Public Libraries began to appear in Britain the mid-19th century with the introduction of the Public Libraries Act 1850. This was part of the government’s plan to “improve the public” through education. The middle and upper classes were concerned with how the working class were spending their free time. However, this Act only covered England and Wales. This spread to Scotland in 1853 with the introduction of the Public Libraries (Scotland) Act.
There are five fundamental characteristics shared by public libraries. The first of these are that it is paid for by taxes. This is where the problems began for public libraries in the UK.
The Glory Years
Public libraries in Britain were very well received and before long most towns and villages had one. They were seen as a vital part of the community and many towns were proud of their libraries. They managed to survive for over 150 years, but recently they are facing a bleak future due to budget cuts. Every library was part of a joined-up national network that provided a standardised service. In even the smallest library people could expect access to such basics as books and computers, and trained staff to provide a gateway to national assets such as newspaper archives.
The last decade has seen a massive decline in the budget local councils receive, which in turn has led to a massive reduction in funding for public libraries. Hundreds of libraries have been handed over from the council to the local community. This has left local communities with one choice – either take over their library or allow it to close. Since 2010 hundreds of local libraries have been handed over to the local community to run. One estimate is that 500 of the UK’s 3,850 libraries are now being run by local volunteers.
Between 2014 and 2015, the UK’s libraries received 282 million visitors. Just four years previous, this number was 322 million. A reduction of 40 million visits due to libraries closing or being forced to reduce their opening hours as volunteer-run libraries cannot provide adequate staffing to maintain normal opening hours. Across the UK, it was found that at least 330 libraries are open for 10 hours a week or less. Library use was found to be falling in all areas of Britain, but especially those in deprived areas.
The Current Situation
Since 2010, at least 478 libraries have closed in England, Wales and Scotland. Librarian numbers have been cut by around 8000. It isn’t looking good for the UK’s libraries. Austerity isn’t spoken about quite as regularly as it used to be, but it is still firmly in place, and with Brexit looming ever closer, could this be the end for Britain’s public libraries?