Carnegie UK Trust Report on Public Libraries- April 2017 – “Shining a light”
Formal complaint to the Trustees of the Carnegie UK Trust- by Tim Coates April 2017
My complaint is that the report ‘Shining a Light’ seriously avoids the truth of what is happening in public libraries. It omits evidence of long term decline it should have included. It fails to draw the right conclusions from data in the research it has carried out.
It should be withdrawn and changes made in the operation of the Trust in respect of their future work on public libraries
The danger is that poor management of the public library service is reinforced.
This complaint is absolutely not directed in any sense at all at Ipsos Mori who were commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust to carry out research.
Tim Coates is a former managing director of Waterstone’s, Sherratt and Hughes, Websters Bookshops, the London Bookshed, Bilbary Ltd and of WH Smith in Europe. He is also former UK general manager of YBP (UK), the leading supplier of academic books to libraries worldwide. He is a consultant who has advised in the public library and academic library sectors in the UK and in the US for eighteen years. He is an expert on book industry supply chains. He gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee on libraries in 2005, which was used extensively in the report of the committee. He is a graduate of both Oxford and Stirling Universities, from the latter of which he holds a master’s degree in Management Economics. He is a published author and the editor of two series of titles of the history of the UK and the US: ‘Uncovered Editions’ and ‘Moments of History’. He is the author of the report ‘Who’s in Charge? responsibility for the public library service (2002)’. He is currently an active contracted advising consultant to leading library vendors in the US on matters of both digital and print supply of material to libraries. He works in New York, California and London.
The report published in the name of the Carnegie UK Trust called ‘Shining a Light’ avoids the factual evidence of the essential, continuous and destructive decline of use in public libraries in the UK. It draws conclusions without evidence; it fails to highlight key findings; it has not researched the views of lapsed users (which are the most important group of consumers in a time of decline) and it is misleading in its summary. It is too closely aligned with the management groups who operate public libraries and their policies, who have generally failed to stem the decline. It does not correctly identify the general view, need and opinion of the public and their desire for the benefit of public libraries. On these grounds its policy advice is flawed.
This complaint centres on the avoidance of important available evidence and three pieces of information that are contained in the research but wrongly described in the report
- The data that has been omitted are the CIPFA annual reports on library usage, drawn directly from local councils and the CIPFA PLUS (public library user surveys) that are conducted regularly in local councils.
- The first piece of evidence in the data in the report which is wrongly described is that a large number of people understand the importance of public libraries, but only a small portion of those find within them what they need. The report wrongly draws the conclusion that therefore people need more personal service. There is no evidence for that conclusion. But the gap between the theoretical importance of libraries and the actual satisfaction they give, should provide the opportunity to finding out exactly where the disappointment lies. It could be and probably is the reason why use of the service continues to fall. It provides an agenda for constructive management action in a way that the report has not underlined or hardly mentioned
- The second piece of evidence is the finding that is not sufficiently emphasised is that only 6% of library use is of computers and 70-80% is dependent on the quality of available printed reading material in the library Public Library User Surveys of 10 years ago show that the figure for computer use was then was about 15-20%: it has declined dramatically in ten years (Table 4.1)
- The third piece of information in the report that is not given sufficient weight is that among library users the single improvement they seek most is an improvement in the range of books available when they visit and online (Data booklet page 44)
- In simple terms the significance of these findings is that the comments we so often hear from local councillors, library professionals and government officers that ‘library use is changing’ and that ‘we need to emphasise that libraries are not just about books’ are misleading for both the public and for library managers. Those officials imply that increasingly the public use libraries to access the computers and reading in digital forms that are available and that libraries should concentrate less on their book collections and pursue other activities than book reading. This research shows that the opposite is true. Use of computers in public libraries is less than half what it was a decade ago. It is a very small part of library use. What matters to users are the collections of available printed material when they visit and their ability to obtain quickly what they need. Improving these features is the key to increasing use. That is a really important management finding that the report fails to highlight or even mention.
- The report should be withdrawn immediately and its findings and conclusions be re-written
- The Trust should change its relationship with the library profession and management so that it is not so closely associated with them and it can be more objective in its work
1. The decline in numbers of visits and book issues in all countries in the UK has been going on relentlessly for over twenty five years. That is the evidence reported annually by councils responsible for the operation. It has been noted in many government and independent reports. There is no diminution in the rate of decline and it is particular to the UK as is shown in the attached set of 4 slides (page 7 and 8) which are taken from published data. No management action of those twenty-five years has stemmed the decline, let alone reversed it. The report does not show this long term evidence. It should.
- The effect of the decline in use is now to be seen in councils closing libraries, handing them to volunteers and hollowing out the service by reducing material collections and reducing opening hours, all of which activities cause further decline. It is therefore a downward spiral out of which it will be hard to move. The report does not mention these events, the reasoning behind them or causes of them, nor does it identify the consequences of them for the public
- From the public point of view therefore, and in the interests of the wellbeing potentially provided by libraries, any report into the state of libraries in the UK must start by honestly facing up to these problems
- The valid questions that can then be researched, from a public point of view, are
- What are the causes of decline?
- What are its consequences?
- Is there any mitigation?
- Is there any remedial action?
- Who can take action?
- What informs council decisions about libraries?
- Do councils fully understand the public need for public libraries?
- Do councils act fairly, economically, properly, legally and responsibly in response the public desire for libraries?
- The report ‘Shining a light’ does not attempt to address these issues.
Sections of the report
A. Policy report
- The ‘Foreword’ and the ‘Key Statistics’ that precede it, do not mention the general decline in use over the last twenty years. In the whole UK in that time, numbers of annual library visits per person have gone down by 37% and the number of books loaned per person per annum have gone done by 63%. Both visits and issues continue to decline. These are key and important pieces of relevant information that should have been shown. They are part of a proper and honest understanding of the state of the service.
- As a headline figure the report states that “Around half of people ..use the library”. Yet the DCMS taking part quarterly survey reports consistently and that the number of people using libraries is now below 35%. This is a huge difference. The difference is mentioned later in a section of the report comparing results but no reconciliation is offered between the two figures. It makes this report difficult to read.
- The ‘Introduction’ describes ‘two pictures’ of the public library service and a ‘debate’ between the two groups who have created those pictures: one of decline, the other of positive innovation. The truth, however is that both these groups have particular interests and are not typical of people who use, no longer use or do not use libraries. As in all consumer matters, the general view of the public is silently expressed – by use or non-use. That is what matters most. That is the purpose of research. It is not the public debate that should concern management and the Carnegie UK Trust but rather the public use as shown in actual usage figures.
4. The ‘introduction’ lists 5 ‘lessons’ which, it says ‘are drawn directly from the data’.
‘(The library service should) demonstrate value to policy- makers, decision- makers and funders to maximise public and other investment’’. There is absolutely nothing in the evidence in the report from which this conclusion can be drawn … nor is it likely to be something that would cross the mind of library users. Nor is it a function of libraries described in the 1964 Act which generally legislates for library funding. The 1964 Act defines the value of libraries as being to individuals – not to policy makers or local councils. There is a huge and important difference. It is misleading to signal this as a lesson drawn from research when it is not.
‘(Libraries should) increase focus on tailored personalised services… ‘. This is a prejudiced and incorrect reading of the responses in the research which do not say this at all. Common sense shows that respondents to the research questions are saying that ‘libraries are a good thing in principle but my current experience is that they don’t provide what I need’. That is not the same as saying that ‘libraries should focus on tailored personal service’ (whatever that may imply). An editor should have questioned the whole assertion in this paragraph
The finding, however, – which stands out in the evidence – that ‘libraries are important but they currently do not provide what I need’ is an absolutely crucial piece of information that should have been heavily underlined in the introduction to and the headline of this report. It could have led to very useful and constructive further work to find out what is meant and why this is true – but that opportunity is not clearly expressed, anywhere in the report. That is a major omission.
‘(Libraries should) accelerate the development of a strong online presence ‘. Library managers have been saying they should develop a strong online service for twenty years and the key point in this research is that the respondents are clearly saying that the library service has not achieved anything so far of which they are aware. That needs to be said, because whatever management mechanisms are in place, they clearly are not working effectively. That is the lesson that should have been underlined.
‘(Libraries should) invest in innovation, leadership and outcomes based partnerships ‘. There is nothing in the research from which this conclusion could be drawn. From a users’ point of view, it is obscure government management jargon, which merely implies that the management of the services is lacking in obvious basic abilities. It would be better simply to say ‘management of the service needs to be improved’ and describe what that means in words related to the research.
‘(Libraries should) enhance learning between libraries and across jurisdictions (countries)’. This implies that in some places there are practices that could be used in other places. However, there is nothing in the evidence presented that shows that there is any good practice that is worth sharing or where it might be. Nor does such evidence exist anywhere else. Evidence – which is available (for example see former MLA reports) – certainly shows that projects of ‘peer review and learning’ in the library sector have generally been a failure – and if that evidence had been looked at it would have raised a question about whether this is key ‘lesson’ at all. It should not have been included
B. Ipsos Mori comparison with other available data
- Ipsos Mori are a highly reputable market research company of international standing. They have worked for many years in the public library sector in the UK and have a fund of experience and information upon which to draw. Any criticism in this document of the report ‘Shining a light’ is not and cannot be a criticism of Ipsos Mori. If there are concerns about the report, they can only lie in the way that Ipsos Mori were briefed and how their information has been interpreted. Criticism falls on The Carnegie UK Trust.
- The report contains a section called ‘Secondary Analysis : comparing data…’ It asserts that Ipsos Mori were commissioned to ‘conduct secondary analysis of existing data sets .. in order to compare the Trust’s findings with existing data.’
- Yet the report contains no information derived from publications of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants’ (CIPFA) who have gathered detailed consistent library performance data from all councils responsible for libraries for more than thirty years. There is no data from the Public Library User (PLUS) surveys regularly conducted to a standard method devised by CIPFA. In fact these essential sets of data are ignored entirely by the report.
- The authors of the report say that in the case of Ireland the only available data is from council returns (historically through CIPFA) and then say – without any reasoning or further explanation- ‘therefore there is no data at national level’ – when clearly there is such data for each of the five countries (including Ireland) and it is very important.
- Moreover, it is disappointing that Ipsos Mori were not invited to draw on their experience of analysing the performance of individual library authorities or on their other research in the past twenty years. There is no mention that they were so requested and there is no indication that they did so.
- The data shown in the report from the research fundamentally contradicts the ‘secondary data ‘ (the DCMS taking part survey) and also the CIPFA data (table 2.2) and yet no explanation is offered for the discrepancies. (For example, in England the Carnegie research asserts that 46% of people have used libraries in the last 12 months and both Taking Part and CIPFA place the figure at nearer 35%. – and those differences appear in almost every table of data – that is a sizeable difference to which the report offers no useable explanation or reconciliation – it does bring into question the methods that have been briefed and used)
- This section of the report, which is not segmented into different types of library use, also shows that 70-80% of library use is dependent upon the reading materials available in the library. That is an absolutely essential piece of information that should have been highlighted in the introduction and summary of the report (Table 4.1) It is not mentioned anywhere by the author of the report.
- The report does not attempt to identify the views of lapsed library users. In a state of decline that is the obvious source of management information. It should have been part of the brief.
C. Data booklet : Recommendations for how libraries could improve
- The report has several tables suggesting ways that libraries could improve. In the data booklet pages 38-43 are devoted to tables listing ideas. But these tables do not distinguish between the views of people who use libraries already and people who don’t use them at all. The two sets cannot be mixed because the result of mixing can be misleading. It is like asking what improvements could be made to the facilities of a railway station and combining the views of people who use trains (who might want more regular trains and clearer timetables) and those who never travel by train (who might like to see the building turned into a leisure facility). It is not hard to see the danger of such confused presentation in the hands of a disinterested local councillor. In fact, we have seen good libraries (that needed more books and longer hours) turned into gymnasia simply because of this kind of confused analysis of the public need.
- Some of the suggestions thus described are hard to believe. For example page 43 of the same section says that about 40% of people suggest that libraries could benefit from improved ‘maker spaces’. It would be surprising if 40% of the population had ever heard the expression ‘maker space’ (which is a library specific term) and that in turn makes one wonder just what question they were asked. It certainly seems unlikely to have been a spontaneous response and that the question asked must have led to directly to that answer. And that in turn diminishes the value of the findings.
- Page 44 does present a one page analysis which indicates the views of users and non-users, but still lists them alongside each other. That says clearly that the leading suggestion from library users is that libraries need more books. That, too, should have been a headline of the report. It is a really important finding. It is not surprising. However, it is not mentioned anywhere in the summaries. It should have been. It is key to increasing use of libraries. It is also a point rarely made in government or local government documents.
- It will be far easier to persuade library users to increase their use than it will be to persuade non-users to visit the library and the two marketing questions about how to achieve these two separate objects are completely different. The two findings should have been presented separately.
- Pages 46-48 return to mixing the findings of users and non-users
- Nowhere is there an analysis of lapsed users. Lapsed users are the most informative group of all. When hearing their views we know that they have sufficiently valued the library in the past but now they do not – and they should be persuaded to give specific reasons. Lapsed users should have been the starting point, segmented by age.
- Appendix 1 in this section (page 52) – shows that the questions suggesting improvements are indeed leading questions with , but it is not clear from where the ideas put forward have come. If they have come from separate groups of users and non-users it would help to make that all much clearer. If they have come from the authors of the report, that, too should have been said.