The decline in books stocked by public libraries may be far worse than official figures indicate, with industry sources claiming that it may be many millions higher than the 25 million books recorded as missing, meaning that the number of books available to borrowers has plummeted by more than 50% since 1996.
Librarians are calling for a national audit to reveal the true extent of the problem, with the news coming as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) sent an open letter to chancellor Philip Hammond calling on him to increase funding for the sector, to protect it from irreparable decline as part of his strategy for economic growth.
Official figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) for library books stood at 52.3 million at the end of 2016, a drop of almost 25 million since 1996. But that number reflects computer records rather than physical stock checks made by librarians. Earlier this week, it emerged that libraries in Suffolk had 10,000 fewer books than listed on its database after an inventory count by librarians. Insiders said similar disparities were likely to be reflected across the 151 library authorities in England and Wales because cutbacks had reduced librariansâ€™ ability to do shelf counts.
Library campaigner and former head of Waterstones Tim Coates said: â€œItâ€™s not just Suffolk that has this problem. This is a national issue, because librarians are not doing enough stock checks because cuts mean they canâ€™t do their job properly.â€ He added that throughout the book industry, it was acknowledged that inventory reviews always revealed there to be fewer books in store than databases suggested.
Cilip chief executive officer Nick Poole agreed with Coates, and said that six years of austerity had left librarians unable to keep track of their book collections as well as in the past. â€œWe need a national audit of whatâ€™s in our libraries,â€ he said. â€œBecause we have had to pursue lots of other activities, we have taken our eye off the ball with books and they are absolutely at the core of what we do and why people use libraries.â€
Poole blamed the problem on swingeing cuts to budgets as a result of austerity measures imposed on local authorities by central government over the past six years. Cutbacks have resulted Â£25m being slashed from library budgets in just the past year. Since 2010, 8,000 librarians have been made redundant across England and Wales â€“ a quarter of the workforce â€“ while the number of libraries has fallen by 340 since 2008.
The level of books stocked by individual libraries has also fallen dramatically. In 1996, the average library stocked 23,000 books, Coates said. â€œSince then we have removed the equivalent of 1,000 public libraries worth of books and the picture may be much worse once audited,â€ he added.
Stock is lost through damage, loss and theft. In the past, books would be automatically replaced, but there is less money available in budgets to buy replacements. In Birmingham, savings of Â£113m imposed on the city council led to book budgets being suspended across its 38 libraries in 2015. Some branches appealed to the public to donate books less than a year old in order to maintain their collections.
The head of one library authority told the Guardian they were confident that Suffolkâ€™s missing stock levels were typical, but there was little money to fill holes. â€œMost stock budgets have gone down on the premise that we can buy more ebooks, but the money is spread thinner because we have to buy electronic copies on top of the paper copy of each title, so we canâ€™t buy the multiple paper copies of books that we used to,â€ she said.
Book budgets have been first in line for cuts because they were less visible to the public, she added. â€œPeople can see when hours are reduced or libraries closed, but stock budgets are not so obvious, so they are easier to cut.â€ Books not being replaced were most often childrenâ€™s books, she said, and self-help books, a genre most likely to be stolen from her library.
Council leaders laid the blame for the destruction of book stock firmly with central government. Ian Stephens, chair of the Local Government Associationâ€™s culture, tourism and sport board, said local authorities were doing everything they could to support libraries, but were â€œstuck between a rock and a hard placeâ€. â€œOn the one hand, demand for social care will create a funding gap of Â£2.6bn by 2020. On the other, councils have experienced a 40% reduction in central government funding over the last parliament alone, and serious funding pressures continue,â€ he told the Guardian.
In his letter shown to the Guardian, Cilipâ€™s Nick Poole called on the chancellor of the exchequer to ring fence library budgets in order to protect them from cash strapped councils trying to shore up frontline services. It also called for investment by central government in the sector in recognition of role libraries play in promoting knowledge, information and data, which, he said, were vital for the economic future of the country.
Describing investment in the library and information sector as a â€œlow-cost, high-impactâ€ way to deliver the governmentâ€™s goals of creating strong growth while maintaining low taxes, Poole wrote: â€œAs a nation, at exactly the moment when we ought to be investing in literacy and skills, we have allowed at least 10% of our public libraries and many of our much-needed school libraries to close while many others have been forced to implement drastic reductions to opening hours and services.â€
Hammond had an opportunity to kick-start Britainâ€™s knowledge economy by being the first UK chancellor to truly invest in our world-class library and information sector, Poole added. He warned: â€œIf you donâ€™t take this opportunity, there is a real risk that your governmentâ€™s aspirations for a global Britain will be built on thin air.â€
The Libraries Taskforce, a government-appointed body, outlined a national strategy to tackle problems faced by libraries in December 2016. A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said ebook and e-magazine stock across the country had increased by more than 50% in the last year and added: â€œThe Libraries Taskforce is committed to working with councils to improve procurement processes.â€