Sunday, 2 August 2015

Figure skating

One of the things that has become horribly apparent over the past couple of years is the abject lack of any evidence-based government data that would lend themselves to a statistical analysis of the decline of the national public library service.

There are no official figures in the public domain for anything that's happening out there: not for visits, or use of libraries or even — God help us! — for the number of publicly-funded public libraries run by local authorities in this country.

This leads to nonsense like the recent claim that there's been an increase in the number of libraries despite all the cuts over the past few years. Anyone wanting to know the number of libraries is better off going to Ian Anstice's Public Libraries News blog than any official government site or press release. All kudos and good karma to Ian for doing the work but this isn't a good state of affairs for a democracy or open government.

One reason often cited for this lack is that the figures are available but only from CIPFA, which charges a hefty fee for their use. And that fee pays for just the figures for one library authority for that year's figures, so pulling together a national picture becomes an expensive business.

Which it would.

If that was the way you were doing it.

But it shouldn't be:

  • The presentation and analysis of those statistics are CIPFA's property to do as they will with. Which is fair enough as they've done that work.
  • The data that informs CIPFA's statistics are available within each and every library authority in the land and is collected each year — at no small expense to you the taxpayer — by local council staff then copied into a spreadsheet that's parcelled up and sent to CIPFA. 
  • There is absolutely no good reason why that data — not CIPFA's subsequent work with that data — can't be put into the public domain to be worked on by decision-makers, lobbyists, "Armchair Auditors" or just people who like playing with numbers. 
The easiest way to do this would be for each local authority to submit a copy of each year's data — perhaps as a CSV file — to a dataset in or similar. This would then be in the public domain and available for proper analysis of services and trends. It wouldn't cost anything very much to actually do: the data's available, it just needs somewhere to go. And it would be a damned site cheaper than having each local authority have to go through the administrative processes required to deal with a Freedom of Information Request asking the same questions as those on the CIPFA spreadsheet. Or even multiple requests for that data. Once it's in the public domain FoI doesn't apply.

So it would be possible to have an official, verifiable benchmark figure for the number of public libraries in this country at the beginning of the financial year and the net loss/gain at the beginning of the following year.

Which could be why it isn't happening.

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