Simple public libraries

When I first became involved in public libraries, 20 years ago, about 325 million books were loaned to adults by libraries in England each year.

This year that figure is likely to be around 90 million.

By any measure that is an astonishing fall.  When no books at all are loaned, at some point within the next 10 years, there will be no point in having public libraries. They will be closed. They are already being shut down.

By allowing that to happen we will be alone in nations in the world to have no public library service.  From a time when our library service earned international respect, it has become a horror to others.

Yet when I search the dozens of reports of different committees over many years and even the proceedings of the current Libraries Task Force and the library profession, there is rarely any serious expression of concern about falling use and certainly no effective remedy has ever been offered.

Use of libraries has fallen every year since 1992.

Nobody seems to understand why it has happened. Most of the hypotheses are not based on evidence and upon examination they are completely wrong. People have not stopped reading, as we are often told by local councillors. Children do not spend all their time playing games and watching television. Information and culture do not all lie in the internet. A free book is still worth having and so is a free newspaper. And particularly, contrary to what government reports tell us, those people who do still use libraries use them in almost exactly the same way as they did 25 years ago. The way people use libraries has not ‘changed’:  but the number of people using them has gone down.

I think the answer to why usage falls lies entirely in the available figures and the data about what libraries do and how they perform.

In a consumer service, like a public library, use will go down if you don't offer what people want. Either their need has changed from what you thought - or you aren't offering them a good enough service in competition with other people offering something similar.

About 80% of library users are seeking reading material or information in some form or other. They do it for their own perceived benefit. They do not use libraries for the good of society, their community, the economy or any other collective good. They use them principally for themselves and their families.

That is the need that was foreseen in the 1964 Libraries Act and it was correct. "Libraries are provided for the benefit of those who wish to use them." They are not provided to benefit the policies of central government or the strategies of local councils.

Local and national government reports repeatedly tell us that they must justify the expenditure on them by demonstrating their economic and social value to society and particularly to local councils and departments of central government.

That is wrong. The only justification is that people use them. They are able to perceive the benefit themselves in their payment of the taxes that support them. They don’t need a report to tell them if they are useful. They decide that when they choose to use them, or not to use them.

Similarly, a local councillor does not need a theoretical economic argument to judge whether his or her constituents value their local libraries enough to use them. It is obvious. The evidence is in the weekly usage figures.

But when use goes down, a councillor should not assume that is because people don’t want the service - they should start first by examining whether the service is what people want and as good as it should be. Normally, sadly, these days, it isn’t. Councillors should look at the figures before telling us how wonderful their libraries are. They rarely do.

The evidence for cause in falling use lies in the Public Library User Surveys which have been conducted on a regular basis across the country for over 30 years.  There was a slight change in patterns of use about 15 years ago when internet terminals were introduced into branch libraries. At their peak, about 20% of library use was of these computers and the use of libraries for books and information fell to about 65-70%. The use of computers has fallen since then back down to about 5% - and the figure for book use has gone back up to about 80%. That recent figure was echoed in this year’s Carnegie Trust report conducted by Ipsos Mori.

Use of books and the level of reading in the general population has not changed in 40 years. About 60-65% of people actually read in some form fairly regularly (women slightly more than men). That figure is evidenced both by government statistics and by regular publishing industry data. Occasionally people express horror that 30% of people don't read, but there is a fairly steady hard core who just aren't interested and trying to persuade them is like selling petrol to people without cars.

Of course, there is always the important need to encourage children and people with difficulty to read - but schools, families and even book stores and television tend to be much better at doing that than libraries are now.

We frequently read of the success of the children’s publishing industry. In this country, we have been blessed with an array of some of the most wonderful children’s storytellers for many years. But their brilliant vibrancy is not conveyed by our public libraries. For many years the use of children’s libraries remained steady, but in the last four years it has fallen like a rock down a mountain, particularly in our largest cities.

We are told that libraries contribute to social welfare and play a role in ‘crossing the digital divide’.  There is no evidence at all for these claims. Libraries are hardly effective at providing internet literacy (or any other social services) - they just don't work out who their target groups are and focus on them in a practical way. That is not what they are good at. Internet literacy is learned in schools and families and in social fora and only very occasionally in any kind of adult learning initiative in a library.

There is little evidence that libraries have 'impact' of any kind, except as providers of books and information. There have been repeated and endless initiatives to devise ‘impact measures’ but they have all failed because there is none that anyone can measure credibly.

That's why I keep saying (in a rather hard-nosed and repetitive way, I admit) that the collections of and access to books and other reading material are the essential core ingredient of the library service. That is where the concentration of effort should be if we are to save them from obliteration.

The benefit a library provides is that it allows people to read extensively, and for free, work which they would not otherwise be able to. It’s that simple.

Then the question for a library is as straightforward as that faced by any retailer: have they got what people want?

In the field in which libraries operate, reading falls into a number of groups: new information, new books, old but valued writing, local work and more. Nowadays people want to fulfil their reading needs quickly, even instantly.

In order to have what people want you have constantly to make sure those categories are of high quality - and some of them change all the time. Service has to be fast. These are not easy tasks. If you don't add to your collections every week, you fall behind the public need. If your supply lines aren’t efficient, people won’t use you. Libraries have failed to buy enough books to keep all their collections up to date - and that is (obviously) why they no longer satisfy the demand.  That has been true since I first looked at a council in detail 20 years ago. It was bad then, and it has got much worse since. The public library supply chain is about as old-fashioned as a Tudor ruff.

The library response to falling demand has been the exact opposite of what it should have been. If you find use of a collection is falling, you need to improve it. In fact, librarians when faced with falling use, reduce the stock. Of course, that makes the situation worse, but that is their method.

So, my constant recital of the need to improve the book collections isn't an emotional or high flown literary response - it is that of someone who for 40 years has had the job of getting people to read book collections. It’s just plain practical hard learned experience. And whenever a council has taken steps to improve the book collections properly, then use of the service goes up spectacularly and instantly.

We have made the provision too complicated: there is plenty of resource, there is plenty of money, there is plenty of demand, the reputation of libraries ‘as an idea’ is still very good (although in practice in the UK, most people don't think the ones in their area are worth using) -  we just don't use what we have to the best effect. We now only spend about 5% of our library budgets on stocks of books. That is plainly ridiculous. The figure should be at least 10% - and probably 15-20%.

The problem has nothing to do with funding models, trusts, or any of those things, or those structural issues about which we hear so much.  Such initiatives can too easily turn out to be a fruitless waste of time, unless someone has addressed the fundamental issue in each local library thoroughly first.

We hear the constant cry that the problem is that libraries are failing because they are short of funds and their allocations have been cut. That doesn’t bear examination either. The falling use has been happening for 30 years at least. It is not related to the cutting of budgets in the past five years or so.  The service receives around £850m each year to operate about 3,000 public libraries. That is £280,000 per library which is more than enough. It is true there are some potentially very good large libraries, but most of them are small buildings that were paid for years ago and many are handsome. The property costs, compared to a prime retail estate, are very small. Ten years ago, there was a huge amount of wasted money in arcane practice and overhead. It needed to be cut. The problem was that no one gave sensible advice how to reduce budgets and still improve the quality of the service to the public. That could have been done but wasn’t.

I think it is unfair to ask taxpayers to pay more for libraries until we know that the people who manage them will spend the money correctly. Until that is a certainty, and has been demonstrated, nobody should sensibly give or seek public funding for a service operated as it is.

Tim Coates was head of Waterstones, WH Smith in Europe and YBP, the international academic book provider in the UK. He has worked in the library sector since 1997. He currently leads a US based project to improve the supply of digital content to international academic and public libraries. He is a published author.