English library borrowing plummets while US remains stable

English library borrowing plummets while US remains stable

New library borrowing figures from the US show how far England is lagging behind other countries because of its facilities’ falling book stocks, according to new analysis from library campaigner Tim Coates.

Using statistics from the Institute of Museums and Library Services, ex-Waterstones boss Tim Coates produced a chart showing English book loans have plummeted year-on-year since 2009/10 while American numbers remain relatively stable.

According to the statistics, book loans in the USA stood at 7.4 per person in 2006/7, peaked at 8.3 in 2009/10 and were 7.1 in 2016/17.

During the same span of time, Coates’ analysis of CIPFA data showed English book loans fell from 5.7 to 3.1 per person, a 46% decrease. Coates said this was well down on 8.6 in 1996/7, while England's most recent figure available for 2017/18 was just 2.8.

Over a period from 2007/8, loans in Australia have also fallen, but far less sharply, from 8.2 per person to 6.6, a 20% drop, according to National and State Libraries of Australia data analysed by Coates.

He said the figures lend weight to his argument that library use in England is dwindling because there has been a move from making their sole focus books – something he claims has not happened elsewhere.

Coates said: “25 to 30 years ago the public library sector in the UK, which means the leaders of the profession, the local and national politicians and government officers responsible for the service, consciously and deliberately allowed the number of books available for lending in public libraries to fall. It happened in every council.  

“Across the UK the number has fallen from 90m to less than 60m and what remains is of low quality. They did it because they believed, and continue to believe, that libraries are more than about books' and they should concentrate substantial resources to all kinds of other activities and purposes. In Australia and the US, while there was similar desire to widen the scope of the library service, they have not reduced the book collections at all.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport claimed some libraries had recently seen an increase in borrowing, although did not directly address Coates’ point about a decrease in book stock.

A spokesman told The Bookseller: "The way people use libraries is changing and libraries need to adapt and evolve as new technologies become available, in the same way that other public services do. We are encouraged that around a quarter of the country's libraries are seeing a boost in visits or borrowing. Our libraries continue to play an important role in helping people and communities access computers, information and advice to improve their life chances and achieve their full potential." 

Coates published his own survey last month on library use in the UK and US, claiming again that things like the often-blamed Government austerity programme were not the root cause of British library woes.

He said: “Until the book collections are restored, that decline will continue. It is terminal. Giving the sector money would be wasteful if they do not acknowledge fully the cause of the problem- and spend anything they are given on printed books.”

Analysis by Coates of figures released late last year by CIPFA showed spending on books in public libraries had fallen by 20% in the 12 months to the end of March 2018. That study showed book lending to adults from English libraries fell by 6.7% in the previous year, a total drop of 31.6% across the last five years. In England, 105 libraries closed – impacting on loans - with 14 more handed to volunteers. 

However, Coates’ views on the reason for falling library use are not backed by everyone. Nick Poole, c.e.o. of library and information association CILIP, told The Bookseller last month cuts in funding were the main reason for the problems.

He said: “There are essentially five ingredients which make up a successful library—we need bright, attractive spaces, professional staff, good-quality book-stock, good IT and a diverse programme of activities to help keep users interested. There is no doubt that better books in libraries equates to more use. The problem is that after 10 years of public sector austerity and local government cuts, we are running the service on a shoestring—which means we can’t deliver the great libraries and high-quality stock that people want everywhere across the UK.”