Latest figures show that library book loans slumped by almost 16m in the last two years, with library campaigners calling the news “a clarion call to put books back at the centre of what libraries do” in a sector that has seen record closures and budget cuts.
Library book loans continued a downward trend in 2016, with figures obtained by the Guardian revealing that loans for the year to 10 December fell on average by 14%, with loans to adults worst hit at 15% down. Loans of children’s books fell by just over 12%. However, this comes at a time when book sales in both sectors have continued to climb.
Slamming what he described as a failure by the Libraries Taskforce, set up by the government to rejuvenate the sector, he added: “If we look at what people use libraries for, three quarters of them use them for newspapers and books. We see the minutes of the taskforce when it meets and they never look at figures for visitors or book-borrowing.”
Coates said the failure to place books and library usage at the top of its agenda meant the taskforce had not engaged with the public in a way that reflected their use of the service, which has taken a £25m battering from spending cuts over the past 12 months..
According to Nielsen LibScan, which monitors loans through public libraries, specialist nonfiction for adults took the worst hit in the 12 months to 10 December. Volume growth was down by 15.89%. Loans of popular nonfiction for adults were also down – by 14.29% – with adult fiction loans, down 14.24%, faring scarcely better. In contrast, sales through bookshops of all three were up over the same period, with popular nonfiction books up by almost 11%.
“Despite being one of the most used and treasured public services, spending on libraries in Great Britain dropped by £25m last year, and the year ahead looks set for further cuts and hundreds of closures,” Poole said. “Creating an economy that works for everyone means we must address the urgent need to address basic skills and support people to learn throughout their lives.”
Borrowing of children’s books has caused most concern among campaigners. Though sales of children’s books over the last year have risen by 5.5%, reflecting years of consistent growth, loans through libraries have continued to drop, falling by just over 12%. Desmond Clarke, a leading campaigner, said: “These are very depressing figures that reinforce a trend that has been going on for some years.” He added that less than 6p in the pound of library budgets was spent on books. “It is even worse with children’s books, where only 1p in the pound is spent on stock.”
He accused the Libraries Taskforce of “sitting on the banks of a river as the bodies float by … Everyone has to wake up to what’s going on,” adding that he would be delighted when “the taskforce puts the decline in usage and book loans at the top of the agenda for one of its meetings”.
Earlier in December, the Libraries Taskforce produced a report outlining a national strategy to turn around the beleaguered sector in England and Wales. A £4m innovation fund to help disadvantaged communities was among the schemes outlined in the Libraries Deliver report.