Library use plummeted in 2021, but e-visits showed 18% rise during lockdown

Covid-19 has caused a steep decline in visitors and income, but an increase in digital visits shows libraries continue to be valued, says Cipfa CEO

The number of in-person visits to public libraries plummeted by 159m last year, as the pandemic forced branches to close around the country.

Annual figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) show physical library visits fell from 214.6m to 59.7m in the year to March 2021, a drop of 72%, as Covid-19 restrictions shut branches for much of the 12-month period. The closures also led to a major decline in the number of books borrowed by readers, with 72.9m books issued by libraries last year, down 56% from 165.9m in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the number of web visits grew – up by 18% to 154.7m over the period – as visitors unable to borrow physical books from their local branch turned to ebook borrowing instead.

“Clearly, physical visits have dropped due to Covid-19 restrictions and the closure of library facilities. But, while this decline may be steep, the increase in digital visits shows that communities still want to use library services. Libraries continue to be of significant cultural value for our communities,” said Cipfa chief executive Rob Whiteman. “Only time will tell if this recent shift to digital will prove to be a long-term model for our use of libraries.”

The Cipfa figures also reveal that the total income of libraries decreased by nearly £20m to £56.6m over the last financial year, a reduction of 25%. Librarian numbers remained relatively static, falling by 85 over the period, but volunteers – who have been instrumental in keeping some library services running in the face of government cuts – declined “sharply”, said Cipfa, down by almost 50% on the previous year to 25,709.

‘‘Given how stretched public services were during the pandemic, it’s not surprising to see such a sharp decline in libraries’ income, visitors and volunteer staff,” said Whiteman. “It’s worth noting that the reduced levels of income we’ve seen have occurred despite increases in specific grant funding. Without this additional grant funding, we would have expected to see lines of income even lower. The fiscal reality that libraries are facing is bleak.”

At Cilip, the UK’s library and information association, chief executive Nick Poole called the latest figures “sobering”, pointing to new research by the University of Strathclyde showing that digital services cannot replace the benefits of physical library services.

“Libraries have done life-changing work for their communities throughout the pandemic,” said Poole. “Local people continue to need and want quality local library services, and this continues to be a statutory duty for councils. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has made it clear that councils cannot use Covid disruption as a pretext for cuts to services, and that volunteers should not be used to replace paid professional staff.”

Poole said Cilip would be working with the Local Government Association and others “to encourage them to return investment to pre-pandemic levels”.

“But most importantly of all, instead of putting services at risk through successive cuts, as a society we ought to be far more ambitious on behalf of future generations,” he said. “As we look to recover from the pandemic and embrace new ways of working, we ought to be building more libraries as a vital part of levelling up.”

Isobel Hunter, chief executive of the charity Libraries Connected noted that “libraries were not allowed by the government to fully reopen until April 2021, which is after this survey period, but since then the picture has changed dramatically.” The charity’s own surveys suggest that borrowing of physical books had returned to around 84% of pre-Covid levels by December 2021, although digital and audio borrowing have remained high, which “brings its own challenges to library budgets.”

Hunter added “The pandemic also clearly demonstrated that the diverse needs of local people cannot be met by digital services alone. The current squeeze on local authority and household incomes mean that libraries will need even more support to continue to innovate for their communities online and in person.”

One unexpected spark of good news in the Cipfa figures was the report that the number of library branches in the UK increased to 3,842 in 2021. The growth, from 3,662 branches recorded in the year to March 2020, follows years of decline, but Cipfa admitted it was based on “provisional” data, from authorities that have submitted their returns, and that “some figures may change once final data is released”. There has been a “slightly lower response rate” to the survey this year compared with previous years, because of the continued impact of the pandemic, said the organisation, but it is confident the figures “give an accurate snapshot of the library landscape in the UK at present”.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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