The Taking Part Survey – usage down again, but why?

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!

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6 thoughts on “The Taking Part Survey – usage down again, but why?

  1. Both the survey and Toby Young on Radio 4’s Today programme also point to differential use based on social class/ deprivation – however, what neither can answer is how closing libraries would actually narrow the gap. They also fail to evaluate the greater importance of libraries to people in areas of high social deprivation – who have fewer alternatives available.

  2. Hi Ian, can you explain why you think that the survey has been conducted in a shoddy fashion and why you think the results are barely worth drawing a conculsion from?

    I have looked and I can’t see any obvious evidence that the survey implementation has been slapdash.

    • My issue is that originally they listed what counted as a ‘using your public library service’ and now they do not. Personally speaking, I feel that the phrasing of the question would suggest a visit to the library itself rather than phoning, emailing or doing any of the things listed above. I suspect that if it was made clear that these things counted, the figure would be higher than it currently is. Maybe not a lot higher, but certainly higher.

      I would also add that I have been in conversation with someone who was involved in the survey and they said that the library question didn’t come until towards the end, it was less detailed than other questions and they felt rushed when responding. To me that doesn’t sound like a methodical survey, it seems a bit slapdash.

  3. Hi Ian. Thanks for your reply. The definition of what consitutes using a public library service is included in Annex B of the current statistical report as it has been in several of the more recent reports. Even if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be evidence of the survey itself having been slapdash – it would only be an oversight in the reporting.

    Regarding your friend who has been involved in the survey (as an interviewee I assume) – there are actually quite a few library questions in the survey and not just one. Are you sure it was this survey they participated in? Was it conducted over the phone? Also, its a bit of a leap of faith to call the survey slapdash after speaking to one respondent out of over ten thousand.

    • Hi Harry. I think my problem is that two years ago they told the respondent as part of the question what ‘using a library’ constitutes. The past two surveys have not and respondents were only told what it comprised if they asked. I would suggest that most people wouldn’t ask what ‘library usage’ involves as they would assume that it would involve visiting the library. A hypothesis, sure, but I think it is possible.

      Personally, I think it is very problematic to draw too many substantial conclusions from such surveys. I think it best to treat such things with caution. The reality is always more complex than a survey may suggest. It may look bad in terms of library usage (although I think the figure is only very marginally down on last year if memory serves me), but I think there needs to be more wide-ranging research before more serious conclusions can be drawn.

  4. Hmm. I can see your point of view about the change to the library question, but it is a minor change and I can’t honestly see it causing a significant shift in the responses received. So, I don’t think this alone justifies your statement that the survey is “shoddy and barely worth drawing conclusions from”.

    I would agree that is you should always be cautious when drawing conclusions and should ensure that they are actually backed up by the available evidence. In the Taking Part Survey, DCMS has been careful to limit their analysis to verifiable observations and hasn’t entered into speculation and so they’re a pretty good example of not drawing conclusions that can’t be supported by the evidence. I think they would agree that the picture is complex and that further detailed research would be needed to flesh this out. That said, it doesn’t mean you can’t draw serious conclusions from the survey, or other similar surveys.

    A couple of questions for you:
    1) I still don’t think your friend participated in the Taking Part Survey. I think it was the Active People Survey which was shorter, by telephone and only had one library question at the end. If I’m right, then that would mean your repeated complaint about the survey on April 9th reply above is completely inaccurate.
    2) You say that more research is needed. What research would you suggest and why? And have you suggested it to DCMS?

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