There is current development of a new library strategy for England. This is being chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Sanderson of Welton.
The following content was sent to the libraries strategy team at the DCMS to advocate for a new data strategy to underpin any wider strategy.
Library data background
Over the past decade, increasing data capabilities have provided an opportunity for public services to gain greater insight into their services and their users. This enables better informed decision making, as well as greater digital services. Data is a key part of public sector strategy, as described in documents such as the UK Digital Strategy, and National Data Strategy. By understanding the power of open data, and data sharing between organisations, many sectors have been able to transform their services, and these principles are being adopted across central and local government. Leading organisations such as the Open Data Institute, and OpenUK continue to push for greater Open Technology and Open Knowledge.
Public Libraries can benefit from this guidance. Sharing data for innovation would provide libraries with a great opportunity. The data held by library services is rich, powerful, and under-utilised. This includes datasets such as library catalogues and book stock, borrowing figures for those items within different communities, as well as key national datasets such as library membership. These can provide essential insight into local communities, and be useful to the sector, as well as interested citizens and other stakeholders.
However, libraries have failed to utilise the data they hold, and data capability has severely declined rather than developed. A suspicion of data, and historic focus on data for ‘performance’ monitoring (e.g. declining usage) has led many to actively denounce data analysis and usage, in favour of less tangible insight. This situation now actively hampers any development in the sector, not just within digital services and innovation, but any project or initiative.
To illustrate this I have taken three current examples. One regarding library services performing their statutory duties, one regarding data for policy-making, and another in the support given to new digital applications.
Example: Legal duties and data reporting
Public Lending Right (PLR) is a legal right to payment from Government funding for authors and book contributors, when their books are borrowed from public libraries.
PLR has been in place since 1982 and is now administered by the British Library. Originally, it was considered impracticable to attempt to collect loans data from every library authority in the UK. Instead, a sample of loans data is collected from a selection of 30 library services, across 8 regions. The sample figures are then ‘grossed up’, using lending totals provided by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). After the end of the sample year, registered authors are provided with a breakdown of the total number of times their books were borrowed from public libraries, and receive a fixed amount per loan.
This generally worked until relatively recently. But the number of library services reporting total loan figures to CIPFA has been steadily decreasing, and is now approximately only 40% of services. This leaves the PLR process broken, with no data to complete the task of estimating total loans figures for book titles. A sample of data is still collected, but becomes misleading without total figures. So far, the effect of this has been ignored, authors and contributors are instead simply provided with figures that are wildly innacurate, while not being told that this is the case. That does an injustice to the legal responsibility of administering PLR.
It is no longer the case that it would be impracticable or expensive to collect detailed loans data from all library services. The few suppliers that provide Library Management Systems are all capable of doing such reporting. It would be a small task to co-ordinate action that would make open and automated reporting of loans a function for all library services.
Openly available data on library lending, across all libraries, would be a valuable asset for the sector and all involved with it, such as authors, publishers, and reading agencies.
Example: Policy decisions
A recent International trend in library service policy is to abolish fines for the late return of library books. Fines were originally small nominal amounts used to encourage timely return of items, to get books quickly to the next user. The administration of these small amounts would likely cost more than it generated in income. It has started to be recognised that library services steadily increased fines to use them as an income source, but at the expense of their membership base.
For example, a small family forgetting to return their library books could generate fines of £10-£20 in just a week, often above the value of the books. Fines have become disproportionate, and turn a small mistake into a costly one. Library services and users then suffer, as those users stay away, contributing to declining library usage. It is also widely recognised that the users most put off by fines will be those in more disadvantaged groups, who most benefit from free access to reading material.
Library services that have abolished fines have reported increases in usage, as well as no negative effect on the circulation of items. However, these reports have largely been anecdotal, there is no comprehensive data analysis in the sector to inform such decisions.
Libraries Connected wrote a report on library fines, but this contained no significant analysis on the effects of keeping, or removing, fines. The report was forced to conclude that more data would be needed to make any recommendations or draw firm conclusions.
Policy making requires data to inform decisions. Library services are stuck in a situation where they are not able to produce and analyse the data they need, to make informed policy about services. Widespread availability of data in key areas, such as library usage, would aid this.
Example: New digital innovation
The British Library are currently developing ‘LibraryOn’, a single digital presence for public libraries, with single brand and website. This is funded by the Arts Council, who have invested £3.4 million towards the platform.
However, strong digital services require strong underlying data. A key dataset for libraries that does not exist is a simple one: a maintained list of library branches and their opening hours
This is a dataset that has been acknowledged to be required since at least 2010. It is one that needs to be maintained by all library services. Unfortunately, any attempts to produce this data have resulted in ad-hoc surveys that are only valid for the date they were completed. This is not enough to enable digital services that would allow the public to find their nearest library.
For the LibraryOn team, it is likely that they will spend a significant amount of their time addressing this challenge, and encouraging library services to maintain this basic data. But they should never have had to take on that task. The biggest danger to the success of this flagship project is not the talent and ambition within the team (both excellent). It is the lack of support and preparedness from the wider sector, in terms of data and systems.
We need a public library service that enables innovation and digital developments, by supporting all third parties with strong and comprehensive open data services.
These examples, alongside countless others, illustate a sector that is dysfunctional in data. Data should be the foundation of all action that is taken in the sector, and good data is necessary for the operation of all library services.
The effect of libraries not having this foundation is not simply missed opportunities, or inefficiency. It is an existential threat to the service. In 2023 it is unacceptable that we make it difficult for new users to find out where their nearest library is, that we mislead authors and publishers with inaccurate library borrowing information, and that we dont know the communities that are (and aren’t) served by library services.
A national library data strategy
Successful public services in 2023 will be those that have adopted a strong data strategy, and get the most from the data they hold. For example, the Department for Transport have a Data Strategy which pledges to “work with the transport sector to improve the discoverability, accessibility and quality of transport data to support innovation”. Data on transport infrastructure has led to a wealth of applications and services that go on to benefit end users - the public.
The same principles apply for library services. Rather than a data strategy that is one aspect of a wider strategy, we need all aspects of running public libraries to be underpinned by the data strategy.
Core components of that strategy should include:
- Comprehensive open data publishing across public libraries, including a policy to be agreed by all services to release all data by default where requested (excluding personal data)
- Adoption of shared data standards across the sector
- Training and skills development for library staff in data analysis and data literacy
- Shared procurement standards that ensure the procurement of open library systems that provide access to data services for third party innovation