Published on 11 September 2018
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Why are the UK’s public libraries declining?

Joan O’Bryan, MPP student, writes on her placement at the Libraries Taskforce at DCMS. Looking at the data on library statistics, she explored the truth of decline in attendance, and why the correlation between lapsed visits and expenditure may be more complicated than first thought.

The highlight of my master’s program was my work placement at DCMS. I spent four weeks with the Libraries Taskforce, learning about local library service provision and data analysis.

My coursework at Cambridge has largely centered on “evidence-based policy,” which is a form of government practice that emphasises the need for rigorous data analysis before making policy decisions. The best part of my work with the Libraries Taskforce was getting to see a real-life situation in which evidence (the data), the public discourse, and government policy interact.

I worked with one of the most referenced sources of data on British public libraries: the CIPFA Public Libraries statistics sheets. The data in these sheets is collected by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting (CIPFA) and is used by many library stakeholders to understand and make decisions about public libraries in England.

However, the data has not been structured for easy access, so a lot of the analysis relied on in public discussions has been relatively superficial. For instance, the CIPFA data shows that libraries are declining in use, such as visits and book issues, but there hasn’t been any analysis on why those trends are occurring or how some library services are fighting against them.

Common explanations for decline

For my project, I used the CIPFA statistics sheets from the past decade to create an excel database, from which I could analyse in more depth some of the most common hypotheses posited for the decline in library use in England. My report looked in depth at seven arguments:

1.     The ‘cuts’ argument: declining investment makes for lower quality product, resulting in declining repeat use.

2.     The ‘failure to modernise’ argument: library leaders have failed to innovate in response to changes in service demand, which prevents the acquisition of new users and hinders repeat use.

3.     The ‘time-poor’ argument: usage has declined because libraries face increased competition with a wider range of leisure-time options and work commitments.

4.     The ‘digital shift’ argument: changes in consumer behaviour, and particularly channel shift away from print and towards digital, have left the ‘physical library’ obsolete.

5.     The ‘changing use’ argument: the way people use libraries is changing, but current metrics are failing to pick up these patterns of altered use.

6.     The ‘failure to market’ argument: library leaders have neglected targeted marketing to engage traditional non-users and new customers.

7.     The ‘fragmentation’ argument: devolution by the national government has made it difficult to manage and strategize across English libraries (as one would a national retail chain).

To analyse them, I divided the library services into quintiles and examined the effect of different variables on library service performance.

For instance, when exploring the cuts argument, I compared library expenditure against book issues and visits.

I was trying to answer the question: “Do declining expenditures explain declining library performance?”

Joan graph 1

Overall, expenditure seemed highly correlated with performance. Across library services in England, when expenditure decreased, so did visits and issues.

However, the picture becomes more complex when we look at the quintiles.

Joan graph 2

The first thing you’ll notice is that the top quintile in visits completely bucks the trend of overall decline. The second thing you’ll see is that they do so despite decreases to their expenditures.

In the bottom quintile, the trends are far more similar to the national trends. Expenditure declines and declines in visits are highly correlated.

Joan graph 3

The top quintile in visits had a somewhat better average percent change than in the bottom quintile (-27% versus -36%), a difference of 9 points, but their average percent change in visits (5% versus -56%) was much higher, resulting in an over 60-point difference.

What does this mean for the cuts argument?

Well, it seems to imply that – at least for visits – declining expenditure is not the most important variable in explaining declining library use. Some library services are able to outperform their budget cuts.

However, it doesn’t mean that expenditure isn’t important.

As the graphs show, expenditure declines in the bottom quintile began earlier and decreased faster than expenditure declines in the top quintile. This may imply the presence of an underlying variable, such as council priorities, that determines which library services are generally better supported or more used. It’s also interesting to note that performance for library services in the bottom quintile was gradually declining before expenditure declines began, and that performance declined sharply when expenditures did. It implies that budget cuts in some library services can exacerbate existing trends, making it harder for those services to become successful.

Correlation is not causation

Of course, correlation is not causation, and my data analysis could only show correlation. However, now this initial work has been done, it could be an exciting project for another intern to do some statistical analysis of probabilities and causation. The CIPFA data is a rich and tantalizing source of information on public libraries.

To learn more about my research project, you can read the full report, which is available on GOV.UK.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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