Figures show children worst hit by library cuts

Official figures show more than 100 libraries closed last year, with campaigners warning that the heaviest impact is being made on the youngest readers

More than 100 branch libraries closed in the last year, according to official figures, with library campaigners warning that the cuts hurt children in big cities such as Birmingham and Sheffield the most.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s annual survey of Great Britain’s libraries paints familiar picture: for the seventh year running, the number of branches and paid staff declined. There are now 3,745 branches remaining in England, Scotland and Wales, down by 105 since 2016, while the number of paid staff has declined by 5% compared with a year ago.

These falls come alongside a drop of £66m in total spend on council-run libraries, with visits down by 3% year on year, and by 14% over the last five years. The decline, according to the CIPFA figures, is almost across the board: book issues fell by 6.3% in the last year, and by 25.1% in the last five years. Book stock held is also down by 2.6%.

“We’re now almost to the point that it’s beyond repair. There’s no stopping it unless something really dramatic happens,” said library campaigner Tim Coates.

According to analysis by Coates, the former Waterstones managing director turned libraries advocate, loans of children’s books in England have dropped by 22% in the last five years, due to “the burden of the collapsing libraries falling on children in big cities”. Across Birmingham, for instance, the decline in children’s book loans increased to 32%. In Newcastle, it is 35%, and in Sheffield 56%.

“It’s because the book stock is awful, and because they are not open when they are needed,” Coates said. “Buying children’s books costs so little in the great scheme of council expenditure – you would have thought they would give priority to looking after children, but they don’t.”

According to children’s author and libraries campaigner Alan Gibbons, the figures reveal the catastrophic state of public provision.

“Those of us who have been campaigning for a coherently led and properly funded library service will be appalled, but sadly unsurprised at the latest figures. You can’t close libraries, sack trained staff, slash opening hours and book funds and simultaneously expect visits and borrowing to remain healthy,” said Gibbons. “This government is responsible for the systematic undermining of a great national institution.”

Labour shadow culture secretary Kevin Brennan said the party was calling on the government to publish the complete data from its Libraries Taskforce report, released in December 2016, “so that Parliament and the public can see the full picture of the damage being done to libraries by ongoing Tory austerity”.

“This £66m hammer blow to libraries is a direct result of the government’s brutal cuts to local authority budgets,” he said. “Libraries are vital community hubs and they are crucial to social mobility. This government continues to put them at risk with fewer books and fewer paid staff while library closures continue.”

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman said the figures show that the cuts being made to local government have consequences.

“Councils are facing significant pressures in areas such as adult and children’s social services. You really see here that for the services they feel they have to cut, there are very drastic reductions being made year on year,” he said. “The state is getting very small in relation to some services.”

Whiteman said that it “wasn’t all doom and gloom”, as volunteer numbers have increased, up by 8% year on year and by 43% since 2012. But this rise, which has helped to keep some branches open, has been heavily criticised by some campaigners.

“Libraries are continuing to modernise while volunteer numbers have increased, proving that libraries remain an important community asset. But, to really ensure that libraries are able to thrive, local authorities need adequate and sustainable levels of funding,” said Whiteman, who predicted the rise in volunteers would continue.

A government spokesperson said: “The government is completely committed to helping libraries prosper and recognise the important place they have in communities across the country. We have invested almost £4m on innovative libraries projects – helping to increase access to new technology and improve people’s digital skills and literacy. On top of that, we have funded the rollout and upgrade of wifi to more than 1,000 libraries. Our historic £200bn, four-year local authority funding settlement has also provided councils with the certainty to plan ahead and provide effective services for their residents.”

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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