A recent article in the Telegraph describes a worrying fall-off in library books and library usage in the UK.
Over the past six years books in public libraries in the UK have fallen 12%, from 116 million to 103.2 million. Library check-outs have fallen faster—16.5%. According to the Telegraph, UK librarians are bracing for another round of declining numbers, coming amid budget shortfalls across the board—and expecting to get their budgets slashed.
Reflecting on these problems, the CEO of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) told the Telegraph:
“[W]e live in an age where books can be bought cheaply from supermarkets or the internet so the reasons to visit a library have changed for many users.”
Wirral as a microcosm. Cuts have started. The Wirral council system in NW England (LibraryThing Local), is closing 11 of 24 branches.
They sure don’t deserve it. Taking a look at the Wirral Libraries website, anyone can see they’re doing a lot of things right. The branches look well-organized and inviting. They’ve got a fair number of computers and free Wifi. They have a special outreach program for the house-bound. They even lend toys!*
But they are doing one thing very wrong—namely that Wirral, like most libraries, isn’t really “on” the web.
People are finding things in supermarkets and the internet because it’s easy to do so. On the internet, one-stop shopping means that a huge panaply of useful and interesting things are available from a single, unified and well-understood interface—from local bars, to local bands, to some 600 pizza and 400 curry joints in the area (Man, I love Britain!). Many of these resources are not only in Google searches, but Google will plot them on a map for your convenience.
What isn’t online are library books! The Wirral Libraries’ catalog, a Talis Prism OPAC, hardly registers in Google, which knows only 7,000 pages, from a library with more than 300,000 items. Worse, virtually every Wirral page in Google is broken. On the right are a representative sample of what Google knows about from the Wirral catalog. Each link has the same title. And each links to an expired session that proclaims:
You can, of course, get to the Wirral Libraries catalog if you know that’s where you want to go—fifth link down, then the top rounded button on the right. That’s not the same thing.
And even if you find a book, you can’t bookmark it for yourself or forward it to a friend–the links will die off in a few minutes. In refusing to allow links and spider, the Wirral website sets itself apart from the other websites Wirral residents might use. The rest of the web just works—it’s in your search box, where most internet-aware people do most of their information finding.
Lastly, where is WorldCat in all this, the “switching mechanism” and “point of concentration” (Karen Calhoun) OCLC provides libraries as an alternative to the “lunacy” (Roy Tennant) of libraries being on the web for themselves? Nowhere. None of the Wirral Libraries are in it, and WorldCat doesn’t list a copy of Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows closer than 60 miles away (postal code: CH46 6DE). One may speculate that Wirral wasn’t willing to pay for the service, which anyway gets quite insignificant traffic.***
Who’s to blame? Wirral Libraries’ misfortunes are no doubt many, and not being part of the web is not the largest. But it’s a part. Wirral citizens aren’t seeing their library appear in their search results. They aren’t as aware of its riches as they might otherwise be. If they were aware, it’s likely they’d use these resources more, and the system would be easier to defend politically.
It won’t do to blame Wirral for this. Library vendors have long handicapped their products in this way, and Wirral Libraries surely bought their Talis Prism system a while ago.** Budgets are short—and getting shorter. Both the web and this recession have hit libraries by surprise.
But refusing to participate in the central information technology of the age has its costs. And the leaders of Libraryland who advocated and continue to advocate for closed solutions, closed data and staying out of search indexes—except as “negotiated” with Google—have contributed to this situation. The respected guides have taken libraries off the great river of information, and left them grounded on the shore. Now someone’s coming for the boat.
I hope the residents of Wirral fight like hell to keep their libraries open. Then they should fight like hell to make their libraries truly open.
*I don’t know how common this is in Britain. I get the sense it’s not too common in the US, but it happens. The Hingham Public Library in Hingham, MA lends practically everything, from toys to paintings on the wall.
**It’s ironic that Wirral’s OPAC was made by Talis, now one of the more progressive and forwarding thinking library vendors. I’ll put this in a footnote to avoid “shilling,” but if Wirral can get a new OPAC, I’ll arrange for them to get LibraryThing for Libraries for free until they get back most of their funding. Maybe Talis would kick in an incentive to upgrade their OPAC?
***WorldCat is supposed to be the central website of Libraryland, but third-tier websites like LibraryThing and Dogster—the social network for dog lovers!—are currently beating it.