Shining a light on England…

April 13, 2017

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by Kathy Settle, Chief Executive, Libraries Task Force

I really welcome the publication of Carnegie’s Shining a Light report to add to the collective knowledge of the libraries sector. As Ian Anstice says in his blog, it’s vital that any actions are well-informed, and data like this contributes to better decision making.

I, like many others I suspect, will need to take more time to go through the detail of the report to fully appreciate the nuances. However, some of my quick reflections are below [note: that all figures shown are England only].

Who is using libraries and how often?

The report confirms the continuing value people place on libraries, with 72% overall saying they are important for their communities (88% for users; 58% for non-users). However, only 40% (61% users; 22% non-users) say libraries are important for themselves personally. This significant difference is worthy of further investigation. What are the benefits that people think libraries bring to the community that aren’t relevant to them personally? Is it the shared community space they value, in a world that is becoming increasingly digital? Or the fact that the services are there as a ‘safety net’ for people who may be more vulnerable? Or something else entirely?

Whilst usage of libraries has dropped slightly from 2011-2016 (50% to 46%), certain groups have seen their usage drop more significantly, particularly men (down 7%) and those who aren’t working (down 11%). Library usage by socio-economic groups C2, D and E also continues to be lower than A, B and C1. The challenge is how we attract these groups (back) to the library, and the report provided some very helpful information on the improvements that would attract various groups – more on this below.

Also of concern is the declining frequency of people’s visits to libraries, particularly amongst certain groups often seen as regular library users: those in part-time employment, aged 55+, women and households with children. The Taking Part survey gives a number of reasons for decreased library usage, the most common ones being: less free time; started to buy / get books from elsewhere; now read e-books; other things I preferred to do in leisure time; and work demands increased. Tackling these won’t be easy – I haven’t yet managed to find a way to get more than 24 hours in a day unfortunately! – but it’s the challenge we need to address.

What do people want from libraries in England?

The report did highlight how people are more likely to use library services if various improvements are made. The most popular suggested improvements were:

● Providing better information on what services libraries offer – 54%
● Offering more events – 53%
● Providing other council services in library buildings – 51%

These reinforce messages in Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021, for example, on co-location of services with other government and partner services. It also echoes what many library services are already doing in positioning their libraries as community hubs, some with complete service integration.

Shining a Light also demonstrates how people are increasingly using libraries for a variety of reasons beyond books, with 40% (up 5% from 2011) of library users only reading one book every six months. We know that people go to libraries to gain new skills and knowledge, to access the internet, for enjoyment – and the 7 Outcomes in Ambition articulate these benefits to people. This wider range of activities also confirms the need for a new core dataset (one of the Ambition actions), so that we can move beyond counting book loans to fully understand and explore how people are using libraries.

The successful bids in the Libraries: Opportunities for Everyone innovation fund (LOFE) will support the increased range of events and activities public libraries in England are able to offer in the future. We’ll be working with the teams to share the learning from these projects and to help identify which might be successfully adopted by other libraries. As part of this, it will be interesting to see the impact of the rising number of libraries offering makerspaces and tech hubs, helping to meet the needs of the 38% of people who said they wanted to see more maker activities in libraries.

Public awareness and advocacy

In Libraries Deliver: Ambition, we talk about making the case for libraries. Work is progressing on this, but we know that more needs to be done nationally and locally in communicating the library offer to users and non-users. As Shining a Light shows, for example, 48% of people said they wanted to be able to look for or reserve books online – but this is something which all library services already do!

But we don’t just need to get messages to the general public, we also need to target decision makers in central government, local authorities and partner organisations. We have had some success already in pushing our ‘Libraries First’ message at a national level, for example, libraries were heavily mentioned in the UK Digital Strategy. We also want to support library staff promote what libraries do, and how they can help other services deliver successfully, to chief executives and councillors. We’re working on a series of communication assets for library staff to use at a local level. We’ll also provide library services with tools to conduct their own research to establish at a local level why people aren’t using libraries, to help libraries meet user needs better and improve service delivery.


The report shows strong support for volunteers adding value to the services paid library staff offer (49%). This supports the Taskforce’s view in our community managed libraries: good practice toolkit that the involvement of volunteers in supporting paid staff can be valuable in augmenting services available and ensuring close collaboration and engagement between public libraries and the community. The Taskforce-commissioned research into community managed libraries, due to be published in May, will provide more evidence on their level of sustainability and effectiveness to add to the debate. Keep an eye on our blog for publication of the report and how we’ll take forward the recommendations.

Final reflections

Carnegie’s Shining a Light is a very welcome dataset about attitudes to, and use of, public libraries. We recognise the problems highlighted about usage and frequency of usage, particularly for certain groups, and that more communications work is needed locally and nationally. But there are also plenty of opportunities highlighted in the report for the sector to look at what people want from their library service and consider new ways for their service to expand and thrive.