The loss of Britain's libraries could be a huge blow to the economy

The UK's public libraries are beng deprofessionalised and, in many cases, closing altogether. What effect will this have on education, employment and the wider economy?

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In 2007, the author Neil Gaiman travelled to China to attend the country’s first state-sanctioned science fiction convention. While there he asked a senior official why the Chinese government, which had previously banned this genre of literature, now sought to promote it. 

The answer he was given, as Gaiman recalled in a speech in 2013, was that “the Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans, but they did not innovate. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.” The Chinese had recognised, in books seen traditionally seen as escapist or lowbrow, a skill that was worth billions. 

While China has held to this principle on its journey towards becoming the world’s largest economy, free access to books has declined in the United Kingdom. China’s National Statistics Bureau states that the number of public libraries in China increased by 8.4 per cent in the first five years of this decade. In roughly the same period, Britain lost 343 public libraries and 8,000 jobs in those that remained. According to CIPFA, the use of volunteers in public libraries more than doubled between 2011 and 2016. Unpaid, part-time workers now make up more than 70 per cent of the average employee headcount in public libraries across the UK. In the most recent report by CIPFA on public libraries, local authorities spent on average 13.2 per cent of their wage bills on “professional staff”. Librarians and education experts describe a “hollowing out” of the library system as professional librarians are replaced by volunteers working half-days for free. 

Those libraries that stay open in the UK are also buying fewer books. According to CIPFA, total acquisitions in 2016 were less than half what they were in 2013. In the 2015/16 period, local authorities bought on average just over 120 books per 1,000 people. Not 120 books per library; 120 books per thousand across an entire local authority, which could operate 20 libraries or more.

What does it cost a country to lose its libraries? Is there any point holding on to buildings full of books, when most people have a screen in their pocket that can access millions of websites? For Ian Anstice, a librarian and the editor of Public Libraries News, libraries are important because they offer “equality of access to information, and to imagination”. “If you’re wealthy and you can afford a lot of books, that’s brilliant, you don’t need a library. But if you’ve got a child, from toddlers – who are absolutely voracious for picture books – onwards, to give your child the same access to books, and thus to improved literacy, you need a library. You need a place where children can find books for themselves.” Libraries, says Anstice, “level the playing field between those who can afford all the books they want, and the rest, who can’t. That has a demonstrable impact on literacy, and that builds directly into skills.”

Laura Swaffield, chair of the Library Campaign, agrees that the accessibility and openness of libraries are key to their value. “Council-run [libraries] with professional staff… are the first step to almost anything. You can walk in to the smallest one with a query as vague as ‘I’m bored’ to ‘How do I find out about butterflies?’ or ‘I don’t know how to use a computer’, and they can set you on your way.” A good library is “conveniently local, with a unique level of public trust, and a non-institutional atmosphere that encourages adults who’ve fared badly in education system.”

Anstice and Swaffield also agree on the value of public libraries as a resource for those in education. Anstice quotes a study by Oxford University that showed that if a child reads outside of school – “and it’s reading outside of school that’s important” – on any subject, they will on average achieve a grade one point higher (so, rising from a B to an A) in that subject. Swaffield quotes other research that libraries “improve performance at school, not just in reading, but other subjects”, and that they “cure the dip in reading skills that typically happens during breaks, and encourage reluctant readers.”

Libraries are also vital to the spread of digital skills. As Swaffield points out, the government’s own Digital Strategy includes a commitment to make libraries “the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities. It notes that libraries are ‘trusted’, and provide hundreds of thousands of skill sessions, as well as coding and makerspaces.”

But the most costly aspect of the dismantling of the UK’s public libraries is also the most fundamental. “If you don’t have a literate population,” says Ian Anstice, “you don’t have skilled population.” 

The idea that the UK, as a prosperous democracy, doesn’t have a literacy problem is a dangerous assumption. A study last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that five million adults in England lack the “basic reading, writing and numeracy skills essential to everyday life”, while millions more struggle by with the most basic skills. This problem is concentrated among the young. England was the only country surveyed by JRF in which the literacy scores of the youngest age group (16-19) were lower than that of the eldest (55-65); the older generation, the generation which had access to free books and professional librarians, had ranked third in the world for literacy. Of the 34 countries in the OECD, England now ranks 34th for literacy in teenagers. 

What does illiteracy cost an economy? In 2015, research by the World Literacy Foundation calculated the factors to which illiteracy contributes – the limits on employability and productivity, the absence of technological skills and wealth creation, the negative effects on health and the costs incurred through crime rates and increased reliance on benefits – and put the figure at two per cent of GDP for a developed country. In the UK, then, illiteracy costs over £800m a week. 

As an expert on book buying, reading development and libraries in general, Anstice is often asked to speak at conferences on the subject. In recent years, however, he found himself in demand as a speaker at international conferences, and not solely for his expertise. “I’ve spoken at the French national libraries conference twice,” he says, “which confused me, because I don’t actually speak French. But I was speaking to this packed room full of French librarians, and they were fascinated, they invited me back again the next year. The reason was that they couldn’t believe what was going on in the UK, and they were terrified it could happen to them.” In countries from Spain and France to Australia and New Zealand, Anstice is called upon to describe what has happened to the British public library system, and everywhere the reaction is the same: “shock and disgust.”

“We’re the bad news story. We’re the nightmare that they tell the naughty libraries – be careful, or what happened in the UK could happen to you.” 

Anstice says the UK cannot blame declining library use on the internet, because “technological change is happening everywhere. You’ve got e-books and the internet everywhere. But in terms of visits to libraries, I’m seeing only a slight decline to libraries elsewhere, and in many cases an increase. Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA are all not seeing the decline that we’re seeing.”

Some libraries in the UK, too, are faring better. “I buy children’s books, and I can tell you that in new libraries and libraries that have refurbishments, I’m having to buy more new books than ever before, because the demand is there. Where we’re seeing a decline in reading is where you’d expect it, if you didn’t know anything about libraries but just saw them as retail – in those libraries where there is no investment in making the place look good, and where you’ve taken away the book budget.”

Fortunately for other countries, the funding conditions that have devastated the UK’s library system are not being repeated abroad. In the UK, explains Anstice, “Local authorities can decide what services they provide with almost no reference to central government. Central government are reducing the funding, which effectively means it’s every library for itself.”

There is legal protection for libraries in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. “Unfortunately,” says Anstice, “the person protecting them is the Secretary of State, who has effectively never intervened.” Why not? “Why would they? If you’re reducing funding, it’s going to have a negative impact, and the last thing you want to do if you’re a government minister is to draw attention to that by intervening in authorities and saying that “things are bad here”, because local authorities will say “well, you know why that is, don’t you Minister?” 

Even councils that commit to protecting their libraries are eventually forced to give them up. Northamptonshire is a council that took every possible recommended by DCMS. “They put them [libraries] in health and wellbeing, they charge for all sorts of things, they’ve done everything they can. The chief executive of Northamptonshire was the chair of the Libraries Taskforce. He cared an awful lot for public libraries. But he was asked to reduce their budget by £500m. No council can cope with that. So, one of the things that’s had to be cut, and cut significantly, is public libraries.” 

Money for skills is being found elsewhere. In 2016, the UK spent £824m on public libraries; in the same year, the government committed £1.26bn – almost half again the entire public libraries budget – to funding the National Citizen Service, which offers team-building and outdoor pursuits activities to teenagers during school holidays at a cost of over £1,800 per participant, from 2016 to 2020. It is yet to be seen how much a pound spent on the NCS returns to the economy, but dozens of studies have shown that public libraries deliver a significant return on investment. The most recent study in the UK, performed by an independent research consultancy for the Archives, Libraries and Museums Alliance, found that £1 invested in libraries delivered between £5.50 – £7.50 in value to users. The most recent US study showed that public libraries return four times the economic benefit of the money invested in them. 

For MPs and policymakers, Anstice says the answer is literally in front of them. “Go into Westminster Library on any weekday afternoon. You’ll see row upon row of people just quietly studying, and you’ll see that in most city libraries. The answer to the skills question isn’t far away - just walk to Westminster Central.” Those people will only be able to continue developing their skills if MPs do this, he says. “The only way to protect public libraries is by intervention. If you’re having austerity, if you’re having large reductions to services, local councils will naturally look at easier targets. There will be protests if a library is closed, but that’s still easier than reducing a lot of the hard statutory protection areas, like social welfare. As long as public libraries are seen as a ‘soft statutory’ service - where technically it’s protected by law, but actually you can do what you like - then these reductions are going to continue.”

Approached to comment on this piece, a DCMS spokesperson told Spotlight that “the government is completely committed to helping libraries prosper and recognise the important place they have in communities across the country”, and pointed to the £4m that has been invested in “innovative libraries projects – helping to increase access to new technology and improve people’s digital skills”. Librarians, however, have been quick to point out that this one-off fund does not come close to plugging the deficit, with libraries losing £25m in funding just in the past year. 

Future generations, if they can read at all, will read in the dismantling of Britain’s public library system the faithlessness and defeatism of austerity: a story of billions spent on finding ways to use trade connections to somehow hitch the UK to growing economies, while British people were systematically deprived of the most basic and accessible means to acquire the skills to invent, to develop, and to compete. 

Will Dunn is the New Statesman's Special Projects Editor.