Can public relations save our libraries?
About the author
Bridget Slee prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
The use of public libraries in the UK has declined in recent years. Why? The Covid-19 global pandemic, developments in new technology and local government budget cuts are likely contributing factors.
But do we want to see our libraries disappear? They’re part of our heritage. They’re centres for inspiration, discovery, and education. They bring communities together, and more recently they’re being considered as ‘warm banks’ to provide shelter for those struggling with rising energy costs.
What can we do to turn this decline around? Could public relations be the starting point?
What is happening to our libraries?
In January 2019 the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) confirmed that the number of public library branches “continues to drop”[i]. Later that year the Independent reported that nearly 800 public libraries closed between 2010 and 2019[ii]. At that time there were 3,583 libraries open in the UK, 773 fewer than 2010.
In March 2020 Covid-19 hit the UK. Temporary closures, social distancing measures and staff shortages had a detrimental impact on library use.
In 2021 the number of in-person visits to public libraries in the UK plummeted by 159m[iii].
But Covid-19 is not our public libraries’ only nemesis. The CIPFA has revealed that spending on libraries in Great Britain dropped nearly £20m in 2019/20[iv]. Funding for library services continues to decrease as local authorities with shrinking budgets struggle to maintain underutilised facilities.
Why do we need libraries?
“Libraries change lives for the better. They not only provide access to books and other literature but also help people to help themselves and improve their opportunities, bring people together, and provide practical support and guidance.”[v]
(Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Corporate report – Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021.)
Local authorities have a statutory duty ‘to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’ (Public Libraries and Museums Act, 1964). But why?
Libraries can create a variety of positive outcomes for individuals. They lay the foundations for broader prospects and brighter futures by improving literacy, instilling a passion for reading, building academic confidence and inspiring self-belief.
In a 2015 online poll 90% of respondents in England said they felt their library service should be protected[vi] and in 2017 three quarters of respondents to a UK survey said that public libraries are important to their community[vii].
Libraries’ unique offer providing free access to books, magazines, Wi-Fi, computers and more, is arguably of increased value as the nation grapples with the current cost of living crisis.
Alongside this offer libraries also bring people together and accommodate community groups throughout the country.
They are catalysts of many broader community benefits too, like increasing footfall, supporting the maintenance of historic buildings, improving the aesthetic appeal of high streets, enhancing employability, and developing the local workforce.
In some areas they’re now being considered as ‘warm banks’. The rising cost of living and surging fuel prices mean many households could struggle to heat their homes this winter. Independent charity Libraries Connected recently outlined how nearly 60% of library leaders “are actively considering taking part in a ‘warm bank’ scheme”[viii] to provide shelter and warmth to anyone unable to sufficiently heat their home.
What are the reasons for libraries’ downfall?
The most dramatic and tangible impact on library use is the Covid-19 global pandemic. Earlier this year CIPFA’s CEO confirmed that “physical visits have dropped due to Covid-19 restrictions and the closure of library facilities”[ix].
A recent study exploring the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on the UK’s public libraries found “65% of UK library services saw a reduction in physical loans of between 70% and 90% of pre-pandemic borrowing levels”.[x] This dataset also indicates that active library membership has dropped to 40% of pre-pandemic levels.
However, library use was in decline long before the global pandemic. Statistics from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirm that in 2019/20 34% of respondents reported having used a public library service in the last 12 months, compared to 48% in 2005/6. [xi]
To truly understand and address these long-term changes, we need to consider other factors that predate the pandemic.
New technologies such as e-readers and audio books have grown in popularity since their introduction to mainstream society nearly twenty years ago. As reported by the Guardian, audiobook sales in the UK increased by 43% in 2018 and the digital book market rose by 4.6% that year.[xii]
Another important factor to consider is the investment in, and management of, our libraries. Local authority spending on library services in the UK continues to drop. In a 2020 report Tim Coates, a former Waterstones CEO, suggests that falls in the use of public libraries “are not initially a direct consequence of levels of funding, but rather that they are the public response to how the service is presented”.[xiii] The report presents CIPFA data to evidence a 48% decline in the issuing of books from libraries in England over a ten-year period.
The report indicates that libraries are on a downward spiral; a reduction in quality leading to less users, leading to further reduction in quality, and so on. It proposes that insufficient demand is often used as a justifiable reason to close branches.
Coates describes the public library service in England as in a ‘dire state’, he suggests that “falling library use is an indication that a public library is not responding effectively to local need” and recommends several areas for improvement, including persuading political masters to take action.
Can public relations help to save our libraries?
“Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour.”[xiv]
(Chartered Institute of Public Relations)
Some events, such as a global pandemic, are evidently out of our control. But given the library service’s decline predates Covid-19, can we address the other contributing factors?
At national and local levels, the service must engage with their stakeholders to influence their opinion or behaviour and encourage greater support. To truly engage with stakeholders on the issue of declining library use these three conditions should be satisfied (Grunig et al, 1984)[xv]:
- they recognise that a problem exists
- there are no real constraints to their taking action, and
- they are personally and emotionally involved and affected.
The service must increase library use to secure more finding, and vice versa. Successfully engaging key stakeholders such as politicians, media, publics, and employees, could initiate this use-funding cycle. For example, community engagement helps to promote the service. But engagement can also drive transformation by providing insight into customer need. Service improvements brought by community engagement make great news stories. With effective public relations this could inspire key stakeholders, such as politicians, to lobby for more funding. Additional investment financing further improvements, and so on.
Developing a strong core narrative is also imperative. “Narrative mediates human experience enabling thoughts, attitudes, values and meaning to be expressed through communications.” (Theaker and Yaxley, 2017)[xvi]. An important aspect of that narrative for the library service is its proven public support. The service should showcase this support through compelling storytelling. According to Professor of Public Relations Michael L. Kent[xvii] stories have the power to inform, persuade, elicit emotional responses and build support; these attributes are conducive to influencing stakeholder opinions and behaviours.
New technologies may appear to be driving customers away, but if embraced they could draw new users.
The service should demonstrate how its resources complement the offer that new technologies bring. Internet search engines are a great tool for researchers, but libraries can provide access to free data and information not available through a web search. The narrative should expose these favourable attributes.
Another important stakeholder is the workforce, particularly librarians. They are integral to understanding the needs of the community and delivering a quality service that meets those needs. They must engage with their communities, embrace change, and support new ways of working. With effective employee engagement local authorities can support librarians through these challenges.
According to government guidance[xviii] the service must meet the needs of local library users; this is only possible when we know what those needs are. This is further validated by the recent appointment of Baroness Elizabeth Sanderson to develop a strategy that “establishes ways in which libraries can improve to meet the needs of people in their area”[xix].
“Effective public relations starts with listening”[xx] (Cutlip et al, 2000). Continually seeking the views of our communities is essential to delivering a successful service. The UK is diverse and ever changing, the local offer should reflect this. Listening to the public will help local authorities to design and deliver services that meet their needs, and help communities to feel engaged with and connected to the service.
It’s not too late to save our public libraries, and public relations could help us do just that.
Through community engagement driving service improvements, creating more users, good news stories, influencing powerful stakeholders, lobbying for future funding, investment leading to further improvements, more users, and so on. Could this cycle help to reverse the decline in library use?
The service has many positive attributes for a strong core narrative. They must share that narrative through effective storytelling to impact their stakeholders’ emotions and behaviours.
As local government officers we can support our library service to embed this cycle. With our help the service can secure its future for generations to come.
[i] Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. 2019. Libraries tell us a tale on the transformation of local government, URL: https://www.cipfa.org/cipfa-thinks/articles/libraries-tell-us-a-tale-on-the-transformation-of-local-government [Accessed 8 September 2022]
[ii] Busby, E. 2019. The Independent. Nearly 800 public libraries closed since austerity launched in 2010, URL: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/library-closure-austerity-funding-cuts-conservative-government-a9235561.html [Accessed: 8 September 2022]
[iii] The Guardian. 2022. Library use plummeted in 2021, but e-visits showed 18% rise during lockdown, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/feb/10/library-use-plummeted-in-2021-but-e-visits-showed-18-rise-during-lockdown [Accessed: 28 September 2022]
[iv] Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. 2020. Spend on British libraries drops by nearly £20m, URL: https://www.cipfa.org/about-cipfa/press-office/latest-press-releases/spend-on-british-libraries-drops-by-nearly-20m [Accessed 8 September 2022]
[v] Wilson, R. and Stephens, I. 2018. Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021, URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/libraries-deliver-ambition-for-public-libraries-in-england-2016-to-2021/libraries-deliver-ambition-for-public-libraries-in-england-2016-to-2021 [Accessed 8 September 2022]
[vi] Department for Digital Culture, Media & Sport. Libraries Taskforce. Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021, URL: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573920/Summary_brochure__see_details_about_printing_.pdf [Accessed: 29 September 2022]
[vii] Peachey, J.P. 2017. Carnegie UK Trust. Shining a light – Data Booklet, URL: https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/shining-light-data-booklet/ [Accessed 29 September 2022]
[viii] Libraries Connected. 2022. Cost-of-living crisis: how libraries plan to support the vulnerable this winter, URL: https://www.librariesconnected.org.uk/news/cost-living-crisis-how-libraries-plan-support-vulnerable-winter [Accessed 06 October 2022]
[ix] Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. 2022. CIPFA comment: UK library income drops by almost £20m, URL: https://www.cipfa.org/about-cipfa/press-office/latest-press-releases/cipfa-comment-uk-library-income-drops-by-almost-20m [Accessed 29 September 2022]
[x] McMenemy, D. Robinson, E. and Ruthven, I. 2022. The Impact of COVID-19 Lockdowns on Public Libraries in the UK: Findings from a National Study, Public Library Quarterly, URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01616846.2022.2058860 [Accessed 29 September 2022]
[xi] Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. National Statistics: Libraries – Taking Part Survey 2019/20, URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/taking-part-201920-libraries/libraries-taking-part-survey-201920 [Accessed 29 September 2022]
[xii] The Guardian. 2019. New chapter? UK print book sales fall while audiobooks surge 43%, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/26/new-chapter-uk-print-book-sales-fall-while-audiobooks-surge-43 [Accessed 29 September 2022]
[xiii] Coates, T. 2020. The Freckle Report, 2020. The Freckle Project: firstname.lastname@example.org. pp. 7.
[xv] Grunig, J.E. and Hunt, T. 1984. Managing Public Relations. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
[xvi] Theaker, A and Yaxley, H. 2017. The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit : An Essential Guide to Successful Public Relations Practice: Vol. Second edition. Routledge.
[xvii] Kent, M.L. 2015. The power of storytelling in public relations: introducing the 20 master plots. Public Relations Review. 41, pp. 480-489.
[xviii] Department for Digital Culture, Media & Sport. 2022. Guidance: Libraries as a statutory service, URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-libraries-as-a-statutory-service/libraries-as-a-statutory-service [Accessed: 06 October 2022]
[xix] Gov.uk Press Release. 2022. Baroness Sanderson to help develop new public libraries strategy, URL; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/baroness-sanderson-to-help-develop-new-public-libraries-strategy [Accessed 13 September 2022]
[xx] Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H. and Broom, G. M. 2000. Effective Public Relations, 8th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.