The importance of libraries

Over the past few years we have witnessed severe cuts in library service budgets resulting in the reduction of services, most notably by closures, shorter opening hours, staff cuts and the replacement of library staff with typically unsustainable and fragmented volunteer-run services. Cuts are often made in the name of austerity measures, yet in austere times libraries are of particular importance to the disadvantaged in our communities.

For many people the word “library” conjures up images of books and not much more. Although books remain a core feature and are beneficial in many more ways than commonly understood, libraries have a much wider and more significant reach than books alone.

With this in mind, in Autumn 2013 we crowd-sourced an A to Z list focusing on the positive impact of libraries [1]. The intention was to use it to highlight the breadth of services available, and celebrate the importance, value and relevance of well-funded and professionally-run public libraries. It is this A to Z that has turned into the illustrated book you are now reading, as well as the related promotional and advocacy material that is freely available for use at . The funding for this book and additional material was raised through a crowd-funding campaign on, suggested and organised by Andrew Walsh. All of the generous backers of the campaign are listed in this book.

Through the Library A to Z we illustrate how well-funded and professionally-run library services can help people transform their lives by providing:

  • Free borrowing of book stock covering an extensive range of subjects, genres and experiences
  • Free access to reference resources, including online subscription services
  • The resources to help people educate themselves
  • IT classes for people who, for example, don’t know how to use a computer, email, or word-processing software, or want to find out about using the internet safely and securely
  • Free access to computers and the internet for everyone, including 17% of the British population who don't have access at home
  • Support for research using online resources as well as print resources that are not available on the internet
  • The opportunity to participate in book groups as a leisure activity, or an activity to support mental health and wellbeing, or rehabilitation
  • Support for reminiscence therapy for people with dementia
  • Further resources to promote well-being, including bibliotherapy
  • Spaces for community activities and development
  • Homework classes for children who need extra support outside school hours and study spaces for children who don’t have a home environment they can work in
  • Children's reading challenges and events, which encourage children to continue to read and develop their literacy skills
  • Support for job seekers via free access to the internet to search for and respond to job applications, and by helping them to improve their employability skills
  • Support to the disadvantaged
  • Support for adult literacy initiatives
  • Support for community involvement through the provision of information about the local area
  • Information for small and new businesses, including research and free access to high cost business information databases
  • Information and support to engage with local and national democratic processes, including helping people understand how government works, and providing people with the facts they need to make informed choices about the decisions they are increasingly asked to make about the running of their public services
  • A gateway to access further local council services in the library or online, including directing people to further council information

UNESCO emphasises the importance of many of these activities by stating in its Public Library Manifesto:

“Freedom, Prosperity and the Development of society and individuals are fundamental human values. They will only be attained through the ability of well-informed citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information.

The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.” [2]

UNESCO also highlights the value of the librarian’s role:

“The librarian is an active intermediary between users and resources. Professional and continuing education of the librarian is indispensable to ensure adequate services.” [2]

The following facts, figures and quotes from policymaker reports evidence the continued relevance and increasing need for professionally-run well-funded library services in the UK.

Library use

The following statistics indicate the continued significant use of library services in the UK. The DCMS Taking Part survey (2013/2014 Quarter 1) published in September 2013 [3] reported that in England, in the 12 months prior to the survey:

  • 36% of adults had used a library
  • 16% of adults had visited a library website

CIPFA 2012-2013 statistics published in December 2013 [4] show the continued high-levels of use of UK public library services:

  • 288 million visits to libraries
  • 42,914 computer terminals in libraries
  • 262.7 million book issues
  • 21.9 million audio-visual material issues

 Literacy and reading

The National Literacy Trust highlighted in their research that 1 in 6 people struggle with literacy; more specifically that their literacy is below the level expected of an 11 year old. [5]

In lower income homes, 14% of children rarely or never read for pleasure. “Just over a quarter of 35,000 children from 188 schools told the National Literacy Trust that they read outside of school.” [6]

The Reading Agency emphasises that literacy has a significant relationship to people's life chances.

“A person with poor literacy is more likely to live in a non-working household, live in overcrowded housing and is less likely to vote. Literacy skills and a love of reading can break this vicious cycle of deprivation and disadvantage." [7]

Libraries are well-positioned to play an important role in improving these figures, through the promotion of literacy and positive reading experiences in local communities, and society as a whole. For babies, children and young people there are baby-bounce, class visits, storytelling sessions, summer reading schemes, and teenage reading groups, including ones specifically focused on Manga and graphic novels, for example. Adults benefit from library groups focused on reading (including specialist groups catering for specific needs), creative writing, self-publishing, as well as reading challenges and author visits, to name just a few of the initiatives. Library staff also visit schools, nurseries, playgroups, prisons and community centres. Outreach is not just crucial in promoting the great work of libraries, and attracting more users, but it can lead to greater community involvement, empowerment and resilience.

Computer and internet use

A common myth that has arisen in recent years is the claim that the internet has made libraries obsolete. However, the multitude of ways in which libraries continue to be used as illustrated in this chapter shows that libraries offer so much more that cannot be provided by a computer with an internet connection. It must also be noted that not every household has internet access.

As previously referred to, The Office for National Statistics reported in 2013 that 4 million households in Great Britain (17%) did not have Internet access. The only way that many people in these situations are able to access the internet for essential services is via free internet access in a public library. [8]

The lack of online access at home also impacts increasingly on children from low income families, who are expected to be able to use the internet for homework purposes. [9]

In the first quarter of 2014 the Office for National Statistics also reported that 6.4 million UK adults (13%) had never used the Internet. [10]

Commenting on the high number of people in the UK without basic computer skills, Martha Lane Fox, the Government’s official digital champion, highlighted the key role libraries could undertake to help improve this situation:

“the government needs to do more: everything matters, from FTSE 100 companies ensuring their workers are skilled to libraries being given the funding to stay open and have computer classes. If we can do this we have a good shot at making a big difference over the next year.”[11]

Economic value

With regard to the impact libraries have upon the economy, the June 2014 Arts Council England evidence review [12] commented:

“…whilst libraries may not ‘turn a profit’ they provide us with many things that support local economies, from information for businesses, to access to essential text books. Libraries have a local presence and may contribute to a sense of place. Then there are the beneficial effects of services accessed in a library whether that be a social reading club, support to quit smoking, or help looking for jobs online. These are the services that ensure effective and financially efficient public spending and enable us to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Further to this the report also comments:

“…evidence is already sufficient to conclude that public libraries provide positive outcomes for people and communities in many areas – far exceeding the traditional perception of libraries as just places from which to borrow books. What the available evidence shows is that public libraries, first and foremost, contribute to long term processes of human capital formation, the maintenance of mental and physical wellbeing, social inclusivity and the cohesion of communities. This is the real economic contribution that public libraries make to the UK. The fact that these processes are long term, that the financial benefits arise downstream from libraries’ activities, that libraries make only a contribution to what are multi-dimensional, complex processes of human and social development, suggests that attempting to derive a realistic and accurate overall monetary valuation for this is akin to the search for the holy grail. What it does show is that measuring libraries’ short term economic impact provides only a very thin, diminished account of their true value.”

What the library users say

National library advocacy group, Voices for the Library, evidence the importance of libraries through the stories from library users shared on their site. [13] Users talk about how public libraries serve their communities, promote health, wellbeing and education in general, and more specifically:

  • Access to online services
  • Addressing the digital divide
  • Business support
  • Children's services
  • Democracy
  • Access for disabled users
  • Employment
  • Equality
  • Free services
  • Inclusion
  • Learning
  • Life skills
  • Literacy
  • Mobile libraries
  • Outreach work
  • Quality of life
  • Reading
  • Social cohesion
  • Social value

Many of the quotes featured in this book are taken from the stories shared on the Voices for the Library website.


Well-funded and professionally-run library services continue to be important and are of particular relevance in the current socioeconomic climate. However, to ensure that they remain so we ask policymakers, councillors and MPs to take note of this information and act on the manifesto recently produced by the Speak Up For Libraries coalition [14], as follows:

  • Acknowledge that libraries provide crucial services, particularly to individuals and communities experiencing hardship
  • Give a commitment to engage with communities to design services that meet their needs and aspirations
  • Ensure library services are properly resourced and staffed
  • A commitment to a service that is publicly funded, managed and run by paid professional staff
  • Recognise that properly funded library services contribute to the health and well-being of communities and complement (but should not replace) the work of other public services

And lobby the Government to:

  • Give libraries a long-term future, with a vision for their future development and clear standards of service
  • Enforce the commitment in law to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. This commitment should also include digital, ICT and e-book services

Gary Green (on behalf of Voices for the Library)



[1] Voices for the Library: Get involved in the Library A to Z

[2] UNESCO Public Library Manifesto

[3] DCMS Taking Part survey (2013/2014 Quarter 1)

[4] CIPFA 2012-2013 Public Library statistics

[5] National Literacy Trust: Literacy - State of the Nation Research Report (2012)

[6] BBC News: Literacy - Fewer children reading in spare time, research suggests (2013)

[7] The Reading Agency: Reading facts (2013)

[8] Statistical bulletin: Internet Access - Households and Individuals (2013)

[9] BBC: Internet gap hits poorer children, campaigners claim (2014)

[10] Statistical Bulletin: Internet Access Quarterly Update Q1 (2014)

[11] Girl Guide: Martha Lane Fox sets out her vision for the future of the digital economy (2013)

[12] Arts Council England: Evidence review of the economic value of libraries (2014)

[13] Voices for the Library

[14] Speak Up For Libraries

Further resources

Public Libraries News

The Guardian: World Book Day – libraries are a lifeline for literacy and social mobility (2014)

The Huddersfield Daily Examiner: Lepton Academic Andrew Walsh hopes illustrated A to Z will put libraries on politicians’ agendas