Date Set for Dataset?

Further information

Well this saga runs and runs! Apparently it’s not that Taskforce holding up the dataset but Downing Street. Should we be honoured or horrified! Perhaps a little of both. Would that this information had been shared with the profession by the Taskforce and the Minister. But that’s my political naivety coming through: expecting government bodies or minister’s to share something as simple as the truth!

On the face of it would appear to let the Taskforce off the hook over the issue but it also lays bare a fundamental flaw: that the Taskforce has very little influence or ability to enact real change in the sector, except the change dictated by government policy. And we all know where that is leading.

So perhaps they should just continue with what they are becoming best known for: publishing a blog and arranging workshops. It’s not much but it is something.

Looking at the comments below it might be that the way forward is to collate and release such data through the profession itself. More on that to follow.

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It’s been brought to my attention in the comments section that a parliamentary question had been asked:

Question From Kevin Brennan – 20 Dec 16
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what the timetable is for the release of data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries; and if she will make a statement.

Answer from Rob Wilson – 9 Jan 17
The data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries will be published in due course.

Due course…soon…shortly…any minute…before long!! How many more excuses can Rob Wilson give?

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Since publishing the post below a few interesting facts have emerged. In a tweet even the Chair of the Libraries Taskforce has implied the information is being withheld:

And if even the Chair of the Taskforce cannot release the data collected then it rather undermines their credibility as a body.

Paul indicates that the data is not quite as bad as anticipated but if that’s the case why the reluctance to publish? Unfortunately, even when eventually published the information will be out of date especially given the raft of changes to libraries since last year. It also makes a mockery of the Taskforces ambition to collate and release such data on a regular basis. Much longer and even Cipfa will be faster with library statistics!

There has also been a FOI submitted about the dataset by Ian Clark and Cilip. The Cilip one was dismissed as Nick Poole explains:

So we have a situation where both the Chair and a member of the Taskforce are being ignored and stonewalled. Also makes you wonder what the DCMS definition of ‘soon’ is as it appears to be a substantially different one to what most other people would accept!

Given the delay and the suspicion that the data will have been manipulated to put a positive spin on it I believe that the raw data should also be published to allow the public to make their own assessment (re: open data below).

The SCL have an important part to play in this as the information comes from SCL members and Heads of Service. In fact it would be an easy task for SCL to gather and release the data themselves. Perhaps Neil McInnes and the SCL Executive can to take this forward.

Another body that could get involved is the APPG for Libraries and I’ve emailed Gill Furniss as Chair to ask them to do so.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Rob Wilson as Libraries Minister. I will be tweeting and emailing regularly to urge the dataset is published immediately. That said, Rob Wilson has shown an almost contemptuous silence when it comes to answering difficult questions about libraries.

Therefore, I have decided to keep tweeting to Rob Wilson until the information is released or until he blocks me. I invite all interested parties to do the same.

If anyone has actually had a actual reply from Rob Wilson I would be interested in knowing so please do contact me.

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Post

Data matters because it helps to form evidence and evidence informs the truth. This has become increasingly important in a world in which post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news have become mainstream topics. Libraries have a important role to play in ensuring public access to trusted information sources, promoting information and media literacy, and where possible, encouraging users to think critically about the types of information and news available to them.

However, before boasting too much about our role in this area we need to set our house in order and collect, collate, and publish reliable data about libraries themselves. Unfortunately, the last seven years have highlighted the difficulty in providing accurate and comprehensive data regarding the depth and breadth of changes to the library network. This has allowed many councils and certainly many politicians to play loose and fast with the truth about libraries; some out of ignorance but others with the aim of furthering a political agenda. This in itself is a form of ‘fake news’.

So step forward the Libraries Taskforce, who are running a range of workshops with the aim:

“The core dataset is intended to be a series of data which all library services will, collect, use and publish. The plan is to have a consistent dataset which can be used to help inform and improve local library service delivery, as well as being used for advocacy purposes at local and national level…”

And there is certainly an urgent need for reliable, objective statistics for libraries. Ed Vaizey deliberately refused to collect data so he could continue to claim, quite wrongly, that there was no crisis in libraries, and ignore the claims by campaigners regarding closures and reductions to services. This led him to publish risible and misleading ‘desk-top’ research in an attempt to refute such claims. Make no mistake this was a deliberate act of obfuscation by the then Minister.

Most data around libraries come from a cross-section of sources. Cipfa being the most reliable ‘official’ stats but also additional information from the Taking Part Survey, Public Library News, BBC, and variety of ad-hoc sources.

However, there was, and continues to be, no definitive evidence concerning library closures and creation of volunteer led libraries. So it was welcomed when the Libraries Taskforce announced that they would start developing a model data set to better understand the level of library provision within each local authority in England. The first workshop was held in  December 2015. As Kathy Settle stated:

“We believe that access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality.”

This was also followed up by a survey to SCL members and Heads of Service asking for information about the number and type of libraries in each area. In August 2016 it was announced that the data set would be published at the end of September and then in October it was announced that there would be a short delay in the publication but with the promise:

“Look out for a series of posts in the next few weeks. The first will point to the data set itself and share some early visualisations of the data.”

The weeks went by with no further announcements. Six months later we are still waiting. And yet the data has been gathered, collated, and no doubt relevant graphs and charts drawn up. So just what is the hold-up?

My assumption is that, as with everything associated with the Taskforce, they are subject to the self-interested political wrangling of its members, with no doubt one or another being particularly obstructive.

But here’s the conundrum; given the delay how can we trust the Taksforce in the gathering of data from the current workshops? Or is it perhaps they are looking to gather less contentious material to take our focus away from how politically unpalatable the first dataset is proving to be.

Ironically, I was at a recent Libraries Taskforce Sector Forum and attended a presentation on evidence-based, long-term and sustainable planning. One example was that of Newcastle Library Service which has adopted an open data approach:

“We are the custodians of this information, but it does not belong to us: it belongs to the citizens of Newcastle. And we need to give it back to them: freely, clearly, openly.”

You could use a similar argument for the data held by the Taskforce in that it belongs to everyone who uses libraries and should therefore be out in the public domain. If the issue is not one of politicking but capacity, if the Taskforce does not have the resources to fully collate and analyse the data, then they should simply release it. As Newcastle has found out:

“Just start publishing, it starts the conversation with data owners and data consumers and you will learn so much more this way.”

If we are to build a strong narrative on the value of libraries it needs to be underpinned by evidence and evidence needs to be supported by data.

With that in mind I encourage everyone to contact the Taskforce or individual members and urge them to release the data immediately. As always please keep such requests polite.

Contacts:
Rob Wilson: (Minister with responsibility for libraries)
Email: robwilson@parliament.uk
Twitter: @minforcivsoc or @robwilson_rdg

Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce)
Email: pblantern@nrothamptonshire.gov.uk
Twitter @RosaSignum

DCMS: (FAO: Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS)
Email: enquiries@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @DCMSArts

Libraries Taskforce
Email: librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @LibTaskforce

The library profession also has direct input into the Taskforce in the form of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (Cilip) so please contact them and ask they request the dataset is released.

Members of the Taskforce (as stated on the website) are:

  • Dr Paul Blantern, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Neil MacInnes, President of the Society of Chief Librarians (and Strategic Lead – Libraries, Galleries and Culture, Manchester City Council)
  • Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
  • Rebecca Cox, Principal Policy Advisor, LGA
  • Iain Varah, Chief Executive of Vision Redbridge Culture and Leisure Trust, and Immediate Past Chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association
  • Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
  • Brian Ashley, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England
  • Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the Reading Agency
  • Felix Greaves, Deputy Director – Scientific and Strategic Information, Public Health England
  • Jane Ellison, Head of Creative Partnerships, BBC
  • Dominic Lake, Deputy Director of Arts, Libraries and Cultural Property, DCMS
  • Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS

12 thoughts on “Date Set for Dataset?

  1. Of course this particular dataset would be welcome, but I think there’s a more important point here.

    Open Data is essential. This seems to be becoming slightly more recognised in the sector, the work being done by Newcastle being key, but we are still way behind.

    It’s not that libraries do not have the technical capability to extract data from systems. I might legitimately ask every library authority where’s the data that they send to CIPFA, or to Nielsen, or to Public Lending Right? All our data that is being willingly provided to third parties, but not to the public. Putting a spreadsheet on a website is obviously far too much effort for some services. Libraries, centres of free public information, are easily amongst the worst in local government at providing public data. You could easily add the contact details of every public librarian to that list and encourage people to ask for their data (politely).

    And this isn’t a management problem, it goes to a lack of open data culture in the profession. That’s what we should be trying to change. By all means press for the release of the basic taskforce data set, but the broader culture change is more important. The Taskforce can’t be responsible for that. And that basic dataset needs maintenance anyway and upkeep by the library authorities, why do libraries need a taskforce for such a simple thing?

    The discussions on core data sets are useful but ultimately the wrong place to start. Librarians could talk for ever about what data they would like to see, and argue about outcomes data, and what data is actually useful, or how it may be used. This is what those meetings often descend into, and the same discussions will go on for years before anything gets done.

    Services should be doing what Newcastle have done. Give up the expertise for a moment, and the feeling of ownership of data. Forget outcomes, or assessing how useful data is, and just get it out. Adopt a policy. It doesn’t have to be complex, it can just be ‘We’ll provide everything we have as long as it’s not personal’. Let people know it’s been adopted and invite requests. Don’t believe that any data is uninteresting, or may make the service look bad, or isn’t accurate enough. If there are problems with the data then document them and push it out.

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  2. Desiderata:
    1. The data should not just be collected, sorted, compared and published some time later; it should be updated continuously, so that anyone can check to see how comprehensive and efficient a library service they are getting and how it compares with other authorities. (I know financial information will have to wait till after the accountants have checked it over at the end of the financial year – otherwise it won’t be comparable – but that need not stop details of stock levels, opening times, professional staff etc being available in real time.
    2. Every effort should be made to show data as viewed from the users’ perspective. How much is being spent on stock/buildings/staff is significant for management, but may not tell how accessible the resources are to remote users, to school pupils, to those in care homes, to mums & toddlers, to students working for exams.
    3. It would be good to try and show how comprehensive the stock is in terms of subject, level, format, date of publication etc.

    For example, how easy is it for a sixth form student, an adult in full time work, a mother with a baby buggy, a visually impaired person etc. to access the library stock and services at the times those users can manage? As far as I am aware, this sort of information is only fitfully collected, let alone published in real time.

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  3. Ok, another comment seeing as this has gained input from the taskforce chair, and activity on Twitter.

    Freedom of Information. A great thing, but I’m not convinced it’s suitable for a dataset going through the motions of open data preparation. We want this to be released through open data channels and then a plan devised for future maintenance. I don’t know whether an FOI request will help this, though I understand the frustration behind it.

    Anyway, so why is there a delay? I don’t know. But it could be:

    – Political pressures. The taskforce are obviously a political body. Are they useful, or not? We can judge that in the context of what libraries have as an alternative (nothing), but there is no doubt they’ll struggle with political pressures for any data or message they give out.

    – Complexity. Sounds odd, this is just a dataset of libraries, right? But no-one’s really been able to agree on libraries closed over any period of time, because it’s actually quite complex. What if you close a library but replace it shortly after? Similarly new libraries aren’t really new libraries if they’re just replacements, but neither are they really closures. It often seems the two sides of the debate take the data to suit their own narrative. Your point about getting the raw data is of course right, I don’t doubt that’s always been the original intention with the open data release. But if any kind of official narrative is going to be released at the same time I don’t envy interpreting that data.

    – Time. I’m not an expert on the government but I imagine anything that has to pass through the ‘government comms machine’ can get held up for all sorts of reasons, some sinister, some just ‘lots of other things to do’.

    But how about some context to the taskforce? The taskforce were set up in 2015. At that point you would expect a comprehensive set of data for them to draw on with regards to libraries. Given that library services are staffed by information professionals you would imagine that the majority of professionals would be familiar with options for open government publishing portals and would be publishing as much open data as they could. Surely the taskforce could aggregate data from those portals and analyse it to inform their work?

    Well, no. Of course libraries have had the pressure of cuts, but there’s no doubt that there are lots of public library professionals who have paid no attention to open data, or have any interest in standard schemas of publishing data.

    But the taskforce have seemed to provide a positive narrative to open data. To the work being done almost in isolation by Newcastle, which has featured on their blog. Also in running workshops for library professionals to get together to talk about data, and data dashboards, and common schemas, and all the things I’ve no doubt they expected to already be in place back in 2015. You raise the question of whether the taskforce can be trusted in the core dataset workshops, but surely it doesn’t matter what the taskforce do? The key outcome to these workshops is what libraries, and information professionals, take from these sessions. They will be the ones that need to maintain this in future.

    Right, that’s the taskforce context. What about libraries?

    The state of open data in public libraries is obviously pathetic, but who is to blame? Well, public librarians. A profession that is perfectly able at getting together to debate things, run conferences, collect quotes from Neil Gaiman on how important they are, but have not established how many libraries there are. It’s easy to blame the SCL, and now the taskforce, but those organisations aren’t holding back public library staff from adopting open data and taking responsibility.

    Given the context of the taskforce and UK libraries, it seems slightly wrong to go after this dataset in particular that is months delayed. If only there were similar outrage at the library staff who have been hoarding data for years. You mention the fact that the dataset will be as out of date as CIPFA, but how many libraries also submit their CIPFA returns as open data? A simple, easy, thing to do, that they can’t be bothered to. Some even submit to CIPFA and don’t subscribe to get the aggregated data back. An act akin to punching themselves in the face and complete waste of time. Does this delay to the dataset undermine the taskforce as a credible organisation. I’m sure it does, if anyone was unaware that they were an organisation run by the government, but if the taskforce credibility is under question then what of the library profession?

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    • Some very good points here. Unfortunately, the drawback is when open data meets politics. While the Taskforce has a monopoly on gathering and filtering the data we will always get interference and spin. Perhaps the best people to take this task on board is the SCL, after all according to their website they are the body responsible for leading and managing public libraries. Let’s not forget it’s most probably their members and HoS that provided the information in the first place. I agree that the profession is very poor at open data but we also work in a environment that’s tightly controlled, if not by councillors and corporate officers, then by senior librarians themselves. Whether or not Newcastle is the first of many or just an aberration remains to be seen. But as the leading light perhaps some colleagues could trawl the data and release Newcastle figures around closures, volunteer libs, staff reduced, budgets fallen etc (you get the picture) to get the ball rolling. Even better if some of our more technically advanced colleagues could put together a survey for any librarian to answer then we wouldn’t need to ask the TF at all. Any takers out there?

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      • Fair points.

        Retrospectively, making this another CIPFA (which is clearly what it is) was a mistake. That is, there is too much power/responsibility held by the organisation collating the returns. I doubt the taskforce considered that they wouldn’t be able to get the data out – not really their fault, I’d have laughed a year ago at the idea something like this wouldn’t be allowed out.

        It leaves you to wonder what other options could have been explored, perhaps doing the collecting but suggesting services all shared their returns openly. Or using some kind of open document, even like a google sheet (other options available). But it’s important to remember that it’s not a real monopoly, the data still exists in individual form, and that mystique of a single organisation needing to combine and aggregate needs to be debunked.

        Good call on the survey, that would be a possible option. We’re not talking big data here, this is 3000 or so libraries. Or alternatively, a more concerted set of volunteers to make an initial effort to get a dataset together (say 10 people – around 300 each?). There is data to seed this, there have been various libraries datasets over the years – many of them now out of date. But perhaps to some extent that wouldn’t be a bad thing. If the data is out of date it’s more likely to have libraries in that can be marked as closed. Harder to find if you’re trawling an authority website.

        I’m sure you’re right it’s HoS and others that will have provided the data, but I think to that extent it’s surprising there isn’t more concerted effort amongst the library community to do this. I was surprised I think that CILIP got in an FOI request early on – what about them getting involved in organising this as well if they really want it to happen?

        Even if there were mistakes in a dataset it wouldn’t really matter as long as the intention was clear, and it was understood it would be a ‘live’ dataset. As long as there was enough publicity around such a dataset that would allow things to be corrected.

        I think part of the problem of the above is there is still a lingering possibility that the dataset could be released and then used as the initial basis of a maintained set. But either way it’s clear the public and profession need to take ownership of it. But that involvement from the SCL and Taskforce could still be useful, just not in holding ultimate power. At the same time I’d love the SCL to just put out a statement asking everyone who does them to publish their CIPFA returns as open data. Let’s get CIPFA data aggregated up before the official stuff comes out.

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      • In Newcastle we already publish as open data the detail of libraries opening and closing over the years (see https://github.com/ToonLibraries/library-open-data/tree/master/library-buildings) and opening hours changing (https://github.com/ToonLibraries/library-open-data/tree/master/library-opening-times) You’ll see those datasets are pretty basic, and it would be easy for librarians in other services to do something similar (even if their start year for the coverage is later than ours, as otherwise it may mean a bit of time spent on research).
        I will be adding to my “to-release” list information about numbers of staff and budgets.

        Leon, is that something your own library service may consider releasing?

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  4. The delay in publishing the Taskforce collected libraries data certainly reflects badly on the DCMS. The DCMS said in its 2016 Annual report on public libraries that “The data will be available as an open data set and it is expected that it will be used by Taskforce organisations as a definitive source to which enquiries can be directed.”

    The DCMS funded CIPFA Library Profiles for 2015/16 have also not been published. http://www.cipfa.org/services/statistics/comparative-profiles/public-libraries
    The profiles weren’t great or timely but they were something.

    Surely there should be at least be a parliamentary question on this.

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  5. I didn’t realise it but there has been a parliamentary question on this:

    Question From Kevin Brennan – 20 Dec 17
    To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what the timetable is for the release of data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries; and if she will make a statement.

    Answer from Rob Wilson – 9 Jan 17
    The data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries will be published in due course.

    All I can say is – Give me strength!
    .

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