Updated: Friday, 22nd September 2017 @ 5:39am

Is the end nigh for Greater Manchester's libraries? Savage cuts and ailing visitor numbers make for a sad tale

Is the end nigh for Greater Manchester's libraries? Savage cuts and ailing visitor numbers make for a sad tale

By James Metcalf

Libraries  'beacons of hope for a better future' – are being savagely cut by local authorities according to campaigners... and Greater Manchester's are no exception.

Two years ago, much of Great Britain’s literary talent led a throaty cry of public outrage at the threat of closure facing the UK’s libraries.

According to new information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act, libraries in Greater Manchester have felt their fair share of the cuts despite the objections raised by groups including The Library Campaign and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

New figures from the Library Campaign show that, since April this year, 307 buildings and 43 mobile services are known to be under threat, have already closed, or have been given over to volunteers.

Laura Swaffield, head of The Library Campaign, said she thinks libraries are holding up pretty well, considering the way they are being ‘blowtorched out of existence nationwide.’

“They still get 4.5million visits a week which compares pretty well with football, for instance,” she said.

“All the same, it's notable that museum visits have gone up. And guess what – there has been a strong government investment programme for several years, called Renaissance in the Regions.

“Libraries, by contrast, are left savagely cut by local authority budgets. The government takes no interest in them at all.”

Two hundred and one library service posts were lost in 2011-12 and spending across the whole of England has dropped from more than £1billion to £820million.

It’s difficult to deny ruthlessness like this in cuts to public funding, which often means that people loyally using libraries are often turned away as a result of reduced services or complete closure.

Far from escaping this trend, the libraries of Greater Manchester have been hit as hard as the best of them.

Huge cuts to funding have seriously jeopardised the libraries of Manchester, which have seen a fall in expenditure from £2,384,467 to £1,831,947 since 2008-9.

Executive Member for Culture and Leisure at Manchester City Council, Councillor Rosa Battle, told MM: "As a result of deep spending cuts enforced by central government, we have had to find savings across all departments, including libraries.  This has led to a reduction in opening hours across our branch libraries and our spending on library stock has also necessarily fallen.”

Overall library expenditure in Tameside has also fallen, by £917,259 since 2008-9. As has expenditure on the books themselves; at £323,791 in 2008-9, the figure now stands at £211,860.

Likewise the county’s other libraries are suffering. Last year revenue expenditure in Bolton stood at £4,765,207; it is currently £3,764,658 with expenditure in Stockport libraries, at £4,858,178 last year, now standing at a reduced sum of £4,669,940.

Though spending on library stock in Manchester fell by around 20% between 2010 and 2013, Councillor Battle believes an investment in the future of libraries is still important.

Part of this is the burgeoning popularity of e-readers and e-libraries. Libraries in Manchester have one of the highest national usage figures for online referencing services and have issued more than 47,000 e-books since June 2010, highlighting the radical changes taking place in the libraries thought to be stuck in the past.

Changes like this ensure the sustained, if rehabilitated, existence of the library, and Councillor Battle is hopeful that keeping up to date with the latest technology will outweigh the cuts imposed from Westminster.

"Libraries will continue to provide a vital community focus where people can relax, learn and socialise.  Despite the budget pressures we have to cope with, we will continue to work with communities and promote schemes which ensure that residents can take advantage of everything their libraries have to offer,” she said.

Yet the further falls in library funding come on top of last year’s revelations by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) that the number of libraries closed last year is up to 201 from 146 between 2010 and 2011 and is expected to rise again this year.

Termed ‘cultural vandalism’ by the likes of Phillip Pullman, Carol Ann Duffy, and Colin Dexter, this would mean that UK library numbers, which fell from 4,612 in 2010 to 4,265 last year, would again suffer.

Yet not all of Greater Manchester’s libraries are struggling. Bury’s library expenditure fell from £3,458,491 in 2009-10, to £3,125,426 in 2011-12. It has, however, risen this year to £3,320,404 (an increase of £194,978).

Similarly visitors to Salford’s libraries have risen from 799,240 in 2008-9 to 1,381,928 this year, despite a funding cut of £511,055 in the same period.

Councillor Jean Stretton, Cabinet Member for Cooperatives and Neighbourhoods at Oldham Council, believes that an integrated service is key to this success. With Oldham’s libraries offering a comprehensive package servicing the literacy, computer, and social skills of school children, they have ensured their still vital presence in the community.

“Last year Oldham Library was the second most visited library in the North West and since 2009 we have opened new facilities at Chadderton, Fitton Hill and Failsworth,” Councillor Stretton told MM.

“Traditional library services remain well used, but we see libraries as much more than ‘book lending buildings’; a modern library service is a valuable community resource and our staff work hard to provide a wide range of services, facilities and information for residents of all ages.

“Due to cuts in Central Government funding the Council now has less money to spend on services but these attendance figures show that our libraries are providing real value for money.”

By and large, cuts to library expenditure looks to be causing much of the damage, but the overwhelming evidence of regressive visitor numbers certainly implies mutual culpability between those with the purse strings and the visitors who are tapering off in many of the county’s libraries.

Since 2008-9 Manchester’s visitor numbers have fallen by 1,408,181, Tameside’s fell from 1,194,352 to 902,889 and visitor numbers have dropped by 171,910 in Bolton in the space of a year.

Even Bury’s libraries, though receiving a funding increase, have seen visitor numbers fall by 52,700 since 2011-12.

Still, there are arguments that, with better funding, more advertising, and regular events that capture the imagination of the wider public, visitor numbers would again reach into the millions.

Brian Hall, President of CILIP, said: “Libraries are part of England’s national heritage bequeathed to us by the Victorians and ours must not be the generation that destroys this heritage.

“The vision of the Victorians has enriched subsequent generations and, refocused and energised, public libraries will continue to be a dynamic and vibrant part of society enriching, challenging and meeting the needs and aspirations of individuals and communities.

“We must all work to ensure that we develop an exciting and innovative public library service which not only serves the information and cultural needs of current people but is equipped to help future generations in their discovery and use of knowledge.”

Ms Swaffield was equally in favour of a reinvigoration for these much maligned but essentially pieces of social architecture.

“Even where they stay open, hours are cut, stock is cut, and professional staffs are cut. This 'hollowing out' has been going on for years. So people get far less from libraries than they should. It's not as simple as 'just' money, but not being starved to death would be a start,” she said.

“What's also needed is some interest from the government. Fantastic work is being done all over the place, including Manchester, but there's no policy, no resources, no action to investigate mass closures, and nothing to help services learn from each other or work together.

“We have been trying for years now to get the government to admit there's a crisis in libraries. The minister appears to do absolutely nothing except make a speech once a year that says libraries are 'thriving'. Do I think these new figures will make them give a damn? No, I don't.”

Objections and hopeful messages such as this, however, appear somewhat stilted when faced with the fact that it is not only government cuts are responsible for this seemingly definitive cessation of the public library as we know it.

The CIPFA annual report highlighted that, in 2007, there were 328.5million visits to public libraries. These figures fell last year by 6.7% to 306.6million visits. The figures above show that Greater Manchester is unfortunately suffering in this respect.

Mr Hall said: “Libraries are about the ‘good’ things of life delivering tangible outcomes in economic regeneration, learning, literacy and health as well as providing opportunities for personal enrichment and fulfilment.

“In a time of recession libraries are needed even more with information for jobseekers, support for the development of new skills and knowledge, and a ‘free’ public space encouraging community cohesion and a wide range of activities: they are beacons of hope for a better future.

“People want and need a public library service and politicians should take note!”

Image courtesy of Steven Harris via Flickr, with thanks.

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