Spending on British libraries falls 17% as in-person visits soar | Books

Spending on libraries in Britain has fallen by 17%, according to new statistics, despite in-person visits increasing by 68% since the pandemic.

Figures released by CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, show that in 2021/22 £9,982 was spent per 1,000 people on libraries by central and local government in England, Scotland and Wales. This was down from £11,970 in 2020/21 and £12,646 in 2018/19.

The money libraries made, from sources including grants, overdue charges, reservation fees, hire of audio and visual materials and corporate income, also decreased, falling 24% from £868 per 1,000 people in 2020/21 to £660 in 2021/22.

The fall in investment and income comes at a time when in-person visits to libraries increased by 68%, from 915 per 1,000 people in 2020/21 to 1,536 in 2021/22. The number of books borrowed has also increased by 58% to 1,767 per 1,000 people, from 1,119 in 2020/21.

Meanwhile, web visits fell slightly during the same period to 2,184 per 1,000 people, which is an 8% decrease on the year before, when people turned to borrowing ebooks as the pandemic made visiting libraries and borrowing physical books more difficult.

Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of CIPFA, said it was “encouraging to see that library visits are increasing since the pandemic, but the same cannot be said for funding and income levels, which still lag behind”.

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“Libraries are certainly facing a difficult road ahead,” he continued. “The fact that in-person visits are recovering shows demand for library services is still strong. Libraries are clearly still valuable to the communities they serve but given the drop in their income, sustained funding is crucial if they are to continue to be a vital part of the community.”

Libraries in England and Wales have played a key role in responding to the cost of living crisis, with many becoming “warm spaces”, where vulnerable people can spend time in warm and safe environments. Research last year by Libraries Connected, a charity representing public libraries, found nearly 60% were actively considering taking part in a “warm bank” scheme but just 4% of library leaders were expecting to receive any extra funding for this.

A survey by the Guardian last year also found that around half of libraries in England and Wales are no longer charging adults late fees since the pandemic. Volunteer numbers have fallen from 0.39 per 1,000 people in 2020/21 to 0.23 over the last financial year, a 41% decrease.

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