Tag Archives: book stock

Libraries in danger – a different angle

Chair of the Historic Libraries Forum, Katie Flanagan, provided us with the following guest post regarding the management of historic book collections in libraries.


Repeatedly we’ve seen reports in the media about public libraries selling off their rare book collections (often referred to as “antiquarian books” or “historic books”). Although the Historic Libraries Forum, alongside other bodies, tries to offer advice to all kinds of libraries with historic collections, we are sometimes too late hearing about the sale to be able to prevent the loss of the books overseas and/or into private hands. We approached Voices for the Library as a way of reaching out to public libraries with these collections, hopefully to offer advice and support before collections have to be sold, and prevent the negative publicity that often results for these libraries.

What are these collections? Many public libraries have some older books (published before 1850, although some may be more recent). Often they may be part of a “hidden collection”, languishing in a cupboard or basement, uncatalogued and therefore not used. Sometimes they were given to the library as a donation by someone with local connections; sometimes they were purchased by former librarians as a resource, intended for the use of local people.

Books like these aren’t like 20th and 21st century textbooks, to be weeded when a new edition comes along, so the principles of collection management that apply to the main parts of the library’s collection don’t apply here. Even if the “same” book appears in the collection in a later edition, the earlier one represents a different version, an important element of its printing history, and not simply an out-of-date edition. These books are not only interesting because of their content. Early printed books weren’t bound uniformly before being sold, as books are now, so each binding is unique to the book, and represents a resource for historians. Another growth area of study is the history of reading, ownership of the books themselves and how books were used. This can be traced through ownership marks (called “provenance”), such as book-plates, inscriptions and annotations on the text.

To a public library facing the current economic challenges, the decision of how to deal with books like these may seem obvious. Selling them off removes books that are taking up space, perhaps not being used and raises money for the library. But it isn’t as simple as this. Selling off rare or historical books can be a short-sighted measure, particularly (as we have seen lately) if the proceeds are put towards acquiring new technology that will itself be out-of-date in a few years. Moreover, books that were given to the library as a bequest often came with conditions attached: for example, that the collection be maintained complete and in perpetuity for the use of the people of the town. Conditions such as these still hold, even centuries later.

As a resource, a collection of books given as a bequest is far more valuable together than split into separate lots because of what they can tell us about how people collected. Some public libraries have been able to realise this value in a variety of ways. Manchester Public Library, for instance, has placed images from their rare books and special collections on Flickr, as well as welcoming anyone who wants to see them in person. Rare books from Cardiff public library now have a safe home at Cardiff University, where they can still be accessed by local people, as well as used for research. Obviously, collections that aren’t catalogued aren’t accessible, as how can people know that they are there? They may not be included in the library catalogue, but they may have been catalogued in the past and included in union catalogues such as the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) or the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).

What can you do if your library owns some rare books? Advice about promotion, cataloguing and conservation are available from a number of bodies, including the Historic Libraries Forum, the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and the Bibliographical Society. If your library is struggling to provide suitable storage for books like these often a satisfactory conclusion can be reached through making contacts at a local university library, thus ensuring the books still remain accessible to the local population. The CILIP RBSCG has a Disposals policy freely available on its website, which includes advice about ensuring access to the books continues into the future.

Katie Flanagan

Chair, Historic Libraries Forum

Library usage – worse to come unless councils change course

Seattle Central public library on the day it was opened - there is another way for library authorities (image c/o Kateoo on Flickr).

Yesterday, public library statistics collected by CIPFA were released, covering a range of aspects of the service.  Amongst these statistics, it was revealed that book loans had decreased in 2010/11 to just over 300 million issues – a decline of around 9 million issues in a year.  These figures are particularly significant as in the previous years library issues had remained stable.  In fact, both 2008/9 and 2009/10 saw higher book issues than in 2007/8.  So, after two years of stabilisation (if not slight growth), why has there been a sudden drop in book issues now?

The answer is, of course, obvious. Since the 2009/10 figures were reported, there has been a steady and determined assault on our public libraries.  Staff have been subject to ‘brutal’ cuts in numerous councils across the country.  Fewer trained staff leads to a decline in the quality of the service and consequently a decline in the number of people who use it. And it is not just staffing levels that have been hit.

Book funds have also been drastically cut.  Take Gloucestershire, for example, in August last year it was revealed that their book fund would be slashed by 40% – a cut of over £200,000.  The latest figures reveal that across the country book stock acquisitions have dramatically declined – purchase of adult non-fiction declined by as much as 14%.  It is obvious that such cuts would impact on the number of books issued across the country.  No-one could reasonably expect an increase in issues when the book fund has been slashed to such an extent.

Opening hours are also responsible for a decline in book issues.   Library opening hours have been slashed in a number of authorities in a bid to save money.  Of course, all such cuts actually achieve is to make it more difficult for local people to make use of the service which obviously has a knock-on effect in terms of usage.  A library is not going to be used more if it is open less.

Finally, and most obviously, the closure of libraries has a substantial impact on the number of people visiting library or borrowing books from them.  According to our partner site, Public Libraries News, thirty three libraries have closed in the period that these statistics cover.  Contrary to the beliefs of some councillors, people do not simply use their next nearest library when their local one closes [PDF].  For many people, the closure of their local library means they no longer have access to a service they rely on.

Of course, it is no surprise that under these conditions book issues have declined to such an extent.  Unfortunately for library users this means that councils will continue to embark on decisions that will destroy our public library service.  An apparent decline in usage will be seen by councillors as the ammunition they need to claim libraries are no longer required and push forward with their programmes of cuts and closures.  Continued cuts and closures will, in turn, lead to further declines in usage and issues…and so the cycle continues, destroying our public library network.  It is noticeable that where there has been investment in libraries there have been record levels of usage.  As long as councils continue to turn their backs on the library service, the decline that the CIPFA figures demonstrate will only worsen.  Reductions in hours, staffing or book stock is simply destroying the library service by stealth.  Library usage does not need to decline but it is down to short-sighted councillors that they continue to do so.