Last month, Leeds council released a report proposing the closure of 20 of their 53 libraries. The report stated:
“Over the past few years the people of Leeds have changed how they use the service and in 2009/10 out of the 4 million annual visits, 1.5 million were made to just four libraries and 2.8 million were made to just 13 out of a total of 53 libraries.
“The uses people make of libraries and the times they want access are no longer met by the large number of small libraries with opening hours of less than 18 hours. Maintaining these libraries means that valuable resources go into stocking them with materials and computers and repairing and managing the buildings.
“As a result over £1m worth of books are locked away for most of the week. That resource needs setting free.”
The report is clear, libraries other than the top 13 were prime candidates for closure. They are hardly used and, therefore, not worthy of saving. The libraries that they selected for potential closure are:
Allerton Bywater; Armley Heights; Belle Isle; Broad Lane; Cow Close; Drighlington; Holbeck; Ireland Wood; Kirkstall; Lofthouse; Methley; Osmondthorpe; Rawdon; Richmond Hill; Scholes; Shadwell; Swarcliffe; Swillington; Swinnow and Whinmoor.
Each one of these libraries are indeed low in usage, some of the lowest in the authority. However this is not the whole story and, in fact, many of the libraries suggested are actually outperforming some of the larger libraries.
Following a FoI request, we managed to obtain statistics for all of the library’s in the authority. These statistics relate to loans, visits and PC bookings for each of the past five years. Each of these measures produced an interesting picture of library usage in the area, suggesting that those earmarked for closure should not even be under consideration. First, lets take a look at visits to Leeds libraries.
Overall, the majority of Leeds’ libraries did see a marked decrease in library visits (this refers to visits to the physical library rather than the library website). However, 22 of Leeds’ 53 libraries bucked this trend and recorded an increase in library visits. Of these 22 libraries, 10 of these are libraries that the authority is planning to close. The libraries marked for closure that bucked this trend are:
Richmond Hill – 42.4% increase in usage (year on year)
Swinnow – 47% increase
Drighlington – 24%
Cow Close – 14%
Holbeck – 14%
Methley – 12%
Osmondthorpe – 11%
Scholes – 8%
Shadwell – 5%
Allerton Bywater – 4%
With such increases in usage it seems surprising that any of these libraries would be considered for closure. Particularly Richmond Hill which came 11th out of 53 libraries in terms of year-on-year growth.
Book issues are also an important measure when assessing the performance of a library service and should also be seriously considered before proposals for closures are made. And, as with library visits, the majority of libraries in Leeds did see a decline in loans (albeit by a very slim majority). In this case, six of the libraries earmarked for closure recorded increases:
Shadwell – 14% increase
Allerton Bywater – 12%
Belle Isle – 8%
Richmond Hill – 8%
Scholes – 4%
Cow Close – 3%
Again, all are showing signs of growth and 5 of these libraries also recorded growth in visits (as seen above). The question again needs to be asked why these 5 (Shadwell, Allerton Bywater, Richmond Hill, Scholes and Cow Close) are even being considered for closure?
A further factor to consider is usage of computers in Leeds libraries. The Yorkshire region has some of the lowest rates of household internet access in the country. According to the latest ONS statistics, Yorkshire and the Humber have an estimated 69% of households with internet access. This compares less favorably with London (83%), the South East (79%) and the North West (71%). Unlike visits and loans (and perhaps unsurprisingly given the Internet access issues in the region), computer bookings were up in the majority of libraries in Leeds. Of those, nine were proposed for closure:
Armley Heights – 32%
Kirkstall – 23%
Richmond Hill – 22%
Whinmoor – 14%
Allerton Bywater – 26%
Osmondthorpe – 10%
Cow Close – 4%
Broad Lane – 2%
Methley – 2%
Once again, all showing significant growth and once more there are a number of libraries that have improved dramatically in other aspects (Allerton Bywater, Richmond Hill and Cow Close).
However, not only is the performance of the individual libraries a reason to question the proposals put forward by Leeds council, the impact on some of the surrounding communities should also be taken into account. Take, for example, Richmond Hill. Strong growth across all main performance measures, outperforming many other libraries in the area. The unemployment rate is 13.6% – one of the highest rates of unemployment in the authority. Cow Close, again a strong performer in many of the performance measures outlined above, has an unemployment rate of 12.3%. Holbeck, a 14% increase in visits, also 13.6% unemployed. Belle Isle, book issue increase of 8%, 13.6% unemployment. Armley Heights, 32% increase in computer bookings in a region that has some of the lowest Internet connectivity rates in the country, an unemployment rate of 12.3%. It does not seem to us that Leeds City Council is putting the needs of the local communities at the forefront of its proposals. It seems, in fact, that those who most rely on libraries will be the ones that suffer, no matter the increasing numbers of people that are using them.
Given the improvement across the authority and the needs of the local communities, it is difficult to see how the closure of 20 libraries across Leeds can be justified. Certainly the libraries chosen have not been chosen on the grounds of performance, they have out-performed many other libraries in the area. In fact, it would appear that each of these libraries were picked because they fell in the bottom 25 libraries in terms of overall visits. Whilst this initially seems like a logical approach to the issue, it does not take into account the growth in usage that many of these libraries have seen. Whilst these libraries are in the ‘bottom half’ when it comes to library visits, many of them have shown strong growth in visits, loans and PC usage. Furthermore, some of these libraries have seen far bigger increases in these areas than the majority of the other libraries in the district. And some of the libraries that have seen the biggest rise in usage are those in areas that suffer from high levels of unemployment. With unemployment predicted to grow dramatically over the coming year, these resources are needed now more than ever.
This is not the first time that libraries have been proposed for closure on spurious grounds, and it certainly won’t be the last. The battle against closures in Wirral was fought and won on the following grounds:
* Stated intention for large numbers of closures
* Driven by asset-review, not social outcomes
* Ineffective consultation with public (and staff)
* Potential of library services not well recognised
* No workable strategy for service improvement
* ‘Good Practice’ elsewhere not being considered
The evidence above suggests that these grounds are also relevant to Leeds’ proposals. We urge library campaigners and library users in the Leeds area to press the DCMS to conduct a review of these proposals on the grounds indicated above. Many of the libraries in Leeds have seen increased usage in the past year and as the spending cuts start to bite this trend is likely to continue. The communities most affected by these closures are those that need them the most. We should do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen.