‘Perfect storm’ for Leeds libraries as visitor numbers plummet

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Library footfall has fallen by nearly a third across Leeds since 2005, an investigation by the YEP can reveal.

The figures, released through Freedom of Information requests, show that there were 2.9 million library visits recorded in the year to March 2016, compared to four million in 2005.

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The news comes after the YEP revealed in September that more than a third of Leeds libraries have closed in the last five years, with funding slashed by more than £1m.

The resulting situation, say campaigners, is inevitable.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Dr Lauren Smith, from the national campaign group Voices for the Library. “There are cuts to budgets, to staff, a lack of ability to take the first step in making strategic decisions.

“It’s almost a race to the bottom for local authorities as to what’s the minimum they can get away with providing.

“Public libraries, first and foremost, came about in the 19th century to provide literacy and access to literature,” she said, adding that it was those in society who were most vulnerable who needed it most.

“We need to get back to the view that libraries are the cornerstone of democracy.”

The figures vary widely across the city.

Footfall at Whinmoor Library has fallen 69 per cent since 2005, and 64 per cent at Seacroft. Visitor numbers to Yeadon Library fell 60 per cent, Oakwood 54 per cent, and Headingley 54 per cent.

Leeds Central Library has fallen six per cent in this time.

It isn’t universal - some have seen a rise. Ardsley figures have nearly doubled and Boston Spa’s have increased 22 per cent.

In the past five years, 19 libraries have closed in Leeds, including Broad Lane, Drighlington, Kirkstall, Methley, and Rawdon, which is now run by volunteers.

While footfall isn’t the best measure of popularity as it is often estimated, Dr Smith says, the figures are in line with expectations.

“When we look at the broader context, of cuts to public services, it makes sense that footfall is falling,” she said. “If opening hours are reduced, funding is reduced, then libraries are less accessible.

“But users of libraries are those most in need. Young children, people on low incomes.

“Not only are libraries less accessible, but people have less capacity to get to their libraries.”

Falling popularity is down to a combination of factors, she said. Yes, there is the increased use of Kindles, and better computer and internet access at home.

But libraries have a bigger role to play, particularly for the more vulnerable members of society.

“We have to look at the broader context of what libraries have traditionally provided,” she said. “Access to education, information, helping people inform themselves and become critical thinkers.

“There’s a lack of value placed on public libraries and a lack of awareness in what value they have for those who most need them.

“But now, more than ever, public libraries can offer the support that people desperately need.”

Technology has moved on significantly in recent years, she said, but libraries have struggled to keep up.

“Although a lot of local libraries brought in electrical options, it’s very hard for them to modernise in the way they want to,” she said.

“In trying to appeal to everybody, it can often mean they are unable to appeal as much to anybody. That reduces the appeal.

“Unfortunately, a lot of it comes down to funding,” she added. “

“Libraries are a valuable resource that we shouldn’t be turning our backs on.”

Police and fire crews were called

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