There's more to libraries than lending

<p>The headline figures for library visits and book issues for 2006&ndash;07, released last month by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance &amp; Accountancy (CIPFA), are not encouraging. The overall pattern is one of declining numbers both in general usage and specifically in book-borrowing, with a drop nationally of 1.4% in visits, down to 337.3 million, and book issues falling 2.6% overall to 314.7 million. Within that context, even the top performing libraries such as Norfolk &amp; Norwich's Millennium Library and Birmingham's Central Library are showing dips, though small, in their numbers year on year.</p>
<p>However, the decline is not uniform: children's book issues are up for the third year, according to figures supplied by The Reading Agency. Meanwhile, visitor statistics don't tell the whole story when much library activity now takes place outside the library building itself. And against the national decline, some councils&mdash;such as Stockton-on-Tees, Southend, Poole, Swindon and Leicester&mdash;have managed to buck the trend and increase their library usage and issue numbers. <i>The Bookseller</i> spoke to five library service managers about their strategies for meeting the challenge of improving their library offer and reaching out to engage readers in their area.<br />
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<p>The Norfolk and Norwich Millen&shy;nium Library is at the top of the league table in terms of both visits and issues, with 1.5 million visits in the 12 months to March 2007, and 1.16 million book issues across the year. However, that represents a small dip on the same figures the previous year, when visits were at 1.6 million and issues 1.1 million. Jan Holden, assistant head of library services for Norfolk, says the library has been able broadly to maintain its figures because of the high profile of libraries within Norfolk County Council.</p>
<p>&quot;They are very supportive of library services and of the initiatives we do, and their funding enables us to continue to develop our service and maintain our materials fund,&quot; Holden says.</p>
<p>In Norfolk, 75% of the materials budget goes on books, which are selected by library suppliers in a bid to free up librarians to go out and drum up users. Holden adds: &quot;About 84% of our fiction and 75% of our non-fiction is on the shelf in the library on the day of publication.&quot; There is also public involvement in book selection, particularly with young people, as the libraries work closely with schools and youth organisations. &quot;The skillset of our librarians is changing to meet the needs of our changing society&mdash;it is about engaging with people and making the library environment welcoming and attractive, moving away from the librarian as gatekeeper and towards the librarian as facilitator.&quot; Holden says that the materials budget covers both books and internet access sufficiently. &quot;We have more than 100 PCs for the public in the Millennium Library, but we are still a serious library and maintain our stock. I don't believe it's an either/or.&quot;</p>
<p>Holden says that despite the Millennium Library's lead showing in the league tables, the fact that visitor and issue numbers have dropped very slightly from the previous year's figures would be addressed. &quot;It's constant work. In order to maintain business, we have to look at it like a business&mdash;have a business plan, target and segment our market, promote, and produce evidence of outcomes to stakeholders, in our case the county council.&quot;<br />
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<p>Croydon Central Library is fourth in the league table of top 20 libraries by visits per year, with just over a million visits in the latest CIPFA report, very slightly down on 2005&ndash;06. At 15th in the table for the top 20 by issues, it has dropped from 544,000 in 2005&ndash;06 to 492,000 in the latest statistics.</p>
<p>Margaret Fraser, children's ser&shy;vices manager for Croydon Libraries, says: &quot;Croydon Central Library is in a good location, a big town centre site close to shopping and residential areas. We've a large stock, and over 100 public access computers which are incredibly popular and always in use. We have a strong children's service with lots of activities: in 2007 we had attendance of over 10,000 at Bookstart Rhymetimes, and we take part in the Summer Reading Challenge and last year held Teen Summer Reads for the first time.&quot;</p>
<p>Croydon is always looking for ways to extend what it offers library users, in tune with their needs, Fraser&shy; says. &quot;Last summer we introduced a library card for teenagers. We used to treat six-year-olds and 15-year-olds the same as regards borrowing privileges, but now teens can borrow items which incur a small fee&mdash;like DVDs&mdash;on their own ticket, without having to have a parent with them. They can also use the computers, and have longer booking times on them.&quot;</p>
<p>Croydon Libraries is also working in partnership with other parts of the council, such as the Extended Schools initiative. &quot;Library staff have always helped with homework, but now we employ dedicated homework helpers, with extended hours during half term and in the holidays. They help with how to find information and how to present your work.&quot; Other schemes include work with baby clinics and children's centres,&shy; an extensive school visits programme, and reading groups for adults, children and families. &quot;One of our libraries has a manga reading group,&quot; Fraser says.</p>
<p>Of the decline in book issues, Fraser says: &quot;It's a universal trend. Because of the online availability of book ordering, there's an upsurge in personal buying. Libraries have moved in other directions, particularly in terms of access to computers, but books still have a central importance. We are targeting an increase in library membership and use, especially&shy; with the National Year of Reading.&quot;<br />
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<p>The latest CIPFA statistics for Stoke-on-Trent show a very low annual total of 3,486 library visits made for each 1,000 of population, and just 2,775 library issues per 1,000. Ian Van Arkadie, library and archive services manager for Stoke-on-Trent, says the profile of the city's population affected the figures. &quot;Stoke is a city with issues around low educational attainment, deprivation and poverty. That can increase the use of libraries, and I would argue that it increases the importance of libraries, but if you have no interest in books and literacy, and low aspirations, the key driver to get you into libraries is gone.&quot;</p>
<p>Budget cuts across the council have also meant the library service has had to make major savings in funding, Van Arkadie says. &quot;We've had to cut back on opening hours, and we've never been able to afford Sunday opening.&quot;</p>
<p>However, he reports that visits and issues have improved considerably in the months since the cut-off point for the CIPFA figures (March 2007). &quot;We're going to go out and put libraries in people's faces. We have projects to re-engage with lapsed users, and to sign up all year three and four schoolchildren and make them library users. Librarians are taking books out to the schools, and then the schoolchildren are making reciprocal visits to libraries.&quot;</p>
<p>Stoke-on-Trent is also taking up national offers targeting those with low literacy levels, like BBC RaW and Six Book Challenge, and taking a &quot;proactive approach&quot; to the National&shy; Year of Reading.</p>
<p>Van Arkadie also criticises the limitations of the CIPFA statistics. &quot;A big problem I've always had with the indicator is that it takes no account of people who make contact [with our services] outside library buildings: storytelling in schools, creative writing classes, and other activities in the community.&quot; Stoke-on-Trent increasingly delivers library-run projects directly into the community, for example through a partnership with the Family Learning Outreach Programme, and with programmes for travellers.<br />
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<b>Stockton-on-Tees and Southend-on-Sea</b></p>
<p>Two councils that have bucked the national trend, showing the biggest percentage growth in book issues in the latest set of CIPFA statistics, are Stockton-on-Tees and Southend-on-Sea. In Stockton-on-Tees, issues have leapt more than 50% year-on-year to 4,920 per 1,000 of population, while in Southend-on-Sea, a rise nearly as big took issues from 5,100 to 7,599 per 1,000.</p>
<p>Laurayne Featherstone, library and information manager for Stockton Borough Libraries, says targeting local community needs is respons&shy;ible for the rise. &quot;We survey our user base. We have a well-developed community profile for each library and we're targeting different groups for each.&quot; Activities are held to attract local people, including bingo, competition clubs, coffee mornings and benefit advice meetings.</p>
<p>&quot;We've spent a long time on stock and displaying the books properly, and weeding the stock and removing all the stock that's not issuing.&quot; Performance management has also been a key element of the plan. &quot;It's not a league table, it's about best practice. Where people are doing well in one area, such as bringing teenagers in, we highlight them as the best at that, so that other people can go to them for advice,&quot; Featherstone says.</p>
<p>Chris Hayes, head of information and resources for Southend Libraries, says: &quot;Over the past few years we've built up events to encourage people who don't usually come to libraries. The Southend Book Festival has run for the past three years, and this year we've got Brian Sewell, Colin Dexter, Simon Brett and Virginia Ironside&mdash;popular people our customers will know from TV, radio and the media. We've held a Valentine's event for three years&mdash;it's speed-dating using books. People come along and read to one another, it's incredibly popular.&quot;</p>
<p>Hayes says Southend's strategy is about making libraries more accessible, providing an attractive environment and breaking down barriers. &quot;We're working with a local mental health group and visual impairment group to tell us what the barriers are, and for both we have reading groups aimed particularly at them. For the visually impaired, we use audiobooks. It's opening the reading group experience to people who might be excluded otherwise.&quot;<br />
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<b>Top libraries by visits per annum*</b><br />
Norfolk &amp; Norwich Millennium Library &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 1,506,344<br />
Central Library, Birmingham, &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 1,499,368<br />
Central Library, Manchester &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 1,079,724<br />
Croydon Central Library &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 1,033,410<br />
Jubilee Library, Brighton &amp; Hove &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 896,822<br />
County Library, Ipswich &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 868,088<br />
Blackburn Central Library &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 841,724<br />
Chesterfield Library, Derbyshire &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 783,933<br />
Wood Green Central Library, Haringey&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &nbsp;783,687<br />
Harris Library, Preston &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 758,472<br />
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<b>Top 10 libraries by issues per annum*</b><br />
Norfolk &amp; Norwich Millennium Library&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &nbsp;1,158,080<br />
Milton Keynes Central Library &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 771,588<br />
Chelmsford Library, Essex &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 713,308<br />
Jubilee Library, Brighton &amp; Hove &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 694,402<br />
Oxford Central Library &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 686,739<br />
Chesterfield Library, Derbyshire &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 667,869<br />
Southend Library, Southend &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 665,612<br />
Central Library, Birmingham &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 618,071<br />
Horsham Library, West Sussex &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 564,561<br />
Blackburn Central Library &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; 539,244<br />
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*2006&ndash;07 figures from CIPFA</p>