5.7 million households do not have an internet connection


Libraries can help address digital inequality (image c/o splorp on Flickr)

Yesterday the Office of National Statistics released its latest Internet access – households and individuals report.  Once again it demonstrated something that is often overlooked, there is a sizeable proportion of the population that do not have an internet connection.  According to the statistics, although the percentage of households with an internet connection has grown to 77% (up 4% on last year), there are still an amazing 5.7 million households in the UK without internet access.  Other top line statistics from the report:

  • 45 per cent of Internet users used a mobile phone to connect to the Internet
  • 6 million people accessed the Internet over their mobile phone for the first time in the previous 12 months
  • The use of wireless hotspots almost doubled in the last 12 months to 4.9 million users
  • 21 per cent of Internet users did not believe their skills were sufficient to protect their personal data
  • 77 per cent of households had Internet access
  • 50% of those without internet say they do not need it
  • 40% say that the equipment is too expensive or they do not believe they have the skills required

…many children are being left behind

The last three points are particularly crucial.  Households without internet would mean, in many cases, families without internet connections.  This is particularly concerning as it has been demonstrated that children’s performance at school can be affected by their inability to make use of an internet connection.  Whilst the report doesn’t provide statistics on family households without internet access, it is not beyond reason to conclude that there are a great many families included within that 5.7 million households figure.  And, consequently, a great many children who are potentially being left behind by their ‘connected’ peers.  The consequences of this disparity are fairly clear.

The final two points are also concerning and provide a stark reminder of what damage would be done by large-scale library closures.  Libraries can play a massive role in addressing these issues.  Trained, professional library staff can help to support inexperienced users to find their way around the internet and gain the confidence to take full advantage of what it offers.  It has been demonstrated in repeated studies that people using the internet are economically better off (££) and, at a time of such economic difficulty, this is more important now than ever.

…public libraries are crucial to reducing digital inequality

Furthermore, the provision of free internet access in public libraries is absolutely crucial to reducing digital inequality and ensuring that a sizeable proportion of the population are not left behind.  Close public libraries and remove the only point of free internet access and you create a society of digitally excluded, those left to flounder as they do not have the finances or skills to keep up with the digitally advanced.  It is not enough to simply provide these people with computers and hope that will resolve the inequality.  Who will provide the support and the training?  Public libraries are still the best way to ensure that the digital revolution does not further isolate the disadvantaged from society and ensure that no-one is left behind.

One further point on this issue that perhaps ought to be made, in terms of libraries/librarians themselves rather than the people who use them.  It is worth noting that neither the Guardian or the BBC made any reference to public libraries offering free internet access, nor did they mention the impact library closures could have on those that are digitally excluded.  You may argue that the point isn’t directly relevant to those particular articles.  Maybe not.  However, it is worth remembering that although there have been plenty of positive shifts in the coverage of libraries in the past year, commentators still do not see libraries as a solution to modern-day problems.  For library advocacy to have any real success, this has to change.  Because if people of influence cannot see the role libraries can and should play in addressing contemporary concerns, there is little hope for the future of the library service and the profession.


Statistically speaking…

Tea - vital when dealing with statistics

One of the areas of cross-over between my job and my role in Voices for the Library is processing statistical data.  Every now and then I work on some local authority statistics to analyse whether their claims for low usage actually stack up with the reality.  Sometimes it is evident that over time there has been a growth in usage and whilst the usage is low, its growth suggests an increasing need for the service (not a decreasing one that the authority would argue).  At work I tend to process statistics for e-journal and e-book usage.  I particularly like to focus on trending data as it can build up a useful picture about whether a particularly product is seeing an increase (or decrease for that matter) in usage.  This involves a fair amount of playing around with spreadsheets and charts, but I weirdly kind of enjoy it (as I’m sure fellow VftL-ers will testify).

However, me and maths haven’t always had an easy relationship.  I always remember getting my first piece of maths homework back from secondary school and scoring a G (or something similarly poor).  Despite the fact that the maths teacher at the time was also a PE teacher (no, really), I was pretty devastated.  But I was sure this was a little hiccup (my maths teacher also taught PE for the love of whatsit) and I would turn things around.  And I did.  Things got better and instead of poor grades I scored slightly higher than average.  Things were looking up until that fateful day I will never forget…

I had always planned to go to university.  Right the way back at primary school I was determined to get to uni and get a degree.  No-one else in my family had made it that far and I resolved early on that I would be the first.  As I moved onto secondary school, I knew that I would need a GCSE in maths in order to achieve my goal.  Without a grade C, I was doomed to either scrape in or not get in at all.  The ‘C’ in maths was a vital step in achieving my ambition.  Nothing would stand in my way.  Then it happened…

Spreadsheets - heaven or hell?

As exam time approached, we were given our predicted grades for each of our subjects.  My maths teacher (not the PE one, an actual maths teacher by this stage) called me up to the front and showed me my grade.  He looked up at me to see if I had seen the grade marked on the register.  I nodded slowly and walked backed to my seat.  I was predicted an ‘E’.  I was devastated.  I went home from school that day and cried.  Not only was I predicted an ‘E’, I was also dropped into the intermediate stream where the maximum mark I could achieve was a ‘C’.  Suddenly my university dream seemed a lifetime away.  Despite the disappointment, I decided to work my butt off to make sure I proved my maths teacher wrong and get that grade ‘C’.

To cut a long story short, I got that ‘C’.  Not only did I get a ‘C’, but my grades had improved so much in the lead up to the exams that I pushed to be allowed to study A-level maths (alongside English Lit and History – strange mix).  The maths teacher was reluctant to do so, particularly as I was on the lower stream, but I convinced him I should be allowed to take the course.

I got a lot of stick in the first few months from the other A-level maths students.  They thought I was out of my depth and that it was an insult that someone from a lower stream should be able to do it at A-level.  But I persevered, worked hard and by the end of the two years some of them were asking me for help (ha!) and, to top it all off, I was awarded the Senior Mathematics prize in my final year.  That day I spent crying over my predicted grade seemed a lifetime away.  My maths teacher approached me at the end of the school year and told me he was very pleased that I had proved him wrong and I think he was genuinely pleased that I had turned things around.  I wonder what he would make of what I do now!

I do find that my relationship with maths has helped me immensely in recent years.  It has certainly helped in my work with Voices for the Library.  But it has also helped me in terms of how I read.  The use of statistics in a newspaper column has me digging deeper to find out what it actually means.  In the past I may have just accepted a statistic as a factual element to the author’s argument.  Now I question it.  A good example came up recently in an article by Tim Montgomerie in The Daily Telegraph recently.  Well, two examples in fact:

No, the real power is in the hands of the Murdochs’ arch-enemy: the BBC. When it comes to news, 73 per cent of us get most of it from television – and the BBC supplies 70 per cent of TV news.


A study of BBC employees’ Facebook profiles found that they were 11 times more likely to describe themselves as liberal than conservative.

When I first read this article I was at a loss as to what these actually mean.  Sure, it looks straightforward at first, but where does the figure relating to 70% of TV news being broadcast by the BBC actually come from?  Without knowing the methodology behind it is meaningless.  Sure, it might sound good to the uncritical, eager to bash the BBC and produce any statistic to do so, but without the context it is worthless.

Likewise, what does it mean that employees of the BBC are 11 times more likely to describe themselves as ‘liberal’?  What employees were consulted?  Given there will probably be a lot of people working for the BBC who are neither ‘talent’ or in a position of authority, does this really mean anything?  If the report focused on purely journalists and editorial staff, maybe it would have some relevance, but to include all staff at the corporation?  It is worse than meaningless.

So, there you go.  Stats can be boring and tedious but, on the other hand, it does rather help you sort the wheat from the chaff.  Hey, I wrote a whole post on stats without using numbers or drawing graphs!

How to improve your library’s statistics…

The problem with the justification for library closures is that it relies heavily on two statistics:

1) library usage – the number of visits to the library
2) number of issues.

Most heavily relied upon are the usage statistics as everyone knows that people don’t just use the library for books. Of course, these statistics are misleading as many of the services that once required a visit are now available online. Take for example book renewals or reservations. Every year, more and more people use the library website to renew items or reserve books. It is therefore natural that there should be a slight decline. Why visit the library to renew or reserve when you can do it online?

Visits also don’t take into account reduced hours. If the library’s hours are cut, there will obviously be less visits. Which would then lead to the council suggesting the library is underused and should be closed.

So visiting statistics are misleading and inaccurate. They also, however, have a weak spot and one which can be exploited in some cases. For example, many libraries have an automatic counter near the front entrance. This counts each time someone walks in and out. These figures are collected at the end of the day and used to signify total visits. Now, some people (not me I might add) would suggest it may be a good idea to look out for these machines and wave your hand past them a few times upon entering. This would obviously increase the total visits at the library in a misleading way (much like the way the current figures are misleading) and should not be condoned in any way. Obviously.

Another thing worth considering is taking back the books in phases rather than all in one go. Return them in two trips rather than one doubles your visits and if everyone did this there would be a marked rise in visits.

Also, when taking out books at the library, why not take out an extra one or two? It doesn’t matter if you read them, it just helps boost the figures. Take out any old book, doesn’t matter what, and you will be helping to strengthen the case against future closure.

These are just a couple of things worth trying. Who knows, if everyone did these things maybe we’d make it harder for councils to justify closing public libraries across the country.

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?


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!

Why Niall Ferguson, Ken Livingstone and Toby Young got it wrong on national debt

It has been a while since I last wrote anything along these lines.  I think the last time I debunked some lazy journalism was when I corrected a piece by Melanie Phillips in an article for The Guardian.  But once again we have seen an example of poor information research and once again it needs to be corrected, not least because of the implications of such mis-information.  So let’s get straight into it.

The nub of the problem is a post written by Toby Young about Thursday night’s Question Time.  His particular claim is that Ken Livingstone ‘lied’ about debt and Niall Ferguson was correct.  Young writes:

On Question Time this evening, Ken Livingstone claimed that when Labour entered office in 1997 government debt as a percentage of GDP was 42% and 13 years later, when Labour left office, it stood at 40%.

Ferguson pointed out that, in fact, debt as a percentage of GDP when Gordon Brown left office was 71.3% not 40%. And he’s absolutely right, as this chart from the Office of National Statistics makes clear.

So far, so seemingly plausible.  Or is it?  Well, no.

First of all, Livingstone actually said (and you can check on the video clip above) was “when Blair won, our debt was 42%”.  This 42% figure that Livingstone introduced comes from the UK National Debt as a percentage of GDP which was 41.92% in 1997, so let’s call it 42%.  It is probably worth explaining at this point what figure government, politicians and the media refer to when they talk about “UK National Debt”.

The website UK Debt Bombshell explains:

The precise term ‘National Debt’ refers to an older definition of public debt that excludes too many liabilities to be meaningful nowadays. The official government measure of what is commonly known as the national debt is Public Sector Net Debt. In this context, public sector refers to central government, local government and publicly-owned corporations. [emphasis mine]

So, essentially, when you hear the term ‘national debt’ what is being referred to is Public Sector Net Debt.  Going back to Livingstone’s 42% reference earlier, he is talking about Public Sector Net Debt (the official government measure remember).  So Livingstone is right on this point.  Debt was 42% in 1997.

Where Livingstone goes wrong is by claiming that it was 40% when Labour were kicked out of office.  It wasn’t. It was 40% when the banking crisis started, but it was not 40% by the time of the election due to the banking crisis.  The Office for National Statistics states that:

Public sector net debt (excluding financial interventions) was £875.8 billion (equivalent to 58.0 per cent of GDP) at the end of February 2011. This compares to £729.9 billion (50.8 per cent of GDP) as at the end of February 2010.

Note that the right-hand graph refers to Public Sector Net Debt.  Remember, “public sector net debt” is the official government measure of national debt as we have already demonstrated.  So, Livingstone is wrong.  National debt was at 50.8% of GDP in February of 2010 and, using the graph as a guide, around 55% when Brown left office.

But then Ferguson claims that the figure was actually 71.3% when Brown left office, a claim repeated by Young.  So where does this figure come from?  Figures from the ONS have already demonstrated that using the official government measure of debt the figure was around 55%, so where does this 71.3% figure come from?

Young handily links to a ONS report that shows where this figure comes from.  Unfortunately for both Young and Ferguson, this is not a chart representing the UK national debt, this chart refers to general government debt, a quite different measure and not one that has ever been used to signify UK national debt.  The ONS states:

In the financial year 2009/10 the UK recorded general government net borrowing of £159.8 billion, which was equivalent to 11.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

At the end of March 2010 general government debt was £1000.4 billion, equivalent to 71.3 per cent of GDP.

This figure refers to general government gross debt which is quite different, as explained here:

General Government Gross Debt (GGGD) used by EU. is similar to Public sector net debt but excludes net debt of corporations. Also does not offset liquid assets.

So, it is not the same as the government’s official measure for national debt.  Which means that when Ferguson and Young correct Livingstone, they are right to do so (he got the 2010 figure wrong) but the figure they gave is equally incorrect in terms of the measurement of national debt (this chart demonstrates where Livingstone got his 42% figure from and charts that figure right up to 2011).  They are both talking about something completely different to Livingstone who was clearly (as demonstrated by his reference to the 1997 figure) talking about Public Sector Net Debt (the government’s official measurement of national debt – worth repeating).  So, Ferguson and Young are also both wrong.  As stated above, national debt according to the ONS was around 55% in April 2010, not 71.3%.

In summary then: Livingstone was right about national debt in 1997.  Livingstone was wrong about debt when Brown left office.  Ferguson was wrong to claim that debt was 71.3%.  And Young is wrong to repeat it.  And Young’s error is perhaps the greatest.  His wasn’t made in the heat of debate, it was made when he was at a computer and able to check his facts first before blundering in.  A simple check would have revealed to him that the ONS put UK national debt at around 55% in April 2010.

Ok, so why is this important?  It’s just a game of numbers right?  Well yes, but it matters on two fronts.  Firstly, it matters because of the justifications that are being made for the current cycle of cuts.  All the named players above have vested interests at play.  Livingstone wants to play down debt to defend Labour’s record.  Ferguson and Young want to make it sound worse that it is to defend their own ideological positions on the economic right.  Both are wrong and, as usual, the truth is between the two.  Which leads me on to the second reason why this is important.

We are told repeatedly that we live in a world where all the information you could possibly want is free for anyone and everyone to access.  That we don’t need librarians any more to point us to the information we require.  Google can do it all for us.  What we have seen here (as with the Melanie Phillips example cited earlier) is that even journalists and academics make errors when obtaining and sharing information.  And this has very serious implications when one considers the roles that both sets of professionals play in society.  In this case, both Young and Ferguson make a basic error in not understanding what national debt actually refers to.  It is an easy mistake to make.  Who doesn’t leap at the first bit of evidence they come across that defends their own ideological position?  However, the skill is to look deeper, find out what this information actually means before drawing conclusions.  It is a skill that not everyone has, but it is a skill that is essential to the role of the information professional (and, to be honest, it is surprising that an acclaimed historian failed on this score).  Non-prejudicial information retrieval and evaluation.  Remove the information professional from the equation and, as here, you are left with a separation of information from its meaning.

Of course, now Young has put this out on the Internet it is there for all to see.  If only he had asked a librarian for the national debt figure, he might not have made himself look so silly.

Oh and in case you think Young wasn’t talking about national debt (he only uses the term ‘debt’ in his blog post), here’s his comment on Livingstone’s blog post on the issue of debt:

Toby Young

Internet vs Public Libraries

The following was written for the Voices for the Library campaign and distributed earlier today in response to comments that were made about the role of libraries in bridging the digital divide and how providing everyone with Internet would be cost effective.

This argument has been doing the rounds this morning, most notably on BBC Breakfast.  The argument goes as follows:

Libraries are, for over 9 million people in this country, the only place that they can connect to the Internet.  Therefore, why not just connect everyone to the Internet as this would be cheaper and more efficient than providing access through a public library.  With Internet connections at around £100 per year, surely it would be cheaper?

There are many things wrong with this statement, so let’s have a look at how much such a scheme would cost.  Presumably, many of the people who do not have Internet connections do not have a computer either.  The most recent statistics suggest that 7 million households in the UK do not have an Internet connection.  1.4 million said that cost of equipment was the main reason why they did not have an Internet connection – other reasons given include lack of skills or they felt they ‘didn’t need it’.

A good quality computer costs something in the region of £300-500.  The cost of an Internet connection over a year is around £200 (taking £15 per month as an average for broadband).  So, taking the figures above, how much would it cost to connect everyone?

If we take the 7 million households figure first and provided them all with a broadband connection it would cost a grand total of £1.4 billion (of course that figure would be ongoing, every year).  If we took the 1.4 million households who said that computers were too expensive and provided each of those with a computer, the cost would equal £560 million (using £400 as an average cost for a desktop PC). If we were to consider that there are likely to be more households than this without a computer (7 million without an Internet connection remember), the cost could potentially be £2.8 billion.  So to provide everyone with a computer would cost between £560 million and £2.8 billion.  Again, this would not be a one-off payment as computers will need to be updated after a certain period of time to make sure they remain functional (usually every four years or so).

So, the total cost of providing everyone with an Internet connection would be…..

£2-4.2 billion with an annual bill of at least £1.4 billion.

Of course these figures do not take into account things such as software, anti-virus and, most importantly, the training and support that many would need to ensure they can use the equipment and the Internet.  Provision of all these extras could push the bill to over £5 billion (again with an annual bill of at least£1.4 billion plus the cost of upgrades every 3-4 years).  Just to compare that figure, public libraries cost the UK £1.1 billion every year.

So, which option makes sense financially in a time of spending cuts?  It seems fairly obvious.

Library Usage Increases

Library usage is on the rise...

There’s a headline you don’t see very often!  Yep, another statty type post I’m afraid, kinda sums up my week really.  Anyway, I’ve been digging a bit further into the library statistics provided by CIPFA and found some more interesting results.  Most interesting of all are the statistics related to library usage.  Often library usage statistics simply refer to the numbers of people walking through the door.  However, this does not take into account the increasing numbers of people who search the catalogue from home, reserve items or renew books they have on loan, borrow ebooks or eaudiobooks, consult reference resources like the Encyclopaedia Britannica – all things that once required a library visit but can now be achieved virtually.  So, with that in mind, here are the overall figures for library usage for the past four years:

2006/7 – 401,332,115

2007/8 – 404,677,184

2008/9 – 438,480,469

2009/10 – 441,721,165

Yep, library usage has grown by 40 million in just 4 years, not bad going eh?  Yes, I know, this combines physical visits with virtual visits and is perhaps misleading but, as we all know, many of the online visits have replaced the previous need to visit the library (ie for book renewals, reservations etc) so I think it is fair to combine the two.

A good indication of this change in usage can also be identified in the number of requests for items.  Again, worth keeping in mind that it is now much easier to reserve items than ever before now you can do so from home:

2006-07 – 10,917,385

2007-08 – 12,026,938

2008-09 – 13,629,479

2009-10 – 15,025,060

Unsurprisingly given the ease with which people can now look items up on the library catalogue and reserve as appropriate.  Certainly it indicates, as I have repeatedly argued, that people are changing the way people interact with their library but, crucially, they are interacting with their library and more so than ever.

However, this change in usage does bring to mind a number of questions.  If, as appears to be the trend at the moment, libraries are devolved to local communities and handed over to the voluntary sector, what will happen to the IT part of the service?  Who is going to ensure that those staffing the library have the skills to deliver the level of service that is required?  I am not denigrating those that do volunteer but one wonders, where are all these highly computer literate volunteers going to come from?  How are local communities and volunteer groups going to ensure that not only are their IT skills up-to-date, but that they also provide the equipment and variety of online services that current users require?  Maybe I am misjudging the types of people who are likely to take over these services, but I do not see how they can possibly maintain these aspects of the service without sizeable funding.

I guess this all stems from the belief that libraries are all about issuing books and the only skills required are those needed to put books on shelves when they are returned, and stamped when they go out.  Never mind the need to deal with complex queries that require advanced skills in Internet usage (it isn’t just a case of first result on Google you know!).  Never mind the ability to provide a wealth of services online (including ebooks and digital collections).  I’ve not seen a single person outline how these services will be provided by volunteers and local communities, perhaps because these services will no longer be provided.  Given the figures provided above, it rather demonstrates how little people at the top understand both how libraries work and what libraries users expect from them.