Freedom of Information and Wokingham Borough Libraries


It's been a fair few years since I studied maths, and it was never my favourite subject, so I offer this to you as a labour of love!

The Freedom of Information Act is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It allows me to request any information from a public body, and they must respond within 20 working days with either the answer to a question or an explanation as to why that answer is not forthcoming. And anyone in the UK can make such a request.

Over the last few months, I’ve made a couple of such requests to Wokingham Borough Council, regarding the library service which they want to privatise. Specifically, I asked for the number of visits to each library in the last financial year, the number of registered users at each library (broken down into age groupings), and information regarding the libraries budget.

The information was forthcoming, and those interested person can find the result here:

Wokingham Borough Library Statistics

This is not, I should point out, exclusively the raw data that was provided to me (though I would point out that it is there). I have done some mathematical acrobatics in order to coax some of the interested facts out of it (pick your jaw up- yes, I can do maths!).

One such interesting point is that, for the financial year 2010-2011, the Borough spent an average figure of £24 per registered member of the library. Also, that the whole library system costs the Borough £193.28 for every hour which it is open (of which there are 12,944.5 each year). This works out at costing the borough £5.41 per visit to a library. Which doesn’t sound too bad to me. It makes a library cheaper than the cinema, certainly.

Other interesting facts emerged in the demographics. The largest age group of registered members in the Borough was 25-40, though this varied between individual libraries, as you would expect. I was quite heartened to see that my own local library in Wargrave has under 18s as its largest age group.

The problem with this data is, of course, the lack of a context. £5.41 per visit sounds pretty good to me, but given that I’m not privy to the intricate and mysterious workings of library services, I have to accept that it could be a woefully inefficient use of money. If I’m to use this data to assess whether the council’s privatisation plans are a justified attempt to increase value for money, or trying to fix something that isn’t broken, I’m going to need to know how other councils are doing.

And to that end, I’ve sent out some more FoI requests today. 152 of them, to be precise: one to every county council, london borough and unitary authority in England (non-metropolitan districts do not have responsibility for libraries). So in 20 working days (10th November, by my watch) I’m going to be swimming in numbers. Hopefully I’ll manage to hammer out something coherent in time for the council debate on the matter, on 17th Novemmber.

One interesting result is that I’ve been left with a rather lengthy list of all of the contact address for FoI requests for all of the local authorities in England. I may need to post it up here, later, along with a guide to FoI requests, and help bring power back to the people…

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