September 30, 2012
books in public libraries
The Arts Council are conducting a survey about the use of public libraries. They want to find out what is important to people using them and why some people no longer use them.
I noticed one commentator said "for sure the main points will be about books and opening hours"
In 1998 Westminster Council conducted a Best Value Review in which I participated. I was surprised at the small portion of their very large budget was spent on books and felt they ought to do the same kind of research that the Arts Council are doing. They were experiencing declining use of the libraries and - in order to rectify that- we needed to know why it was happening - my suspicion was that the poor book stock (and it was extremely poor, with large gaps in every subject) was the cause of people's loss of interest
Westminster couldn't afford, at that moment, to conduct a proper survey, so we went to find every piece of published market research about the use of public libraries. We felt we could reasonably extrapolate from data and results from other places and paint a picture for Westminster that would help their effort to improve
The Book Marketing Council (now BML) helped me to find every single research document of the previous decade - there had been quite a lot
It said many things about different library services in different places, but it was all absolutely consistent: the three things that most determine whether people will find a library useful and use it were ; The book stock (of all kinds and for all ages); the opening hours and the state of the building
"But" said all the library professionals "we do an awful lot more than lend books. Libraries are no longer only about books"
"That may well be true" was the answer "but the principle factors that determine whether people use the libraries are the quality of the book stock (of all kinds) the opening hours and the state of and attractiveness of the buildings. If they are perceived to be poor then people won't use the libraries whatever other services you offer.
After Westminster, Hampshire County Council undertook a similar exercise - "it's completely different to Westminster here, this is rural and people's behaviour is different"
"No" - was the answer - people's behaviour was exactly the same. .. what people wanted in their local library were books and newspapers to read, a library that was open and clean, safe, attractive, and practical to sit in... the smaller the library, the more they depended on the experience of the librarian to help them (except it wasn't generally a 'professional' librarian - just someone with a lot of wise experience)
"But we do a lot more than offer books" said the council and the library management... as they allowed the quality of the book stock to decline to the point of uselessness"
Instead of adding back the books - which is what they should have done- they tried to reinvent the idea of a library as a "discovery centre" and wasted all the money that was so badly needed for refurbishment of their 50 libraries
The message at this time is exactly the same - if libraries continue to neglect their ordinary books stock, and the opening hours become shorter- as they have done consistently in the ten years since- then libraries will become a waste of money and time for everyone.
"We do a lot more than lend books" and "we are not here just to stamp out books" have been the two phrases that have destroyed the library service - almost to the point of it being unsaveable
We can blame the politicians a lot for allowing these things to have been said so much - but it was Chief Librarians who said them first and continue to keep saying them now. They are, and have always been, completely, totally wrong
Perhaps the Arts Council will spot that. Perhaps the commission about ebooks will spot it too
Somehow I doubt it
Posted by Perkins at September 30, 2012 9:09 AM
As a long-term London resident, I'm constantly struck by the fact that despite the funny locations where the City of London situate their lending libraries and the odd hours, they are very heavily utilised. The reason is simple, they have a very high turnover of new books, including non-fiction.
Posted by: London Library User at October 1, 2012 1:15 AM
We may be going round in circles here, but I'll just reiterate my experience that many librarians appear ineffectual and prone to hiding behind jargon, particularly senior or chief librarians who, as Frank Daniels once pointed out, are mainly (only?) interested in keeping their cushy jobs.
We can't help them if they won't help themselves.
Posted by: James Christie at October 3, 2012 11:49 PM