The death of the library

Yesterday the Arts Council England (ACE) released their report into community libraries and their role in public library service provision (I am not wholly satisfied with the term “community libraries” for a whole host of reasons, I would certainly like to hear of more suitable alternatives).  Community Libraries; Learning from experience: summary briefing for local authorities is manna from heaven for the government, effectively validating the view that public libraries can be central to the government’s Big Society experiment (the experiment that penalises tax payers by making them run a service that they are paying for their local authority to run – a malevolent DIY if you will).  Indeed, Eric Pickles embraced the report wholeheartedly:

“This report shows that localism is alive and well with more people and local groups playing a bigger part than ever before in providing local services whilst also saving taxpayers money. Libraries can be at the very heart of any neighbourhood and this research shows the kind of contribution active communities can make.

“Councils need to be making it as easy as possible for people to take over buildings and services that are valued by the local community, which is why this government’s Localism Act introduced its new community rights.”

So far, so depressing.

Now, I have had a particular interest in this report and the message it sends both to national government and local authorities. I choose, as part of my Masters, to study community libraries and their impact on the digital divide.  I chose this topic as I was particularly interested in some of the areas raised by this divide (particularly in terms of social impact) and I had followed closely the rise of community libraries across the country and decided this would be an interesting and valuable area to research. At the time of choosing to focus on this particular area, there was no existing literature on this specific area.  Being a relatively recent phenomenon, there had obviously been little opportunity to explore its impact.  Whilst a Masters dissertation doesn’t allow much scope for solid, in depth research, it at least provided an opportunity for me to dip me toe in the water and conduct some academic research in an area that had mainly been left to commentary in the media.

I won’t try to condense a 15,000 word piece of research into one blog post (you can read it here – pdf), but when I consider what I had learnt in the course of conducting this research and compare to both the report and Eric Pickles’ comments, I am very worried about the state of the service and the future it has in store.

In conducting my research, I decided to focus in particular on two very different communities. One that was relatively affluent and one that was in a deprived inner city location.  In many ways, I was unsurprised by what I found.  There was a substantial disparity between the levels of service offered by the two libraries.  In the case of the inner city library, it was clear that the people running it had been put in an impossible situation and were providing the service simply because there was no will in the local authority to continue providing it for them.  As they admitted, there were very good reasons why a library was needed in that particularly neighbourhood and they felt that, with the council intending to close it, they had no choice but to try to preserve it for the local community (I wonder if this is the “localism” that Pickles is referring to).

“…localism is alive and well with more people and local groups playing a bigger part than ever before…”

You can read more about the circumstances around this particular library in my dissertation (pages 28-38), I won’t go over it all here as I could write a thousand words again just on the specifics.  When collecting the data (and I should point out that the aforementioned section in the dissertation only covers a small portion of what was collected), I was hit hard by what I was being told.  I’ll be candid with you: after conducting the interview I cried.  I cried because the situation these people were put in was so desperate, trying what they could to ensure that a community desperate for a library service still had something vaguely resembling that which they so nearly lost.  These people understood clearly the value of the library for the local community and they would do anything to ensure that there was something, anything, even vaguely approaching a library service.

As is often the case, these people were not eager to take over the library from their local authority, keen to take ownership and improve the delivery of the service.  They dearly wanted their local authority to run the service for them because it was only through such support that the service could really meet the needs of those in the locality and in areas of deprivation such as this, a well stocked, efficient library service plays a vital role in helping to life people out of poverty and reach their potential.

In terms of the other community library, of course things were not so desperate.  It provided a service that appeared to meet the needs of the local community and offered some support for those who needed it.  But even in this case, those behind the library conceded that a council run library would be a better option. Again, as with the other library I studied, the library was taken over after a concerted attempt to prevent the authority closing a number of libraries across the locality.  This was not a community eager to take the library off the local authority’s hands in order to provide a better, more effective library service.

Given the difference between these two libraries, I am deeply troubled about what the future will bring.  Not only is there a risk of a two tier library service (ie professionally run and ‘voluntarily run’ libraries) but there is a very serious risk of a three tier library service.  There is no doubt in my mind that we will see virtually all rural and small village libraries either close or forced onto local people to run.  I see that as being a very real prospect that means hundreds more libraries will be closed or de-professionalised within the next year or two.  Two hundred closed last year, I rather suspect that we may see double that figure either closed or forced onto local communities over the course of this year.  Of course, this sounds like another wild scare-mongering prediction designed to provoke action.  If I intended that I would have picked a much higher number than four hundred (which I suspect will probably be a conservative estimate).

Whilst all of these smaller libraries will be closed or de-professionalised, main town and city centre libraries will remain the preserve of the local authority who will also, no doubt, use it as part of a shared service (perhaps with archives in some areas, and unrelated council services in others).  Of course, it is questionable how long even these will remain in operated by the local authority, but I certainly see this as the reality for the short to mid-term.

And this is where the problem starts.  We will have professionally run libraries in towns and city centres and volunteer libraries in small villages and rural areas.  There will, quite clearly, be a substantial difference in the quality of the service between the two variations.  As a result of this, there will be a clear and substantial divide developing.  Those living in, or able to commute to, city and town centres will have access to a properly funded (in theory) and professionally delivered library service.  Those who live in rural areas and are unable to commute will have access to a library service provided by the local community with little support from the authority and little or no professional support.  It is not hard to see that a disparity in access to information will emerge.

But it’s not just between the community libraries and the professionally run libraries that a divide will emerge.  Within the community libraries themselves there will be a division.  This division will manifest itself in the difference between a community library in an affluent area, with a literate, comfortable and enthusiastic community willing to provide the support required and one residing in a deprived community without the resources to provide the level of service required.  Of course, local authorities and the national government will argue that in areas of deprivation this situation will not be allowed to develop.  But we have already seen, as noted above, that such a situation has already taken hold in deprived areas.  What makes anyone believe that, in the light of this report, authorities will be dissuaded from threatening communities in deprived areas with closure of their local library unless they run it themselves? I have seen nothing in my experience to suggest that they would be.

But what about the title for this blog post?  Libraries will still exist, so why the melodramatic question? Well, because I believe that the report and the reception it has received does effectively sound the death knell for libraries in many communities.  They will not have librariesanymore, they will have book lending services. For these communities, the library will become virtually extinct.  It’s not something I find easy to write, but I fear that is what the future will bring.  And where a library service will exist, communities will be forced to accept that there will not be a universal standard of library service. Instead they will be forced to accept a three-tier service.  With a professionally run service for those in large towns and cities, and a volunteer run service in rural areas and small towns.

And what of the profession?  I fear for that too.  What the government and ACE are effectively saying is that volunteers can do the job of a professionally trained librarian without having an adverse affect on the delivery of the service.  That we know this is not the case is irrelevant.  It is what the policy-makers believe and we do not have their ear.  What troubles me even more is that there has not been a strong enough response from the profession as a whole. I find it even more troubling that some fellow professionals have shrugged their shoulders and viewed it as “not their problem”.  I would argue it is very much everyone’s problem, not least because of the theoretical foundations of the profession.  I would argue that it is everyone’s problem because, like it or not, this failure to understand the value and need for a professionally run library service will not be restricted to public libraries.  This destructive, ignorant ideology will spread, of that I have no doubt.

Is the library really dead? No, but in the form in which we currently recognise the public library service, it is clearly heading for extinction.

When is a librarian not a librarian?

(The following was posted in 2013 and had been lost due to a problem with my database. Thankfully I managed to retrieve it via the Internet Archive, so I’ve reproduced it in full here, alongside the original comments.)

During completion of the MSc ILS, particularly towards the end, I got into the mindset that job opportunities were limited to public, academic or school libraries (I never even thought about corporate, law etc).  This particularly troubled me as I felt that my options were very narrow and either highly competitive (academic) or rapidly diminishing (public and schools).  So, I got to thinking a while back (around the time I started this blog actually), that I need to broaden my horizons a little and look beyond what was immediately obvious as a career path having bagged the Masters (um, although I’ve not actually received my certificate yet…).

Regular readers (both of you…yes, I know, predictable ‘gag’) will not be surprised to learn that I have lately taken an interest in Freedom of Information and related areas.  This is partly because of my regular use of FoI for library campaigning stuff, and partly my long-standing interest in political matters.  Recent discussions with people working in the field have made me realise that this is a potential career path for me, and it is one that I am currently exploring (although whether it will come to anything is another matter – more study, more courses and, most importantly, more cost).  Maybe it’s an aspiration that will come to nothing, but it is good to know there are other options.

Which brings me to the point of this post (at last).  Last week, I decided to find out what other possibilities are out there for someone with a MSc in library and info studies.  So I asked people on Twitter to get in touch if they have such a qualification and it is ‘desirable’ for their job but don’t work in a library nor are they considered a librarian (I mean both in the traditional sense).  I got a fair amount of job titles thrown at me over the course of the day (and the week-end thanks to my continued pestering), and I have listed them all below. But, before you read them, caveat alert!

This list is not exhaustive and I have probably missed one or two that were sent at me (sorry!). I also discounted any that were essentially traditional librarian jobs, but had just been given a fancy new name as part of a re-branding exercise. Also, some of the titles alone are fairly vague and give little clue as to what the role entails…I’ll blame that on Twitter as both my specific question and the details of a particular post are a little too awkward to summarise in 140 characters. So, yes, this is highly flawed and probably too vague. Sorry about that!

If you can think of any more that fit the criteria (information professionals who are not ‘librarians’ or librarians who do not work in libraries, essentially), please add them in the comments and maybe outline the specifics of the job a little, it may be of use to current and future students. Oh, and one other thing, if you are interested in this area and going toLibCamp London, you may like to know that @ellyob has proposed a session called ‘Librarians without libraries‘, so definitely check that out!

  • Information specialist
  • Data and Information Process Officer
  • Online Information Manager
  • Information Specialist
  • Research Specialist
  • Research and Information Officer
  • Project Analyst (for a library based project)
  • Information Specialist (careers service)
  • Freedom of Information Officer
  • Assistant Commissioner for Wales (Information Commissioner’s Office)
  • Evidence Advisor
  • Genealogist
  • Knowledge Management Systems Manager
  • Global portal content manager
  • Communications and Social Media Officer
  • Learning centre assistant.
  • Manager of Education and Library projects at a survey company
  • Business Development Executive (using information for business development)
  • Health & Social Care Governance Facilitator
  • Computerised Records Trainer
  • Clinical Auditor
  • Information assistant
  • Executive Officer in civil service
  • Information Advisor
  • Information Officer (Trading Standards Dept)
  • Information specialist (work with R&D – patent searching, competitive intelligence,  knowledge management, records retention).
  • Information Governance Officer
  • Records Assistant
  • Researcher at Financial Times
  • Research Support Assistant
  • Info Services Administrator
  • Technical Information Specialist (Centre for Diseases Control)
  • Content Development Officer, Library & Archival Services
  • Research Executive in a Business Info service
  • Film Researcher at the BBC
  • Docketing Administrator (catalog and classifies visa documents for a business immigration practice group)

The remarkable resilience of our public library service

This morning, for the first time since I started looking at the CIPFA statistics into the state of our public library service, I didn’t have to go hunting around begging someone to send me the stats.  No, this time The Guardian published the bulk of them on their website (well done The Guardian!).  One of my main annoyances with the public library service has been that these statistics aren’t easy for the general public to access.  It has been quite a pleasure to find that I don’t have to scrabble around for them.

Anyway, this year I’ve decided to put these stats into an infographic to better highlight the state of the public library service.  And there are some very interesting trends here which I will go into after a graphical interlude.  Before I reproduce them here, it’s worth pointing out that whilst it looks very bleak indeed (the hollowing out of the service has never looked so stark for me), the title of this blog post is very apt and should underline the extent to which our library service has suffered an unprecedented assault.  I would also advise that you explore this infographic thoroughly…


Now, there is no denying that this looks bad.  The percentage of staff made redundant over that time period plus the rise in volunteers at the expense of FTEs is particularly worrying. But I am not going to focus on the bleak figures…if you want that you just need to visit a news website and see how they are lamenting the decline.  No, I want to (and I may be perverse here) focus on the positive.

Only yesterday, the newspapers were reporting that there had been a big decline in the number of libraries (nearly 400 in two years).  This combined with the decline in issues got me thinking…if we were to compare the number of libraries now to the number of issues that are made, how do libraries stack up?  In other words, how has the issues per library figure held up?  If you look at the average loans per library chart above and flick through the three years, you notice something interesting.  Whilst the number of libraries has notably declined, the average loans per library has remained the same.  In fact, it’s barely noticeable on the graph due to the scale, but the average book loans per library have actually increased:


Number of libraries – 4,612

Number of loans – 314,214,000

Average loans per library – 68,129


Number of libraries – 4,466

Number of loans – 304,059,000

Average loans per library – 68,083


Number of libraries – 4,265

Number of loans – 290,647,000

Average loans per library – 68,147

So, considering the decline in numbers, libraries are still issuing strongly.  As I said yesterday, whilst it does not account for the whole of the decline in issues, it is clear that the decline in library numbers is having a significant impact upon the decline in issues.  Indeed, if you break this down further we can see that if the 201 libraries that closed between 2010/11 and 2011/12 remained open, the decline wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as it appears (it almost seems too obvious to point it out).

For example, take the decline in issues.  According to CIPFA, issues decline by 13,412,000.  The total number of libraries closed in this period was 201. Divide this decline (13m) by the number of closed libraries and you get 66,726.  So each of those 201 libraries would have to issue 66,726 items in order for the CIPFA issuing stats to be unchanged year on year.  Divide that 66,726 by 52 (weeks of the year) and you get 1,283…that’s 1,283 issues per week.  Divide it by 6 (days of the week in which most libraries are open) and you get 214 issues per day.  In other words, if each of those closed libraries issued 214 items per day (not an unrealistic figure) the overall issues figures would break even.  Even if we were pessimistic and said they only issued 100 per day, that would still be an additional 6m items per year (100x6x52x201 libraries), significantly reducing the decline in issues (from a 4.4% decrease to a 2.3% decrease).  Yes, still a decrease, but half of that reported by CIPFA for 2011/12.

Ok, there’s a decline no matter which way you cut it, but when you look at the changes in the infographic above it is amazing to think how the library service has managed to cope with  significant hollowing out, reductions in expenditure on print materials and widespread library closures.

One other thing that I think is worth pointing out.  As the stats above demonstrate, web visits are down, this despite a big increase in expenditure on ebooks.  It strikes me that this underlines just how fanciful are publisher’s claims that free ebooks would be the end of their industry.  Despite their increased availability (and they tend to be available via library websites), there has actually been a decline in web visits.  So, maybe publishers and booksellers are wrong to be fearful after all…

Should the UK have a dedicated union for librarians?

Just a quick post based on some discussion today. Given the situation libraries/librarians are in, I’ve often wondered if a more specialised trade union is the way to go. CILIP can only do so much because of its charitable status and, in my view, existing trade unions are too broad in their membership, making it difficult to fully commit to a particular area. Indeed, I would say unions as they exist at present are unable to effectively deal with the neo-liberal world in which we exist (but that’s another argument).

My interest was piqued by a tweet from Simon at SLA Chicago earlier:


So could we have that here? Is it desirable? Would it be effective? Would it water things down? I should add, I am not thinking of this as instead of CILIP, more as well as. I’d be interested to hear what people think.

UPDATE: Further to this, Simon has pointed out the “Librarian’s Guild” in Los Angeles. Also, in looking into this, I have come across the Progressive Librarians Guild, also in the United States. I actually quite like the sound of the latter but not sure of its value at present. Would something like that be a valuable thing in the UK too?