Lack of digital library investment 'pushing' users away

Lack of digital library investment 'pushing' users away

A draft report commissioned by the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) has said £20m should be invested in digital services over the next three years to prevent libraries from becoming “soup kitchens for the written word.”

The report, entitled 'Essential Digital Infrastructure for Public Libraries in England' and conducted by Bibliocommons, a commercial provider of library software systems, says libraries are “pushing" users away by their lack of investment in digital technology.

However, library campaigners, including former Waterstones boss Tim Coates, have criticised the draft report as "vexatious" for portraying libraries as "no longer being predominantly about books."

The draft document outlines the possibilities of digital development for public libraries in England and is intended to help libraries identify the changes to technology needed to “provide leverage and cohesiveness” for library services, and to meet the demands of users who journey "online and off" to the institutions.

The official report will be published in October.

The dossier says the advancement of digital technology has “disrupted everything” and has not been “kind to libraries”. It cites the demises of Borders, Blockbusters and HMV as “visible reminders of the potential peril of under-investing in digital.”

It said: "It's not that our users are leaving the library as their lives move online. It's that we are pushing them away, failing to serve those who need us most and losing the interest of those who have the luxury of choice.

“Libraries must not become soup kitchens for the written word, stigmatized spaces used only by those with no alternative. Our research suggests there is ample opportunity for public libraries to continue to do so with an enriched digital offer.”

The document proposes investing £20m in digital services over three years - an amount it claims is "dwarfed" by the £80m annually that England's libraries spend on branch visits. The report claims that over 25% of "visits" to libraries are online but digital services receive less than 1% of the budget, which has resulted in the existing digital infrastructure of English libraries "creating waste and redundancies throughout the system".

Ciara Eastell, president of SCL, said: “We can no longer think of a digital offer as something optional or separate; it needs to be central to our thinking, as part of every offer going forward.”

On Tuesday (15th September), the SCL held a workshop on the Unified Digital Presence hosted by the British Library, which explores the need to develop and fund a single digital presence for libraries, to bring together all the content that is available under one roof.

Representatives from the BBC, Publishers Association, British Library, SCL, The Reading Agency, various public library services, National Archives, Arts Council and others attended.

Eastell told The Bookseller that there had been "strong support" for taking this initiative forward.

"It would be an invaluable resource for public library customers and potential customers, and highlight the vast resources and support that libraries offer for free,” she said.

The Bibliocommons report also highlighted that adult books loans had been the largest decline of library use over the last two decades, with the research attributing the drop to the "digital disruption". The document concludes that for most people, access to free books is no longer a reason to visit libraries.

However, according to Tim Coates, former Waterstones boss and library campaigner, SCL & Bibliocommons' attempts to "portray libraries as no longer being predominantly about books" is both "vexatious" and "irresponsible".

He said that Public Library User Surveys "regularly report that 70-80% of the people in a library on any day are there for printed material - books, newspapers for borrowing or reading, for adults or children."

He added: "It is not only wrong of Bibliocommons to report that 'most' visits to the library are not for books, but also wrong of them to deduce that the decline in use of libraries has been cause by the failure to address digital matters."

Essential Digital Infrastructure for Public Libraries in England was commissioned by SCL, with funding from Arts Council England and prepared by Bibliocommons. The final report will be published in October.