PUBLIC LIBRARIES, ESSENTIAL OR OBSOLETE?

With the advent of modern Tech the traditional library fights for survival

Our relationship with public libraries is complex. While 72% of people in England believe that libraries are ‘an essential or very important service to the community’, there has been a year-on-year decline in library visits for over a decade.

In 2017/18, 95% of library users were satisfied with their visit, yet, in the same period, 127 static and mobile libraries closed their doors for good.

The public library service is riddled with contradictions that make it almost impossible to assess its value. Should we believe that libraries are indispensable safe spaces that promote community cohesion? Or romanticised relics that can’t keep up with modern consumers?

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We often hear the latter, that libraries are on the brink of collapse due to spending cuts, a failure to modernise and general apathy in the rise of the computer age. In 2019, the Guardian reported that almost 800 libraries had closed since the implementation of austerity in 2010.

Figures from The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) imply that the surviving branches are suffering, with total visits falling by 28% between 2006 and 2016.

Statistics, however, rarely tell the full story. An analysis conducted with the help of the Libraries Taskforce found that issues with the CIPFA’s data collection ‘impair our ability to understand trends at the national level’. The downward trend in library use may, in fact, be slowing and the popularity of the library service varies significantly across the country, with over a quarter of all library services, referred to as ‘trendbuckers’, showing an increase in use.


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A surge in popularity might seem unlikely given the rise of smartphones and e-readers, but the existence of ‘trendbuckers’ suggests that libraries serve a greater purpose than free access to books. As Neil Gaiman said in a 2013 lecture for The Reading Agency, ‘If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally’.

Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, local authorities must provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’. For many people, this means free access to computers and the internet, information about the local area, and opportunities for social inclusivity, as well as access to printed materials. The recent coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown saw libraries move to online borrowing, virtual events, and advice services, supporting their vulnerable members and fulfilling their role as a community hub from a safe distance.

Taking the library service’s multifaceted nature into account, it’s unsurprising that the benefits of widespread library use transcend the world of literature. Not only is library usage linked with higher life satisfaction and happiness, but regular library users are more likely to report good general health. The Arts Council estimates that, on average, the library-using English population saves the NHS £27.5 million a year, equivalent to the cost of over 200,000 A&E visits.

While the library service’s widespread impact doesn’t negate the challenges libraries face, it does suggest that they are far from being obsolete. Beyond free access to books, libraries provide their members with invaluable resources and a sense of belonging that is often overlooked. Technology may evolve but R. David Lankes, director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Information Science, believes that what makes a library ‘comprehensive and efficient’ is unchanging, “Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities”.


MACKAYAN: PUBLIC LIBRARIES