Fresh figures have shown the "catastrophic" scale of library closures in Great Britain continues unabated, with 105 closed last year. Meanwhile, the services continue to be bled of funding, with £66m slashed from libraries' budgets over the course of 12 months.
The latest annual statistics released by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), accountants specialising in public services, brings the total tally of closures since the austerity measures of 2012 to 449 across England, Scotland and Wales.
The situation has been described as "catastrophic" by library campaigner and former Waterstones m.d. Tim Coates.
During the 12 months to April 2017, the number of libraries in Great Britain fell by 2.7% to 3,745, CIPFA said on Monday (11th December). The total of 105 libraries closing is 38 higher than the previous year when 67 libraries shut.
Meanwhile, total expenditure for library services fell by £66m (from £919m to £853m) in 2016-17 - a drop more than double that of the previous year, when funding was stripped by £25m.
At the same time, CIPFA claimed visits to libraries were down by 2.9% from 250 million to 243 million for the year to April 2017, a smaller decline than a year prior, which saw the number of visits drop 5.5% from 265 million to 250 million. This gives a total decline of 14% over five years. However, the CIPFA data is reliant on councils providing all the appropriate figures, which it is understood not all do.
Last month, members of the librarian and information profession heard that relentless cuts to the public library services were turning the sector into a “war zone” and making it difficult to recruit staff.
Although library resources continue to bear the brunt of austerity, CIPFA claimed the support libraries received this year to fill resource gaps rose by 6%. This includes specific grants from the government and other bodies, such as the £4m dedicated library fund from the Libraries Taskforce.
Commenting on the results, Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA, said that the library service was a "low hanging fruit that continues to be picked" by local authorities looking to make savings in the faces of cuts.
He added: “To really ensure that libraries are able to thrive, local authorities need adequate and sustainable levels of funding.”
Over a five-year period, the number of full-time staff has fallen by 17.7% from 19,688 in 2012-13 to 16,194 in 2016-17, while the number of volunteers has increased 42.6% from 33,685 in 2012-13 to 48,025 in 2016-17.
The subject of volunteers in the library sector has been a contentious one. A recent interview by Dawn Finch, children’s author and CILIP past-president, drew attention to the impact of placing volunteers in charge of running community services. In the interview, a volunteer describes working 40-hour weeks for free while drawing on her diminishing life savings to survive, putting her marriage under strain and having the threat of the museum’s closure hanging constantly over her head.
Shadow libraries minister Kevin Brennan said the loss of £66m of library funding was a "hammer blow" which he said was a "direct result of the Tory government's brutal cuts to local authority budgets".
“Libraries are vital community hubs and they are crucial to social mobility", said Brennan. "This government continues to put them at risk with fewer books and fewer paid staff while library closures continue. Labour is calling on the government to publish its full Libraries Taskforce dataset so that parliament and the public can see the full picture of the damage being done to libraries by ongoing Tory austerity."
Meanwhile Coates denounced the library closure figures as "catastrophic".
"While everybody in the library sector, from politicians to professionals, blames everyone else, the effect on the public is a disaster. Nothing less," he said. "And the worst thing is that the falls were totally obvious and predictable and have been for several years. There should be no excuses any longer."
However, a spokesperson for the department of Culture, Media and Sport said the government was "completely committed" to helping libraries prosper and recognised the "important place they have in communities across the country".
"We have invested almost £4 million on innovative libraries projects - helping to increase access to new technology and improve people's digital skills and literacy. On top of that we have funded the rollout and upgrade of wifi to more than 1,000 libraries. Our historic £200 billion four year local authority funding settlement has also provided councils with the certainty to plan ahead and provide effective services for their residents."
In a separate issue, libraries membership body CILIP and the shadow culture minister Brennan have called on the government to make the full data on libraries available for free. Currently the full data, which would give more information about UK’s school, prison, health and public libraries, is only available for the cost of around £400, The Bookseller understands. CILIP chief executive Nick Poole said that this is “contrary” to the government’s “commitments on transparency and open data”.
“It also means that the only evidence on the performance of libraries is partial and inconsistent across the UK,” he said.
Brennan added: “This government’s continuing delay publishing open data on public libraries is a disservice to taxpayers. It is also a shameful missed opportunity to support the library sector to develop essential services that develop literacy and skills in communities across the country. I’m calling on government to end the delays and obfuscation.”
The top five most visited libraries in 2016-17 were Library of Birmingham, which received 1.6 million visits, Central Library Manchester, which 1.47 million people visited, Wembley in Brent, visited by 1.39 million people, Woolwich Centre Library in Greenwich, attended by 1.18 million people and Croydon Central Library, with 941,000 visits.