Are libraries places where we borrow books?

Part 1. Introduction and years 1993 to 2000.

Back in November, the Guardian Review - a supplement about books that comes with the newspaper each Saturday - published a short piece about libraries that caught my eye [1]. The item, in the diary column, told us that: "Further evidence that we need to revise the notion that libraries are places where we borrow books appears in the statistics for library expenditure in 2001-2002". It went on to say that: "Libraries hold 18m fewer items of stock than they did 10 years ago. Library loans in that period have fallen by a third." I was struck by that figure of a third and wondered what had happened here in Suffolk over the same period.

So, it's off to the reference section of the County Library to look at the CIPFA statistics on public libraries. When I do, I get a surprise, because Suffolk's book stock has actually risen during that period and the loans have remained roughly level. In contrast, there's a very different story with the neighbouring areas of Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, where loans have declined and book stock has also fallen, except for Essex where it has remained more or less level. It sounds, from the raw data, as though Suffolk deserves a couple of gold stars here.

I'm never very good at seeing what's going on from raw data so, when I get home, I find a piece of paper and plot a couple of graphs, and it becomes evident that things are a bit more complicated than I thought. First the graph for book stock. This is the total stock of books per thousand population (so a figure of 2000 represents two books for each person in the county). I've plotted the graphs as a function of population as it seems to give a fair way to compare the different library areas.

Once it's plotted, you can see clearly what was happening. Historically, Suffolk has obviously had a very low level of stock and, in the last decade, has been bringing it up to the level of other libraries. What, on the raw data, looks to be a great success is really Suffolk County Council scrabbling to catch up. Curiously, because other libraries have been going the other way, and allowing their stock to decline, Suffolk is now in a relatively good position. How long that will last depends on the Library managers. I suspect that once they realise they can loose stock again, and thereby save money, without looking bad in comparison with other libraries, it will start to decline.

The next graph shows the number of loans per thousand population (so a figure of 10000 represents 10 loans during the year for each person in Suffolk). The loans here are those for books only, the figure doesn't include other materials such as videos and CDs.

This graph is interesting. Generally, all the library areas, except for Suffolk, have seen a decline over the seven years. [There seems to be an anomaly for the figure for Norfolk in 1995; maybe I copied it down wrongly. On the other hand, maybe it was a reaction to the sudden drop in their book stock shown on the first graph.] What's interesting, however, is the way that the figures for Suffolk have held up. Perhaps the increase in the stock of books, and the wider choice it gave library users, helped. There is no way to tell for sure, but if I was a librarian working somewhere outside the county I think I'd be keen to find out, given the way the figures for the whole country are going. Anyway, Suffolk, have a couple of gold stars, even if one of them is just a little tarnished.

Continue with Part 2

[1] Guardian Review, 15th November 2003.
[2] CIPFA Annual Library Statistics, 1993 to 2000

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8th August 2004