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Danielle Steel or Bob Woodward? How Camden’s libraries choose which books to order with an algorithm

'Robotics and augmented reality' coming to borough's libraries

01 March, 2019 — By Tom Foot

Neil Vokes, Sam Eastop and Simon Inglis at Monday’s meeting

LIBRARIANS could be given small cash allowances to order books that they think users will want to borrow, instead of a computer “algorithm” system currently used for stock orders.

Camden uses Askews & Holt, a company based in Preston, to help fill the shelves of its nine libraries meaning staff lose a say in what arrives and when.

This system was challenged at a meeting of the Friends of West Hamp­stead Library (FoWHL) on Monday evening as readers heard that books by first-time authors are often overlooked.

Members in the audience said the system was “offering up complete rubbish” and was too slow in sending sought-after titles.

Librarian Nick Durant told the meeting: “There are weaknesses in how they work because they don’t tend, for example, to pick-up prize-winning non-fiction books, which are very often by first-time authors, as it works by an algorithm. “

But he said: “There is another side to it. It is more efficient for a lot of our spending because you don’t actually need nine librarians in nine libraries to say ‘do we really want the next Danielle Steel?’ We don’t need someone to do that, when an algorithm can do that.”

He added: “Books from Askews & Holt arrive serviced – they have the labels and are already on the catalogue. So there are downsides yes, but there are upsides as well. It all comes back to how much money the library gets and what we spend it on.”

Mr Durant said a “very generous donation from a local celebrity” had been made on the condition books were purchased from neighbouring West End Lane Books – but while welcome, this process had taken a lot of time to process.

FoWHL member Peter Rutherford had asked: “We [Camden] spend £330,000 each year – often on complete rubbish. The All The President’s Men guy Bob Woodward wrote a book about Trump and I said we need to get some copies of this in quick – it took weeks and weeks and weeks, by which time the whole thing was dead anyway.”

He added: “In the end, we got four copies – none of which are in this library. You can’t move quickly enough. Why can’t we decide what we want when we want it, and not have someone God-knows-where choosing what we want? Askews and Holt’s Library Service provides “shelf-ready” books to libraries across the country and overseas.

The meeting heard that around 10 per cent of library funding went on books.

Camden’s director for libraries and tourism Sam Eastop said: “Evidence-based stock management is something that is commissioned by Askews & Holt. It is not a book shop but it is a massive store of books. It responds to local need and local demand. In moving for­ward, in a more devolved neighbourhood approach, we do want to look at a way where we can give a small capitalisation to each individual library, so it can respond to individual needs.”

The meeting had focused on the future of the library itself with concerns that the council’s digital reforms would lead to trained staff being replaced by volunteers and machines.

The council has announced a £1.5million investment in library digital services – poten­tially including “robotics and augmented reality”.

Mr Eastop said 40 per cent of librarians’ time was spent on responding to problems with the “effectiveness of the PC network and print jobs”.

Fortune Green Lib Dem councillor Flick Rea said: “I would say this is a staff-cutting exercise. You are getting rid of staff and putting volunteers in, who may or may not have the time to do it. What happens when there isn’t a volunteer to open up or run the place? I can see five years down the line you say ‘well it’s not working and close the doors’.”

Former chairwoman of Friends of Highgate Library Sarah Harrison told the West Hampstead group that they had a unique system where volunteers and council staff run the library together.

But this was “an awful lot of work for volunteers, we have to recruit, train them, rota them, sort out the garden”, adding: “And it will stay like that until we have a sane Government that’s prepared to recognise libraries’ value.”

She said that this year alone 3,500 hours of volunteer time had been needed.

An Askews statement said: “AHLS make selections for pre-pub­lication titles based upon the specification provided by Camden Libraries. The specification details the type of material to be chosen – with a key factor being the budget that has been set by the library service.”

The company said: “As you will be aware, all library book funds have been under severe pressure in the last 10 years and this has had a considerable impact on the range and quantity of stock that can be chosen across the UK. Library staff have the option to review the selections if they so wish.”

It added: “In our experience customers using our services also retain funds to be spent directly by library staff on ‘back stock’ – which will include additional copies of prizewinners.”

FoWHL chairman Simon Inglis stepped down after eight years in the role and was replaced by former BBC’s World Tonight editor David Stevenson.

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