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The real difference between libraries

Alongside the annual statistics on library use, CIPFA have for the first time published comparative profiles showing how every public library service in England compares with libraries in similar boroughs. These statistical neighbour comparisons reinforce the message that the amount local authorities choose to spend per capita on libraries varies substantially across England. While some councils spend as little as £10 per resident on libraries, a handful spend over£30 per head.

Shared Intelligence’s Ben Lee and Kevin Fenning have looked into the detail of the CIPFA statistical neighbour figures, and CIPFA’s main annual public libraries statistics. What the data highlights is that simply comparing the quantity of service each council achieves per pound spent (how many books, staff, number of branches, length of opening hours) is useful but limited. Given the ultimate goal of these new figures is to improve transparency about whether councils get the most they can out of what they spend, there is still very little data on the impact achieved for each pound spent.

For instance among a group of similar county councils, we see Norfolk has the most physical visits per capita yet spends below average for the group, we also see that Warwickshire and Devon are the opposite. But to understand what that means in terms of impact we need to know how much of Norfolk’s high visit-count is made up of individuals who would benefit most from using their library (children with few books at home, those seeking work or new skills), or whether Devon’s higher spending enables it to provide services which have a higher social impact say on literacy, the digital divide, or unemployment, or mental health.

The comparators as published are already making it easier for communities to see how many books, staff, or branches they get for their money, but regardless of how cheap it is to run a library or what a council chooses to spend per capita, the real question is what impact is the library service making per pound spent? We believe this is one of the most important questions public libraries now face and one we will be working with library services in 2013 to answer.

Ben Lee and Kevin Fenning

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