Widespread library closures across the UK have resulted in the loss of almost 8,000 jobs in the last six years, according to a report by the BBC.
Using data assembled by freedom of information requests, the BBC's investigation has revealed that the amount of volunteers in use in libraries has almost doubled since 2010, rising from 15,861 to 31,403. In this time, the number of paid staff fell from 31,977 to 24,044, which is a drop of 25% for the 182 libraries that provided comparable data.
A total of 343 libraries have closed in the same time period, with a future 111 closures planned this year, the report found. This number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 closures.
Children’s author Alan Gibbons has said that the public library service is facing “the greatest crisis in its history”.
Gibbons told the BBC: "Opening hours are slashed, book stocks reduced. Volunteers are no longer people who supplement full time staff, but their replacements. This constitutes the hollowing out of the service. We are in dangerous territory."
He said: "Councils learnt early on how unpopular simply closing libraries is so they have had to cut the vital service in other, less obvious ways. It can come across in many forms: reduced opening hours, reduced book fund, reduced maintenance and reduced staffing. In all its incarnations, it is harmful to the service, creating the risk that once-loyal users of libraries will come away disappointed and stop using them. Our public library system used to be envy of the world. Now it is used as a cautionary tale that librarians use worldwide to scare their colleagues."
Data recently released from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) has also revealed that library funding has been cut by £180m and visits have fallen 14% since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010.
According to the BBC's report, a further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run.
Librarian Ian Anstice, editor of online resource Public Libraries News, who assisted the BBC with some of its research, said that the cuts are "without precedent". He told The Bookseller that he was "really pleased" with the media coverage around the library closures but criticised "ridiculous claims" by culture minister Ed Vaizey.
Anstice said: "The research from the BBC puts to bed once and for all the ridiculous claim by Ed Vaizey that it is only Labour-run authorities that are cutting libraries. However, to hear him on BBC Radio Four saying that library closures are nothing to do with budget cuts shows that he is still, worryingly, not entirely in touch with reality."
Laura Swaffield, chair of the Library Campaign, also praised the BBC's report but criticised the lack of government action. She said: “This is the kind of research the DCMS should be doing - regularly. Without this BBC project, we'd be stuck as usual with last December's CIPFA figures, which are now a full year old. The Taskforce was meant to be sorting out CIPFA, but I see no sign of it yet.
“The shocking message of the report is, of course, not news to people who - unlike libraries minister Ed Vaizey - take an interest in libraries. He was on the radio this morning saying how important professional librarians are, and that volunteers are not a substitute. Yet up to now he has positively encouraged volunteer-run libraries. As the libraries crisis has now become a full-scale disaster, it's high time to turn the spotlight on to the government. The blame lies with savage cuts to local authorities - and the DCMS's total lack of guidance or action on a situation we've all warned about for years.”
Veteran library campaigner Desmond Clarke said that the BBC's research has provided a "true picture of what is really happening within the public library service". He added: "The service continues to drift and users walk away while those responsible for managing our libraries produce yet another report. Where is the leadership and the plan to re-invigorate the service?”
Nick Poole, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), said that the report demonstrates "the damage caused by hastily implemented austerity and devolution policies without a robust strategic plan for libraries."
"Volunteers have always been a vibrant part of our library service, but they cannot replace the expertise, ethics and professional skills of qualified staff who are fundamental to providing the quality library services that we are entitled to by law", Poole said. "Through CILIP’s My Library By Right campaign we have called for our statutory rights to quality library services to be recognised, for a robust strategic plan, and for accurate and consistent use of statistics and evidence. We welcome the publication last week of Libraries Deliver, but essential that it is properly resourced and supported. A practical action plan, sufficient budget and realistic long-term funding proposals, along with a transparent and timely approach to monitoring and reporting must be in place if it is to success."
Poole added: "Our public libraries are a vital part of the future of communities and the economy, we must ensure that they are celebrated and developed in the future.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said: "Libraries are cornerstones of their communities and are part of the fabric of our society, so it's vital they continue to innovate in order to meet the changing demands of those they serve. Government is helping libraries to modernise by funding a wi-fi roll-out across England that has benefitted more than 1,000 libraries and increasing access to digital services and e-lending. The Libraries Taskforce is also consulting on a new vision for public libraries that will help reinvigorate the service and ensure they remain relevant to local communities."
Last week, the Taskforce published a draft document Libraries Deliver outlining its vision for the public library network.