Saturday, February 17, 2007

Libraries - in terminal decline

Are public libraries doomed?
After struggling to find anyone I knew who had used one, I went to the statistical source (LISU Annual Library Statistics - thanks Seb Schmoller) and had a look. It wasn't pleasant reading.

Expenditure up
Real expenditure on libraries has increased for the seventh consecutive year to over a billion (£1097m). One could expect that money to be spent on books and resources. In fact, over half is spent on salaries (55%) with a mere 8.7% spent on books.

Lending, stock and visits down
Despite the population having grown by 2.5% over the last ten years, over the same period we’ve seen borrowing fall by 38%, active lending stock down by 18%, and visits have fallen by 13%.

Libraries as downmarket Blockbusters
One could claim that the collapse of book borrowing is being replaced by electronic media, and this is true. The worrying thing is that audio (music) is also in sharp decline, with DVD hires showing the sharpest increase (160%).

But is this serving any useful educational purpose? Are libraries becoming downmarket Blockbusters? What will happen when this market changes and, as is already happening, movies are readily available on demand. As expenditure increases are libraries driving themselves into the rump-end of a crowded and doomed market?

Dying breed?
It strikes me that public libraries are indeed a dying breed. The website’s own comment bravely predicts, and I quote from the sites own statistical report, if the present rate of decline continues, the adult lending library may become a thing of the past in 15-20 years.”


Bishop Hill said...

There was an interesting article in the Good Library Blog which calculated the cost per loan for libraries in several London boroughs. I many, it would be cheaper to give people a book token and send them off to Waterstones.

My view is that there may be a future for libraries outside the public sector. A private sector operator would certainly get the costs under control, and could perhaps start to innovate and get the punters coming back.

It may well be

Martin M-B said...

It may be important to distinguish between age groups when talking about usage of libraries - for example, our local library (in Bath) is almost always thronged with people, especially at the weekends, and the Children's section is particularly busy (I have a 2-year old grandaughter who loves the library, so I have to declare a vested interest). There are regular 'social' activities such as story-telling (always involving parents) and the internet terminals (free until now with a library card but about to be on charge) are in constant use. The library is also a mine of information about local history and other matters. I couldn't give you the statistics of usage and 'turnover', but I could not conceive of a city like ours without such a central and important facility; internet or no internet, it's an important part of the investment in our children's future, particularly in the very early years.

jay said...

Donald, it seems to me that libraries simply aren't keeping up with the times. Ninety percent of the volumes on the shelves are of interest to researchers and no one else. Were a collection of all the reference books on the shelves of the nation's libraries scanned and indexed, a few terminals could replace the deep reference function. Call it the Long Tail archive.

What to do with the all the new space? For one, we could admit that knowledge resides in networks, not in books, and make libraries into meeting spaces.

How to pay for the conversion? Give Borders a franchise for a fee. See a new book that had been checked out? The library will sell you a copy.

Donald Clark said...

Intersting ideas here on private sector involvement. I much prefer going to Borders or Waterstones to have a coffee and there's always lots of parents with children in the kids area. It's altogether much more comfortable with a better stock of books,

It's liked but worth stating waht the true cost of borring is. The average cost of borrowing a book in the central London boroughs in 2005/6 was

Camden £11.50
Greenwich £7.14
Hackney £10.07
Hammersmith £6.63
Islington £10.46
Kensington £8.54
Lambeth £10.29
Lewisham £5.77
Southwark £6.89
Tower Hamlets £9.90
Wandsworth £3.64
Westminster £5.91

The figure is calculated by taking the total gross expenditure on the library service in that year, in the borough and dividing it by the total number of book issues in the year. Sure, there's other activities in libraries but it's still shockingly expensive.

Mark Frank said...

It only takes a bit of imagination, and that doesn't have to be private sector. Libraries just need to expand their role and modernise a bit. Martinmb gives some good examples. Our libraries (Hants) are internet enabled so you can reserve/renew etc at any time from home. I find that makes them really attractive. Reserve the book you want and then pick it up when it is available. At Gosport the library has been extended to become a "Discovery Centre" so it is a mixture of libary, museum and exhibition centre.

Incidentally I am told the reason that book borrowing is down is nothing to do with new media. It is because new books are so cheap. So at least we are still reading.

Anonymous said...

Surely that's the problem - they mostly lack imagination. As long as they're run by 'librarians' you're unlikely to get the sort of imaginative marketing that made Borders etc so successful.

I agree that cheap books have hit borrowing - this is why it makes no sense at all to subsidise a system where it cost more to borrow than to buy a new book.

Pblic subsidoes would be better spent in partnership with the private sector as earlier comments suggest. In terms of inclusion, where better to have the service than where the shops are. We'd have the best of both worlds.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Tim Coates, who ran Waterstones and, in England, set the new direction for bookshops, remains a public library enthusiast. See, for example, his recently published manifesto for public libraries on the above-mentioned Good Library Blog. What strikes me about the data that Donald refers to is how very varied it is. If it is the case that some public libraries are not at all "in terminal decline", then do these libraries not show a way forward?

Anonymous said...

The data is clear over the ten years in terms of general trends. The game seems to be up for book borrowing which has reached levels of subsidy way beyond what is reasonable.

The worrying thing is the drift towards DVD rental. This is a road to nowhere.

Reconceptualised libraries seem take things so far away rom the concept of a library that we'd be as well abandoning the term.

Anonymous said...

The demand for libraries is as great or even greater than it ever has been. As one of your correspondents says this is particularly obvious among children and older people - but there is also a need for students (or people involved in "life long learning") - not only for somewhere to find books and information but also for somewhere quiet and dignified to work. All the market research shows that people want libraries with good collections, long opening hours and decent, clean, attractive safe buildings.

Unfortunately while- as you have observed with now £1.3bn pa to spend - there is masses of money, very little of it is spent on those three priorities. The greatest wastage of all is in huge administrative overhead both in library services and also in councils. (The over expenditure isn't really on DVD's or computers etc- those are relatively small amounts.)

It is difficult to see how a private sector model could work-- none of the income is connected to how well the service is run or how successful it is with the public. Borders and Waterstone's would not regard it as core business and the amount of return they would make is essentially by negotiation with councils who are awkward to deal with and that is not what those companies do.

There is no real reason why the service shouldn't work and meet the needs of people, but the management is currently very confused and pulled in different directions by agendas that really do conflict. Leadership and clarity of purpose are the ingredients, but as you will see if you visit those are in very short supply.

Anonymous said...

The data doesn't really suggest that demand is greater than it's ever been. However I agree with your diagnosis. The huge administrative overhead is a criminal waste of money. Unfortunately, giving these people the money to spend is tantamount to wating the money. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

I'm not so sutre that the private sector has no role to play - they do, after all, publish all the books and most of the journals. all of the DVDs and other media. The do build the buildings and provide all the heating, light and services. teh make the chairs and tables. Them only thinbg left are the inefficient public librarians an council employees.

The system of 'fines' is also antiquated.people are busy, they forget, then hold onto the books forever and don't go back. It's another criminal waste of time and money.

I am impressed with the way Borders hold book readings, have excellent cafe facilities, offer comfortable seating, have a play area for children and generally provide a pleasant atmosphere. I would personally support the direct subsidy of buying books. There's some great research around the beneficial effects of books in the home (not just borrowed) and its impact on children, reading and general educational attainment. let's get people to have a library in their own home.

Much more could be made of direct Amazon vouchers in education and management training. We need to get books into the hands of children, not on a temporary basis, but permanently.

Note that the entire discussion has been around 'public'libraries and, as you rightly say, students, especially given the increases in student numbers, need library resources. The data for Higher Education is separate from the 'public libraries' data.

Rosie Sherry said...

So there has been a trend for people to buy books rather than go to the library. This is certainly what I do. How many of these books end up untouched for years on your bookshelf?

Second hand books don't hold much value. If you're not going to use them why not donate them to a library that could?

Why does everything have to be down to the government to fund or private sector to profit. We as a community should be helping each other out.

I could take it to the next stage of climate change. We need to stopping consuming so much, donating unused items (such as books to a library) is a great way to contribute.

Rosie Sherry
Driven Systems

Anonymous said...

Excellent idea. I give my old kids books to my local school. I suppose I'd favour donations going to local schools. Indeed, the school library as public library seems like a reasonable idea. Schools are based in the community and a library/drop-in centre for coffee would be ideal.

This would act as a bridge between the school and the community, something that's badly needed.