Books in a library

South East London council run libraries drop significantly in 20 years

The number of council run libraries in South East London has fallen by more than a quarter in the two decades from 2001 to 2021.

The total number of libraries ran by a local authority in the boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark fell from 67 in 2001 to 48 in 2021, a dip of 28%.

The amount of libraries run by the local authority fell in every South East London borough except Southwark during this time period.

Lewisham experienced the biggest decline with the number of council run libraries falling from 12 in 2001 to just four in 2021.

Data collected here via Freedom of Information request and graph created using Datawrapper

The 1954 Public Libraries and Museums Act requires local authorities in England and Wales to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.

Nick Poole, chief executive of library and information association CILIP, said: “Properly staffed, stocked and funded libraries can have a transformative effect on the lives of the people they serve, helping to build literacy and skills, improving health and wellbeing, providing digital access and supporting local business and enterprise.

“Unfortunately, faced with severe financial constraints, a number of councils are finding themselves forced to consider reductions to public library services.

“We strongly urge any council in this position to liaise first with the libraries team at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who will be able to advise on possible alternatives to closures.”

The closure of libraries can have a major impact on residents of the local area and the wider community.

Laura Swaffield, chair of The Library Campaign, a national charity supporting friends and users of libraries said: “We fully sympathise with local councils, which are being starved of funds by the government.

“But libraries are incredible value for money. They cost peanuts to run – less than 1% of a typical council budget.

“Yet they are a vital free resource for everyone, including young families, benefits claimants who need internet access and lonely older people who need somewhere warm to go.

“Cutting access to them will just mean extra pressure on social services, schools and helping agencies borough wide.”

One solution put forward as an alternative to local authority run libraries are community managed libraries.

In these instances libraries are handed over from the local authority to be managed by the community.

These volunteer run libraries have become increasingly popular across Britain. 

According to figures from the Public Libraries News, there are currently at least 620 libraries in the UK where the majority of staff are volunteers.

Poole said: “Some councils have opted to replace professional library staff with volunteer or community run services.

“We are clear that while volunteers can enhance a professionally run service, they cannot deliver an adequate service without professional support.

“We urge local residents to stand up for their right to a quality library service, and to express their concerns about proposed reductions to their local authorities.”

Swaffield does not believe community managed libraries are an adequate alternative.

She said: “We don’t for a moment blame local people who feel forced to try to run a library when the alternative is to see it closed completely.

“Most have first fought hard to keep their council run libraries. Many do a heroic job, with shortages of funds and volunteers common.

“Most, actually, make demands on councils, which have to support them with staff, advice, IT and cataloguing, stock and much else.”

However, Swaffield believes that the services offered by community run libraries are not consistent.

She added: “It varies hugely from branch to branch, depending on circumstances.

“In the past you could go into any library, anywhere, and know you’d find expert help in finding information and using IT, staff held to ethical standards, well chosen stock and a link to a whole national network of online resources, plus every book in print.

“Now you have no idea what you’re getting, that national network is smashed.

“Most community run libraries are truly valued as a local social space but are they actually libraries?”

Featured image: Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash. License found here.

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