yourself. Is it not worth thinking if we opened later in the morning and closed later at night, we might be more useful? Or are we just there for old people and those with young children?

  5. Blimey…I’m going to have to write an entire blog post to deal with the points you raise…where to start??! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Well, first off, having come in from the private sector, I also tend to deal in trends, I understand that one year’s stats aren’t enough to prove a case. If you look at the stats since 2005, library usage has increased every single year (that includes web visits, which, as I explained above, accounts for a high proportion of shifts from physical access to virtual). The very idea that anyone could seriously claim that libraries are in decline (other than in terms of the funding they receive) is, quite frankly, bonkers. To me, it smacks of ulterior motives….say replacing staff with volunteers and using the savings to increase book stock for example.

  7. The lessons from the stats are quite clear….so much so that they may as well have a flashing neon sign accompanying them. Library usage is changing. Yes people expect a good selection of book stock (that is so obvious it is barely worth arguing), but they also expect increasing numbers of services online. A 50% increase in a particular market suggests to me that that market can be built upon and expanded. In this case, provision of ebooks, digitisation projects etc etc seem to be an obvious way to build on a growing market (sorry, I’m using private sector terms like ‘market’ now *shiver*).

  8. Yes, Google in England has more….but then an international brand would wouldn’t it? Of course it is still small at the moment, but it is growing rapidly. They have seen nearly a 50% increase year on year every year since 2005…that’s not to be sniffed at….especially when you consider the supposed ‘decline’ in library usage. It’s no good simply pointing to an average and saying that it is too low. Averages are fairly meaningless. Some authorities would naturally attract more than others…especially considering smaller authorities. The most popular library website in the country attracts over 5 million hits a year (around 14,000 hits a day) – the next two largest 4 million hits a year. Sure, it’s not up there with Google, but that is a huge number of people accessing the service online. It seems fairly obvious to me that there is a large market out there who are using the library in a different way and the service should take this into account.

  9. For me, the primary concern is what the people who use the service want from it. The indications are fairly clear from recent trends….people expect their library service to complement their book stock with an extensive online service. How anyone can fail to see the very obvious message that is being sent is totally beyond me. Maybe they don’t wish the public to have what they very clearly want. To me that indicates a complete failure to understand what a public service is all about.

  10. I think the problem is that a lot of the public library websites are poorly designed and aren’t very user-friendly. Given these constraints, such a large increase is not bad going and in fact more thought needs to be put into the web presences of public libraries. Probably not the answer you were looking for!

    • I completely agree. Some of the websites are very poorly designed. If all authorities had sites like the top three who manage 4/5 million visits, we could be looking at over 150 million hits per year. That would be a phenomenal achievement on such restrictive funding.

  11. Tim,
    Maybe a 1% increase in one year doesn’t compensate for what has happened in the previous nine, but it is heading in the right direction. Also, I know for a fact that my public libraries website figures have risen dramatically in the past year – up by 50%, which is also a step in the right direction and is something we can/will build on. It doesn’t match Google figures, but then again I don’t think any other sites do. Just by the fact that we have so many visitors to our library site, shows that it is of use and that Google is not the “be-all and end-all” when it comes to the information on the internet/web.

  12. Ian, can I quote that last paragraph on the Prezi? I really like the taking control of the narrative idea as the over-arching theme for what echolib wants to achieve.

    • Sure, why not ๐Ÿ™‚ I do strongly believe that we are not in control of the narrative and I think echolib is a great way to take it back. I’m all for taking the power back! ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. The increase in web use in libraries – easy, they pimp more porn. The absue of internet facilities in public libraries is one of the hidden truths about how public money is wasted. I often sit watching perverts and weidoes spending their time watching porn all day. Libraries are dead – long live the internet!

    • Two things:

    • a) Those stats refer to people using the internet at home or in the library to access the library website. They are not statistics for use of the internet in the library.

    • b) It’s highly unlikely they do ‘watch porn all day’….porn sites are blocked in most (if not all) libraries.
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