A public library data strategy

4 minute read

Libraries Connected recently published a scoping study towards a blueprint for public library development. This was a joint project with CILIP, conducted by Independent Mind, and funded by the Carnegie UK Trust.

The report scopes out a plan for public libraries, and addressing the national challenges. There are 7 themes.

  1. Nationally organised and funded programmes
  2. Standards and accreditation
  3. National monitoring and evaluation
  4. National digital library service
  5. Regional development support network
  6. Nationally coordinated workforce development
  7. Support and advice for new governance and delivery models

National monitoring and evaluation

I read through the report, interested in whether there would be a strategy for public library data.

There was a little, but not much. The main mentions were in regards to the National monitoring and evaluation section. This was referencing national data collection of library data, with two potential impacts of the work:

  • Evidence of impact and value
  • Information to support making the case for libraries

The indirect outcome of this was identified as decision-makers seeing public libraries as being effective (and therefore funding them appropriately).

This is a misrepresentation of how essential common data standards are. But it is also understandable. The desperation of public libraries has led to a situation where the only good outcomes are seen as those that bring in more funding, with other benefits being ignored.

But this backfires. The report documented the reactions from workshop participants (senior managers) to these ideas.

participants expressed the concern that monitoring and evaluation would not be developed for local funding purposes, but for national organisations and may therefore not be relevant to local funders

Heads of Service also stated that it would require resourcing and support to deliver because library services may not have capacity or skills to manage this in-house

The objections here are fair. Why should public libraries collect data that will then be used for national evaluation, and not benefit them? You can see the funding motivation at the core of local leader reactions as well. Why should I compile data on my service, only for you to go and get all the money!

It’s important to stress in response to this: data standards, designed nationally and used locally, are essential for EVERY aspect of library development, and maintaining a good and universal service for all areas.

Explain to a Head of Service that you want national data standards so that you can share analysis techniques, empower informed decisions about library policies, and develop the workforce. Then I am sure they will go ‘yes, that sounds great!’. The way this was presented was a horrible way of describing data standards.

This was a missed opportunity to explain why data matters and is useful. Instead, people thought they were being asked to do national organisations a favour.

There isn’t a single theme in this blueprint that doesn’t depend upon data standards to have any chance of succeeding. A national digital library service? There’s no chance of that without interoperability and data standards. Workforce development? Urgently requires training in data skills and literacy. Standards and accreditation of library services? That’s going to need data. And so on.

This is how data should have been presented in this blueprint. The public library sector needs a data strategy, adopted by all leadership organisations. And it will underpin and enable all other national work.

Local digital declaration

In attempting to design a blueprint for public library services, libraries are also reinventing the wheel.

In July 2018, the Local Digital Declaration was launched by the UK Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Government Digital Service (GDS), and a collection of local authorities and sector bodies from across the UK.

This aims to address many problems that libraries will know too well. Supporting vulnerable members of the community, technology as an enabler rather than barrier to service delivery, services designed for the people using them, etc.

Few library leaders will have heard of this. Probably fewer than will have heard of the latest Libraries Connected blueprint for public library services.

Why is this? It may be that libraries have never quite engaged within local government. The organisations involved in library leadership and funding are Libraries Connected, Arts Council, CILIP, Carnegie UK Trust, and British Library. These don’t necessarily know much about what is going on across local government. Which means public libraries are being led by library organisations, not local government ones.

That doesn’t need to drastically change, but the collaborative work across local government shouldn’t be ignored. Libraries can skip a load of work by signing up to the local digital declaration. Many will have done so already, unknowingly, through their parent local authority. But Libraries Connected, CILIP, and others should push these principles, and re-use them as a blueprint for future service delivery.

There is even funding available. There have been 3 rounds of the local digital fund, funding digital transformation projects in local government for those signed up to the declaration. With £7.5 million available between 2018 and 2020. You’ll find it hard to identify public library projects in there though.

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