There has been a "significant decrease" in the proportion of adults who engage with public libraries across all demographic groups for the first time since records began.
A report on public library engagement commissioned by the government department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has revealed that 33.4% of adults had visited a public library in the year April 2015 to March 2016, down from 33.9% a year earlier, and down from 48.2% in 2005/06. The report revealed there has been a "significant decline" in the proportion of adults who used a public library in all individual English regions since 2005/06, when records began, with the South East region seeing the largest decline, from 51% in 2005/06 to 31.9% in 2015/16.
The research also found that the gap between ethnic groups using libraries is increasing, with a higher proportion of adults from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) groups using a library in the year April 2015 to March 2016, than adults from the white ethnic group (45.6% compared with 31.6%). The divide reflects a "significant" decrease in the proportion of adults from the white ethnic group using public libraries since 2013/14, while the proportion of BAME adults using libraries has remained stable.
Library visits by adults in the five most deprived areas in England has remained "reasonably stable", the report revealed. However, the proportion of adults using public library services in the least deprived areas has dropped from 46.3% in 2009/10 to 31.4% in 2008/9.
Many campaigners have attributed the decline in usage to the widespread closures of many libraries in England. A recent investigation into library closures by the BBC revealed that a total of 343 libraries have closed in the last six years, with a future 111 closures planned this year. This number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 closures.
Ian Anstice, editor of Public Libraries News, told The Bookseller that the "dramatic" fall in usage, comes as "no surprise when we have witnessed often dramatic cuts to library budgets and a disinterested government". Anstice said: "Public libraries elsewhere in the world have not faced such sharp cuts in usage - I've checked, they've fallen but not at this rate - so it's something unique to the UK and that thing is almost certainly austerity."
Laura Swaffield, chair of the Library Campaign, added: "Obviously it's significant that this period has seen a catastrophic decline in the number of libraries, and big cuts affecting service quality. So a decline in usage is no big surprise. It's also significant that usage is holding up better among those who need libraries most - unemployed people, deprived communities, BAME communities."
"All the same, we badly need to get a grip. The destruction is intensifying. The DCMS does nothing to help, Arts Council England (ACE) is the wrong body to cover libraries, the Libraries Taskforce has no sense of urgency...Some library services are booming. We urgently need to see what they are doing right."
Desmond Clarke, library campaigner, told The Bookseller that new libraries minister Rob Wilson needs to ask the Libraries Taskforce and those responsible for managing and developing the service "what are they actually doing to reverse the decline which should be at the very top of their agenda". He added: "For those responsible for the service to continue to ignore the crisis is unacceptable."
BBC local radio stations are helping to raise the profile of libraries by partnering with them to create “one of the biggest book clubs in the country”, which it hopes will encourage both reading and boost visits to the venues. Meanwhile, libraries are also tapping into the Pokemon Go trend to increase visitors.