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Hard Evidence: how many people actually use libraries?

Bodleian Education Library, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC BY-ND

Hard Evidence: how many people actually use libraries?

Bodleian Education Library, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC BY-ND

There’s no doubt that people in the UK value libraries. They are seen as an asset to communities, offering a calm, quiet, neutral space, where anyone can access information for work or leisure. When libraries are threatened with closure, community groups and public figures spring into action to try to save them. But while we clearly hold libraries close to our hearts, how many of us actually use them?

Fewer and fewer, it seems: in the five years to 2013/14 (the last period for which data is publically available) the number of visits to public libraries fell by 12.4% to 282m. This decrease was mainly the result of fewer people using them, demonstrated by the fact that the proportion of adults who had visited a library in the previous 12 months fell by 10.2%.

As well as fewer people using libraries, those who do use them are making fewer visits. What’s more, the number of books lent by public libraries fell by 20% to 247m over the same period, mainly due to a decrease in the number of borrowers – by 18.3% to 9.8m.

At the same time, the number of libraries in the UK fell by 7.5% from 4,482 in 2009/10 to 4,145 in 2013/14. It’s impossible to tell from the statistics whether the fall in use was caused by the closure 337 libraries, or if the closures came as a result of the fall in use.

It’s clear that fewer people use libraries than in the past. But they’re still visited by over a third of the adult population – and 9.8m of those borrowed books. If we delve a little deeper into the data, we can sketch a more detailed picture of what’s going on. For instance, statistics show that some sections of the community use public libraries more than others.

More women than men visit public libraries, and people between the ages of 25 and 44 visit more than other age groups. A higher proportion of adults from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups visited a library than white adults. And libraries in the most deprived areas are visited more than libraries in the least deprived areas.

On the rise?

There’s another major library sector which keeps detailed statistics – university libraries. The Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) have been collecting statistics every year for decades. And the situation of academic libraries is clearer than for public libraries, because there have not been widespread closures.

Analysis of the data shows that for every full-time student studying at a university, there are around 55 visits to the library each year. This average has not changed for ten years. But because student numbers have increased, university libraries are seeing more people come through the doors than ever before. For example, last academic year (2014/15) there were 2.4m visits to Oxford University libraries.

Yet the concept of “library use” is more complicated in university libraries than public libraries: it’s not simply a matter of counting the numbers of people coming in or books going out. The truth is, university libraries are no longer simply physical buildings where books are stored and made available for borrowing or reference.

Since the mid-1990s, academic journals have been published electronically. The SCONUL statistics show that over the last ten years the average number of journals bought by a university library has increased from 7,000 to 30,000, with 99% of these now provided electronically. Since around 2010, textbooks and research monographs have followed the same path towards online provision. This means that a student or researcher may be a very heavy user of the library, even if they never set foot in the building.

The statistics show that the average number of book loans per library user fell by 11% over the last ten years. But this is just for printed books. When e-books are included, the number of “loans” over the same period trebled. So, although the use of public libraries is in decline, more people are using university libraries than ever before.

Those funding public libraries may view the digital shift experienced by university libraries as a way of providing library services without the need to keep buildings open. But, although more students are using digital libraries than the paper-based libraries of the past, the library building as a place to study is still important to them. Similarly, while open access content, digitisation programmes and e-book subscriptions may mean that a public library is not the only place to read books and newspapers, people still enjoy the experience of physical books and value the space to escape, study and learn.