Ending Library Austerity— An Investment In England’s Future

The case for supporting public libraries is clear. Not only are there demonstrated and measurable social and economic benefits, but investment in libraries is a popular decision among English taxpayers as well.

On February 27 University Challenge star and CILIP library champion Bobby Seagull presented a petition to No 10 asking government to end library austerity and return funding for public libraries to their 2010 levels in next month’s budget. This petition underscores the growing recognition that public libraries are not merely a luxury for good economic times, but in fact are a critical component of our social infrastructure and play a dynamic role as engines of economic prosperity.

According to Public Libraries: The Case For Support by The Big Issue and CILIP, libraries in England have seen a £213m reduction in funding since 2010. Ten years of library austerity have resulted in a loss of 10 per cent of library service points (i.e., libraries, library branches, and mobile libraries) and a corresponding reduction in overall service levels, as well as the replacement of trained professional librarians and paid library staff by volunteers. These changes have translated not only into fewer libraries and library services for English communities but a steady erosion of the quality of service that librarians are able to provide. 

In fact, study after study has shown that libraries are a boon for business, education, arts and culture, and public health. With rates of return on public funding that would be the envy of any financier, libraries are one of the smartest investments the government can make towards England’s future. 

Public libraries provide a staggering return on investment, with every £1 spent on libraries generating between £5 and £7 in economic benefits to the local economy. Libraries also provide what’s known as a “halo” effect for businesses and educational providers in the community and have been linked to increased property values and improved perceptions of quality of life. As many libraries in England are either centrally-located or situated close to public transportation, they are considered to be key factors in the revitalisation of the High Street and partners in the renewal of economically-disadvantaged regions. Small businesses in particular benefit from public libraries, as they provide invaluable resources to local entrepreneurs in the form of staff expertise, community connections, and the library space itself for meeting and coworking opportunities. Libraries make a significant contribution to the UK’s digital infrastructure as well, with public libraries providing 26 million hours of free internet access every year.

Libraries also play an essential role in the English educational system, supplementing the traditional curriculum, teaching young people print and digital literacies, and offering additional lifelong learning opportunities for people of all ages in a welcoming and inclusive setting. Children’s librarians provide invaluable exposure to early literacy skills through storytime and other activities which help foster a love of reading and lead to higher achievement scores in school. Public libraries serve as England’s “original streetcorner university,” opening their communities to a larger world of knowledge and information. Research by Arts Council England has shown that regular library use has a greater impact on academic achievement than having a parent with a university degree! Quiz maven and “proud geek” Bobby Seagull credits his encyclopaedic knowledge in no small part to the Saturday afternoons he spent as a child browsing the stacks of his library in East Ham.

In addition to improving educational outcomes, public libraries also are a critical resource for people who are involved in the job-seeking process. From young people looking for their first job to workers looking to change careers or others who are recently unemployed, the library can be a stepping stone to better qualifications, a smarter resume, or even an improved sense of confidence, with a majority of people surveyed reporting that using their library regularly had put them in a stronger position to get a new job. Not only do public libraries have a wealth of books, databases, and other electronic materials to help job-seekers, but they also offer informational programmes, career-focused workshops, and partnerships with community organisations who can assist them with finding a job.

The arts and cultural sector in England enjoys a special relationship with libraries— in fact, libraries are often the first point of contact between children and the arts. Local arts and cultural organisations partner with public libraries on community programming, showcase local artists, and invite the public to participate in the arts through hands-on classes, workshops, and learning activities for all ages. By supporting local artists, libraries help the arts sector— which contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy, generating over £2billion in tax revenues and supporting over 360,000 jobs— and transform their community by enhancing the quality of life. 

Libraries are also good for your health. As councils are charged with responsibility for their communities’ public health and social wellbeing, public libraries are perfectly positioned as hubs for health information, health literacy and community support. The NHS Five Year Forward View identifies self-care and management of long-term conditions as the key to preventive medicine; by partnering with health providers to help people manage their own health, libraries help lessen the burden on the NHS. Libraries also combat loneliness and social isolation, which recent medical research has shown can have long-term health ramifications and is as dangerous as smoking or obesity. 

The case for supporting public libraries is clear. Not only are there demonstrated and measurable social and economic benefits, but investment in libraries is a popular decision among English taxpayers as well. Fully 75% of the population say that libraries are important for their community, and librarians are amongst the top 5 trusted professionals in the UK. More people visit libraries in England every year than attend the English Premier League, the cinema, and the top 10 tourist destinations combined! Libraries have a special place in English society, and deservedly so, as they are such an important part of what makes England great. 

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