The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the government body responsible for libraries in England and Wales, has issued a “statistical release” in partnership with the UK Arts Council, “Taking Part focus on: libraries.” The new release states that: “In the year ending September 2015, 33.9 per cent of all adults had used a public library service in the 12 months prior to being interviewed. This is a significant decrease since data collection began in 2005/06.” The actual figure quoted for the falloff in UK library usage over the past decade is 14.3 percent, with some demographics showing greater falloffs – for instance, 16-to-24-year-olds registering a dropoff closer to 25 percent.
The release also states that: “The most common reason for a decline in library use was
having less free time, cited by 25 per cent of adults whose frequency of use decreased… A further 17 per cent of adults said that their reduced use of library services was due to buying or getting books elsewhere and 12 per cent said that they were now reading E-books instead.”
The issue with this release is not so much the accuracy of the data itself as the source – and the context, including the timing. Contrast the BBC’s March 2016 dataset on “the extent of losses to public library services and paid staff since 2010” picked up by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), the UK’s professional body for librarians. CILIP Chief Executive Nick Poole said of these figures: “The BBC has responded with a comprehensive investigation to evidence the scale and nature of changes to the public library service over the past 5 years, which independently verifies data and figures about services nationally that had previously been contested. The statistics published by the BBC today, showing the closure of 342 UK public libraries and the loss of a quarter of paid library staff jobs since 2010, demonstrate again the damage caused by hastily implemented austerity and devolution policies without a robust strategic plan for libraries.”
Remember also that CILIP helmed a campaign for a vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey, then UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries with responsibility for libraries, for his failure of his statutory duty to ensure proper library services. Vaizey’s successor in the office, John Whittingdale, is currently courting controversy over the renewal of the charter for the BBC – an institution that arguably rivals libraries and librarians in public esteem, and comes way ahead of politicians. Hence, almost any communications coming out of this Department are open to suspicion as being more or less politicized. And the report’s debut just one month after the BBC’s dataset is, to say the least, striking. Plus, it’s a total no-brainer to conclude that the reason people use libraries less is because there are less libraries to use.
So what purpose could the statistical release serve? Surely not a pretext to cut funding for libraries further, on the grounds that fewer people are using them? Or to legitimize the government’s lack of support for library services, on the same basis? Anyway, for those who feel ready to take the statistics at face value, the report is rich in detail.