‘Shining a Light’ on the path ahead: what are the opportunities and challenges for public libraries across the UK and Ireland?

April 10, 2017

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By Martyn Evans, CEO, Carnegie UK Trust

Public libraries are a very well-used service and are extraordinarily well-loved. Our Shining a Light research, published today, reveals that across the UK and Ireland around half of us are using our public library and over two-fifths of library users are using the library at least once a month. We need to highlight and share more widely this significant public engagement. Few other public or charitable services, if any, can demonstrate such a sustained level of voluntary citizen engagement over many decades.

Our research also shows that three-quarters of us think that public libraries are essential or very important to communities. The best public libraries enable citizens to fulfil their potential and act as trusted and safe, civic spaces that enable engagement and participation.

The data, compiled for us by Ipsos MORI and comprising 10,000 interviews across 2011 and 2016, also challenges the stereotype that libraries are ‘for older people’: those aged 15-24 are more likely to use the library than those aged over 55. Indeed – over 55s are the least likely group to use the library. It may be surprising to some that between 21% and 30% of people in each jurisdiction who rarely or never read books are library users and 25%-41% of people who rarely or never read books use the library at least once a month.

The picture is not, however, unmitigated good news. Our research confirms that libraries face a number of significant challenges. Despite overall library use holding up, there has been a steady decline in the number of ‘frequent’ library users. That is, there has been a decline of 6 – 16 percentage points across the jurisdictions in the number of library users who use the library at least once a month since 2011. People are therefore not either choosing not to use the library as much as they once did – or are finding it more difficult to do so.

Across all five jurisdictions, the most commonly mentioned changes which would encourage more library use were: providing other council services in library buildings, providing better information on what services libraries offer, a café or coffee shop on site and offering more events (such as author events, gigs or film screenings).

Public libraries remain an immensely popular civic resource across the UK and Ireland. However, we know that the future success of public libraries depends on how effectively they respond to the changing needs of their communities. We have drawn on our research to set out five lessons about how public libraries can continue to contribute to many policy goals and improve people’s wellbeing for many years in the future.

There is a need for public libraries and their key stakeholders to support libraries to:

  • Demonstrate value to policy makers, decision makers and funders to maximise public and other investment: Libraries must be more confident, have better evidence and replicate best practice. This will create the confidence of funders to invest staff and money to ensure libraries prosper. Everything we have learned is that such investment can reap enormous positive rewards.
  • Increase focus on tailored, personalised services whilst maintaining a focus on delivering a universal service
  • Accelerate the development of a user-centred, data rich service with a strong online presence: If libraries strengthened their use of data they could better understand who in the local community is using the library, the services they are making use of and what people would like to see more of, which would enable them to keep their offering fresh and relevant
  • Invest in innovation, leadership and outcomes-based partnerships
  • Enhance learning between libraries and across jurisdictions: All libraries and library authorities can learn a great deal from the best libraries.  There are many libraries carrying out engaging, innovative work that greatly enhances their local community. We need a step change in how best practice and learning can be shared.

There is not room for any complacency and at the Trust we remain focused on forging a positive future for the public library service: libraries are treasured resources in the heart of local communities, with the best public libraries enabling citizens to fulfil their potential and aspire to greater things.

We have enjoyed analysing the research data and comparing our findings between jurisdictions and across time (2011-2016). I hope you enjoy reading our findings – we would be very pleased to receive any ideas and comments you might have.