The most recent figures for Brent Library visits and issues are now available. The most recent quarter (July to September) shows a 17% rise in issues, and a 5.2% rise in visits compared to the same period last year. This is despite Kilburn Library being closed between 22 May and 10 September for its refurbishment. Indeed, the most startling figure in the report is the increase in visit numbers at Kilburn Library this September compared to September last year. There has been a 106% jump despite, the library being open for only 21 days in September.
Altogether, I am surprised at how the Libraries Transformation has made such a big difference so quickly. I was expecting a slower rate of progress. Partly this is because I imagined that there would be a falling off in visits at our biggest library in Willesden during the redevelopment there. Although we have designed a robust interim service, interim services tend not to attract the same footfall as a permanent facility. The delay in the redevelopment means that this effect has yet to be fully felt.
I expect a second major effect when the new Wembley Library opens in June next year. This will be in the most prominent parts of the Civic Centre, and I expect it to rapidly become one of the most popular libraries in the UK.
The figures seem to me to confirm the strategy we decided to pursue. Contrary to some people's expectation, people are willing to travel to our libraries. We seem to have a better record than areas like Hertfordshire, which went down the route of cutting opening hours (although I suspect travelling to another branch is harder in Hertfordshire). I suspect that our decision to protect and enhance the bookstock in each library is also important in maintaining their attractiveness.
The litigants of course, asked the opposite question. They asked why numbers fell upon the closure of the libraries on 11 October last year. The answer to that is multiple.
Firstly, it was always the case that there would be a period of adjustment from one system to the other. The litigants prolonged this somewhat, so that we weren't able to start to fully implement our system until quite a long way into 2012. The legal action did not end until February, whereupon the litigants instantly decided to threaten the Secretary of State with legal action. This obviously created some uncertainity for Brent Libraries Service, which was only fully lifted when the new Secretary of State announced there would be no inquiry in September.
Secondly, we were hampered with getting on with key parts of our offer. Most noticeably, we did not have full access to our bookstock until late May. Again, this was partly the result of legal objections.
Thirdly, many elements of the strategy require time to develop. The school library card scheme seems to me to have the potential to be a highly effective innovation, but it takes time to get schools to partner and develop the model. Other parts of the strategy, such as outreach, the online offer, services for the housebound, free legal advice, high quality promotions, online courses, and physical refurbishments all take time.
A fourth reason that has been suggested to me, although it is not a proveable statement either way, is that the huge negative publicity that the litigants generated in itself damaged library usage. Partly this would be through deterring the public, and partly by demoralising the staff. This may be true. I am sure that had we gone down the route of cutting opening hours and hollowing out the service, the effect would have been immensely demoralising for both staff and customers alike.
In response to the comments, the overall visits this September are about 1.5% down from September last year. I suspect that if I had said a year ago that Brent libraries would be only 1.5% down in visits with six libraries than with 12 I would have been disbelieved. The Harrow Observer story refers to a different set of numbers. My point is that the dip immediately after the closures is now being reversed as we have started to progress the strategy.