The future of libraries (again)

by / Filed under Libraries

Yesterday, the BBC reported on UK library service cuts since 2010. The figures (gathered from Freedom of Information Act requests made to library services) are pretty depressing, although if you work in libraries they won’t come as a surprise. Turns out government estimates have underplayed the extent of the damage done to the service as a whole. Since 2010:

  • there are 25% less paid staff working in libraries
  • 343 libraries have closed

(Source: Libraries lose a quarter of staff as hundreds close)

If you take Scotland out of the equation the figures are even worse.

In my experience the library service is one of those things we feel should exist, even if we don’t use it all the time. There’s something barbaric about closing a library. Their popularity explains why the report got so much coverage.

Some of the right’s response was predictable. Firstly, the IEA argued that the library service is outmoded and poor value for money, and that replacing paid staff with volunteers is a good thing. The IEA has some hefty baggage, of course – it’s hardly a surprise it’s not a fan of a publically funded library service, or of replacing it with free labour.

Secondly, John McTernan argued the stats about libraries tell a story of increasing irrelevance rather than underinvestment: book loans and visits have been dropping since 2005, and that’s ultimately why staff and branch numbers have decreased.

Of course, there’s a lot of opinion in McTernan and the IEA’s presentation of their stats. I’m genuinely baffled by the idea that libraries represent poor value for money. In Suffolk, for example, a population of 730,000 gets 44 branches, 3 mobile libraries, home visits, free ebooks, free eaudio, free streaming, free wifi, free PC and Chromebook usage, online reservations and renewals, a schools and children’s literacy service, thousands of events, live gigs, a makerspace, two book festivals, a mental health service and around a million print titles for less than £6m a year. This strikes me as incredibly good value for money.

Similarly, McTernan ignores a large swathe of things libraries do apart from lend print titles (although he does acknowledge Suffolk’s ebook service, bizarrely implying we’re unique in this – we’re not; virtually all library services offer something like Overdrive). Yes, adult print loans have been decreasing steadily for years, and his reasons for this sound right. But PC usage, children’s loans and all the other community stuff like running post offices are becoming more important precisely because of the austerity he claims isn’t causing the demise of the library service.

Lazy critics attack an outmmoded idea of a library service for ideological reasons. There are lots of things libraries should be taking a hard look at – Google, Amazon and Spotify do pose difficult, existential questions, as does providing a truly universal service. But before knocking libraries it’d be nice if think tanks and journalists bothered to find out what they actually do in 2016.