All Kent’s 99 libraries are to close their doors today for an indefinite period as part of a range of measures Kent County Council is taking to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Libraries and their relevance to our communities are changing.
Nationwide the numbers of people using libraries for any purpose has fallen. In 20005/06 nearly half the population (48.2%) of the UK used a library for some reason. By the end 2018/19 the percentage had fallen to 33%, according to data published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Public libraries in Kent have had another bad year. They are like churches and local railways. People like having them around, and are angry if they close. But as for using them, well, there is so little time these days.
In 2013/14 the number of visits to all 99 libraries in Kent was 6,101,186. In 2018/19 that number had fallen to 4,662,213. This is a drop of 1,438,973 visits or 24%.
With a fall in the number of visits has come a fall in the number of items borrowed.
In 2013/14 there were 196,159 active borrowers who borrowed 5,670,770 items = Books, CD’s and DVD’s. By 2018/19 that number had fallen to 179,795 active borrowers who borrowed 3,190,859 items. That’s a whopping 44% decrease of items borrowed and a loss of 16,364 active borrowers.
What’s also clear is the number of hours the computers have been used in all 99 Libraries has fallen from 612,918 hours in 2013/14 to 425,217 hours in 18/19, a drop of 31% over six financial years. This is likely due to internet packages getting cheaper as well as mobile phone access taking its toll as well.
Overall costs which include staff wages, rates, rent, maintenance, cleaning, energy, security, IT, Wifi, Self-Service hardware & maintenance annual costs, transport and books has fallen since 2013/14 when they stood at £13,890,900 compared to £11,966,851 in 2018/19, a drop in real terms of 14%.
So how do we change this clear and evident decline in our libraries?
The libraries of Kent must rediscover their specialness. This must lie in exploiting the strength of the post-digital age, the “age of live”. This strength lies not in books as such, but in its readers, in their desire to congregate, share with each other, hear writers and experience books in the context of their community. Beyond the realm of the digital oligarchs, the big money now is in live. It is in plays, concerts, comedy, lectures, debates, gigs, quizzes, performance of every sort. Our local libraries need to become that place of congregation. They should combine coffee shop, book exchange, playgroup, art gallery, museum and performance. They must be the therapist of the mind.
Ever since the days of Alexandria, the library has been the palace of the mind, the University of All, open to all. The internet has removed its monopoly on knowledge, but cannot replicate its sense of place, its joy of human congregation. The Victorian tycoon Andrew Carnegie, first great patron of public libraries in Britain dreamed of one in every town and village. His vision awaits renaissance and you can play your part in it once they open again.
If we and our communities fail to revitalise our libraries, we can see a time not to far in the future when Kent County Council will sell these valuable community assets. When this happens, as we believe it will, we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Are you prepared to allow that to happen?
The Shepwayvox Team
The Velvet Voices of Dissent.