The future of libraries
Rosie Batsford explores the British Library’s decision to expand its site in St Pancreas, and national investment across the UK to consider the future of libraries.
Despite this, the plans have been described as “a bull in a china shop”, with residents concerned that the 12-storey expansion will block sunlight, and demolish the nearby Story Garden, initially created as a community project. In response to concerns, the Library has pledged to provide £23 million towards affordable housing in Greater London and has included a new community garden as part of its commitment to support residents. The UK’s investment in libraries falls far behind that of most European countries, spending approximately £12 per capita on libraries in 2022 (a decrease from £18 in 2010). The European average annual library investment is £25 per capita, with Finland the frontrunner, at approximately £50 per capita.
The British Library is part of the Living Knowledge Network, consisting of 20 partner Libraries, including Exeter Library, providing author events, debates, and educational resources.
The British Library is part of the Living Knowledge Network, consisting of 20 partner Libraries, including Exeter Library, providing author events, debates, and educational resources. Recordings of many of the in-person events can be found on the Living Knowledge Network website. While this is encouraging, all 20 partner libraries are located in city centres, contributing to a sense of disconnect in rural communities where numbers of library memberships have increased post-pandemic, while figures in London have stalled.
The future of library resources in urban areas looks bright; however, the future of small libraries in other regions is unstable and shows no signs of improving. Research from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) shows that 773 libraries closed between 2010 and 2019, resulting in the loss of over 10,000 staff. Despite in-person library visits increasing by 68% since the pandemic, and book issuing increased by 58%, government funding continues to decrease dramatically, dropping 17% in 2021/2022 (£9,982 per 1000 people) compared to 2020/2021 figures (£11,970 per 1000 people).
The future of library resources in urban areas look bright; however, the future of small libraries in other regions is unstable and shows no signs of improving.
The positive impact of libraries should not be underestimated; research from Suffolk Libraries found that their activities for “elderly people, early years, and mental health drop-ins” generate the equivalent of £2 million per year in social value, saving local NHS services just under £300,000 per year. Exeter City of Literature and Exeter College recently announced a new Bibliotherapies course, aiming to improve wellbeing through books with ‘book prescriptions’ from an “educational and literary activity standpoint”. This adult-learning course is the first of its kind and follows the success of the Bibliotherapy in the Community project, which ran in summer 2021.
Contrary to what many believe, libraries offer much more than books. Libraries function as community spaces, hosting activities such as book groups, summer reading challenges for children, and ‘Rhyme Time’ groups for toddlers. For others, libraries are a lifeline for vulnerable people through resources such as audiobooks, e-resources, laptop use, and reading/study spaces that make day-to-day life more accessible – particularly in rural areas where these resources are otherwise scarce and factors such as digital poverty limit opportunities.
Memberships for all UK public libraries are free, allowing you to access a range of resources. Depending on the library, there may be a small fee for reserving books, printing, or borrowing DVDs; many libraries are trying to end these fees, but there is still variation across counties. Exeter library is supported by government and Libraries Unlimited charity funds. Opening hours for Exeter library can be found on the website alongside the opening hours for their café. The Devon and Exeter Institution is free for students to join, offering excellent study space and a selection of books.