In a sector rife with closures and cutbacks, public library usage among adults has declined by almost a third since 2005, according to new government figures.
The Taking Part report, commissioned by the department of culture, media and sport (DCMS), measures adult engagement in culture and revealed that 33.8% of adults had used a public library service in between October 2014 and September 2016, down from 48.2% in 2005. This represents a decline of 29.8% since 2005 - almost a third. According to the report, the proportion of adults who use a public library service has decreased almost every year since the survey began in 2005/06. Of all the four sectors measured by the survey, public libraries was the only sector which has experienced steady decline since 2005.
Campaigners have hit out over the statistics and called on official government bodies - particularly the Libraries Taskforce, Arts Council England (ACE) and the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL)- to focus their attention "urgently" on the sector and what needs to be done to reverse the decline.
“The Taskforce needs to take its head out of the sand and properly research all the reasons why so many have stopped using libraries and then work with chief librarians and the Arts Council England to put in place an effective plan to reverse the decline,” said veteran library campaigner Desmond Clarke.
Tim Coates, former m.d. of Waterstones and library campaigner told The Bookseller that the government needed to address the problems in the public library sector - namely lack of relevant books and "old fashioned methods" - to reverse the decline in usage.
"The reputation of public libraries is about books and reading. It is obvious to everybody", Coates said. "In the publishing industry we know that over those years, while many things have changed, the habit of reading has not. We see new authors and new initiatives, fashions and technologies - but the idea of reading has stayed constant. So the dramatic decline in use of libraries has, by virtue of simple arithmetic, to have come because libraries - even though they are free to use - do not provide the reading material that people want, when they want it. And even more powerfully, while booksellers of all kinds have learned the importance of instant convenient delivery, libraries have fallen seriously behind the simplest service requirements of their customers."
He added: "[Libraries] don't have the books and their old fashioned methods are unable to deliver items as fast as they are needed. These are the simple issues the library service, its profession and its task forces have got to address urgently otherwise the public libraries of England rightly will be closed for wasting public money. And that will bureaucratic stupidity on a grand scale. It would be unbelievable if we weren't watching it happen."
The report also broke out the data of usage among demographics, revealing that a lower proportion of adults from the lower socio-economic group (29.7%) used a library compared with those from the upper-socio economic group (35.9%). Engagement with libraries was higher for women, of whom 37.6% had used a library in the 12 months prior to interview, compared with just under 30% of men (29.9%). Meanwhile, 43.9% of black and minority ethnic adults used the library over the same period, compared to 32.4% of white adults, the report revealed. Altogether 35.3% of disabled adults used libraries, compared to 33.2% of those adults with no disability or long-standing illness.
Nick Poole, chief executive of the librarians body CILIP argued that the figures are a warning that it is "time to stop talking about the dismantling of library services and instead to demand action."
Highlighting a national leadership strategy put forward by CILIP members, Poole said: "We’ve put a solution on the table that can deliver the transformation and efficiencies needed to sustain library services nationally and the government has ignored it. If they continue to look away, the picture of library use will keep worsening and the electorate will carry the implications into whatever world is waiting for us post-austerity and post-Brexit.”
The Society of Chief Librarians insisted that it would continue to "work to engage and excite people about all the resources on offer in their libraries" and emphasised the increase of online library usage. The survey revealed that the proportion of adults who had visited a library website "significantly" increased from 8.9% in 2005/06 to 13.0% in the year to September 2016.
A SCL spokesperson said: "While physical library visits among people over the age of 16 have declined, we have seen a boom in the number of visits to library websites which provide a range of on-line resources including e-books, e-magazines and a range of information in areas like benefits, citizenship, jobs and health and wellbeing.
“Unfortunately, the survey does not measure children’s visits and SCL members report a very high take up of children’s activities, with some rhyme times and baby bounces full to capacity.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “Libraries are hugely important community assets and we are absolutely committed to helping them flourish and prosper in the 21st century. That is why the Libraries Taskforce has published a strategy for the service in England to ensure they are more resilient and better utilised by local authorities. This includes a new £4 million fund for projects such as literacy schemes, improving access to technology, and increasing the number of children visiting libraries.”