By Isobel Hunter
Nobody could have predicted the events of 2020 and the impact on all areas of our life. Our recent report, Libraries in Lockdown, looked at the work libraries did online and remotely to support their communities.
However, the report also highlighted some of the longer term impacts the pandemic will have on the communities around us, and on library services.
We asked our members what they were expecting next year. Many are facing a triple whammy of budget reductions, loss of earned income and the increased costs of running COVID secure services. Some have already publicly announced cuts.
Libraries that know their budget position for next year have reported an average reduction of 14%. Income this year is down by 75%, and COVID security has used up another 4% of budgets. These figures are bleak. The cost of eBook provision is another factor as these are far more expensive than hard copy books. We have estimated a funding gap of £4million in England alone to meet the increased demand for eBooks this year.
The pandemic also hit communities hard, with disproportionate impacts on children and young people, the elderly, and the poor. A recent IPPR report suggests over a million people, including 200,000 children, face poverty this year because of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Libraries are a vital prevention and support service to help mitigate these impacts.
As we set out in our publication, Libraries, an essential part of local recovery, libraries help to restore local economies, tackle isolation, support education, bridge the digital divide and support the local cultural ecology.
The innovations of the past few months and the changes in user need and expectations, mean that libraries need to adjust their model to deliver through three channels:
- Onsite. Nearly 12 million people are digitally excluded, so the physical library service remains paramount. Library buildings are spaces to bring communities back together and provide the human contact so many have craved during lockdown.
- Digital. The surge in demand for eBooks is clearly here to stay. We need to work with publishers to develop licensing models to increase the availability of titles and to provide a choice that compares to physical book stock. Libraries also need to grow their role in supporting digital inclusion.
- Outside. Over lockdown, libraries have evolved their outreach work, enrolling more people on their Home Library Service and developing new partnerships with charities and foodbanks to reach those in need. There is enormous scope to expand this outward focus and get the library service out of its walls and into people’s lives.
While this model is not new, what will change is the balance between these three channels and the need to evolve them together as each part is as important as the other. There will need to be resource re-allocation and investment – especially in workforce skills – to help bring this about.
We know the operating environment next year will be difficult. In the new financial year councils will need to make savings to fill the hole the pandemic has left.
Libraries are high profile local services that make valuable impacts on people’s lives yet cost an average of just 0.6% of council spending.
Library budgets have been reduced so much over the last decade, even small reductions now will have large impacts on what they can deliver.
Libraries were not eligible for the Cultural Recovery Fund that was made available to the rest of the culture sector – they should be part of any future schemes. There is also need for urgent investment in eBooks and digital infrastructure.
During this crisis, libraries have proved they are innovative, fast moving and determined. But adequate, sustained investment will be vital if they are to play their full part in ensuring our communities recover from this crisis.