Carnegie UK Trust has released research outlining how public libraries can contribute to government policy goals and improve people’s wellbeing. The investigation includes data around library use and attitudes towards library across the UK and Ireland 2011-2016.
The research is supported by other reports as part of the series including
- Data booklet: provides the data and big picture ‘headline findings’ from across all jurisdictions
- Five Country Factsheets: shows how England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are faring
- Secondary Research: a report by Ipsos MORI which compares our findings with existing research
I don’t aim to go into detail about the report. This will be highlighted over the coming days and weeks from various bodies, with emphasis on differing aspects to suit either personal or political viewpoints. However, in the foreword it should be noted that the report recognises that:
“There is no doubt that public libraries face unprecedented challenges and very real threats. In 2016 the BBC reported that across the UK there had been more than 340 library closures and 8,000 library job losses since 2010.1 In response, the vociferous and visible campaign against the closure of library buildings has swelled, in England in particular. The campaigns have often focused on specific local decisions but point to broader trends and pressures.”
Instead, I wish to draw out some basic principles that form part of the report.
The main point for me is the research finally qualifies the ‘narrative’ argument. It demonstrates once and for all that both users and non-users value the library service and that libraries, contrary to some, are not in terminal decline, but remain a well used and valued service.
Demonstrating value to policy and decision makers has been a hotly contested debate. This can be summed up as the ‘positive narrative’ argument in that strategic leaders within the profession have been poor at showing the value of libraries and thus they have suffered a negative perception and decline in funding as a consequence.
The argument goes that by demonstrating value and how libraries contribute to local and national agendas decision makes will react accordingly by increasing – or at the very least protecting – funding and investment. The strength of the Shining a Light report is it demonstrates quite conclusively the value of libraries.
The SWOT analysis is a useful synopsis of issues facing libraries. Listed under threats is the point:
“Lack of understanding and buy-in among decision makers and the public regarding the broader aims and purpose of libraries.”
My own view is that after years of demonstrating the value of libraries it’s difficult for even the most hardened supporters of the ‘positive narrative’ approach such as the Libraries Taskforce and SCL to argue that libraries are little understood or appreciated. While there will always be the wilfully ignorant or obtusely political who choose to ignore such value the truth lies not with a lack of understanding or buy-in but one of ideology and funding.
For example the report makes clear that 72% of respondents opposed volunteers replacing paid staff (p.10). However, this runs contrary to the avowed aims of the Libraries Minister to support greater community involvement in running libraries. Not supporting libraries in complementary, value added roles, but taking on libraries and replacing paid staff.
This is where funding and ideology clash with public and professional expectations around the what’s good for the sector.
Rationale for libraries
There is a genuine attempt at explaining the rationale for libraries. Unfortunately, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of libraries highlight how woolly the thinking has become in the UK. The mission behind libraries is highlighted for each country with much being made of ‘opportunities’, ‘enabling’, ‘potential’, and ‘wellbeing’ but with little focus on what this means in reality and whether or not it’s appropriate for libraries. Having them listed together in one place reflects what a jumbled collection of meaningless buzzwords have become attached to public libraries in the last few years.
While there is little to disagree with in noting libraries contribution to economic, social, cultural, and learning opportunities, and indeed this highlights the value of such activities, there is a clear intention to build a correlation between libraries and local and national government agendas:
“Demonstrating value and impact requires clearly aligning library services with community needs and the priorities and policies of funders, policymakers and decision makers. Following from this, delivery of new strategies need to be monitored to ensure that library services, decision makers and funders have a mutual understanding and recognition of the relationship between the role of public libraries and local and national government goals.”
This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing but it assumes that current government goals will be beneficial for libraries and ignores the real drivers for change, which are the austerity, localism, and devolution agendas.
For instance aligning libraries with local authority priorities has seen an increase in co-location and sharing of services in a drive to reduce costs. At face value this would be a logical rationalisation of services. However, as many users have found, such an approach can lead to the devaluation of a library service as both brand and expertise are sacrificed to cost cutting, with specialised roles and experienced staff replaced with generic customer service posts to the detriment of the service and user.
Delivering a universal service
This is perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of the report and bears some quoting. The report demonstrates an interesting dichotomy in public libraries as a “…universal service when there is no universal set of needs.” While the public see value in “public libraries as community services, but they are much less likely to regard libraries as important to themselves personally.”
This is reflected in that:
“…around three-quarters (72%-79%) of people reported that public libraries are essential or very important to the community whilst only 37%-44% responded that public libraries are essential or very important to them personally. The level of support for public libraries as community resources is also not matched by an equivalent level of personal use, with around one in two people in each jurisdiction (43%-50%) using the library.”
So the public are recognising the importance of libraries as a service for others but not necessarily for themselves. That said, this could be off-set by the assertion in the Libraries Deliver report that people use libraries at different stages of their lives or when circumstances change.
The report asserts that those involved “…in the delivery of public library services to discuss and debate whether, as a universal service, public libraries should strive to meet the needs of all demographic groups within a community, or to build on their success with particular demographic groups, and to identify ways forward.”
For me this is the essential point that the profession needs to address and quickly as well as the fact that:
“When looking at how many books, if any, library users read or listened to,10 we found evidence in sympathy with the idea that the primary focus of libraries ought to be books and the evidence with which to challenge this view. On the one hand, logistic regression reveals that being a prolific reader is a predictor for the likelihood of library use and frequency of use across all jurisdictions. On the other hand, there is a sizeable percentage (21%-30%) of people across the five jurisdictions who rarely or never read books that nevertheless use the library.
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.”
While entirely sympathetic to such an approach this is dependent on the current raft of services on offer being the right ones to ensure the successful development and continuation of public libraries into the future. It could be argued that services around literacy and learning where once the mainstay of public libraries and would have been a guiding principle behind Andrew Carnegie’s description of libraries as ‘instruments for the elevation of the masses of the people’ and it is this that the profession has been side-tracked from.
This is just an initial response and the report certainly needs closer reading and further consideration. No doubt I shall return to the research over the coming weeks as more detail and nuance emerges. What I would say though is this is an incredibly constructive and timely contribution to the debate around public libraries and provides a great detail of material to support the worth of public libraries. As such, all due credit and thanks should go to the Carnegie Trust and the report’s author, Dr Jenny Peachey.
However, the drawback is that it analyses the current situation without fundamentally challenging the context of current service provision or governance both locally and nationally. As such , there are a number of basic assumptions around the status quo with the analysis concentrating on improving, rather than changing, the current model. For example:
“Being able to draw on evidence of impact will enable public libraries to plan, strategise and share learning within the sector, provide the basis for demonstrating their worth to decision-makers and funders outside of the sector and ensure libraries are accountable to those that fund them. Moreover, better evidence has an important role to play in helping to persuade those that are sceptical about the role and value of public libraries and in moving the conversation about the value of public libraries beyond the believers, advocates and critical friends that are already passionate about the value and role of libraries.”
This might well prove to be true. But what I would have liked to have seen is more scrutiny around the fundamental positioning of libraries and a more radical envisioning of the core purpose going forward without reliance on current assumptions.