“Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”

Last week I attended the MashSpa event which was organised by my colleague Julian Cheal. My contribution to the event was to co-facilitate a session on ““Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”: Gathering Evidence to Demonstrate Library Services’ Impact and Value” . The session attracted participants primarily from the academic and public library sector. Unfortunately the session was held in a small and overcrowded room and so it wasn’t possible to break out into the four or so groups which we had initially intended and so there was only a single topic which could be discussed. However the participants seemed to be in agreement with the approach which myself and Nicola McNee, my fellow co-facilitator, took which was to argue. perhaps rather dramatically, that in order to try to save libraries from the cuts we should be gathering and using data which can be used to demonstrate the value (including the financial value) of library services.

I was pleased that participants appreciated the importance of gathering and using hard evidence in order to be able to justify services. Although the importance of anecdotes and stories was appreciated (with the Voices for the Library service being acknowledged as particularly important for those working in Public Libraries) it was acknowledged that in today’s political and economic environment we need to be able to gather and use hard evidence and data.

But did we succeed in identifying ways in which evidence could be used to demonstrate the value of services provided by Libraries? Looking back at the notes taken by my colleague Marieke Guy it seems that there was an awareness that in some areas academic libraries have not been engaged in collected evidence. However in other areas such as gate counts, opening hours, etc. SCONUL has been collecting data from academic libraries. As described on the SCONUL Web site:

SCONUL has been collecting and publishing statistics from university libraries for over twelve years, with the aim of providing sound information on which policy decisions can be based.

Further information is provided which informs readers that “All UK HE libraries are invited to complete the SCONUL Statistical Questionnaire, which forms the foundation of all SCONUL’s statistical reports and services. The questionnaire details library resources, usage, income and expenditure for any academic year.

However, as was discussed at the session, the SCONUL data is not publicly available. It seems that the SCONUL Annual Library Statistics is published yearly – and copies cost £80.

It was felt that closed access to such data was not only counter to moves towards openness and transparency with the public sector but also meant that developers were not in a position to explore the data and provide analyses and interpretations which may not be included in the SCONUL reports. There was a recommendation that a case should be made to SCONUL for opening up access to these statistics. It was also suggested that since institutions collate this information themselves individual institutions may chose to publish their data openly.

However in subsequent discussions about data on access to ejournals there was a concern that opening up access to usage statistics could lead to publishers deciding to increase subscriptions for popular ejournals. It was also pointed that providing evidence of ejournals with low levels of usage could be embarrassing (e.g. if academics had requested the library to subscribe to ejournals of particular interest to themselves).

The dangers of data being misinterpretted were also discussed. It was felt that there is a need for data to be analysed within its context of use – decreasing numbers of physical visitors to the library may be compensated by increased use of online services.

As well as the discussions about evidence of use of various library services it was also felt that it would be useful to gather evidence of ways in which those working in libraries were working  which could be used to inform political debates. We found, for example, topamax online price that a significant monitory of attendees at the Mashed Library event were taking time off work to enhance their professional development – although it was recognised that such evidence  could be used in various ways (“to demonstrate levels of commitment” vs “removing staff development budgets“)

“Are UK Public Libraries Expensive to Run?”

Coincidentally (or perhaps not!) last Sunday John Kirriemuir published a post in which he asked “Are UK public libraries expensive to run?“. John pointed out that “in the UK for 2008-09 the cost of public libraries came to a shade under £1.2 billion“. Is this expensive? John pointed that that “at approaching 62 million people, less than £20 each per year for every citizen of the UK“. That is equivalent to:

A starter, verdue and a dessert at Pizza Express. The basic Sky TV package. A fraction of the cost of seeing one Premiership football match. 16 litres of unleaded petrol. 6 or 7 pretentious drinks in Starbucks (it’s just coffee). A pair of cinema tickets with drinks and popcorn. Just half of the cost of an adult ticket, on the gate, for Alton Towers. Any of those.

John then went on to point out the additional costs which would be incurred by attempted to reduce the expenditure on public libraries.

To take an extreme position closing all public libraries in order would not produce savings of £1.2 billion pounds since:

  • That’s 25,000 less employed people paying tax
  • …and 25,000 more unemployed people claiming benefits.
  • The knock-on effect to the suppliers of goods and services libraries need, will take a hit
  • …as will the providers of goods and services bought by those 25,000 library staff
  • …and author and publisher payments will be down, so less tax to be gained there as well.
  • There’s the unquantifiable number of people who use library services to get back into employment, through re-skilling, self-education or finding work. Close libraries and that’s more tax gain lost, more people still claiming benefits.

Closing libraries also means people have to pay more for information, knowledge and communication services. That ranges from a person chatting to housebound relatives online, to a senior finding travel and bus information, to someone learning a foreign language to add to their CV, and thousands of little examples in-between. There’s no enquiry or reference desk, no staff or librarians to answer those information queries any more. Close public libraries and the costs of information pursuit and communications are shifted directly onto those least able to pay for these things.

It would be possible to pick holes in these figures, and of the dangers of making comparisons, as the post does, in between the costs of Trident and public libraries – if sectors of the public are concerned of the costs of the former, couldn’t the associations backfire?

However I feel that there are benefits to be gained by opening up the debate more widely.  And it was pleasing to hear earlier today that John has been invited to contribute to a discussion of the future of public libraries on a programme to be broadcast on the BBC’s World Service.

What Next?

What should the next steps be in gathering evidence which can be used to demonstrate the value of services provide within the sector? Should we be seeking to open access to relevant data – or should we be concerned that such data might be misinterpretted or highlight short-comings and deficiencies in the services we provide? And how should we use the evidence and the data? Should we be looking to move the discussions out of the blogosphere and into the public arena, such as the programmes broadcast by the BBC? Or might this be counter-productive? Perhaps we should stay quiet under the recession is over?

I’d be interested in your views. And since John Kirriemuir’s interview on the BBC World Service will take place in two week’s time, we have an opportunity to help him make even more persuasive arguments.

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