Major report on libraries' future slammed as over-optimistic

Carnegie Trust’s analysis ‘seriously avoids the truth of what is happening’, according to library campaigner Tim Coates

A report on the future of public libraries from the prestigious Carnegie Trust has been slammed as “over-optimistic”, amid calls for it to be withdrawn. Leading library campaigner Tim Coates has filed a formal complaint with the charity’s trustees, claiming that the report, published last month, “seriously avoids the truth” about the long-term decline of the sector and misrepresents data on library use.

In an open letter, Coates says that the report, called Shining a Light, omits key evidence about the impact of cuts and underfunding and “seriously avoids the truth of what is happening”. He adds that the report “fails to draw the right conclusions from data in the research it has carried out”.

The report recommended a five-point plan to save a sector that has been in the frontline of savage cuts imposed on local government over the past 10 years. Among the recommendations were that libraries make better use of data to improve their offer and provide better online services; focus more on demonstrating how they help deliver government policies; and provide innovation and leadership training for staff.

Coates writes that the report avoids key evidence about “the essential, continuous and destructive decline of use in public libraries in the UK”. The report draws conclusions without evidence and fails to highlight key findings from the research done on behalf of the trust by Ipsos Mori, claims the former managing director of Waterstones, adding that it failed to research the views of lapsed library users or to highlight the role of leadership in the sector’s rapid decline.

Data overlooked by the report, according to Coates, include figures collated annually by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) on library usage and expenditure. In December, the latest Cipfa survey revealed UK public libraries had taken a £25m hit to budgets and 15m drop in visitors as a result of swingeing cuts by local authorities faced with reduced grant from central government and the rising cost of social care.

“I wrote the complaint because we have had so many reports from the Libraries Task Force and other bodies and they all ignore the really serious reality of what is happening to our libraries,” Coates said. “The whole public library service is effectively closing down.” He added that although the Carnegie report highlighted a general appreciation of libraries among the public, it failed to tackle why visitor numbers were in rapid decline.

“What the report says is that everybody understands what a wonderful thing a library ought to be,” he said. “But the reality is that when they visit their local library they don’t find anything in there that is any use to them. That is the problem.”

In his letter, Coates pointed to research that he claimed was “wrongly described” in Shining a Light. This included a lack of emphasis on the fact that only 6% of library use is of computers, down from 15 to 20%, 10 years ago. He also claimed that a finding that the single biggest improvement library users want is improved book stock was not given sufficient weight in the report.

Nick Poole, chief executive of the library and information association Cilip, said the reasons for the decline of libraries ranged from the impact of technology and funding pressures to reduced spending on books, and agreed that “swift and decisive action” was needed to improve the situation.

However, he gave only partial backing to Coates’s complaint. “We need to reconnect with what people want and expect from their libraries; to deliver the best value for taxpayers locally, regionally and nationally; to set out a clear investment programme; to excite people about what their local library has to offer; and convince national and local politicians that libraries are a good investment,” he said.

Coates was pessimistic that this would be possible without a fundamental restructure of library leadership, which, he said, lacked accountability. “The librarians blame cuts by local government, local government says it’s because of money taken by central government and central government says it is the fault of local government,” he said. “No one is responsible and they all blame everyone else.”

The Carnegie UK Trust expressed surprise at any suggestion the report was over-optimistic. “There is clear evidence from many sources of the pressures libraries are experiencing,” said a spokeswoman. “Our report quotes the number of library closures and job losses reported since 2010 and the headline of the media release displayed on our website was ‘Call for action as new study reveals drop in frequency of library use’.”

She added that Coates’s complaint would be given “proper scrutiny” and the trust would be writing to him in the next few days.


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

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