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The Decline and Fall of British Libraries

One of my predictions for 2015 was that British libraries were all going to close. So far that hasn’t come true, but it’s getting closer.

According to this story, 324 libraries have closed because of budget cuts. Two years ago, that figure was 201 libraries, so the closings have kept up at a rapid pace.

Of the 4612 British public libraries in 2010, about 7% have now closed. In the U.S., that percentage would mean closure of over 1100 libraries if you count branch locations, which is definitely something we’d notice.

In addition, “Some 216 static libraries and eight mobile libraries are a risk of closure, Labour claims.” If those closed, it would be about a 12% closure rate since 2010. The American equivalent would be over 1900 libraries.

Oh, and of the libraries left, “330 fewer are open 10 hours or more a week.” If the library isn’t open more than ten hours a week, it almost might as well be closed. Between the closures and the reduced service hours, that’s about 14% of British public libraries that have been closed or made significantly less useful.

Naturally, if libraries are closed, people can’t visit them, which is why annual library visits have reduced by 40 million in the past few years. That’s a 12% reduction in four years, which is approximately the same as the closure and reduced hours rate. Purely a coincidence, I’m sure.

And the “numbers of visits have fallen sharpest – by 21% – in deprived areas,” because of course they have. A good way to make sure the poor stay poor is to make it as hard as possible for them to learn anything.

Since the British government seems to have declared a war on public libraries, it’ll probably use that statistic to close even more libraries. After all, 40 million fewer visits means that people don’t want to use libraries as much.

And if people don’t want to use libraries as much, that must mean that more libraries can be closed. It’ll start a perpetual cycle where the only public library left in the U.K. will be the British Library, and it will only be open every other Wednesday from 10-11am.

It’s sort of bizarre from a distance to watch an otherwise developed country just start giving up on public libraries. In the U.S., people are still visiting libraries, at a rate of 5.1 visits per capita per year, and few libraries have closed despite the flat or decreasing funding in half the country.

The British per capita visit ratio was about the same until the libraries started closing, so it’s not like they weren’t being used.

Strange times over there. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen over here.

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Comments

  1. Sad indeed… but the comparison to the US isn’t a particularly good fit.

    A lot of the public programming that libraries have in the US, is provided by other public services in the UK. For example, the Job Center does a lot of the resume reading and application work that US libraries help with, the UK doesn’t require tax returns from the majority of the population, and local leisure centers have a lot play times/social activities for young families. These three categories make up a significant amount of the programs/services that my local US libraries provide.

    Obviously libraries closing still means UK towns are losing library services – books, printing, newspapers etc, but libraries are one part of a very different suite of free/public services. The other thing that stood out to me is the sheer numbers, the UK has a lot of libraries for a very small country, a small country with (generally) good public transportation between towns, and free public transportation for the over 60s… so accessibility still seems relatively high compared to the current US numbers, where a branch closure really could mean locals have no real opportunity to get to a public library. So maybe the closures, as long as they stop soon, aren’t quite as dire as the stats can suggest?

    And there is some good news coming out of the UK too – there is an initiative at the moment to get every 8 year old in Wales a library card, which is a pretty amazing outreach goal!

    • beat me to it! ( it is noteworthy that job centers here perform work that is often duplicated by libraries, and we aren’t really getting very many tax forms anymore.)

    • It’s great that job centers in your area duplicate work performed by your library. I haven’t found that to be true in any public library I’ve worked in unfortunately. From the east coast to the mountain west. In fact a large segment of the job seekers I’ve served have said they were referred to the library by the local job or workforce services center.

  2. One can’t look at the numbers in aggregate- but must look at the number of visits per location.

    Also, after closures and discounting libraries open less than 10 hours per week, that leaves the UK with approximately 1 library per 24 square miles. The US is approximately 1 per 232 square miles. NY state has 1 library per 45 square miles (approximately).

    The UK has a library for nearly every 16,500 people. The USA has 1 for almost every 18,300 people. NY state has 1 for nearly every 17,900 people.

    It’s always sad when a library closes (well, almost always), but they still have more libraries available per capita and per square mile than the USA (unless the numbers have changed. Maybe, and this is unlikely, but MAYBE, they had TOO MANY libraries? Maybe they were already at critical saturation…

    I don’t know the answer. they have a lot of problems that differ from ours, but sometimes service sectors benefit from peeling back a bit and struggling- and come out better and stronger on the other side. I know, that’s very silver lining thinking…

  3. This is a thing I have been studying for a while. When I initially started library school, my hopeful plan was to move to the UK and be a public librarian there. And then I started researching and quickly jumped ship on the idea. I even got to go to the UK and study libraries for a month. The public libraries we saw were all in incredibly sad shape. There’s extremely limited hours, minimal funding, and a severe lack of interest. The British Public Library is simply on its way out.

    That’s not to say all libraries in Britain are failing. Archives, research libraries, university libraries, special libraries, etc. are all doing much better. Any library or archive that I visited that was not a public library was happily bustling with users! While that doesn’t save public libraries any better, it’s definitely comforting to know that the library as institution isn’t going anywhere — at least it’s comforting to me.

    Regarding concern that it will happen over here, I really don’t think it will. It’s an entirely different culture that is not funding or using the public libraries in the UK. While there are many library naysayers in this country, the public library is still a staple institution. simply by observing this decline for several years now, I can pretty confidently state that American public libraries are okay.

  4. Larkin Lune says:

    Reading EP’s comment alongside Danielle’s, it sounds like the UK institutions with traditional library services (archives, research libraries, university libraries, special libraries) remain in demand while the ones that have strayed from traditional service to offer things like job search and play time are garnering less loyalty and support.

    I can see that happening on this side of the pond over the next 5 – 10 years.

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