The CIPFA library data released in February tells us more about the data systems and structures for libraries than libraries themselves. Physical visits to libraries did fall in 2020, but this is mainly because libraries were not allowed by the government to fully reopen until April 2021. We've been tracking footfall on a monthly basis since libraries began reopening on a limited basis in July 2020 and getting it to the sector straight away, when our members needed it.
That’s why we know that since reopening, the picture for libraries has changed dramatically. Surveys of our members show that:
- Borrowing of physical books had returned to around 84% of pre-Covid levels by December 2021. This is almost exactly in line with high street footfall and suggests that people are coming back to libraries for books at the same rate as they're going back to high street shops.
- In the second half of last year, event attendance swung from digital to physical with an estimated 1.7m people at live events from July-December 2021.
- Digital and audio lending remain high, at more than double pre-Covid levels. However, this is still a small percentage increase of all borrowing from around 3-5% to around 10%.
It’s important to recognise that isn't a shift to digital; but instead adding digital as a substantial channel. This is an additional cost for libraries, and as digital content is more expensive than physical content, stock budgets are increasingly stretched. The pandemic also clearly demonstrated that the diverse needs of local people cannot be met by digital services alone.
This more in depth and current data and context demonstrates that the CIPFA libraries report is no longer fit for purpose because it is:
- Too late. The figures for year one of the pandemic came out at the end of year two.
- Disconnected from the sector. Their analysis shows little understanding of the range of services that libraries delivered during the pandemic.
CIPFA collect annual figures and publish them around nine months later (or 11 months in this case). The financial figures are essentially the same as those we presented 15 months ago with a larger sample.
This doesn't help libraries. Libraries and local authorities are now two years on in their planning around funding and income generation, so while it may have some use as a historical record, it's too little, too late in terms of usable evidence.
The pandemic has highlighted how inadequate annual releases are. The sector needs accurate and close to real time data to drive local planning and decision making. That is why Libraries Connected, Arts Council England, CILIP, DCMS. Libraries Hacked and others have been working to implement improved and simpler reporting systems for libraries. The need for this is now greater than ever.