What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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I wrote this article last year in response to a press release by the Government, informing us that numbers visiting public libraries were in decline.  Given what has been happening since then, I thought it might be worthwhile to repost it – as I believe the argument I’m making is even more relevant now than it was then…

Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years

The same article later went on to say:
‘The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

I’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

libraryBut I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…

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