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 http://data.gov.uk 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.

Nothing To Yell About!

In December 2015 the Libraries Taskforce held a data workshop to start the process of identifying and improving data retained by and about public libraries. The ambition was simple but essential: pinpoint existing datasets, make them more accessible, and establish what data was best suited to inform decision making and decision makers.

This work was to underpin the conviction 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.”

It’s worth bearing in mind what the Taskforce set out to accomplish as it acknowledged:

“…how much time and effort (at national and local level) goes into dealing with requests for information (from the media, campaigners and the public) on numbers of libraries and closures. As these requests often come with slightly different definitions and start and end dates, the resulting information cannot easily be compared (the ‘apples and pears’ analogy), leading to confusion and unhelpful ‘noise’ in the system.”

A survey was accordingly sent out and library services were asked to provide information around the location and type of each library within a service. For example:

LAL: Local Authority run library CRL: Community run library or CRL+ CL: Commissioned library ICL: Independent community library or ICL+ XL: closed library 

This was followed by the number of open and staffed hours and what sort of IT and digital access was available. In fact all the basic detail that would have been an incredibly valuable resource and achieved the objectives as outlined above.

There was even help in defining the different types of libraries:

Types of ‘Open’ Libraries
Type Definition Examples
(LAL) Local authority run library Nb LAL- indicates LA funded and managed, but unstaffed Library building funded, run and managed by local authority staff (can be augmented by unpaid volunteers)  
(CL) Commissioned library Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 where the library building/service has been transferred to a separate trust or organisation (may be operating as a social enterprise, may be commercial), commissioned and funded by a local authority. Local authority are still accountable.
(CRL) Community run library Nb CRL+ indicates that LA staff may be involved in day to day running Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 and operating now as a library with some level of ongoing support from a local authority. Work according to a joint agreement such as a Service Level Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding or contract. Staff are volunteers, but some form of support is available. May or may not be counted as part of the statutory service.
(ICL) Independent community library Nb ICL+ indicates paid staff Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 and now operating as a library that has been transferred to the management of a non local authority body, either community group or third party, which is OUTSIDE THE LOCAL AUTHORITY NETWORK (eg for circulating bookstock, access to online cat etc)
(X) Closed library Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 and now either completely repurposed, or locked/shuttered.  

Unfortunately, the dataset was lost in the void of politics, eventually being held up at Downing Street level. But after constant pressure some details were finally published a few days ago. Sadly, rather than the complete data it’s little more than a contact list for public libraries in England. In other words it’s taken 16 months to produce a piece of work that could have been done within a hour using yell.com!

Criticism of the data has been made by many campaigners, Cilip, and Ian Anstice.

Given the professionalism of the Taskforce staff, being instructed to release such incomplete data must be both galling and embarrassing to say the least. The reputational damage to the Taskforce members and the Libraries Minister, Rob Wilson, must also not be underestimated either given their inability to control and publish data freely.

Far from being a ‘first step’ as stated by the Taskforce, this is a deliberate withholding of information for political purposes.

Therefore, it’s time for the profession to take responsibility for the collection, development, and dissemination of up-to-date data, and remove the openly biased political interference from the equation.

This is the issue I shall post about very shortly.