The public library service has entered a phase of “rapid decline” as figures show visits have declined sharply and loans have plunged in the past five years, campaigner Tim Coates has said.
Figures released this month by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) showed spending on the library service fell £20m in 2019/20. The figures pre-dated the March lockdown.
According to analysis of the figures and past results by Coates, the number of library visits for England was down 20.8%, from 225 million in 2014/15, to 178 million in 2019/20; and from 28 million to 23 million in Scotland, a fall of nearly 18%. Over the same period, physical book loans plunged 25%, from 191 million to 143 million for England; and 26% in Scotland, from 19 million to 14 million.
Adult book loans fell 30% for both nations while children’s were down 18% in England and 12% in Scotland. By contrast, e-book loans rocketed 87%, albeit only to 4.3 million in England. They grew by 50%, to 600,000, in Scotland.
Books available for lending fell by 15% to 47 million in England, while the total number of acquisitions was five million, compared to seven million five years earlier. Money spent on book purchases fell 32% to £40m in England, and dropped by 34% to £5m in Scotland.
The total cost of public libraries fell 14% to £756m in England, and contracted 15% to £100m in Scotland. The number of libraries open more than 10 hours per week fell 6% over the same period, from 3,076 to 2,899 in England, and were down 10% in Scotland.
CIPFA’s own analysis showed libraries becoming more reliant than ever on volunteers, and the five-year change showed the trend even more starkly. The number of libraries operated by volunteers in England has risen 60%, from 164 in 2014/15 to 364 in 2019/20. Total paid staff fell 18% over the same period, while full-time volunteers increased 16%.
Libraries Connected has warned local services are facing an average 14% cut to their budgets next year. Last week Croydon Council, which has effectively declared itself bankrupt, began holding public meetings on the future of its service. The local authority is consulting on closing or handing over up to five of its 13 libraries as it looks to make savings.
Meanwhile, Walsall Council has not reopened its own libraries after lockdown and has announced a review of the service. Council leader Mike Bird told the Express and Star: “I’m a firm believer that if we haven’t used something for the past four or five months, do we really need it?”
Coates said: "We are now seriously into a downward spiral in which library use is falling and councils don't want to pay for them. The service has been mostly closed during lockdowns, so this picture is only going to get very gloomy. There is nobody anywhere taking responsibility for what is happening and inevitably we will lose another at least 1,000 to 1,500 [libraries].
“There are possible remedies—the lack of focus on books is a bad mistake, and so is the endless obsession with technology instead of writing—but at present there is no sign anywhere of an understanding of what to do.
“The book industry as a whole suffers from not having good public libraries, but there is little that they can contribute when only about £20m out of funding of £750m is spent with publishers."
Libraries Connected chief executive Isobel Hunter warned earlier this month that the organisation's members had reported an average 14% budget cut for next year, saying the level of cuts was "unsustainable".