Why the need for a campaign?
Public libraries have been in the news a lot recently, with a lot of people focussing on the diminishing use of public libraries in 21st century Britain. Voices for the Library are concerned that the full story is not being told.
According to the CIPFA statistics, 2009 was a pretty good year for public libraries. Although visits were once again down (by around 1%), book issues had increased from 307,571,240 to 310,776,757 (an increase of 1%). Yes, book issues actually went up in 2009. Julian Mund, CIPFA’s Director of Operations, commented:
‘It’s very encouraging to see from the CIPFA survey that books are continuing to play an important part in our children’s education. While many are now making use of online services, it’s clear that libraries remain as popular and relevant as ever.’
Although physical visits were down year-on-year – the figure which much coverage has been focussing on - visits via the library website have also shown notable growth over the period 2008-9. In fact, the number of web visits to UK libraries increasing by 49% over the previous year, up from 76,192,000 to 113,489,000. Pretty impressive results. What other services see a 50% increase in use and yet still face critics claiming that the service is in decline?
Of course, web visits aren’t considered the same as ‘physical visits’ even though this statistic explains a lot about why visits to the library have slightly declined in recent years. For example, many services now offered online once required a trip to the library itself. Take reservations for example. Whereas a reservation once required two trips to the library (one to place the reservation and one to collect it), with the provision of online reservations such a trip is no longer required. Clearly, this would clearly have an impact on ‘physical visits’ and it seems obvious that as more people switch to reserving online, so there will be a decline in visits.
Now consider the earlier statistic regarding the increase in book issues. It is not beyond reason to suggest that part of the reason for the increase in issues and decrease in visits is due to increasing numbers of people taking advantage of the ability to reserve books from home. After all, logging into a website and reserving books is far more convenient for some than making a trip to the library to reserve a book.
So, library visits may be declining but this is only half the story. Whilst physical visits were down, website access was massively up and there was an increase in books loans. What these latest statistics suggest is not a service in decline, but a service that is changing and developing to meet the needs of library users. Despite the constant refrain that libraries are in decline, the reality is that libraries are seeing an increase in usage, particularly through library websites. These are times of opportunity, not decline.