An illuminating report into UK and Irish public libraries

April 10, 2017

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By Ian Anstice, Public Libraries News

Many people I talk to hate reports. They want action quickly, especially when libraries are facing such change. Others seem to love research. Personally, I see the need for action but at the same time am rather keen for it to be helpful and well-informed. A good report does shines a light, as this one does, so this report should be welcome in a sector that has faced such change since the last Carnegie report was written in 2011.

First things first, so let’s just say that in these days of austerity and cynicism, it’s great to see that around half of us use libraries and a whopping three-quarters say they’re important for the community.  Let’s all bask for a moment on the report’s statement that “few other public or charitable services, if any, can demonstrate this sustained level of voluntary citizen engagement across a wide range of channels, issues and offerings over many decades.”.

Ok, stop basking now, because, although that’s a real achievement, we may have a problem or two. Libraries are being hit by both deep budget cuts and sweeping technological change and so unsurprisingly the report shows what looks to me like a sharp reduction in both frequency of use and the perceived relative importance of libraries to people personally over that relatively short five-year period. Libraries are popular, yes, but at least some of that support may be residual of higher support in the past.

This has caused something of a crisis of identity for the sector, with the service being no longer able to base its existence on the printed word and on buildings but rather needing to do more, often with less. So it is perhaps very telling that the report when looking at the “whys” of public libraries, including quotes from the various national strategies, does not mention books or literacy once, subsuming this focus under the broader purpose of libraries to “fulfil people’s potential” and “enable participation and engagement”.

Shocked by that? Well, that’s a sign of how hard the change is. As the report says, “the challenge lies in developing services that continue to be attractive to prolific readers and services that are appealing to those who are not – whilst not inadvertently dissuading either group from using the library”. I’ve seen this myself with the push for noisy regular events sometimes losing the library its unique selling point of being a quiet study space. It also reflects the difference between the two sides of those supporting libraries: the campaigners who often stress the traditional side of libraries and the innovators who are seem far more excited about tech and “making”.

So what do we learn to help us move on? It’s clear from the research done that the lack of marketing and promotion of library services needs sorting out. When even one half of your users don’t know about a key service – reserving books online – then we can assume that it’ll be tricky to communicate our services and appeal to non-users.

The need to demonstrate value is closely linked to this, as is the need to be able to show both the general reasons for libraries and communicate the reasons and offers that will appeal to people on an individual basis.

The final lesson, though, is a simple one: that we need to learn from each other, and this report helps us to do that, by helping us know ourselves and those who should be using us. By shining a light.