October 4th-10th 2021 is Libraries Week. In the publishing industry’s rush for book shop sales it’s easy to forget that the public library service is a huge consumer of books, providing reading access to people who can’t afford to buy them. Libraries are particularly important for disabled people who need alternative formats that can be expensive and hard to get hold of commercially. Want to read lots of audio, braille or e-books each week and all for free? Then join your local library – whilst they are still here.
Charitable bodies such as the RNIB and its Reading Services audiobook offering do a great job but they can’t offer a universal service to all. Public libraries are special because they are for everyone. Yet services are under threat due to lack of cash. According to The Guardian, funding in 2010 was £1billion, but by 2020 that figure had reduced to £725 million. Between 2010 and 2020 one fifth of public libraries closed. Some only survived because volunteers took over running them from professional librarians.
Councils have held off cuts during the pandemic but the future is uncertain. Public library professionals have sadly become accustomed to the yearly threat of budget hacking
Then came Covid. Public libraries proved their worth during the pandemic lockdown, quickly innovating to provide books and services online. E-book borrowing shot up: between March and mid-August 2020 more than 3.5 million extra e-books were borrowed. Yet ominously the enforced Covid closure of library buildings led to one infamous West Midlands council leader questioning whether we really need physical libraries at all.
Some libraries have accumulated specialist collections in alternative formats. "For example, The Scottish Poetry Library has a collection of over 100 poetry books and poetry-related items in braille," says Toni Velikova, assistant librarian. "We are also working towards ensuring poetry collections are available in different accessible formats. Our audio-visual collection includes poems on CDs, cassettes and vinyl. We are working alongside the National Library of Scotland to digitise our archive of in-house cassettes and reels."
Libraries have also been quick to embrace development in technology to empower disabled users. At North Lanarkshire Libraries, e-services librarian Chris Wilson says that "having access to a great range of ebooks and e-audiobooks has improved access to books for our Visually Impaired Reading Group." Whereas in Warwickshire, team leader Stephen Merriott has implemented an audiobooks-on-memory-stick service for visually impaired users who find CD audiobooks tricky, leading one user to comment “I am no longer able to hold a book and struggle to use a CD player, so this is a great option for me".
The importance of libraries to the disability community led the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) to found a disability network in July, to provide an authoritative voice on disability issues within the library community and champion the community’s needs.
Those needs aren’t just books. Public libraries are innovators, working with local communities on projects to benefit their disabled users, one of the most recent being the CID project (Dancers with Parkinsons), which launched during Libraries Week, and will tour various libraries across the country to bring ‘expressive, moving, and creative dance opportunities to people with Parkinson's both online and in-person’. As Danielle Teale, the artistic director of the project states, "libraries provide an essential safe space for their communities, where people can engage with art and culture in a friendly and accessible way".
Many libraries are designated safe spaces, have disabled access and hearing loops, are autism friendly, have Reading Well health and wellbeing collections to support people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, and offer a home delivery service for users who are physically unable to come to the library, to name but a few of their benefits for disabled people.
Councils have held off cuts during the pandemic but the future is uncertain. Public library professionals have sadly become accustomed to the yearly threat of budget hacking. “When you run a library service, change is the only constant,” said Ayub Khan, universal services manager for Warwickshire County Council. “We are continuously adapting our services to meet the ever-changing needs and expectations of all customers - including disabled users, where our understanding of needs is always being reviewed and challenged … meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable Warwickshire residents is always a priority."
Budget cuts also affect library suppliers. The Ulverscroft Group is a leading publisher of large print and audio books. Its acting marketing manager, Daniel Eggleston, has found that in libraries "the funding for alternative formats is not ring-fenced so that any reduction in overall library budgets hits these areas, and those that rely on them the most, especially hard." For specialist format publishers, fewer sales could result in them producing fewer products, leading to an ever decreasing circle. "We have to make decisions based on sales and feedback on what we can produce in alternative formats and the number of titles we publish," he says. "A reduction in budget means a reduction in the number of available titles."
The threat is clear, but what can authors, publishers and booksellers do about it? Firstly use the library yourself – healthy lending statistics prove that libraries are well used by their communities. When you hear that a library is in threat of closure, join a campaign to save it. Tweet about it. Shout about it. Be aware of the importance of alternative book formats for disabled people and the safe, inclusive public spaces that libraries provide. Become an ally. It’s not just disabled people who benefit from libraries, we all do.
For many disabled or older people libraries are a lifeline to continue enjoying books in the format they need. If public library budgets and services for disabled people shrink further it will have an adverse effect on reading in the UK and of course the publishing industry as a whole. It’s up to all of us to save them.
Penny Batchelor is the author of two psychological thrillers: My Perfect Sister and Her New Best Friend. She champions positive disability representation in fiction. Along with EC Scullion, Penny is the co-founder and editor of the Thriller Women blog which publishes interviews with female thriller writers.