Thursday, 2 September 2010

Oh yes?

It is a basic eternal and unquestionable tenet of public library life that public libraries are in decline. It was all busier and better back in the Golden Age. And like all Golden Age mythologies there is a spark of truth in there. After a hard day's grind, faced with the choice of the Archbishop of Woolwich on the BBC and a kitchen sink drama on ITV the horny-handed son of toil would switch the telly off and read a book from the library. In those long, endless sunny summer days the knee-scabbed child, weary of being told off for playing football in the street, would be glad of an event at the local library and performers would play to packed houses. Now, with so many competition attractions and distractions it is the library's fate to fall into desuetude.

Oh yes?

I'll let you into a secret. We have no evidence as to whether or not we were any busier then than we are now.

Seriously. The only numbers we have that are worth spit are the number of members and the number of items, usually books, issued. That was no more a true reflection of the actual use of the library in 1960 than it is now. All those quiet readers, the scholars, the audiences and the enquirers are all unrecorded.

Oh, but we have visitor count figures, haven't we? We were asked for visitor count figures so we've got them, haven't we? Up to a point. We have no evidence of how many visitors we had in August 2005. Or August 2000. Or August 1995 come to that. None. Like many library authorities, and probably longer than many, our annual visitor figures were derived by manually counting the number of visitors over two slow weeks in Autumn (there was no point doing them during the busy weeks as staff would have been too busy to do the counting) and then multiplying the result by twenty-six. How true or not a reflection of the year's bodily throughput was that? Looking at the seasonal variations in issues and events and anecdotal experience it's unlikely that those figures reflect very much more than two slow weeks in Autumn.

We don't have enquiry statistics. I can't and won't defend our not having enquiry statistics, I'm baffled by it. I won't get started on the subject.

So we have the issue statistics. Overall, these have gone down significantly over the past two decades, though the details are a bit more complicated and worth coming back to later. We know that currently three-quarters of the visits to our libraries do not result in a loan. (We'd like to change that pronto but that's the proportion at the moment.) Has the proportion of visits to loans always been 3:1? We don't know, we have no safe evidence to say. Intuitively one would suspect not: with The People's Network, Bookstart, joint service centres and the like one would suspect not, but I can't prove it. And neither can anyone else. Which is a bit galling because it's significant: if Library X had a proportion of visits to issues of 2.7:1 in 1990 and issues have dropped 10% in the past twenty years they would have been dealing with exactly the same number of customers back then, just doing different things. One obvious different thing is that instead of borrowing the reference library's cast-off ten-year-old encyclopaedia to do their homework children can come in and use one of our computers to look things up in one or other of our online reference services. Or even --horror of horrors! -- log onto them at home with their library barcode.

The other change in use, hinted at earlier, is the relationship between the big libraries and their satellites. Time was, the only way you were going to get to browse a big selection of books was to go into the big town and visit the big library. Time was. Now, you can browse the whole library system's catalogue from the smallest branch, or even from home (or sitting in an airport in Hong Kong while waiting for a delayed flight, or so I'm told). And you can reserve an item (we let you do it for free in our service) and arrange for us to deliver it to the library that's most convenient for you. So instead of going home from work and then having to turn round and go into town to go to the library you can just nip round the corner. Which in lots of respects is great: it's a major convenience for our customers and the first thing they pick up on when we explain how the web catalogue works. So the issue figures for main libraries inevitably decline and the branch libraries' issue figures rise. And we can actually see those trends setting in. But here comes the down side: the small local community branch library is traditionally the one with the limited opening hours. So we actually impede the customer-driven service transformation, and the new age of austerity threatens to make that worse. It would be interesting to see the results of a library authority deciding to chop a few hours off the opening times of a main library and using the staff to extend the opening hours at two or three branch libraries.

The bad news is that decades of wistful mooning over a long-lost Golden Age has come and bitten us on the arse. The good news is that there's never been a better opportunity to try something different and that difference doesn't necessarily have to lose the traditional identity of the community library if we get the opportunity to give it a go.


  1. I found a press cutting today from 1970 or 1971. It said that 30% of people in Plymouth used a library and it was being CELEBRATED by the City Librarian as a wonderful figure illustrating how literate everyone was.

    I've see 29% bandied around very recently as an example of decline...

  2. Excellent point well made, thanks Chris! How wise that City Librarian was.