Sunday, 31 October 2010

Are UK public libraries expensive to run?


Expanding on a previous tweet, in the UK for 2008-09 the cost of public libraries came to a shade under £1.2 billion. This was only slightly up on five years previously; factoring in inflation, library funding actually diminished over that time.

£1.2 billion, then. How does that average out? At approaching 62 million people, less than £20 each per year for every citizen of the UK. What can you get for that?

A starter, verdue and a dessert at Pizza Express. The basic Sky TV package. A fraction of the cost of seeing one Premiership football match. 16 litres of unleaded petrol. 6 or 7 pretentious drinks in Starbucks (it's just coffee). A pair of cinema tickets with drinks and popcorn. Just half of the cost of an adult ticket, on the gate, for Alton Towers. Any of those.

If you're in work or well off, you wouldn't think twice about buying goods at those price levels, so there shouldn't be a quibble about public libraries?

But some politicians and councillors do want to close libraries, as it looks like a savings 'win'. Or, as in the case of a village I lived in, want to move the public library into a shared building with one tenth the space. Which will no doubt make usage figures plummet, giving the councillors an excuse to close it completely in a few years.

Even if savings could be made, the extreme of closing all public libraries will not 'save' the taxpayer that £1.2 billion pounds anyway, as:
  • That's 25,000 less employed people paying tax
  • ...and 25,000 more unemployed people claiming benefits.
  • The knock-on effect to the suppliers of goods and services libraries need, will take a hit
  • will the providers of goods and services bought by those 25,000 library staff
  • ...and author and publisher payments will be down, so less tax to be gained there as well.
  • There's the unquantifiable number of people who use library services to get back into employment, through re-skilling, self-education or finding work. Close libraries and that's more tax gain lost, more people still claiming benefits.

Closing libraries also means people have to pay more for information, knowledge and communication services. That ranges from a person chatting to housebound relatives online, to a senior finding travel and bus information, to someone learning a foreign language to add to their CV, and thousands of little examples in-betweeen. There's no enquiry or reference desk, no staff or librarians to answer those information queries any more. Close public libraries and the costs of information pursuit and communications are shifted directly onto those least able to pay for these things.

You may (selfishly) think "I'm okay Jack. Not my problem. I have a well-paid job and don't need to use these services. Why should I pay for them?" Perhaps you don't use your library ... at the moment. But unless you've been living in a (luxury) cave for the last few years, you will be aware that the jobs of many people - including perhaps your own - are not safe. Your circumstances may change for the worse; they are certainly going to for a lot of people over the next few years. You may find yourself wanting and needing that source of cheap and free services and knowledge to help get you back into employment one day.

So if you think your local library shouldn't be funded because you haven't used it in a while, think of it this way: would you want the government to close your local hospital because you've been healthy for a while?

City Concrete 2/08 (bo43)

Anyway; what does that £1.2 billion pounds of funding allocated to UK public libraries per year compare with? Here's ten things:
  • The UK public spends for just one night of Halloween (£280 million) what would keep the public libraries running for three months.
  • The alleged £6 billion that Vodaphone didn't have to pay in taxes due to a settlement with HMRC; that alone would have funded UK public libraries for five years.
  • Aircraft carriers that will be built and sailed, but won't have aircraft on them (isn't there a Trades Description Act issue here? Oh, never mind). £5 billion plus; enough to keep public libraries going for over four years.
  • The recent cost of reorganising government departments (note: 'reorganising' is not the same as actually 'doing stuff'). £780 million, or public library running costs for eight months.
  • What about taxpayers? Pet food sales in the UK? £2 billion annually to feed rover, tiddles and perkins et al; enough to keep the libraries going for a year and eight months.
  • Getting really obscure, hair conditioner sales. £311 million; over three months of public library funding. And I don't want to even think about how much British people spend on bottled water per year. Especially as, per usual, our MPs demonstrate spectacular ingenuity in spending money on drinking water.
  • Lots of eights. In 2008, the eight largest rail franchises received £800 million in government subsidy; enough to keep public libraries going for eight months.
  • The NHS national programme for IT, run by a civil servant who failed his undergraduate computer studies course, eventually ran up a bill of £12.7 billion and was far from completion when halted. Oopsie! That's enough money spent to run the public libraries for eleven years.
  • Trident? Well, in 2008 it cost twice as much just to keep the existing Trident programme ticking over and operational (in other words: no new missiles or warheads) than it cost to keep the entire UK public library system running.
  • Portcullis House, which provides offices for less than a third of the MPs and their staff, officially cost £234 million (unofficially a lot more as the enquiry report was never released) which would keep public libraries going for nearly three months.

Hmmm, something missing. Oh yes...

  • The 2008 United Kingdom bank rescue package. £500 billion. Enough, at the 2008-09 level, to keep UK public libraries going for another 423 years. Even the bonuses (on top of substantial pay) for the staff in just one arm, of just one of those banks, for just one year, would be enough to keep the UK public library system going for 15 months.

Library of Birmingham - Mecanoo architects

So are UK public libraries expensive to run? No. In context, or in comparison to the costs of lots of other British things, they are astonishingly cheap.

Postscript 1...December 2011.

let's have a quick look at public libraries compared to GDP (gross domestic product) for the UK.

For 2008-09, the cost of public libraries was:


Which may at first sound like a lot, till you look at the GDP for 2009. Different organisations will give you slightly different figures, but they're all in the same ballpark. The IMF puts it, in US dollars, at $2,183,607,000,000 - which at the current exchange rate gives us a family fortune, erm, GDP, of:


Whoa! So public library funding, as a percentage of GDP in 2009, was:


Yes; the UK spend on public libraries was less than one tenth of one percent of GDP.

And that percentage was the high mark. Before 2009, GDP was significantly higher, making the calculated percentage lower. After 2009, library closures and reduced funding also make the calculated percentage lower. The current exchange rate also inflates the percentage somewhat.

So there's a little more perspective. Though the focus of cuts this year has often - suspiciously very often - been on public libraries, the total cost of running them is a ridiculously tiny proportion of the wealth that the UK generates.


Postscript 2...also December 2011.

Not wishing to harp on, dear chaps and chappeses, but £12 billion for just one rail link, to cut the journey time between two cities by 30 minutes? When (nearly) everything else is being savagely cut?

Entering Hyperspace

I thought we were told that the country had no money? Was broke? Was in serious fiscal debt? Was spending more than it generated? And so forth. So where did £12bn come from?

How useful would that £12 billion be if it was directed to something like ... the public library network, at the 2008-09 level of funding.

How long would the £12 billion last for that purpose? If spending started on January 1st 2011, then at that level of funding, it wouldn't run out until 1st March 2021. That's 10 and a sixth years. Which is rather a lot longer than the 30 minutes saved on the train trip...

On a highly related point; shouldn't businesses be using video conferencing and online communications more? By the time the train line is built - and remember there's several existing lines (that also serve more stations) so it's not a priority spend - more businesses should and would be using online forms of communication, making this extra rail option less necessary. And, ironically, one of the places you can get online is... the public library.

Cadi checks her email

Friday, 22 October 2010

CILIP: fading London clique or national library organisation?

CILIP is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. It's a UK organisation, representing librarians and information professionals. It's a bit ill at the moment, just when it's needed the most.

14 Jul 2010-6

Disclaimer: I'm not anti-CILIP; far from it. There are some seriously good people there now in senior positions, such as the current president Biddy Fisher or the sensible CEO Annie Mauger (oh and read her excellent analysis of the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts and libraries if you haven't so far).

But looking ahead to the next few crucial years, when both CILIP and libraries are fighting for survival, occupies the mind. And crucially, whoever becomes Vice-President next year becomes President the year afterwards. So it's an important election at a turbulent time.


So the annual CILIP elections are now taking place; their website allows you to see the views of the candidates (and ask them questions):

There's five candidates for four positions on the council, and two candidates for the vice-president position. With the former, there isn't much to choose between most of them; three I'd definitely vote for (if I could), one I probably would (with a few reservations), one I wouldn't as reading between the lines an anti-technology stance can be detected. And what of this stance? Well, everyone has their own criteria, but these are the important attributes I am looking out for in CILIP candidates:

1. Being pro-technology, Internet and social media. Not, of course, using it just for the sake of using it, but realising how effective correct use can be for both librarians, and libraries, in the services they provide. Of course that also does not mean ditching all print material for digital, which is as equally extreme and ludicrous as repelling all technology and sticking solely with print material.

2. Actually using social - and other - media themselves for effectively monitoring the feel of the library sector. It can be done to a significant degree, if you use these tools effectively, without it consuming your whole day.

3. Some ways or means of dealing with CILIPs financial crisis. And crisis is the right word. See the Annual Report and Accounts for year ended 31 December 2009 ...and especially the bottom of page 19. Yes, the fund balance is down by a third in just one year. In other words, at this rate - no more CILIP by 2014; it's not even going to make it to the next general election.

4. Someone who believes in the power of libraries at the local and national levels; who thinks that a library and librarian in a small town in Cumbria is as important as one in central London; who believes in equality of access to information services wherever you live in the UK.


And it's points 1 and 4 that are bothering me the most. Like the library sector it represents, there is an anti-technology strand within CILIP which manifests itself in various passive-aggressive ways; read this blog post and the comments or this one from attendees at the London CILIP AGM meeting this year. Yes, it's 2010 and there are information 'professionals' being openly hostile to other information professionals using social media to communicate and transmit information. Seriously.

In addition, the London region of CILIP has a mixed reputation for openness and cliqueness. Not just for the London group, but for the national organisation based in London. It isn't all members and staff of course; some are open and friendly to new people, or people who live north of Watford. But time and again, on the hustings, forums and meeting people, the "London clique" problem comes up.

Despite being a Brit, I've been a member of the American Library Association for several years and for CILIP never (though this may change; more later). There are several reasons, of which the Americanness (or whatever the word for it) of the ALA is one, as opposed to this London-centric nature of CILIP. One comparison of many: the ALA offices are held in Chicago. But do they hold their annual meetings and conferences there every time? Especially as Chicago is, genuinely, at the centre of the US public transport network. No! Go look:

Three in Chicago in 11 years. The rest right across the US (and one even held in Canada!). California, DC, Florida, New Orleans - the ALA mixes it up and moves around America. Why? Because it's the American Library Association and not the Chicago Library Association...


Now compare to CILIP. Where are the national annual events held? In London, predominantly. Year after year; in fact the AGM has been held in the same London building for the last eight years. And often, like this year, in a basement with no wifi provided. See a description of a recent such event (written by Phil Bradley, a candidate for Vice-President).

And it was with this in mind that this comment from Edwina Smart, another candidate for the Vice Presidency, jumped out from the forum hustings to justify meeting being held in London:

However, I do recognise that the most significant number of individual members of CILIP are London or near London-based, and that our (UK) transport systems are based on a start (or end?) in the capital, and so the likelihood of more members attending can be anticipated as higher in London rather than elsewhere.
This is both arrogant and offensive; when Londoners sometimes wonder why their city and populance are disliked by many others in Britain, it's because of this attitude of superiority. London is somehow the centre of all things British, and therefore everyone should come to London for everything rather than going to lesser, non-London places. It's a form of geo-racism: if it's in London it's somehow better than not being in London.

And the statement is technically wrong. London is in one extreme corner of the UK; we learnt this by looking at simple maps in geography at age 5; here's one for Edwina. Do the transport systems of the UK actually start or end in London? What if you go to or from the south west to the north, mmm? Wouldn't looking at somewhere more central - Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds - make more sense? See the national railway network map. Then, travel for everyone is more evenly distributed, rather than everything being for the sole convenience of Londoners.


That's the more sensible approach that enlightened organisations such as the JISC, or CETIS, take. Many of the meetings and events they hold are in cities such as Birmingham that for many are much more accessible, and cheaper to get to, than London. The next JISC conference, for example, is being held in Liverpool while the next CETIS one is in Nottingham. Both more central than the city stuck in the south east corner of Britain.

And also - what about the insanely ridiculous cost of trains, tube, cars and congestion charges for London? Whichever method is chosen, your average librarian is going to be stung for a lot of cash to attend a meeting or event in one of the worlds most expensive cities.

Just yesterday I stopped by a packed JISC event in Birmingham. And to be frank, Birmingham smacks down London big-time in terms of convenience - unless you actually live in London (which, news flash for some Londoners, most British people do not). Public transport is quick and easy here. And in Birmingham you can get from the international airport to the city centre by train in nine minutes for £2.30. Can you do that in London? Don't make me laugh. And in Brum there's a myriad of options for meeting places (at costs much cheaper than London), ranging from the small to the ICC, the National Exhibition Centre and the National Indoor Arena. Oh, there's that national word again, for the benefit of people who forget there's a world outside the M25...

But Edwina is right on one thing - the most significant number of members of CILIP are from London or nearby. But that is not a good thing, and in fact should be something that CILIP should be embarrassed about and try to remedy. It's not so much that more Londoners join CILIP, but that less non-Londoners join the London-centric CILIP. With CILIP putting on most of its big events in London, is anyone surprised?

Related to that, it's not just the big events, but the training and professional development events. Take a look at the CILIP Training and Development events directory for 2011. See how many training events for this national organisation are in London, and how many are outside. Yes, some of the 'branches' hold the occasional training event, but the overwhelming bulk are in ... I don't need to say where. Add, to the often significant cost of the event, the cost of getting to London especially for an early morning start and you're usually looking at several hundred pounds for people outside the south east of England. How many librarian or library budgets can justify or sustain those costs, especially in these times?

And one of the effects of this 'let's not do it out in the sticks' attitude? Less contributions from membership fees from outside London that CILIP would otherwise receive if it genuinely acted as a national organisation. Remember those rapidly declining financial reserves...

If only CILIP would try and do things outside London more. It can work! CILIP has little branches outside of London, often with a very small but enthusiastically working group of staff. Example; here in Birmingham a few weeks ago, CILIP West Midlands (a tiny but friendly, open and non-cliquey group) held a debate on the future of the library. It was only an hour, and there was an admission charge, but it's notable that a similar number of people turned up for it that turned up for the CILIP AGM in the concrete basement in London. Oh, and we had wifi and lots of open conversation in Birmingham; CILIP West Midlands know how to run events well, and most of the pictures on this post are from that event.


So after reading all the husting, asking probably too many questions, and checking out the candidates, the voting for the Vice-Presidency position especially is clear to me; unlike the committee election, there is clear blue water between the candidates.

Edwina and her supporters on the hustings continually mention how many gazillion CILIP committees and groups she has been on for umpteen years; one supporter asked Phil how many he's been on in an embarrassingly unsubtle attempt to link the number of committees with suitability for the post. It's unclear if that was a planted question; it couldn't be less subtle, or partisan. It's also a tad odd; why big-up that you've been an integral part of something that's been in long-term decline, and haemorrhaging money, for a long time?

But it does mean I have no problem with being forthright about who is the best candidate (Phil) and who is not (Edwina). With the latter I can partially overlook the repeated references to having a cup of tea with Martha Lane Fox, the oddly ambiguous statements on technology that myself and others can't decipher, and opportunistic mentions of picking up a fellowship. But the disappointing and openly London-centric attitude alone makes Edwina unsuitable to be the Vice-President of a national organisation such as CILIP.

So, I hope Philip Bradley wins as he fits the critera more than Edwina does. I suspect that's true of many lurking not-quite-yet-CILIP members, especially outside of London. Actually I know it's true as I communicate with a lot of librarians on Twitter et al. Phil is also national and not London in approach, and knows me well enough now to know that he'll have to deal with me if he "does a Nick Clegg" and reverses his attitudes five minutes after gaining power :-).

And I'll put my money where my mouth is. If Philip wins, then at some point in 2011 I will join CILIP and pay my dues, so that's a small bit of desperately needed money towards the rapidly diminishing reserves. And I predict that wins for progressives such as Philip will result in an upturn in memberships of CILIP, especially from outside the M25.

If he doesn't win, I'll throw all my UK library enthusiasm (and a bit of funding) behind Voices for the Library as they are obviously UK-wide and not tiresomely London-centric.

So - if you want CILIP in 2012 to resume declining as a London-centric, technology-ambiguous, tiny clique group obsessed with how many committees they are on, then vote Edwina. But if you want it to have a better chance of survival and be a national, technology-enabled, open organisation obsessed with how skilled-up librarians need to be to get and keep jobs, then vote Phil:

Phil Bradley

And to summarise, here's where the ALA and CILIP held their main annual event from 2003 to 2010:

(USA) American Library Association: Toronto, Orlando, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington, Anaheim, Chicago, Washington.

(UK) Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals: London, London, London, London, London, London, London, London.

Oh, by the way. If I turn up at a CILIP meeting and anyone - stupidly - tries to tick me off for tweeting ...let's just say it's not going to end prettily... ;-)

Update: Monday 25th October

Three points.

First. A couple of people have emailed me querying whether it's just me who thinks CILIP is London-centric. Erm, no. Proof of this is on the Interwebz; see other postings on the CILIP forum, on twitter, or do a few web searches. In fact it turns out this feeling was more widespread than I thought; here's a random quick grab of websites and documents, some recent, some older, that mention it:

...and (which is good as it means it's recognised internally):

There's a lot more online which, if you're an information professional, it should be easy to find :-)

Second. Someone on the CILIP hustings mentioned her preference to go from Durham to London on £12 train tickets. This also works the other way; it means that CILIP members from the south east, and CILIP staff, can attend an event (the next AGM?) at Durham and pay only £12 themselves. And it is seriously overdue that people in the south east corner made a trip somewhere, instead of everyone else travelling to them.

Durham is quite beautiful, and also compact (no expensive or long taxi or tube fares). Plus, hotel rates are significantly cheaper than London; for example I've stayed at the Durham Radisson which is rather posh and cost well under £100 per night; there's plenty of even much cheaper options e.g. Travelodge, Premier Inn.&

Third. I keep reading that "most" CILIP members live in the south east of England. This is not true. From the latest CILIP annual report, the figures are that 6,200 CILIP members out of a total of 17,634 are in London or the south east (of England). That's 35.2% - or another way of looking at it is that 64.8% do not live in London or the South East.