The remarkable resilience of our public library service

This morning, for the first time since I started looking at the CIPFA statistics into the state of our public library service, I didn’t have to go hunting around begging someone to send me the stats.  No, this time The Guardian published the bulk of them on their website (well done The Guardian!).  One of my main annoyances with the public library service has been that these statistics aren’t easy for the general public to access.  It has been quite a pleasure to find that I don’t have to scrabble around for them.

Anyway, this year I’ve decided to put these stats into an infographic to better highlight the state of the public library service.  And there are some very interesting trends here which I will go into after a graphical interlude.  Before I reproduce them here, it’s worth pointing out that whilst it looks very bleak indeed (the hollowing out of the service has never looked so stark for me), the title of this blog post is very apt and should underline the extent to which our library service has suffered an unprecedented assault.  I would also advise that you explore this infographic thoroughly…


Now, there is no denying that this looks bad.  The percentage of staff made redundant over that time period plus the rise in volunteers at the expense of FTEs is particularly worrying. But I am not going to focus on the bleak figures…if you want that you just need to visit a news website and see how they are lamenting the decline.  No, I want to (and I may be perverse here) focus on the positive.

Only yesterday, the newspapers were reporting that there had been a big decline in the number of libraries (nearly 400 in two years).  This combined with the decline in issues got me thinking…if we were to compare the number of libraries now to the number of issues that are made, how do libraries stack up?  In other words, how has the issues per library figure held up?  If you look at the average loans per library chart above and flick through the three years, you notice something interesting.  Whilst the number of libraries has notably declined, the average loans per library has remained the same.  In fact, it’s barely noticeable on the graph due to the scale, but the average book loans per library have actually increased:


Number of libraries – 4,612

Number of loans – 314,214,000

Average loans per library – 68,129


Number of libraries – 4,466

Number of loans – 304,059,000

Average loans per library – 68,083


Number of libraries – 4,265

Number of loans – 290,647,000

Average loans per library – 68,147

So, considering the decline in numbers, libraries are still issuing strongly.  As I said yesterday, whilst it does not account for the whole of the decline in issues, it is clear that the decline in library numbers is having a significant impact upon the decline in issues.  Indeed, if you break this down further we can see that if the 201 libraries that closed between 2010/11 and 2011/12 remained open, the decline wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as it appears (it almost seems too obvious to point it out).

For example, take the decline in issues.  According to CIPFA, issues decline by 13,412,000.  The total number of libraries closed in this period was 201. Divide this decline (13m) by the number of closed libraries and you get 66,726.  So each of those 201 libraries would have to issue 66,726 items in order for the CIPFA issuing stats to be unchanged year on year.  Divide that 66,726 by 52 (weeks of the year) and you get 1,283…that’s 1,283 issues per week.  Divide it by 6 (days of the week in which most libraries are open) and you get 214 issues per day.  In other words, if each of those closed libraries issued 214 items per day (not an unrealistic figure) the overall issues figures would break even.  Even if we were pessimistic and said they only issued 100 per day, that would still be an additional 6m items per year (100x6x52x201 libraries), significantly reducing the decline in issues (from a 4.4% decrease to a 2.3% decrease).  Yes, still a decrease, but half of that reported by CIPFA for 2011/12.

Ok, there’s a decline no matter which way you cut it, but when you look at the changes in the infographic above it is amazing to think how the library service has managed to cope with  significant hollowing out, reductions in expenditure on print materials and widespread library closures.

One other thing that I think is worth pointing out.  As the stats above demonstrate, web visits are down, this despite a big increase in expenditure on ebooks.  It strikes me that this underlines just how fanciful are publisher’s claims that free ebooks would be the end of their industry.  Despite their increased availability (and they tend to be available via library websites), there has actually been a decline in web visits.  So, maybe publishers and booksellers are wrong to be fearful after all…