Library use plummeted last year, but e-visits up 18%

COVID-19 has caused a sharp drop in visitors and revenue, but an increase in digital visits shows that libraries continue to be appreciated

  • By Alison Flood/The Guardian

In-person visits to UK public libraries fell by 159million last year as the pandemic forced the closure of branches across the country.

Annual figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting (Cipfa) show that physical visits to the library fell from 214.6 million to 59.7 million in the year to March last year. last year, a decline of 72%, as COVID-19 restrictions closed branches for much of the 12-month period. The closures have also led to a significant drop in the number of books borrowed by readers, with 72.9 million books issued by libraries last year, down 56% from 165.9 million in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the number of web visits increased 18% to 154.7 million during the period, as visitors unable to borrow physical books from their local branch instead turned to borrowing electronic books.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“It is clear that physical visits have dropped due to COVID-19 restrictions and library closures. But, while this decline may be steep, the increase in digital visits shows that communities still want to use library services. Libraries continue to have significant cultural value to our communities,” said Cipfa Chief Executive Rob Whiteman. “Only time will tell if this recent digital shift will prove to be a long-term pattern for our use of libraries.”

Cipfa figures also reveal that total library income fell by almost £20m ($27.1m) to £56.6m in the last financial year, a reduction of 25 %. The number of librarians remained relatively stable, falling by 85 over the period, but volunteers – who have been instrumental in maintaining some library services in the face of government budget cuts – have declined “sharply”, it said. declared the Cipfa, down almost 50% compared to the previous year. at 25,709.

“Given the strain on public services during the pandemic, it’s no surprise to see such a drop in library revenue, visitors and volunteer staff,” Whiteman said. “It should be noted that the reduced revenue levels we have seen have occurred despite the increase in specific grants. Without this additional subsidy, we would have expected to see even weaker revenue lines. The fiscal reality facing libraries is grim.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At Cilip, Britain’s library and information association, chief executive Nick Poole called the latest figures “sobering”, pointing to new research from the University of Strathclyde showing that digital services cannot not replace the benefits of physical library services.

“Libraries have done life-changing work in their communities throughout the pandemic,” Poole said. “Local people continue to need and want quality local library services, and it continues to be a legal requirement for councils. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has made it clear that councils cannot use the COVID disruption as an excuse to cut services, and that volunteers should not be used to replace paid professional staff .

Poole said Cilip would work with the Local Government Association and others “to encourage them to bring investment back to pre-pandemic levels.”

“But above all, instead of putting services at risk with successive cuts, as a society we should be much more ambitious on behalf of future generations,” he said. “As we seek to recover from the pandemic and embrace new ways of working, we should build more libraries as a critical part of upgrading.”

Isobel Hunter, chief executive of the charity Libraries Connected, noted that “libraries were not allowed by the government to fully reopen until April 2021, i.e. after this investigation period, but since then the situation has drastically changed”. The charity’s own surveys suggest physical book borrowing was back to around 84% of pre-COVID levels by December last year, although digital and audio borrowing remained high, which ” brings its own challenges to library budgets”.

Hunter added: “The pandemic has also made it clear that the diverse needs of local populations cannot be met by digital services alone. The current pressure on local government and household incomes means that libraries will need even more support to continue innovating for their online and in-person communities.

An unexpected spark of good news in the Cipfa figures was the report that the number of UK library branches rose to 3,842 last year. The growth, of 3,662 branches recorded in the year to March 2020, follows years of decline, but Cipfa admitted it was based on “provisional” data, from authorities who submitted their statements, and that “some numbers may change once the final data is released.”

There has been a “slightly lower response rate” to the survey this year compared to previous years, due to the continued impact of the pandemic, the organization said, but it is confident the numbers “give an accurate overview of the library landscape in the UK today.

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