Are public libraries under-appreciated and under-used?

From the 1880s, Andrew Carnegie began to give money to build libraries – the most widely recognised feature of his philanthropy. From that date, he devoted himself to providing the capital for the building of public libraries and the development of library services. Between 1883 and 1929, 2,509 libraries were built, including 1,689 in the USA, 660 in the UK and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and South Africa.

So it should come as no surprise that the Carnegie UK Trust has published a report looking at the state of public library services in the UK and Republic of Ireland. It highlights the divergent library policies across regions of the British Isles, as well as major differences in the levels of usage.

In terms of public expenditure on libraries per person, NI is ahead of England and Wales, though lagging behind Scotland. However, in these austere times, funding of library services have already and will continue to be cut.

Local libraries aren’t just about dead trees bound into books. They are places where knowledge is valued and the tools for researching and finding information are taught. Life long learning from just after cradle to just before grave.

Local libraries are an important focus for literacy and digital literacy, and often the public internet locations of last resort for households without broadband. The banks of PCs and IT literate library staff also help communities grapple with local and central government services that are increasingly being pushed online.

In Northern Ireland, Carnegie’s research found that 30% of adults never or rarely read books, while 44% deem themselves to be prolific readers.

In a sample of 1,000 adults in each of the five jurisdictions were asked about the importance of public libraries as a service to the community, Northern Ireland scored lowest, and the Republic of Ireland the highest.

Library usage in Northern Ireland lags behind Scotland, Republic of Ireland, England and Wales.

And of those people who had used a library in the last year, the survey showed that NI had the fewest people who used a library at least once a month.

Presented with ten different factors that might encourage use of library services, providing better information on services was the top improvement desired by those surveyed in Northern Ireland. There was stronger support for offering more mobile services in NI than any other jurisdiction. Having a coffee shop on site and doubling up with other council services in the library building were also popular in NI.

Interestingly, while longer opening hours would encourage greater use by existing library user (60% in NI, 55% across UK+ROI), it made little difference to non-users (26% in NI, 28% across UK+ROI).

Over Easter, every available space – including the floor – seemed to be occupied by groups of teenagers revising for GCSE, AS and A-level exams. By lunchtime, the newspapers beside the soft seats were well thumbed and battered. Youngsters were storming around the children’s section. The upstairs cafe always seems to have a steady trade – no one seems to mind the risk of sticky fingers on the newly borrowed books! – and all that activity is before you take in the Lift the Lid open piano sessions every third Saturday. Yet the library could be a lot busier, and reaching out to a great proportion of the local community.

The Carnegie UK Trust report finishes with eight conclusions.

  1. There is a continuing and important link between the services provided by public libraries and individual wellbeing.
  2. There is at least a potential link between libraries and community wellbeing.
  3. The enduring link between public libraries and individual and community wellbeing means that the public library should continue to be a core public service, provided on a universal basis to all citizens.
  4. This core needs to be redefined for the 21st century, but all citizens in the UK and Ireland are entitled to a core library service to be provided free of charge.
  5. Encouraging reading through the provision of books and other information should remain a core part of the library service.
  6. There is a need for national policy and leadership in the area of library provision in each jurisdiction.
  7. Local authorities need to consider how to communicate more effectively and more creatively about the services they provide, particularly to those who do not currently use the service, but might benefit most from it.
  8. Library buildings, and their place in their communities, must be considered separately from the public library service itself.

During 2012, the Carnegie UK Trust “aims to support and facilitate joint learning across the five jurisdictions to develop better shared understanding of the threats to the public library service, the opportunities which exist, and the kind of solutions which will contribute to the long term sustainability of the public library service”.

Hopefully, Libraries NI, the CAL committee and DCAL will read the research (which includes a paper highlighting the specific findings for NI) and engage in this initiative along with other providers of public services.

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  • Drumlins Rock

    “6.There is a need for national policy and leadership in the area of library provision in each jurisdiction.”

    Gonna turn that one on its head, is more of a need for local policies? With the libraries seperated from Education boards, are they not one of the areas more suited to local councils? With some policies & resources kept centrally, but the local councils developing the facilities.

  • Of all the public service mismatches between demand, supply and resources this is the most easily resolvable. Were the health services as easily fixed. I look forward to the responses to this thread.

  • Libraries are a great institution but I wonder just how hard they make it for themselves.
    Although I live some distance from Belfast, my library card was issued by BELB.
    About two months ago I went into Central Library to use the computer suite and was told that my card was out of date. They could not use the old card as “evidence” and as I am no longer a driver I had no photographic evidence stating who I was…….except a Norn Iron Electoral Office card. Not good enough.
    But interesting that I had enough evidence to vote but not to borrow a library book. The lady in Central was very nice. I assumed I would have to pay £1 for use of puter but she said thats ok……..”just next time youre in bring photo ID and a utility bill”.
    About a week later I was in Falls Branch and again wanted to use puter. Told the guy there that my card was out of date and I should pay. He asked me if I had my old card……and immediately issued me with a new card and a little accessory to put on my key ring. Told me that Central Library were talking “cr**”
    but on my next visit to Central, they would not accept my “new” card. On my next visit I have to bring photo ID and utility bill.
    My point here is that libraries still seem to be living in the 1970s and cant really afford to be setting up obstacles to fairly routine requests.
    Id love to say that we still “need” libraries. But frankly Im not so sure.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    I’ll have to diasappoint Articles….whilst our previous foray was about the ‘labour intensive’ versus ‘sure its just books on shelves’ nature of running a library- in actual fact we are arguing whether zeppelin pilots or penny farthing mechanics are skilled or unskilled. Kindle,tablets and smartphones are doggedly killing off the library as a community repository of text and information…and that is the foremost reason for a public library. The 30% who don’t go near books are a real concern, perhaps some are not being given the chance to cultivate reading as kids…but some other means of attracting readership needs to be undertaken.

    A lot of libraries will survive as places where books as artefacts can be read and borrowed….and they are nice tactile, artefacts. But as real places for study, research, browsing for potboilers….hmmmm. Kids books will survive a while yet.

    In a few years we’ll be picking up something like a kindle, but a bit better for about £20. Your library will be in a the palm of your hand and backed up on a cloud. Look at mp3 players. Well be using vouchers for schools to flood primaries with them. Libraries will last longer than the record/cd store, but they will be drastically cut….and of course wait’ll the pirates move into the download market. That’ll be publishers effed before even the libraries.

    In short ten years on I don’t know how many public libraries there will be or what exactly they will be. They’ll probably look like some sort of community drop in centre with free wifi. Cue sponsorship from Starbucks….jeezus.

  • BluesJazz

    Schools all have their own libraries and full internet access. So we’re talking (a few) pensioners, a tiny amount of unemployed, and (very) occasional borrowers of books in the cheap Amazon age.
    Most public libraries are empty, or virtually so, most days, though they were essential in my younger years.
    A few recent forays showed them to be empty spaces.
    like the absurd st patrick’s centre in Downpatrick, they have little to offer. So it goes…

  • babyface finlayson

    “but on my next visit to Central, they would not accept my “new” card. On my next visit I have to bring photo ID and utility bill.”
    This surprises me. Once you have your new card you should not have to approach staff to use computers.Your friend in the Falls branch must not have re registered you properly.
    “So we’re talking (a few) pensioners, a tiny amount of unemployed, and (very) occasional borrowers”
    There are very few shared public spaces available for the 200,000 or so people over 65 here. So unless you want them to just travel about on buses all day I think libraries still have a use.
    Also, many older people are less likely to turn to kindles or ipads for their reading material,
    So until all the oldies have shuffled off, our libraries may maintain some usefulness, I hope.
    Despite the best efforts of librariesni, who are currently destroying stock with manic zeal.

  • Old Mortality

    “About a week later I was in Falls Branch and again wanted to use puter. Told the guy there that my card was out of date and I should pay. He asked me if I had my old card……and immediately issued me with a new card and a little accessory to put on my key ring. Told me that Central Library were talking “cr**”

    Perhaps this just demonstrates a more ‘accommodating’ attitude in West Belfast to provision of public services ie never dream of charging anybody for anything.

  • Alex Kane

    There’s an interesting little programme on Radio 4 on Thursday morning (May 10) at 11.30am.

    The Library Returns: Looking at examples from across Britain, Europe and the USA, Jonathan Glancey considers the renaissance in library-building and the ways in which libraries are changing in order to secure their future place in the digital world.

    I’m lucky enough to have two libraries within walking distance of my home—and I love them both: although that’s probably to do with the fact that they are both pretty quiet most of the time!

  • salgado

    BluesJazz – School libraries have a much more limited opening hours and catelogue of books (unless they’ve improved a lot since I left a decade or so ago).

    And even in this “cheap Amazon age” textbooks for studying can be extremely expensive. I used to spend a fair amount of my holidays back from university working in Central Library (and making use of their music library).

  • Actually I dont really mind either attitude. It would be nice if the attitude was the same. But rules is rules.
    Neither was being deliberately obstructive. But a bit odd that I had enough evidence to vote for a councillor on an education committee but not enough to borrow a book/use a puter.
    It will be probably several months before Im back in a library………sheltering from the rain or trying to keep warm as befits my pensioner status…..and I will hardly be carrying around a phone bill and a bank statement.
    So no big deal.
    I will pass the Mills & Boon and large print books because the gems are really in reference/journals/newspapers sections.
    But even then thats replaced by wikipedia. Dont knock wikipedia. Where else can you write your own encyclopaedia entries and change existing information?

  • cynic2

    ” under-appreciated and under-used”

    or increasingly irrelevant in a digital world?

  • dodrade

    In my village a few years ago there were proposals to close the surgery and library at approx the same time. The meeting regarding the former was standing room only, the latter sparsely attended, to be expected perhaps but still disappointing. Both closed regardless.

  • Volunteers and voluntary service. Volunteers can determine the strategy of the library service yet cannot help check out books.

  • I have the great joy of working from a Carnegie Library – see pic at – albeit now in private hands; the Falls Carnegie Library, at Dunville Park, remains in use as such, but the third Belfast example, Oldpark Library, is at risk of decay, following its recent closure – how can we save it for community use? #CATJRF

    And, from this morning’s Herald, a wry look at the issue, across the water:
    Hat tip to @Jimmccormick16

  • babyface finlayson

    I notice that here in NI library use is highest for people between 25 and 34.
    Maybe some encouragement there that it’s not just for lonely old people and the unemployed looking for somewhere to despair quietly.

  • streetlegal

    The local library in my area also provides a group session for mothers and toddlers to go together for an hour of story telling and songs etc – which is a great way to use what is a very important neutral public space. I think that the local libraries should be thinking more in terms of this kind of community activity.

  • cimota

    I theorised a few months ago (during the consultations) that Libraries could probably do with being closed these days. I received a lot of replies via my blog, via email and Twitter. Most of them were sensible, a few included spittle and invective.

    My blog post: In a time where the sum total of books held in a library can fit on a device that can fit in your coat, what exactly is the function of a library as a physical place?

    They told me that libraries were essential to the community. These were places where social groups met, where pensioners developed their own networks, where low income families had access to the internet and where toddler playgroups would meet for support.

    Out of more than 50 communications, not one person mentioned that you can also get books there. It was a social centre, a community centre and in some cases just somewhere warm for the homeless and unemployed.

    I’m not saying we should ditch these places and I believe these places have value. But they are plainly not libraries.

  • babyface finlayson

    I am sure your 50 respondents were trying to argue for the additional values a library brings.
    The books are taken as read so to speak.
    You could argue that as pubs are primarily about selling alcohol, we should just close them down and all buy our liquor in tescos. But you know that the pub is much more than that. So it is with libraries.
    And that device you can fit in your coat, is it free?
    Libraries are.

  • cimota

    @babyface – Libraries are not free. They’re paid for by taxpayers ultimately. Pubs are private ventures. Therefore your comparison fails.

    Why not private libraries? Sure.

    At some point the cost of devices does trend to zero. It will likely never hit zero in the same way Libraries are never free.

    In all cases, skate to where the puck is going. Try to let go of structures which hark back to darker ages. Books and libraries are prisons for knowledge.

  • babyface finlayson

    Of course I mean free at the point of use. Nothing is truly free. To the pensioner joining the library her books are free. She would have to pay £100 for a kindle. That’s how it is.
    Your world view is a little harsh for me.
    When the libraries are all gone, what then? We all sit in our homes reading our digital books, and those that can’t afford them or that can’t adapt sit and count the flowers on the wall?
    I have no wish to hark back to the dark ages, but not all that is old is necessarily bad.

  • cimota

    @babyface – the point being that they’re still not free. And while they’re great for that pensioner, what happens when said pensioner is unable to attend the library.

    Libraries are not going away rapidly but I predict they are going away. There is nothing wrong with the old except when it becomes a noose around our necks. It might be difficult to explain the concept of a library to a child of the late 21st century. Libraries might be more akin to “book museums”.

    What were libraries of old? Repositories of knowledge. Sources of learning. Stores of great antiquity.

    If anything, this blog post clings to a revisionist notion of a library espoused by a 19th Century industrialist. If anything I’m advocating a return to the true purpose of libraries and espousing universal access to information, subsidised by the taxpayer, and carried around with every citizen.