4 minute read

There are good reasons for publishing open data, which is why it has such support from community groups, is encouraged by the government, and by organisations such as the Open Data Institute.

For stretched library services, an open data programme can seem daunting. But open data is as much about culture and attitude, rather than significant time or money.

Little will be achieved in one go. We won’t quickly move from almost no open data, to a position where all library services are publishing data in standard formats with well-defined schemas. The hard task is achieving a policy of open by default: this should be the position for any public library service.

It isn’t that data work isn’t being done. There are regular examples of public libraries working on data, but NOT making it open.

On 28th December there was an article in the East Anglian Daily Times that listed the most popular Suffolk Libraries Books in 2016. This gave information such as Lee Child’s thriller Make Me being loaned out 1,800 times. All great stuff, so where’s the data? Well, nowhere openly available. On Twitter, Suffolk libraries kindly explained that it was put together from a combination of Spydus (the Civica Library Management System), and CollectionHQ (a stock intelligence tool). But given that the work was done to compile the data, and it’s clearly worthwhile enough to make local news, why not make it open?

The Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) recently announced the results of a poll on the UK’s favourite book. Although small scale, the announcement described many good things.

  • “The list represents a diverse range of readers across all libraries in the UK.”
  • “We had very new books named such as All the Light We Cannot See. Our diverse collection of books is a valued resource.”

The only data in the announcement was list of ten titles, with no polling figures. For an organisation representing UK public libraries, that seems a shame. The Libraries Taskforce Ambition document includes data as a key action, including the challenge to “adopt, collect and share data”. The SCL “welcomes the objectives outlined in Ambition and is ready to help deliver them”. It would be a good start to lead by example with open data.

These are minor recent examples, and not necessarily the fault of either organisation. They are both from laudable attempts at data analysis, they just illustrate a general culture of not making this data open.

There are more significant examples. Public Lending Right collect statistics from a significant number of library services, and pay authors for the lending of their work. They release annual press releases about this data but it is in the form of PDF top lists. These are not too useful for anything other than simply reading. However, PLR do provide a closed system for librarians and researchers to access and explore this data, and are open to requests for access to this. Yet the data isn’t overly complex or sensitive - there seems little reason why it couldn’t be a number of public open data releases. Again, this is a cultural shift to providing open data by default rather than unnecessarily locked-down systems. But it wouldn’t be an overly-difficult change to implement.

There are many flaws in the CIPFA annual library statistics, but they are still collected annually by a majority of library services. Having gone to the significant difficulty of putting that data together, the library services then submit it to CIPFA (a private organisation) who sell it back to them, sell it to the DCMS, and anyone else wishing to pay £427.50 for a PDF. If the libraries released this data openly there could be no need for this, but it is a practice that still continues. At the least the data could be submitted to CIPFA, AND made open. That would then encourage reuse by interested observers and researchers.

Tips for open data

So, what could bring about a change in this culture?

  • Open by default. If you are conducting a poll, doing some data analysis from the library catalogue, or anything else, could it be open data? Unless it includes personal data then it most likely can.
  • Don’t believe people aren’t interested. Is there a real and valid reason for not releasing your data, or is it one of the 10 excuses for open data? Terrorists are unlikely to use library data.
  • Don’t believe it takes a lot of effort. The local authority will likely already publish to data.gov.uk, or the LGA open data platform. Many authorities also already have their own open data platforms, or there will be a local open data community group willing to help. Failing any of those options, simply uploading files to the local authority website or library catalogue website would be fine.
  • Request data. If you want data from your library service or any public body, then request it. This could be a Freedom of Information request but it’s worth just asking nicely first, and encouraging the service to release to everyone as open data.