Footfall at Britain's public libraries is down by about 80% on the same period last year, according to figures from library body Libraries Connected.
The organisation collects weekly figures and, up to the week ending 13th September, they show a very gradual uptick in the number of physical users since lockdown ended for libraries from early July, with footfall still at only around 20% of last year's level.
Libraries Connected pointed out the comparison was based on figures from last year when all libraries were open, as opposed to now when around a quarter are still shut. For that reason, the organisation estimated open libraries could be seeing footfall of up to 35% of last year's figures. The figures also do not reflect non-contact services such as select and collect, especially where users do not enter the building.
However, the figure is still far lower than for the commercial high street, where more shops have opened fully and footfall has peaked at close to 70% of previous levels.
Many library facilities are now moving from appointment-only models to greater walk-in capacity. However, reduced opening hours and social distancing measures have kept visitor numbers low.
Libraries Connected said e-lending had also remained high and not significantly reduced since lockdown, estimating libraries lent an additional 3.5 million e-books from 13th March to 14th August.
Chrys Mellor, libraries general manager for North Yorkshire County Council, said the lower than normal footfall had been offset slightly by a high uptake of digital services, with e-book and audio issues up 78% on last year and 3,000 joining during lockdown.
He said: “Physical book issues are on the increase as we extend our opening hours, but the outlook for September is for issues to be at 50% of where we would expect them for a normal month.
“At end of August, visits were at 30% of where they were this time last year, but we have been continuing to see a week-on-week increase during September. Since we have reopened, we have seen a high demand for access to library computers across the county and are averaging 2,000 bookings per week.”
Meanwhile, other local authorities such as East Sussex County Council, where only five out of 17 facilities have reopened so far, are still encouraging residents to use digital services rather than make physical trips. The remaining 12 are reopening next month but with significant reductions in opening hours and stringent social distancing in place.
Councillor Bill Bentley, the council's lead member for communities, said: “We will provide as many services as possible but we are not going to be able to offer the library experience that people are used to and I would still encourage people to use our fantastic e-library where they can.
“Since our buildings closed in March, the online library has gone from strength to strength with almost 80,000 members signing up to access e-books, e-audio and e-magazines.”
Libraries Connected said PC use was also high at libraries, showing the role they play in providing IT access, with anecdotal evidence they have been used most often for benefit claims and job hunting.
Isobel Hunter, c.e.o. of Libraries Connected, said: “Reopening libraries in this current environment was always going to be a challenge. However, as more sites reopen, and browsing and PC use is gradually reintroduced, we are beginning to see our communities return in higher numbers.
“We know the next few months will be critical as the combination of increased social restrictions and the release of the government spending review may well have a significant impact on library services at a time when their services are needed more than ever.”