The UK's public libraries are missing 25 million books, according to figures from libraries body CIPFA, although the decline in books could be worse than the figures indicate due to discrepancies between computer audits and physical stock takes.
First reported in The Guardian, at the end of 2016, libraries held 52.3m books, which is down from 75.1m in 1996. These figures reflect the number of books logged in library computer records but there are concerns that this number is different from the amount of books actually on the shelves.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Suffolk libraries had found that there were 10,000 fewer books, CDs and DVDs in the county's libraries than were listed on its database. The stock has vanished through damage, loss and theft.
Library campaigner Tim Coates told The Bookseller that the figures describe "very clearly and simply" the reason the use of libraries has fallen and what needs to be done to "restore them to good health".
"We need to put back 25m new books. It's as simple as that", Coates said.
He added that the figures should have been the "starting point" for William Sieghart's review of public libraries in 2014.
He continued: “People say 'where would the money come from?' But we already spend sums of money of that order on public libraries. At the time I said we needed to allocate the £200m that we would spend on capital programs for a brief period and spend it on books instead. And indeed since I wrote that we have indeed spent well over £200m on capital projects on public libraries in England. That would not even touch the £900m that we spend on operating costs. The public library service is well funded - it is just not well managed.”
CILIP c.e.o. Nick Poole added: "The neglect that our public library services have experienced since 2010 - with swingeing cuts to book stock, staffing, open hours and buildings - exactly at the time when the UK is facing an unprecedented skills and literacy crisis is a matter of national concern. We are calling on the Chancellor to urgently invest in libraries as a high impact, low cost solution to these challenges in the Spring Budget."
According to Coates, the level of books stocked by individual libraries has fallen sharply since 1996, when the average number of books per public library was 23,000, he said. "Since then, we have removed the equivalent of 1,000 public libraries worth of books (25m) - and the picture may be much worse when it is audited", he added.