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Libraries in crisis: Dwindling visitors and staff push services to brink

Libraries are facing their biggest ever crisis, with low usage and depleted staffing levels pushing services close to the brink.

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Residents successfully battled to keep Penn Library open when it was under threat of closure

Across the country footfall has tumbled by 10 million since 2016-17, while local authority spending has continued to drop since 2010 as councils battle to balance the books in a time of severely restricted budgets.

Last year 130 libraries closed their doors for good.

Today's figures on library staff numbers paint a worrying picture for the future of services in the West Midlands, where there are more than 40 per cent fewer paid workers than there were nine years ago.

During that period the services on offer across the region have changed dramatically.

Protesters outside Aldridge Library, which closed in 2017

Many cash-strapped councils, forced to make difficult decisions over which services to cut, took the axe to local libraries, either closing them down altogether, or reducing opening days and hours to save money.

Walsall has seen nine libraries close their doors for good, while in Dudley and Wolverhampton libraries lost up to 17 hours a week from their opening hours in a bid to save cash.

Nearly 900 paid staff have gone, meaning the reliance on volunteers is greater than ever.


Wolverhampton councillor Paul Singh describes the situation as "unsustainable", and has called for central government to consider reviewing the amount of funding available for services.

The Conservative councillor for Penn was part of the successful campaign to save his ward's library when it came under threat of closure.

Last year it underwent a £60,000 makeover as part of Wolverhampton Council's 10-year plan to develop a sustainable library service across the city, and despite reduced opening hours, has gone from strength to strength.

Mr Singh argues that libraries still provide a vital service in neighbourhoods around the city, noting their particular significance for elderly people.

"It is one of the few council-owned facilities we have in the ward and its importance cannot be overstated," Mr Singh said.

Pheasey Library closed and reopened as a book exchange

"The library serves as a meeting hub for elderly and retired people. They can get a cup of coffee here and chat with their friends.

"The impact it has on combatting isolation and loneliness is incredible. There's also play groups, so there is something for all members of the community to get involved with.

"We have moved on and the modern library is about more than just books."

However, he says the current system where many libraries rely on volunteers requires a rethink.

"If you are looking at the long-term prospects for libraries then you have to consider the importance of staffing.

"I would definitely like to see the government look at reviewing the funding. People power kept Penn Library open last time, but we would rather not have to go through it all again."

Community hubs

The need to diversify is something that is not lost on Councillor Milkinder Jaspal, who says that libraries will need to continue to change to meet the developing needs of communities and attract new users.

He cites the success of Wolverhampton's community hubs, which have replaced library services in areas such as Ashmore Park, Pendeford and Low Hill.

"The key is, they don't just offer one service, they aim to provide activities for the whole community," he said.

"The concept of libraries has changed dramatically. Whatever way you look at it, there is no longer a big demand for people to go in and read books or newspapers or do research.

"They can do a lot of it online. The places that are successful and still get people through the doors are the ones that have changed with the times... that offer meeting rooms and different activities or classes.

"It's the only way they can survive."


Such a system has proved to be successful in Sandwell, where all of the borough's 19 libraries have remained open due to the council teaming up with community groups to provide a range of services all year round.

But there is no denying that across the country services are under intense pressure, prompting many councils to call for an increase in government funding to ensure more libraries do not disappear.

It will require an about-turn, as the annual survey of British libraries by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy revealed that over the last year, spending on libraries by local authorities fell by £30m to £741m.

A big part of the reason for the reduction in funding has undoubtedly been the huge growth in demand for care for children and the elderly.

It's a point not lost on Staffordshire County Council leader Philip Atkins, who says the issue is particularly acute in rural areas.

"Our research shows that a reduction in spend on library services is far greater in rural areas compared to other parts of the country," the Conservative vice-chairman of the County Councils Network said earlier this year.

"In isolated areas, these services play a major community role, but increasingly we have had little choice but to reduce spend on libraries in order to protect care services for the vulnerable and elderly."

A Government spokeswoman said: “Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.

“While volunteers are not a substitute for the paid workforce, they play an important role in supporting library services across England.

“We are investing in Britain’s future by providing local authorities with access to £46.4billion this year, which is an increase from £45.1billion last year to meet the needs of their residents.”