That Difficult Subject Of Library Closures

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From our Swindon Correspondent:

Almost 800 libraries have closed since the Conservative-Lib Dem government implemented austerity in 2010, new figures reveal.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (Cipfa) annual survey of the UK’s libraries, excluding Northern Ireland, shows there are 3,583 library branches still open in the UK – 35 fewer than last year. Since 2010, 773 have closed.

The closure of almost a fifth of the UK’s libraries over the last 10 years comes against a backdrop of a 29.6% decline in spend, said Cipfa. National spending on the service topped £1bn in 2009/10 but dropped to under £750m in the last year, which saw a 0.4% increase on the 2017/2018 spend.

As the number of branches and paid staff have declined, so have library visits: there were 226m visits to libraries over the last year, compared with 315m in 2009/2010.

Nice attempt at cause and effect, but library visits also declined from 2005 to 2010. Despite spending more money, library use, measured in terms of at least one visit per year, fell from 48.2% of adults to 39.7% of adults. I make that as roughly 1/5th of the adults that were using them not doing so in 5 years. 17% sounds slightly on the conservative side.

And if this was about “austerity”, you’d expect visits to be rising, rather than falling from 39.7% to 32.9% since the Conservatives/Lib Dems took over. Because the thing with libraries is that they suit the time rich and cash poor. If you’ve not got much else to do, you can spend time walking to a library, getting a book, walking home and easily finding time in the fortnight to read it. And 9-5 hours don’t bother you. There’s areas of the country, like Weston-Super-Mare, stuffed full of retired people and libraries are popular.

If you’re working all week you have to get to a library in your day, park your car, pay for parking, same on return, and make sure to set aside the time to do the reading, you might decide libraries aren’t that convenient.

The decline of libraries is a success story for us. We created them because books were very expensive once. Owning a giant library was the mark of a rich man. Paper was expensive, printing was expensive, binding was expensive. Over the decades, we figured out how to do this cheaper. Then we figured out how to do retailing cheaper. And then we got e-books which take production costs to near zero. Books are cheap. Cheap enough that most of us don’t want the faff of libraries. So, close some of them.

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As you say, since I’ve retired, I can afford the time to rummage around in the local library, which is where I’m typing this.

But I must admit I also read e-books. Indeed I just found a Conan Doyle story on Gutenberg that I last read about half a century ago.

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Library Closures are political propaganda. The Conservative-controlled County Council in Hertfordshire has managed to avoid closing any single library: it has reduced hours at most of them to save money but closed none. OTOH Labour-controlled councils have made a big publicity splash about closing libraries doe to “government cuts”.

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