Service profiles and patterns of use

British library statistics make interesting reading. They contain information not available in Danish library statistics, and at the same time we can observe similar tendencies as regards lending patterns, the most important general tendency being the fall in the loan of traditional materials, that is to say – books. On the other hand there is an increase in the loan of new media such as films, games and music, but nevertheless we are talking about a fall in the public library’s core service – the loan of books which until now most people have regarded as the library’s ‘brand!

British statistics tell us that the fall in the loan of books mainly concerns adult fiction and to a lesser extent nonfiction and literature for children. But still it seems a drastic development. In Great Britain the total loan figure has over the past 10 years fallen from 550 million to 340 million, a total decrease of 40% over 10 years. Or to put it another way – the average Briton each day borrows six books as opposed to almost 10 in previous years. In Great Britain the fall in the loan of books is not counterbalanced by the loan of other media. Only the loan of video and the like has shown an increase during this period and this flattened a couple of years ago. In the same way the number of visitors to the public libraries has diminished during the period, and we are talking about a fall of almost 15% over a ten-year period.

British statistics include information about the demographic composition of user groups, their activities in the libraries and their assessment of the services. In general the libraries of today are not considered inferior to the libraries of ten years ago. Visitors to the library apparently do fewer things during the individual visit than previously, which is only counteracted by a marked rise in the use of computers and the Internet. Today children and young adults make up a somewhat smaller part of the public libraries’ user groups. This may all be due to natural demographic changes that also affect the public libraries, but at the same time it does show that to some extent children and young adults go somewhere else.

Over the past five years the sale of books to private individuals has risen by 7%. Great Britain has been conducting studies into the reasons for the fall in the loan of books, and although there is probably no unambiguous explanation, the indication is that the public libraries buy less of the literature published while many people buy more literature themselves than before. One reason for this is most likely an on average larger disposable income during the period.

The picture of library usage in Denmark, Norway and Sweden reveals common traits as well as differences in relation to the picture presented above. Both in Denmark and Sweden we see a fall in the loan of books over the past ten years – both books for adults and for children, while at the same time there is a comparatively large increase in the loan of new media. In Sweden – as in Great Britain – adult fiction in particular has suffered a drop in loan figures. Both in Sweden and Denmark public library acquisitions of literature have fallen over the past ten years whereas the situation is somewhat different in Norway, where the total loan figure in the public libraries has risen. However, here too there is a fall in the loan of books, but a very considerable increase in the loan of other media. It has to be said also that the level of loans is rather lower than in Denmark and Sweden, which might well be due to the fact that the average amount per inhabitant spent on the public library is rather smaller in Norway than in the other Nordic countries.

Generally speaking the statistic information reflects a change in usage and in patterns of use in relation to the public libraries in much the same way as it becomes increasing clear that concepts and definitions of library statistics in a number of ways lag behind the technological development in particular.

In Denmark and in Great Britain at any rate we can observe a pattern of increasing purchases and donations of books as well as music. It might have something to do with increased disposable income, but it is not clear whether it is also a question of the libraries’ acquisition policy and a – possibly – declining tolerance among the users concerning waiting times for very popular materials. It is decidedly interesting that it seems in particular to be the loan of adult fiction that causes the largest share of the fall in loans.

Common to the countries mentioned in this Viewpoint is that from the statistics it is possible to deduce that the public libraries have assumed several tasks and services that are in mutual competition. This does not only apply to materials, but also recent years’ focus on ‘places to be’ in the broadest sense, where it is reasonable to maintain that the users have embraced this to a lesser degree than have the librarians.

The change we have seen in the lending pattern can be described as a strategic challenge to the public libraries. It gives rise to some interesting questions and problem areas.

In a strategic context it seems important to clarify to which extent library internal and library external factors contribute to and possibly interplay in relation to the fall in the core service.

Library internal factors can be supply and composition of materials, as well as waiting times. It may also be too much discarding or an acquisition policy that is out of step with demands.

It can be opening times, number of service units etc. In some countries the relation between local accessibility and national accessibility through web services may likewise be an interesting element.We don’t know either to which extent supply creates its own demand, i.e. whether there is a relation between volume of supply and usage.

Library external factors have been touched upon. It may be a question of drastically altered reading patterns in the population. It might be that the citizens’ use of media and the composition of media have changed radically in relation to previous times, so that books and other library materials find themselves in a competitive situation.

The extension of Internet access may also be an explanation. The pronounced affluence of the population resulting in increased purchase of music and books might play a role in the same way as changes in the composition of the population, i.e. fewer children and young people and a growing proportion of elderly people.

The question to the public libraries is probably, whether they are listening – and listening in the right way – to their users.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science.