Turning libraries into community hubs 'to blame for decline' in use, says Coates

Turning libraries into community hubs 'to blame for decline' in use, says Coates

The use of libraries for community activities rather than just as a repository for books has led to a fall in their use rather than an increase, according to a new report by campaigner Tim Coates.

In his newly-published Freckle Report, Coates, a former c.e.o. of Waterstones turned advocate for public libraries in the UK and US, published his recent research and made renewed calls to turn around a service that is in serious decline. But, rather than singling out the cuts in funding regularly blamed for the service’s problems, Coates said it was a lack of books that was to blame and two decades spent turning facilities into community hubs, moving them away from their main purpose.

Because the amount of users then falls, the lack of demand is then used as a reason to close them, the report suggests.

He wrote: “The fall has come primarily from a long-term move away from the central service of offering printed material in welcoming library buildings.

“The evidence here shows that the fall in use eventually brings disinclination to provide public funds. In turn that reduces the quality of what is offered and use falls further. Ultimately libraries are closed. Once started, it is a hard cycle to break. 

“It is to be seen, therefore, that falls are not initially a direct consequence of levels of funding, but rather that they are the public response to how the service is presented.”

He told The Bookseller that the service in Great Britain was “being held up as an example of what not to let happen”, although lss sharp delcines were being felt elsewhere.

Coates added: “We are now seeing clearly that across the English-speaking world attempts to expand the use of libraries by diversifying services and focus on community have actually resulted in a reduction in use not an increase.”

Statistics in the report from CIPFA show use of Great Britain’s public libraries has fallen 70% in the past 20 years. In the US there has been a 22% decline over seven years, with a 21% fall in Australia over the same period.

Coates called for the introduction of a library app in the UK which includes print as well as e-book material and for libraries to restore their level of printed material, which he said has fallen by 25 million books over two decades, to that of at least 10 years ago.

He stressed the library sector should not be asking for more money until it showed it was increasing its use by providing access to enough reading material.

Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, welcomed the findings but stressed libraries had to provide a “multi-faceted” role and funding was crucial to their survivial. CILIP delivered a petition to Downing Street last month, demanding an end to library austerity. Figures published by CIPFA last year showed funding had fallen nearly 30% in the past decade alone.

Poole said: “CILIP believes that part of the power of a public library is its ability to respond to local needs. Whether by providing a space to work, a range of activities for all ages, support for small businesses or access to accurate information about health issues like Covid-19, a local library can do so much to ‘level up’ communities everywhere. 

”We agree with Tim Coates’ central analysis that this multi-faceted role should be built on a strong foundation of quality book stock, professional, engaging staff and great reading experiences. This is why we are calling on Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP to restore the revenue funding cut from libraries since 2010, enabling them to do more to empower people through books and reading.”