Wednesday, 17 August 2016

How many?

I've started doing some work with the Libraries Taskforce. I'd been to one of their workshops and it was pretty apparent that potentially there should be a lot of work needing doing by the less than a handful of people involved and it wasn't easy to see how they'd be able to do it on their own. I've got some time now that I've retired from Rochdale Council so I asked them if they needed a hand with anything and they said yes please. So I'm lending a hand with the work strand that's hoping to develop a core data set for English public libraries that can be openly-available for both public use and operational analysis. It's a voluntary effort on my part; it's something I'm interested in and have been impatient about and it's a piece of work that should have some very useful outcomes.

Whenever you start talking about English public libraries data the elephant in the room very quickly makes its presence known. Before we can talk credibly about anything very much there is one inescapable question desperately needing an answer:
Just how many English public libraries are there anyway?
There is no definitive answer. There is no definitive list. There are at least half a dozen well-founded, properly researched lists. They each give a different answer and when you start comparing them you find differences in the detail. There are perfectly valid reasons for this:
  • Each had been devised and researched for its own purposes without reference to what had gone before. Each started from scratch and each had a differently-patchy response from library authorities when questionnaires were posted.
  • This data's not easy to keep up to date at a national level — especially these days! So some libraries will have closed, a few will have opened, some will have moved and some will have been renamed. 
  • It wasn't always clear just how old the lists were. Some had been compiled as part of some wider project and there wouldn't necessarily have been the resource available to do any updating anyway.
So the decision was made to tackle this head on so that it could be settled once and for all so that the world could move on and they were a few weeks into this work when I signed on. Very broadly, here's the process:
  • Julia from the Taskforce, who has infinitely more patience than me, trawled every English local authority's web site for the details of their public libraries.
  • Between us we scoured the other lists and added any libraries we found in there that we couldn't find in Julia's list.
  • We then went through this amended list to see if we could identify any points of confusion, for instance where "Trumpton Central Library" has moved from one place to another or where "Greendale Library" has become "The Mrs Goggins Memorial Information and Learning Hub."
  • The Taskforce has sent each library authority a list of what we think are their libraries asking them to check to see whether or not these details are correct.
  • The results will be collated and the data published by the Taskforce.
Ten years ago this would have been pretty straightforward. These days the picture is complicated by the various forms of "community library" that have sprung up over the past few years. These run the gamut from "this library is part of the statutory provision though it is staffed by volunteers some of the time" all the way to "we wish them well on their venture but they're nothing to do with us." So where a public library has become a "community library" of one sort or another that needs ro be indicated in the data.

Will this list be 100% correct? Probably not at first, this is a human venture after all. But even if it's only 98% correct in the first instance it should be treated as the definite article. It will then need to be corrected and updated as a matter of course; if that's devolved to the individual library authorities the work becomes manageable and the data becomes authoritative.

Why should anyone bother?

What's in it for anyone to keep their bit of this list up to date and details correct? In my opinion:
  • It's basic information that should as a matter of principle be available to the public.
  • In the past year alone, this question has tied up time and effort that could have been more usefully-occupied. All those enquiries, and FoI requests, and debates about data that could just be openly-available and signposted whenever the question arose.
  • It is essential to the credibility of any English public library statistics. If the number of libraries is suspect then how trustworthy are any of the statistics being bandied around? If the simplest quantitative evidence — the number of libraries — is iffy then how much faith can be placed in quantitative or qualitative evidence that's more exacting to collect?

    For instance, counting the number of libraries within a local authority boundary if you're responsible for supporting or managing them is a piece of piss. Reliably counting the number of visitors to any one of those libraries most definitely isn't — I have 80% confidence in the numbers coming out of any automated system (not necessarily due to technical issues) and to my mind if you're relying on manual counts you may as well be burning chicken feathers. So when I hear that visits to English public libraries have dropped by a significant percentage over a given number of years I may be prepared to accept this in the light of a wider narrative, personal observation and anecdotal evidence but I have no empirical reason to know that this is the case. 
That's why.

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