By Joanne Pitt, CIPFA Local Government Policy Manager
People love libraries. Historically, a library is the only community location that allows every citizen to access a seemingly limitless amount of information. A community library is a place for learning, research and, for many, a window into the world of fiction. Many people assert that libraries should be kept open, free and fully funded as a public service offering. However, against a backdrop of limited public resources, what does this mean for the future of libraries?
A library can take on many forms and serve a variety of purposes. However, public libraries, with general collections, IT centres and universal book loan systems are a fundamental part of British communities. Even with libraries being viewed by many as an essential public service for councils to provide, in most cases, the fiscal picture for libraries is bleak. In an earlier feature this year, CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman highlighted the latest trends in library funding and management: the number of people visiting libraries, number of libraries open and number of books in library collections are all in decline.
The past decade of austerity has meant that many councils have had to explore creative options with what little funding they have received. Local authority spending on libraries fell by 28.9%, from £977m in 2009/10 to £694m in 2017/18, a real-terms cut of 37.8%. As a result of this fiscal pinch, we’ve seen an increase in volunteerism and a reduction in the availability of library services. Although, after the recent spending round, the tide of austerity in the UK appears to have finally changed course for some public services, funding libraries is still challenging.
As a result, increased volunteerism may be what allows libraries to remain open. Without clarity around the future funding structure of libraries, this increased reliance on volunteers won’t go away anytime soon. However, libraries across the country have responded to budget restraints with innovation. Many libraries have become modern and inclusive spaces attracting a wide audience.
It is possible that libraries transition into shared or multipurpose spaces. This idea may evolve in a commercial fashion, or what could be called the ‘coffee shop’ model, in order to raise additional funding. We already see some libraries partnering with local cinemas to support their overall, pooled financial position. Alternatively, this multipurpose idea could result in libraries being incorporated into other public service buildings, whether that be an employment or community centre.
Chester library is an interesting example where this type of model has been developed and now offers a range of activities from work drop-ins to children’s French classes. This type of transformation is essential if libraries are to remain relevant for the digitally focused Generation Z.
Future libraries may adopt a greater online presence in the years ahead in order to reduce costs, which may open up a number of opportunities. Connectivity is changing - digital devices are increasingly sophisticated and widespread across our communities. As more people opt to read books on their phones, tablets and e-readers, the need for physical books declines. Apps already exist that allow people to remotely access books, papers and articles from libraries digitally – a convenient option for many, but also one that doesn’t support extended library hours.
Although libraries are likely to move towards volunteer-based, shared or online-based formats in the future, it’s essential that we consider how we continually provide the important social value that brick and mortar libraries have historically provided our communities. While social value can be difficult to quantify, many fear recent library trends will push young and vulnerable groups away from free learning, literacy programmes and access to information. The data support this concern. Analysis from the Institute for Government shows that local authorities in deprived areas of the country have seen the largest spending cuts on neighbourhood services.
In a time of increased demand for other services, libraries will inevitability feel pressure. However, it is important that this much-loved service has the opportunity to be continually redesigned and reinvigorated into whichever shape benefits all members of their local community.
This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.