New figures show total spending on Great Britain's libraries fell by £20m in the last financial year, as Libraries Connected warned more budget reductions are on the way.
Data released by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) following a survey of local authorities showed spending fell 2.6% from £744.8m in 2018/19 to £725m in 2019/20.
It also showed the number of mobile and static libraries fell slightly to 3,667 from 3,685 in 2018/19 - a figure that has been amended from the one issued in last year's report. The figures cover the 12 months until the end of March with no data recorded during the lockdown period.
Libraries have also grown increasingly reliant on volunteer hours, with total paid staff falling 2.4% from 15,300 to 14,925 year-on-year. In the same period, the number of volunteers reduced by 2.6% from 51,478 to 50,128 but their total hours worked increased by 1.4%.
In-person visits to libraries fell by 5% in 2019/20 while the number of web visits continued to increase, with a 25.8% rise since 2015/16, and an increase of over 12 million online visits in the past year.
The data also revealed a 7% increase in expenditure on digital materials, including e-books. Library visits over the period fell from 226 million to 214.6 million while the total number of books issued fell from 174.7 million to 165.9 million.
Rob Whiteman, CIPFA c.e.o, said: ‘‘It has been a tough year for local authorities who have had to make difficult decisions regarding many crucial public services. Library services are no exception.
‘‘This year’s findings show that the trend of libraries having to redesign their services and rely increasingly on volunteers continues.
‘‘The steep drop in spending on British libraries is further evidence of the fact that local authorities continue to have to do more with less – and this is having a significant impact on resources that are vital to our local communities.’’
Libraries Connected chief executive Isobel Hunter warned: ‘We know that even before the current crisis, many local authorities were struggling financially and this is reflected in the cuts to library spending. However, even more alarming is that our members have told us that that they are now facing even larger cuts with an average reduction of 14% in their budgets for next year. This is unsustainable and will inevitably impact on the people who need libraries most.”
Hunter said she was concerned about the fall in full-time employees and volunteers, saying the concurrent increase in volunteer hours showed an “ongoing shift” to voluntary staffing. She said: “While we appreciate that there are a variety of models for community managed and delivered libraries, we believe that all libraries should be part of a professionally managed service to allow for better co-ordination and integration with local authorities across a range of services that include health and wellbeing, lifelong learning and education, and employment support.
She added: “The shift to digital services is also significant, especially given that these figures were gathered before lockdown began. It demonstrates that the balance between onsite, digital and now remote library services will need to evolve together into a new hybrid library model. However, the ongoing rise in digital engagement also brings additional costs to libraries; we have estimated a funding gap of £4m in England alone to meet the increased demand for e-books this year.
“During lockdown libraries and their staff kept communities connected and supported the most vulnerable. They have proved that they are a vital prevention and support service yet cost an average of just 0.6% of council spending. Adequate, sustained investment is essential if they are to play their full part in ensuring our communities recover from this crisis.”
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