Calls for government to release vital data about taxpayer-funded libraries

Shadow Culture Minister Kevin Brennan and CILIP, the UK library and information association, are calling for local and national Government to make data about taxpayer-funded public library services openly available for scrutiny and re-use.

In a letter dated 7 December to Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, Brennan called for an end to Government “obfuscation“, referencing the ongoing delay in releasing core public library data collected by the Government’s Libraries Taskforce intended for September 2016.

Kevin Brennan said, “This Government’s continuing delay publishing open data on public libraries is a disservice to taxpayers. It is also a shameful missed opportunity to support the library sector to develop essential services that develop literacy and skills in communities across the country. I’m calling on Government to end the delays and obfuscation.”

The action coincides with the announcement of the annual public library statistical information collected by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountability (CIPFA). Only the headline figures are publicly summarised, with the full dataset and insight available through a paid-for subscription.

CILIP Chief Executive Nick Poole said that a transformation in the accessibility and re-usability of publicly-funded library data is long overdue: “Currently, data that is paid for by the taxpayer is only available behind a considerable paywall. This means that contrary to Government commitments on transparency and open data, the sector, the public and interested parties cannot access vital information about the UK’s school, prison, health and public libraries. It also means that the only evidence on the performance of libraries is partial and inconsistent across the UK.”

CILIP has a responsibility under its Royal Charter to oversee the “adequate provision of library and information services” and has previously called for a radical shake-up in the way data about libraries is made public. Following this latest exchange, CILIP is calling on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Arts Council England (ACE), who oversee library development in England, to establish a sector-led Open Data Working Group to transform the availability of library data.

Nick Poole continued: “The potential for open public library data is huge. We know that businesses and developers are looking to make use of it to create new ideas and applications. Data scientists would like to make use of it alongside the considerable body of data about public services that is already available for re-use – such as information on transport, social issues, healthcare and education. We cannot deliver on our responsibilities to develop the sector without the benefit of an open dataset. It is time to free our data about publicly-funded libraries so that it can be put to good use.”

Speaking about the potential of library sector data, Kathryn Parry, Development Manager for CILIP Cymru Wales said: “We’ve already seen the power of opening up even limited data about libraries to deliver new insights. We would like to be able to use this data to create a visualisation of libraries across Wales and their impact on our communities. The lack of available data means we are effectively planning the development of libraries with one hand tied behind our back.”

An online ‘Data Library’ from ACE includes datasets on museum services, but not those provided by libraries. Following the announcement CILIP will be calling on ACE to engage their Research and Evidence Team to support the proposed Open Data Working Group. At the same time, CILIP is calling on Department of Culture, Media and Sport to support the sector-led data initiative and divert existing resources away from the CIPFA service – with the ultimate aim of a regular open data supply through the data.gov portal.

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