Newly released figures show there were 35 static and mobile library closures in the year to end March 2019 across England, Wales and Scotland, with the total falling from 3,618 to 3,583. However this represents a smaller number of closures than in the previous year, when 127 libraries closed.
Spending on libraries was up very slightly (0.4%) from the year before, at £744m. However the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), which compiles the annual statistics, noted that the library spend was down nearly 30% over the last decade, from £1bn in 2009/10. The current number of libraries, 3,583, represents a drop of 17.7% from the 4,356 that existed a decade ago.
The latest figures recorded seven million fewer visits year-on-year in the 12 months to end March 2019, down to 226 million, while the number of books issued dropped 4.4% to 174.7 million.
CIPFA also noted, in the snapshot of data it releases publicly, that since 2014/15, the number of paid staff has plummeted from 18,028 to 15,300 – a drop of 15.1% - while volunteers soared 24.3%, from 41,402 in 2014/15 to 51,478 in 2018/19.
CIPFA c.e.o. Rob Whiteman said: “While we have seen a small uptick in the amount spent on libraries over the last year, budgets remain tight, with spending remaining well below 2009/10 levels. Today’s findings show a sustained trend in which many services have been cut or redesigned, with councils’ ever-decreasing funds directed to priority areas such as social care. This is the shape of today’s local authorities. As the country prepares to go to the polls, candidates should be having honest conversations with the public about the role of local government, and the future of lower priority services such as libraries.”
The figures also showed spend on audio-visual materials like CDs and DVD, dropped by over 60% in the last 10 years as libraries shifted towards greater use of online resources.
Library campaigner Tim Coates, a former m.d. of Waterstones, said the statistics showed projects like the government’s Libraries Task Force, which set out to provide a national digital service, had failed in their aims. He said: “The use of internet terminals has fallen and the use of e-books is only 1% of library use. There isn’t even a plan for a national digital service. It is disappointing that the Task Force and the Arts Council have had no impact on halting the decline in use - which as ever is predictable. Use of libraries was falling long before austerity started.”
Laura Swaffield, chair of The Library Campaign, said the newly released statistics were already “way out of date” and only highlighted the gloomier news about libraries. She said: “As always, the headlines highlight national decline - hardly surprising, with funding slashed, and hundreds of libraries gutted, closed or dumped on to volunteers. As always, there's nothing to highlight the scores of services that still thrive despite it all, and nothing to analyse how they manage it. What a waste of essential data.”
At a local level, the figures show Manchester Central Library continued to be the country’s busiest, with 1.9 million visits, while Wembley and Woolwich library also made the top three.