Scotland’s libraries facing ‘slow death’ as borrower numbers plummet

SCOTLAND’S libraries are at risk of dying a “slow death”, with the numbers of books and borrowers plummeting over the last decade.

According to research, in 2011-12 the number of books borrowed was 21,380,156, but by 2018-19, that had fallen to just 14,690,455.

Meanwhile, the percentage of the population registered as a borrower has dropped from 22.72 per cent in 2007-8 to 17.77% in 2018-19

The grim figures,  which have likely declined further since the pandemic, were compiled by Wladyslaw Mejka, the chief executive of the Equality Here Now campaign group.

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His research comes as councils warn that last week’s Budget settlement 
could lead to more libraries closing and library assistants being made redundant.

Across Scotland, the total local government spend on culture and sport services is £570 million – around 4% of all net revenue expenditure.

Ahead of the Budget, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla)  warned that without a significant increase in the settlement for councils there could be 1,400 fewer library assistants or a 40% reduction in library provision.

Cosla said reduced hours were likely, and fewer families would be able to access culture and sport services and facilities nationally.

Councils had asked for £1 billion in the Budget but, according to their initial assessment, local government will see an uplift of only £71m.

Spending on library services had already reduced significantly before the pandemic and before last week’s Budget.

The per capita spend in adding new books to existing stock in 2007-8 was £1.79. By 2011-12 it had dropped to £1.52, and by 2018-19 it had fallen to just £0.92

Fifteen years ago there were 2.1010 books available per head of population, by 2018-19 that had fallen to 1.85 books.

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The declining number of new books is matched by a sharp decrease in the number of items being taken out by readers.

According to the research, borrowers read an average of 25.5415 books a year. This had dropped marginally to 24.7816 in 2011-12 and by 2018-19 had reached 17.59 books.

The highest average number of books borrowed was in Orkney Council, where islanders managed 5.15 books per head. The lowest was in Clackmannanshire, where the ratio was 1.60 per head.

The figures refer only to printed books. Libraries have a number of 
other products including e-books and audiobooks, although the numbers vary widely by council area.

Across Scotland, there were 14,690,455 books borrowed in 2018-19 and 733,429 books in an alternative format.

The need for council-run libraries has never been greater. The Primary School Library Alliance recently reported 25% of primaries in Scotland do not have a designated library area, the highest proportion of the UK’s nations.

On top of that, 48% of UK schools that had no dedicated library space said their pupils’ reading is restricted by limited library resources and availability of books.

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Mr Mejka said the figures he obtained from the councils through freedom of information could see the “slow death of library services in Scotland”.

The Scottish Library and Information Council, the independent advisory body on libraries, declined to comment.

Working with Scottish Book Trust, The Herald is asking you, our readers, to donate money to help buy books for children whose families are using food banks this winter. See to help

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