This month the DCMS released their annual Taking Part survey. The report covers the 12 month period from April 2010 to March 2011 and includes participation in culture and sport, volunteering, digital participation, and cycling and swimming proficiency. Included in this is usage of public libraries by both adults and children. As you would expect, it highlights some interesting data about the state of library usage in this country which should certainly be of interest to library campaigners across the country.
One of the most interesting statistics to come out of this report reflects the usage of libraries by people in both the most and least deprived areas. Whilst The Bookseller chose to headline their coverage of the findings ‘Better off more likely to use libraries’, the reality is much less clear-cut. The report found that 43.5% of people from the least deprived parts of England used a library last year, compared to 39.5% of those from the most deprived. Whilst there is clearly a difference, 4% is not sufficient to conclusively argue that the ‘better off’ are more likely to use a library than the most disadvantaged. In fact, what is most stark about these figures is that social background appears to have no bearing on library usage. This rather contradicts the belief expressed by some that ‘libraries cater for the middle classes, not the deprived’. The figures very much demonstrate that they cater for both.
The report also demonstrated the importance of public libraries for children, not least considering the increasing cull of school libraries. It revealed that 76.4% of 5-10 year olds had visited their local library in the past year, up from 72.2% in 2008/9. The impact library closures would have on literacy levels is clear and unambiguous. With an increasing demand from the 5-10 age group and the closure of school libraries across the country, the public library has never been more important for the social and economic wellbeing of future generations.
The report also reveals that against a backdrop of supposed decline in library usage, adult library usage has in fact remained static. For each of the past three years the percentage of adults using the library has remained at approximately the same level. In fact, the proportion of adults using the public library has increased by 0.3% on last year to 39.7%. The fact that this figure has remained constant for three years, in spite of already significant cuts to library services, also rather suggests that those arguing that libraries are ‘irrelevant’ are out of touch with both what libraries are offering and the needs of library users across the country. If authorities are threatening to close up to 50% of libraries when usage has remained stable, will similar cuts be applied to other council services?
Overall, the Taking Part survey clearly demonstrates that reports of the rapid decline of public libraries has been greatly exaggerated. They are not an institution solely catering for the middle-classes as some politicians and commentators have argued. They are as much used by people in the most deprived areas as those from the least, and draw users from across the whole of our society – the quintessential universal service. Children are drawn to the library in increasing numbers, alone, with school groups and friends, and with parents, who rely on them to support their child’s literacy and development. Despite the growth of the internet and the availability of popular ‘books in supermarkets’, people still make significant use of their free access to a wide range of books and other resources. Despite suggestions to the contrary, adult library usage is not in terminal decline. If usage has remained stable while budgets have been slashed, imagine what could be achieved if we invested in our public libraries. Councillors and politicians may be keen to argue that libraries are becoming irrelevant, in order to justify closing them or staffing them with volunteers. The facts suggests otherwise.