Library website visits increase 16% in 8 years—is that all?

by / Filed under Libraries

According to a pretty slapdash Guardian piece, visits to libraries have declined 12% since 2005–2006.

(Actually, you’re better off just reading the Taking Part report (PDF) yourself.)

Reword the oddly negative standfirst – try “36.2% Britons visited a library in the last year” instead – and the picture isn’t quite as bleak as the article makes out. You could also point to ambitious projects in Birmingham and Manchester.

But there is a clear downward trend.

Better minds than mine will explain the reasons for this, but I suspect it’s a combination of three things:

  • Lack of investment. Libraries become shabbier, offer fewer exciting, new things and become less attractive places to visit.
  • Competition. It’s very easy to download a book from Amazon or a free classic from Project Gutenberg.
  • Lack of direction. What are libraries for now? Should they be a place where you can find texts, or are they ‘third spaces’? A combination? And what does either mean in these times?

These factors affect each other. It’s difficult to come up with a ‘vision’ for libraries while the service is being cut.

On the plus side (maybe) visits to library websites are up. In 2005–06 8.9% of the public visited a library website. In 2012–13 the figure stood at 16.9%.

This is a somewhat murky figure – it doesn’t seem that high to me – although the report describes it as “a significant increase”. I suspect Amazon’s visitor figures are slightly more impressive.

Nonetheless, there’s a trend here. Less people are visiting libraries, more people are visiting library websites.

Who’s thinking about library websites?

Apart from me, obviously :-)

If more people are visiting library websites this is good news for the library service and the public. Whether you borrow a physical or virtual book, you’ll still read the thing.

Yet how much effort is put into the website ‘vision’? While Manchester and Birmingham build awesome new libraries, their websites remain dire: splintered, unfriendly, difficult to use. A joke compared to Amazon and Google.

The most important functions of a library website are to search, reserve and download books. Yet catalogue searches are literal, frustrating experiences, light years behind Google, Amazon et al .

The ebook service has been outsourced with nary a thought – the biggest ebook provider isn’t even based in the UK, while catalogues sit in several separate places, away from the library’s website. You can’t download a UK library book to a Kindle.

Maybe that’s why there’s only been an 8% increase. It makes perfect sense that more people use library websites – but the increase should be in three figures.