Suffolk: Book borrowing declines but county’s libraries start a new chapter
11:44 22 March 2014
Book borrowing from Suffolk’s libraries has fallen by the equivalent of almost 2,000 a day over the past two years, the EADT can disclose.
Richard Fawcett, chairman of the Friends of Thurston Library, explained he enjoyed giving back to the community.
“The library is part of the community which provides a wider concept of learning other than books and computers,” he said. “It is a welcoming place in which people feel comfortable, but has changed from a completely book-use only service. I think we were the first library to have free Wi-fi and e-readers have an extended role with computers.
“But it is a very positive story in terms of libraries in Suffolk. It is certainly the case they play a much bigger role in communities, which is very welcome following the possible picture of library closures.”
But library bosses have united in defence of the “important community hubs”, arguing they play an increasingly vital role in rural areas and provide a positive social and learning experience for families, students and older people.
They insisted Suffolk’s libraries are not under threat, but urged people not to take them for granted.
The backing comes after new findings showed the number of books borrowed from libraries in the county has fallen by around 350,000 in each of the last two years. It dropped from 3,925,216 in 2010/11 to 3,236,652 in 2012/13.
It means that around 10,800 books were loaned out every day in Suffolk three years ago, compared to 8,900 last year – some 1,900 fewer. Average daily visits also fell, from around 9,870 three years ago to 9,250 last year.
The latest research, seen by the EADT, also showed the number of people borrowing books slumped by 22% in the same two-year period, from 127,409 to 99,188.
But Alison Wheeler, general manager of Suffolk Libraries, said that although libraries have had to change a “great deal” in recent years to offer a greater range of services and activities, they are in a “genuinely strong position” than when all 44 of the county’s libraries were transferred from Suffolk County Council control in August 2012.
Suffolk’s libraries are now part of an Industrial and Provident Society, a not-for-profit, independent and charitable organisation set up in August 2012 to run the service.
The deal, the first of its kind in the country, saved 29 branches threatened by proposed cuts. Mrs Wheeler insisted there were no immediate plans to close any branches or cut staff. She insisted the service and opening times of libraries have not been cut despite facing a squeezed budget of £2million less than two years ago.
She explained that while traditional library use is changing, the focus must be placed on the opportunities rather than “doom and gloom”.
She said: “The modern library service is much more than the borrowing of physical books; it’s about older people meeting up together, families learning together, social networking, people using facilities to find employment and study. It has changed a lot from 20, and even 10, years ago.
“We have 44 support groups after winning the battle to keep our libraries. But we must not be complacent. Libraries have got to raise their profile in the community, and we are reaching out even more than before. They cannot be taken for granted.
“We have a huge army of volunteers. They have not replaced paid staff; they augment the service. They are the beating heart of the library experience.”
And while she admitted the target for the number of physical books being loaned is to never dip below the three million mark, she argued there are many more varied measures to gauge the general health of libraries.
She said their “stable situation” is being strengthened with an increasing range of services and activities, with the service being run as “efficiently as possible”.
“We are just as committed to the physical book, and although there could be a wider selection and fewer copies, we have to think about the future.”