A familiar picture of declining spending on UK public libraries, with yet more library closures and staff cuts, and continuing drops in library visits and book loan numbers, has been revealed in the latest library statistics compiled by CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.
Spending on the public library service dropped almost 4% to £741.4m in the year to the end of March 2018 (from £771.7m in 2016/17), according to limited data from the annual survey publicly revealed thus far by CIPFA.
A total of 127 static and mobile libraries closed in the latest year, bringing the total down to just 3,618.
Following the pattern of recent years, the number of full-time paid posts continued to fall, down 4.3% from 16,194 to just 15,483, while the numbers of volunteers taking up roles in libraries surged, up 7% to 51,394. There are now well over three times as many volunteers working in libraries as there are full-time paid staff.
The long-seen decline in library visits and book loans continued, with visits dropping 4.2% to 233.1 million, and the number of book loans falling 5% to 182.9 million.
Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, the library and information association, said: "This is a clear wake-up-call to Government about the severe impact of budget cuts on our much-loved libraries. The library sector is working hard to revitalise and transform libraries across the country to meet the needs of communities now and in the future. We are calling on the Government to get behind us and invest in libraries through the Spending Review as a cost-effective way to make our communities and high streets better places, get children reading, help people develop new skills and find work, improve health and wellbeing, and combat loneliness and isolation."
Library campaigner Tim Coates, a former m.d. of Waterstones and now a consultant for academic and public libraries in the US, described the latest statistics as "another terrible set of figures for the public library service". He said: "They show that yet again none of the actions or initiatives taken by the library sector in the last five years have had any effect whatsoever. That includes a total failure of the work of the Libraries Task Force who produced an incorrect diagnosis of the problems and a gutless, meaningless response to the reality of what has been happening."
However Coates added: "The sector will moan that they need more money - but until they show that they know how to spend it properly, it would be a travesty to ask taxpayers to waste even more than they already have. We now know that the falls in use we have seen here have not happened in other countries, notably the US and Australia. The public library service desperately needs new management throughout all its operation. That’s what senior politicians should institute and if the service is to survive, they must do it quickly. People who read and believe in its importance deserve better than the public library service we have in this country.”
Rob Whiteman, CIPFA c.e.o., described libraries as "a bit of a canary in the coal mine for what is happening across the local government sector", with councils forced to reduce spending in what he termed "all 'non-essential' services across the board" because of lack of funds. “There really needs to be some honest conversations about the direction of travel of our councils and what their role is, as the funding gap will continue to exacerbate these issues,” he commented.