There is little question that public libraries today are a vital institution—a point being driven home in cruel fashion as libraries around the country are forced to close in an effort to blunt the global outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus. But in his most recent analysis of public library data (completed before the world was forced to shelter in place) book industry veteran Tim Coates suggests that public libraries face a potentially dark future without intervention. PW recently caught up with Coates, the former CEO of Waterstones in the U.K., who now runs the Freckle Project, a research effort focusing on the performance of public library services in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, to talk his about his findings in The Freckle Report 2020.

In January, U.S. librarians were celebrating a Gallup survey the put public libraries at the top of Americans' most visited places—ahead of the movies, concerts, and even public parks. But your recently released Freckle report offers a different assessment?

Yes, the Gallup poll reports that respondents said they visit public libraries 10.5 times a year. But the IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services) data, which comes directly from every U.S. library, reports that, in the U.S., people visit public libraries about 4.1 times a year. And the IMLS data, published in July of 2019, which is entirely consistent internally and from year-to-year, shows a steady decline in physical library visits of about 3% each year for the past seven years. The discrepancy between the Gallup poll and the IMLS data needs to be explained. It is too big not to matter. They can’t both be right.

And, in the U.K. the situation appears to be even worse, no?

Yes, much worse. In the U.K. that same 3-4% decline, more in some cases, has been going on for more than 25 years. And because virtually no action has ever been taken to reverse it, use of public libraries in the U.K. is now 70% less than it was in 2000. And, as a result, U.K. libraries today have a poor reputation. They have become second-rate community centers. And for that reason public authorities are withdrawing funding, library service is declining further, and more libraries are being closed. In the U.K., some 800 public libraries, more than a quarter of the libraries once in service, have closed in the past ten years. There will be few left even in five years unless the right action is taken. And that action needs to be now, and needs to be dramatic. We certainly don’t want U.S. libraries to catch the same disease.

Tell us a little about the Freckle report, why you've compiled it, and from where you draw your data?

The data comes from two sources: the first are the IMLS annual reports, which give detailed information about every library in the U.S., and their equivalents in Australia and the U.K. for those territories. The second is a quantitative consumer survey which I commissioned in the U.S. in April last year, in which readers were asked from where they get the books they read, and a number of connected questions. I wanted to find out exactly where libraries fit into the firmament of places from which books can be obtained. I believe these analyses can and should be repeated every year.

I started the Freckle report because I believe large consumer services of all kinds need to have a way of understanding and measuring how their customers feel. They need to know truthfully what their public reputation is and how it is changing. And the measurement needs to be carried out in a neutral, methodical way so that the results aren’t influenced by a desire to hear how good you are. You can only advocate, present, and market yourself better if you truly understand what people think are your strengths and weaknesses. That’s what I have tried to explore in the report.

What do you think is driving some of the alarming trends and numbers in your report? Do you see a lack of political will, poor management, or even a sense of denial?

Probably the most alarming trend I found is that the use of U.S. public library services is declining, and has been for several years. And it’s true in nearly every state. The report shows this clearly. There is no hiding place. And the reason is pretty simple: most people don’t want the various services libraries now offer as much as they used to. What libraries are offering today is not as close to what people want as it used to be.

As I have tried to explain in the report, however, that is not because people no longer want to read—they want that just as much as they ever did, particularly in print. Meanwhile, as the importance of offering diverse library services has been heralded everywhere I don’t think anyone has really measured what’s been happening as a result. I don’t think this is about denial—I just don’t think anybody has realized. One of the main recommendations I make in the report is that public libraries are not making make proper use of the abundant performance data they have, including in their library management systems. They should.

If libraries and publishers are to strive together to increase reading, as they should, I believe the priority should be the print backlist.

I know you've been following the e-book situation in the U.S., and in your report, one of the findings is that digital resources are commanding an ever-larger slice of the materials budget, but still seeing relatively low usage. What's your take on the publisher/library relationship in the digital age?

The report shows a number of important figures, but you are right—there is a suggestion that far too much money is being spent on digital materials that are getting too little use. More importantly, however, the data shows clearly that the greatest strength of the public library service is the access it provides to the wonderful backlist of printed books. By contrast, the issue of access to frontlist e-books should not, in my opinion, be a cause for headlines or dispute. It can be parked aside for a time when the e-book market is more settled.

If libraries and publishers are to strive together to increase reading, as they should, I believe the priority should be the print backlist. I believe there should be a much better exchange of information about what is available and what is being circulated. For example, more than twice as many print books are circulated by libraries as are sold by booksellers, and library circulations are far more diverse, in every sense, than book sales. Publishers, however, have virtually no information about where print books are held or what is circulated. This is an area where publishers and libraries could be truly useful to each other, and mutually supportive.

In e-books, too, I believe the concentration should be on making a diverse backlist available. And I think library management systems could play an important role in bringing that about.

Do you have a sense of how we reverse some of the troubling trends you see in the data?

I have worked in the book industry for 40 years, and in the field of public libraries for 20 years, and I believe profoundly in the importance of libraries. Yet I have always felt that libraries need a dispassionate appraisal of their public reputation. That’s why I did the research. And there are a number of subjects to address listed in the report. It would be wonderful to have a group of library directors who would acknowledge and work on these issues in the context of their own services, and to develop actions that can be taken quickly. I would be delighted to help in that endeavor.

EDITORS NOTE: As this Q&A was conducted before the Covid-19 crisis forced libraries to close and the world to shelter in place, we reached out to Coates to see if he wanted to add a comment on how the crisis might impact his view of libraries. “My central message and action points stay the same," Coates responded. "The library service needs to be able to listen to the needs of the public and that information is core to what will happen when Coronavirus ends. It has to find and market a service which brings people into the buildings, and that will be people who want to read. The closures give an opportunity to conduct consumer research that can be used to build a renewal program. We should start work now."

Tim Coates can be reached at The Freckle Report 2020 is available for purchase through library vendors and wholesalers, and also on Amazon in print Kindle editions.