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.” (Guardian)