Dataset – Call to Cilip & SCL

Following up from my previous post ‘Nothing to Yell About’ it’s become obvious that the Libraries Taskforce is not the vehicle for collecting and distributing data for and about public libraries. Despite the best of intentions as a body it is too susceptible to interference, including having to scale back it’s activities during the pre-election period.

The snap general election is thrown up the need for reliable data more than ever and Cilip has announced the launch of the ‘Facts Matter’ campaign “to promote the need for evidence-based decision-making as a foundation of a strong, inclusive and democratic society.” 

As such the library profession itself needs to take responsibility for gathering and distributing data around public libraries, without reliance on politically controlled bodies, and for making such data as widely accessible as possible.

Ultimately, as a profession we should encourage an open data approach by local authorities. However, it is likely to take a some time for this principle to become embedded and regarded as the norm as protectionism around data and political nervousness will make this a slow process. Another issue will be around governance models and whether or not public service mutuals would sign up to releasing data in such a way.

I wrote to Cilip and SCL asking for their views around the Taskforce’s recently risible dataset and where they thought the profession should go next. Nick Poole replied saying:

My own view is that, as a sector, it is important to think long-term about how we ensure that the development of public libraries, individually and nationally, is informed by the best possible body of evidence and up-to-date data.

 The publication of the Taskforce dataset, while important, is only one aspect of answering the more fundamental question, which – to me at least – is that of how we as a sector organise ourselves to ensure ongoing access to a credible body of quantitative and qualitative data about public libraries which supports the overlapping needs of management, targeted development and advocacy.

The Taskforce is a time-limited task-and-finish group with the specific remit of enabling the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to respond to the recommendations in the original Sieghart Review. Any long-term solution to the data and evidence needs of the sector ought to address how the process of data-gathering will be governed and funded in the long-run by sector bodies with the remit for the development of the sector – specifically, the Arts Council England, SCL and CILIP with the support of DCMS and the Local Government Association.

Alongside the question of governance and investment, there is the question of ensuring that the dataset is valid and widely-used. In my view, the best means of achieving this is through the creation of an open, public-access dataset published via and licensed for a wide range of commercial and non-commercial re-use. An open access public library dataset, enriched with persistent identifiers,  would facilitate the embedding of library data into Government statistics and reporting, promote the development of 3rd party applications and support activities such as Libraries Week. This, obviously, is an issue with Cipfa data, which remains paywalled and cannot be used in 3rd party platforms.  

In the School Libraries sector, CILIP has recently proposed an industry-led consortium with the responsibility for improving the evidence-base (qualitative, quantitative and impact/outcome-based) around school library provision. In my view, such an industry-led consortium ought also to be possible in the public library sector with a broad remit for defining not only how data is collected, but for improving the overall methodology, creating a comprehensive model for what should be collected and engaging with 3rd parties to promote its use.

As part of this, you will be aware that CILIP has announced its intention to develop a Library & Information Sector Research & Evidence Base in our Action Plan 2016-2020. While not primarily concerned with public library data, it would be valuable to consider how the scope of this would intersect with the kind of industry-led data-gathering for which CILIP is advocating.


Nick also reiterated that the “… most useful data is open data. We think it is important that this activity yields data that is openly licensed for re-use, and ideally that we start to foster a community of developers and creatives who will use it as the basis of interesting applications.”


Neil McInnes, President of SCL also replied agreeing that there was an need for up to date figures on libraries. Neil stated that the SCL agreed with many of Nick Poole’s points, including:


“…the need for current and credible data about public libraries that will support and enable the running of excellent library services, and promote libraries widely especially to non or lapsed users.”  


He added:


“As you know, CIPFA collects data from libraries and publishes yearly figures on use. We have long lobbied for this dataset to be widened to show what we feel would be a more accurate representation of the library sector. Each of our members collects some of the data you refer to—number and type of libraries, opening hours.”


So we have both the CEO of Cilip and President of the SCL agreeing that a more accurate picture of libraries is needed. With that in mind there are many advantages to both bodies working together to ensure the collection of accurate and objective data and the regular and timely publication of such information. Therefore:


I ask that the Cilip Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee for the Society of Chief Librarians work together and take direct responsibility for the gathering, collation, and release of datasets around public libraries for the good of the profession and sector.


I ask that a wide range of individuals and interested parties with the necessary expertise and/or professional credibility to gain the confidence of the profession, public, and campaigners be involved. I urge Cilip and SCL not to rely only on the input of the same bodies that have so far failed to deliver objective and credible data.


Further, I ask that as a matter of urgency, and as a first priority, that Cilip and the SCL collate and publish the data around the number and type of public libraries in England to date. This should include information regarding:


  • Type of each library within a service: local authority run, community run, commissioned, independent, closed etc
  • Open and staffed hours
  • Stock budgets
  • Number of professionally qualified and library staff
  • Other information deemed appropriate to give a reliable and accurate picture of the current state of public libraries in England

That this request be treated as a matter of urgency by both organisations with the view of establishing an appropriate group and publishing the above data as quickly as possible. 

One last point, both Nick and Neil raised the issue of finance for the project and the need for additional funding on an ongoing basis. The obvious candidates for this would be the DCMS and ACE. Although, whether or not the DCMS would fund a project it had no direct control over remains to be seen. The other, perhaps better, option would be to divert funding from CIPFA since it’s plainly not delivering what the sector needs in terms of appropriate, open data, in a timely and regular manner.

3 thoughts on “Dataset – Call to Cilip & SCL”

  1. As an interested member of the public and library user I absolutely agree that the lack of published public library data is a SCANDAL.

    I notice that none of the bodies with responsibly for public libraries (Councils, the DCMS, the Arts Council, the SCL) publishes any coherent data on public libraries. That tells you all you need to know about how those in charge feel about publishing open public library data. I’m sure they feel that publishing the data is just going to be pain and grief for themselves so they don’t do it. But there must be accountability; public libraries are a public service so the public has a right to know how they are performing.

    In the private sector a publicly quoted company can’t say ‘Our performance isn’t very good so we are not publishing our Annual Report’. Similarly publicly company results are nearly always published within 3 months of a year end, not the 9 months it takes CIPFA to turn around simple spreadsheet data. The DCMS and Councils are allowing this to happen – what does this say about the quality of public library management?

    If a council is responsible for providing the public library service then it must become mandatory for it to provide the necessary library data to the relevant body (CIPFA, Libraries Taskforce, the ONS or whoever) and the data + appropriate aggregated data must be published as open data on a timely basis. If those in charge of public libraries won’t do it, then Parliament needs to act.


  2. “Any long-term solution to the data and evidence needs of the sector ought to address how the process of data-gathering will be governed and funded in the long-run by sector bodies with the remit for the development of the sector” (Nick Poole)

    I’d agree with much of this but would add that any long-term solution ought to address how the public library profession will learn good data management. That would include open data, as a good understanding of data, and involvement in the communities around data, would undoubtedly lead to more open data. It would also include data security, and policies based upon principles of privacy and openness.

    I’m less interested in ‘data-gathering’ as there is load of data that libraries hold anyway, and much of it is basically the same. When good data management leads to open data it’s about ‘data-releasing’ as much as gathering. Gathering does imply a level of standardisation and an end-goal, but these things will come naturally as people share practice and others reuse the data. Gathering also implies the responsibility lies with the gatherer, and this was the ultimate problem with the taskforce dataset. Hindsight is wonderful, but if they’d instructed each authority to release data, given them the schema, and set a suggested update schedule we’d likely have it now (even maybe updated).

    The whole practice of CIPFA library returns is still hard to believe, but it must be a symptom of poor data management to engage in such a process. CIPFA seem to have had a pervasive influence on library culture and management, and it will be hard to reverse. It’s pay walled and unavailable to the public, while public servants go to a lot of trouble (and expense) to complete it. But it’s also actively holding back open data, and even seems to be disliked by the SCL if that Neil McInnes quote is anything to go by. Though it does seem odd the SCL would be ‘long lobbying’ for change in something that their members effectively fund. There is a darker nature to CIPFA though, as it’s a non-open dataset used badly by policy makers – which makes those decisions difficult to scrutinise. Consider this quote from a CIPFA profile user, which is advertised on the CIPFA website:

    ‘Used to demonstrate that we have too many professional graded posts in comparison to other authorities and supported the business case to reduce these posts.’

    This is someone in a position of power looking at simplistic comparisons and deciding to cut posts. Then giving a thankful testimonial to CIPFA for providing the means. It’s an extraordinary way for CIPFA to advertise a service, as they must know such use of the data is nonsense. ‘Too many’? If there were ever an example of poor data management ending in tragedy it’s that quote. They may as well say ‘buy this incomplete dataset, that you will have to go to some trouble to send us, and you can then make terrible decisions that can’t be scrutinised’. Yes please, here’s some public money. CIPFA is delivering what management of the sector wants – it does nothing for the overall sector itself.

    I don’t like using Freedom of Information that much, as I prefer the adoption of open data. But perhaps this year it would be worth requesting the CIPFA return from each authority and then aggregating them. 150 or so emails, could possibly send them out over a few days. The data itself isn’t terrible, it’s just flawed, and completed differently by each authority, despite the guidance. But that’s why it needs to be open. Flawed open data I’m fine with, flawed secret data in the hands of the wrong people I’m frightened of.

    Anyway, there are many other poor data practices in public libraries. They range from silly things like poor data protection around holds shelves. But then more serious lack of concern around user login, non-encrypted websites, or not using PINs on kiosks, and non-secure tech infrastructure. But it all leads up to general lack of data management, and tech suppliers aren’t held to any account. What will it all lead to? Completing CIPFA returns leads to poor decisions and severe loss of service for the public, poor data security will lead to major data breaches.

    The dataset (and the ‘core’ data in general) is tied up in all this unfortunately. And it makes it very difficult to think of any feasible solutions.

    Maybe a long-term answer to all this is more professionalism and training, but I suppose we all knew that anyway. But as always, I’d call for staff to get involved in data communities, engage with other library staff around open data and data privacy, and try and do as much as is possible in pushing for good data practices in library services.


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