February 16, 2018

Opinion | From Vicious to Virtuous: The collapse of U.K. libraries and unbreaking the cycle of library support

Earlier this month, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) released its annual statistics on library use in the U.K. CIPFA found that the number of patrons borrowing books from U.K. libraries has halved since 1997. This isn’t a surprise to anyone who has been following the ongoing financial crisis that’s engulfed those public libraries across the pond. It demonstrates what happens to libraries when they’re not supported by the communities they serve.

Library use is in freefall in the U.K., not because U.K. citizens don’t need similar services to U.S. patrons, and with just as much urgency, nor because U.K. libraries and librarians aren’t awesome enough to provide those services, but because without money and staff, they’re hamstrung. People can’t access the Internet from closed library buildings; they can’t borrow books that never got bought or cataloged; they can’t ask laid-off librarians how to find the medical information they need to make the right choices for themselves and their loved ones. And after coming up empty enough times, they stop trying—they’ve learned that the library is not a resource they can rely on.

Then, of course, the numbers show that fewer people than ever are using the library, and that only makes it harder to convince lawmakers that the best use of limited resources is to spend them on libraries—which can look, in a snapshot view, like the fading niche interest of a small and shrinking special interest. It is a vicious cycle.

Statistics like this can act as a wakeup call, and perhaps pinpoint the greatest gaps where support should step in first. We can’t solve the problem if we don’t know the scope, so all credit to CIPFA for gathering the scattered puzzle pieces of decisions made by dozens of local councils and assembling the national big picture. However, the need to spend resources on libraries is best measured, not by studying who is already using libraries and how, but by surveying the needs currently going unmet that a properly supported, vibrant library could meet more efficiently than any other solution currently out there.

More than 11 million U.K. citizens don’t have access to fast, reliable broadband connections—about 17 percent of the population, according to the Tinder Foundation. Job search help could surely be useful to the 1.9 million unemployed (according to the Office for National Statistics, or ONS) not to mention anyone who has a job but hopes to find a better one. More than half a million newcomers arrived in the U.K. in 2013 alone, again according to ONS. Surely some of them at least would benefit from English language learning classes and conversation groups. And how many more could use computer training, homework help, or early literacy resources?

U.K. residents may not yet think of a library as the place to get those things—and it may not be, these days, in their community, especially if theirs is one where what remains of the library is the dregs of a print collection shoehorned into a local pub. But governmental stakeholders need to be informed of what exactly is at stake when a library is lost, and what can be regained by revitalizing one.

The U.K. is on the case: a government-commissioned Independent Library Report released on December 18 offers a series of ambitious recommendations, including centralized federal funding for library Wi-Fi, lobbying for a change in the law to allow remote e-lending, the creation of a national digital library network, and creation of a taskforce to “reinvigorate” libraries by encouraging broad-based support across governmental agencies, recruiting and supporting a strong library workforce, and encouraging the exploration of alternative service delivery models.

One taskforce, however, should not be left to stem this tide alone. With U.K. public librarians struggling just to keep the doors open and triage the most urgent needs, it behooves the field of librarianship in the United States and other countries with robust funding for libraries to step up and advocate on their behalf. We must take it upon ourselves to show how a well-funded library can meet not just its own goals, but those of the whole civic enterprise in which it is enmeshed. If speaking up for a whole country of libraries feels too daunting, perhaps it would be worth considering reaching out to a single U.K. library and asking, ‘how can we help?’

For all of us, the situation in the U.K. serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen even to a formerly robust, mature, well supported, and taken for granted fabric of library service when the support for it erodes. We can’t rest on our laurels, assuming that if we build it they will come—or even that as long as they come, their representatives will keep paying the bills. We must actively advocate for library funding, and spread the message of what library service delivers in return, at every level, to foster instead a virtuous cycle, where communities support libraries, and libraries support their communities.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.



  1. Thanks for this intelligent and thoughtful article. It looks like usage of libraries is very closely linked to their funding – we’re not seeing the collapse in usage in the US, France or in Australia where funding is more robust. The real proof is that we’re also not seeing it in parts of the UK (such as Wales) which have more hands-on federal support and funding.

    I’d like to offer the services of my website, Public Libraries News, for any offers of support and can put you in touch with librarians in most places in the UK if you want to set up any twinning arrangements.

    Have a good Christmas and New Year.

  2. “Under Public Lending Right (PLR) legislation, authors are paid each time their books are borrowed from a library. Although the sum is a mere 6p a loan, with a £6,000 cap, it can make all the difference to authors, whose earnings average £5,000 a year. But PLR, as currently defined, applies only to public libraries.”

    With things such as this (think, every book in your collection has a 6 cent bill attached to it every checkout) and their limitations on e lending, etc. it’s no wonder libraries are dying on the vine there.5

    Laws have unintended consequences. Picking winners means you’re also picking losers. They have obviously picked rural and low income communities as losers. For an average library circulating half a million items a year (not unusual in my neck of the woods), it adds another $30k to the operating costs (or taken, most likely, from another budget that could have gone into my budget). On top of that, most UK libraries charge a rental fee for media checkout- which serve as both a loss leader and make up a decent percentage of circulation in most American libraries… it’s like asking for people to use something else.

    I can’t speak for UK libraries- I’ve only been to a few- but I can speak as to my situation. You can’t claim people don’t use you because there’s no support… because people don’t use you.

    ONE must struggle to improve and do more with less to show demand is increasing and support is increasing before one is likely to receive increased funding. You’re not going to get that by saying, “people are using us half as much today as they were 20 years ago- so give us more money and support because we need it.” It’s an argument that works on the choir and doesn’t convince the skeptics.

    It’s a tough road for them to hoe in the upcoming years. I wish them the best of luck- as the deck appears to be stacked against them.

    • noutopianlibrarian says:

      Discussing PLR is irrelevant – it was established in 1979 and exists in many other countries with successful public library systems. UK libraries are being defunded by Conservatives, along with public education, research, and other governmental services. The economic crash of 2008 has been used as an opportunity in the UK, as well as the US and other nations to defund government services. When budget cuts force libraries closures, along with their collection budgets being slashed, their technology budgets decimated resulting in poor quality public computing services, and the hours/staffing decreased for branches that manage to avoid closure, the usage is going to be affected and significantly. Doing more with less may be a survival strategy, but make no mistake – the losses in library, education, and government services are the result of deliberate destruction of public services by those doing so for ideological reasons, and the tough road to hoe will be that of a less educated and aware society, which is part of the point of the cuts in the first place.

    • Nothing that makes working under a new set of circumstances more difficult is irrelevant.

      “Conservatives” don’t and can’t take away services that are popular and in high demand. The use has been steadily dropping for years- even under government service loving labour governments. To blame this on conservatives vs liberals (which is such a narrow minded outlook in the first place) is to prove my point.

      Partisanship doesn’t explain everything you don’t like. Sometimes you must leave the echo chamber and look at things with a removed objectivity before you can spot the rot and cut it out.

    • Conservatives do actually, not that “new” Labour or as…Americans say, “liberals”, don’t either. They just convince people they need to pay for those services without removing any significant tax levels in return. People are getting more self serving with every decade and all politicians, opportunists that they are, love an increasingly dumber population, happy to be given a few pennies in “tax cuts” and embracing that hoary old chestnut of user pay is fairer spruiked by the jetsam that is politicians. Those who advocate user pays will find out just how expensive user pay will really be assuming they have any vestige of intellectual capacity that is. Funding cuts to education and libraries will ensure most will not be able to afford to use “products” like roads, or schools. God lord, how silly of me – no-one will need to go to school soon because you can learn everything you need to know on the internet or because you heard it on the television news. The population will be too damned stupid. In the mean time just where is people’s tax dollars going?

    • …that should have read “where are people’s tax dollars going?”

  3. Please, reach out to us! It’s really interesting to read this perspective, having worked in public libraries in the UK for less than five years, and not having any memory of the ‘good old days’. It would be great to have some US voices joined to ours in advocating a well funded and well used library service.

  4. Tony Greiner says:

    How much were these budget cuts?