Libraries in the UK are in real danger. The number of library visitors is dropping all the time, down 50% in the last 20 years, 9% since 2005.
In the past five years, library funding in the UK has actually gone up by 25% to £1 billion and with these hard economic times you’d expect people to be borrowing books from libraries instead of buying them, but that isn’t the case.
Why aren’t people in the UK borrowing books?
I have to admit that I didn’t visit a library for seven years. With a full-time job I found it increasingly hard to visit a library regularly. It was always shut in the evening by the time I finished work and I couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to get there on a Saturday morning. The city centre location, with expensive car parking and long queues of traffic put me off. Why would I put myself through that when I could just buy a second hand book from a car boot sale for 50p and not worry about being fined for not taking it back on time?
I eventually signed up to the library when my oldest son was 2-years-old. I wanted him to experience the love of libraries that I’d once had and, as a full-time mum, I had the time to get there. My children love their library, but as an adult I’m not that impressed. They often don’t have the books I want and although I can order some (at a cost of 50p) there are many books that never end up in my library system.
My local library is packed with people wanting free Internet access, but very few people seem to be borrowing the books.
School Libraries too good?
My oldest son started school a few weeks ago and now has access to a wonderful library in his school and computers with sodapdf to access pdf books online. I’m beginning to wonder if there is a need to go to the main public library now that he is bringing school library books home on a regular basis.
Things are different in America
In the US, despite cuts in library funding, visits to libraries are increasing, up 5% since 2006. I was astounded by the number of different initiatives available in some US libraries.
- Free DVD rental
- Free audio book downloads/rental
- Services that deliver library books to your door.
- Read to a dog days that encourage reading confidence in children.
- Video game nights to encourage teenagers into the library.
- Library book vending machines to ensure that best selling titles are available 24 hours a day.
- Numerous community events, courses and training programmes.
I’m going to look into the “books by mail” service a bit more and will report back with my findings soon.
The love for US libraries on Twitter was especially heart warming:
We go to storytime about 3-4 times a week at library. They also do lots of weekly crafts, put on a movie & special events. @mawbooks
Sometimes I take my kids to the library just for a family game night. We play board games there. So much fun. @pussreboots
I run a book club at my library, & there are always events like movies, writing groups, game nights, classes, etc. @pookasluagh
My boys have seen/petted more animals up close at the library at various events then they have anywhere else! @mawbooks
Compare the Usage Statistics
A Twitter conversation with @mawbooks led me to investigate her library in Utah. I have compared this with my local library system in Surrey, England.
I am aware that other libraries in both countries may have huge differences to these two, but as they served similar populations I thought it was an interesting comparison.
The difference in library usage can be seen by comparing the statistics:
|Library||Population||Number of Borrowers||
Estimated Number of Items that will be Checked Out in 2010
|Surrey, UK||1.1 Million||355,000||6 Million|
|Salt Lake County, Utah, USA||783,000||680,000||15 Million|
- Just 32% of Surrey residents borrow books from the library, compared with a massive 87% of Utah residents.
- That’s 5.5 items per year for each resident in Surrey, compared to 19 items in Utah.
- Roughly 4x more items are being borrowed per person in Utah.
The staggering difference can also be seen when you look at the number of copies of new books available to borrow:
|Library||Population||Copies of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins||Copies of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen|
|Surrey, UK||1.1 Million||8 copies on order. No Holds||12 copies on order. No Holds.|
|Salt Lake County, Utah, USA||783,000||962 copies, 2718 Holds||47 copies, 340 Holds|
Note: Statistics were correct on the day each book was released in its respective country.
The Future of UK Libraries?
1000 libraries in the UK are threatened with closure in the next year.
I still visit my library, but it is more from a sense of duty than a desire to check books out.
I have been impressed by the recent advances Surrey libraries have made in some areas, including a new free audio/ebook download service, but I’m worried that this isn’t going to be enough to save many libraries from closure.
Drastic changes need to be made if libraries are to compete with the increasingly cheap second-hand book market. I’m not sure what the solution is, but we need to start thinking about it before we lose our libraries forever.
What would encourage you to visit your library more often?
Are you surprised by the difference in library usage across the Atlantic?
Which US initiatives do you think would work well in the UK?