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Chapter 10: Public Libraries in the Age of Austerity

Since 2010, British public libraries have been undergoing the most difficult period in their peacetime history. Now, the sector is facing deep and sustained budget cuts, with hundreds of small libraries under threat of closure or passing to volunteers.

Published onFeb 27, 2019
Chapter 10: Public Libraries in the Age of Austerity

Since 2010, British public libraries have been undergoing the most difficult period in their peacetime history. Before the coalition government came into power, public libraries had been experiencing static or increasing budgets combined with stable or reduced levels of usage (DCMS 2012). Large-scale projects to refurbish central libraries had restarted in Liverpool and Manchester, and the largest ever English public library rebuild had started in Birmingham. Now, the sector is facing deep and sustained budget cuts, with hundreds of small libraries under threat of closure or passing to volunteers and even the new Library of Birmingham confronted with a deep crisis (BBC 2015). Facing this disaster, the old certainties have been washed away, with the role of paid staff, council involvement and even the library itself being called into question.

Contrary to what can be gleaned from much of the media, the last five years has not seen a dramatic number of library closures. According to Cipfa figures (Cipfa 2015), there were 423 fewer libraries in 2015/2016 than there were in 2010/2011, out of an original total of 4,340. This figure, representing nearly 10 percent of buildings, is quite impressively high over a five-year period, but nowhere near the massacre present in public perception. Moreover, these closures are not just simple reactions to budget cuts. Rather, as in the case of the London Borough of Brent, they were part of a deliberate strategy to concentrate funding on a smaller number of branches, improving those branches and thus maintaining usage (Anstice 2012).

That’s not to say the cuts aren’t real; in fact, they’re far deeper than 10 percent. Indeed, there has been an overall reduction in budget of at least 20 percent over the same time period, which, depending on how one factors in inflation, could mean a cut of up to 40 percent in real terms. Bear in mind as well that certain authorities have cut their budgets far deeper than this average. What then accounts for the relatively small number of closures? Public library authorities, of which there are 151 in England alone, have found many ways to reduce expenditures without closing libraries. A term commonly used by campaigners for this approach is the evocative hollowing out (Ellis 2013). This can include all manner of reductions, notably in opening hours, in staffing and in book funds (Davies 2013). Somerset, which retreated from closing eleven branches and four mobiles due to a lost court case, instead lost staff, introduced self-service machines and volunteer staff, and moved services into co-located buildings (Public Libraries News 2015c). Other authorities have used a mixture of these approaches in conjunction with reducing the book fund. Obviously, such responses frequently lead to reductions. By not closing some of its buildings in a time of budget reduction, a council can simply discourage library usage, which then weakens the case for keeping them open overall.

As well as cutting expenditure, attempts have been made to increase income (Naylor 2014), with one of the most frequently mentioned options that of installing a cafe. Although this can be successful for income in popular and busy locations, the costs of running such a retail arm means that profit cannot be guaranteed. There are also concerns about the over-commercialization of libraries (SPPL 2012), which have long been valued as neutral, welcoming spaces in which, almost uniquely on the High Street, one does not need to spend money.

In addition, councils have been outsourcing public library service to other organisations, although inroads by the private sector have been very limited. The sole example is Carillion, which runs four library services, albeit via a non-profit arm. Far more libraries have been passed to non-profit trusts, with the most prominent being GLL (Public Libraries News 2015a). Two other library services (York and Suffolk) are run as mutuals.

Along with library closures, the other response to budget cuts attracting high media attention is the passing of branches to volunteers. From a handful prior to 2010, there are now at least 384 such libraries in the UK (Public Libraries News 2015b), with more planned. Although replacing paid staff with volunteers is rarely claimed to be an actual improvement, local library users may reluctantly feel forced to become volunteers in order to keep their libraries open. Indeed, some users have complained of being blackmailed (News Hound 2011) by local authorities into the move. Councils can argue that if a local community does not wish to volunteer to run its local library, then they don’t really want it (Dorset Echo 2012). More tellingly, the issue of volunteering can split campaign groups into two or even co-opt those protesting against cuts onto the council side in an attempt to rescue the service. The success of some volunteer libraries, at least in the short term, encourages councils to withdraw from more, even though there are concerns about the future of such initiatives in the longer term (NFWI Research 2013). There is also concern that volunteer libraries (confusingly called community libraries by many councils) further atomise a larger library service, because each becomes run as a separate organisation.

Public protest against public library closures has been strong, but often ineffective. Consultations on public library closures are commonly reported to be the most responded to of all council consultations, but also often have little effect. Within days of cuts being formally announced, campaign groups spontaneously form in the affected areas, either from library users or from pre-existing Friends of the Library groups. Such groups have a variety of weapons at their disposal, from placarding council offices to protest marches to petitions. If all else fails, campaigners can and do take councils to court via judicial reviews. This time-consuming and expensive business has led to several notable turnarounds by councils such as those in Somerset or Moray. But, in other cases, decisions have gone against campaigners even if they have made initial wins, such as recently in Lincolnshire. In all instances, the councils are likely to blame the campaigners for the cost of legal action, even if they are found to have been acting improperly.

National responses to cuts in public libraries have varied depending on the groups involved. Those organisations that see themselves as tied to government or local government have met the challenge with pragmatism. The Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), the membership of which is formed of senior library officers, tailors its publicity to promote libraries as fitting in with government agendas. It even welcomes the replacement of paid staff with volunteers as long as they are ‘professionally managed’. The Arts Council England (ACE)—which, as well as encouraging best practice, is funded by the government to distribute grants for projects to libraries—can also be relied upon to rarely, if ever, directly challenge the government’s position. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), on the other hand, while also wanting to associate libraries with government aims in order to stress their importance, is more likely to protest, especially in recent years. The group is a member of the Speak Up for Libraries coalition and has adopted a stance formally against the replacement of paid staff. The Unison and Unite trade unions are far more likely to protest against cuts, which directly affect their members, as is the national campaign group the Library Campaign.

Stung with criticism over cuts to library services, the DCMS response has been either to deny the impact of cuts (Flood 2012) or to conduct research into best practice within the sector. What it has not done, which has caused much anger amongst campaigners, is to intervene in any library authority, regardless of the severity of the cuts proposed. The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act gives the secretary of state the power to order a review and ultimately take over the running of a library service if it is not meeting its obligation to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’. However, the minister responsible for libraries throughout this period, MP Ed Vaizey, has steadfastly refused to rule against the actions of any authority. As such, councils consider library services a ‘soft’ statutory service, with councillors even sometimes failing to know that they are statutory at all. Indeed, it is notable that almost all legal challenges by local groups against cuts have concentrated instead on other legislation, usually in the areas of equality and human rights.

What is apparent to any serious observer of public libraries over the last six years is that, when push comes to the shove, the need to reduce funding normally takes precedence over local protest and legal protections. It does not matter how many thousands respond to a consultation or protest in marches; if the council has decided on a course of action, then that is what will happen. The protection of the courts, in a service such as that of libraries in which legal precedent is limited and definitions are weak, is haphazard at best. Central government has shown itself impervious to appeal when it comes to cuts to library services. It is also dedicated to allowing local councils to find their own solution, and is unwilling to impose strategies or reorganisation on the multitude of local library authorities and the hundreds of new volunteer libraries. In other words, the old certainties of public libraries being a public good, protected by popularity and government, have gone. It is up to each authority to determine how best to respond to budget reductions, and, if said authority decides that cutting libraries is a valid response, then there is little than can effectively be done to stop it.


Anstice, I. 2012. “Concentrate on Services, Not Usage.” Public Libraries News, September 9.

BBC. 2015. “Birmingham Library Opening Hours Nearly Halved.” BBC, February 10.

Cipfa. 2015. “Public Libraries.”

Davies, S. 2013. “The Damage: The Public Library Service under Attack.” Unison, June.

DCMS (Department for Culture, Media & Sport). 2012. “Taking Part 2011/12: Annual Adult and Child Release.”

Dorset Echo. 2012. “Mobile Library Will Replace Portland’s Underhill Facility.” Dorset Echo, April 24.

Ellis, M. 2013. “Two Libraries a Week Closed Due to Tory Cuts.” Mirror, March 4.

Flood, A. 2012. “Ed Vaizey Says Libraries ‘Thriving’ and Rejects Prediction of 600 Closures.” Guardian, June 29.

Naylor, A. 2014. “Income Generation for Public Libraries: A Practical Guide for Library Service Commissioners in England.” Locality, July 22.

News Hound. 2011. “This Is Not Volunteering, It Is Blackmail!” Ivo, September 29.

NFWI Research. 2013. “On Permanent Loan? Community Managed Libraries: The Volunteer Perspective.” NFWI Research, January.

Public Libraries News. 2015a. “List of Library Trusts and Prospective Library Trusts.” Public Libraries News.

Public Libraries News. 2015b. “List of UK Volunteer Libraries.” Public Libraries News.

Public Libraries News. 2015c. “Sheffield to Southampton.” Public Libraries News.

Wylie, A. 2012. “Extreme Income Generation: The New Reality?” Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries, December 5.


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