North West libraries decline 18% in last decade

The reasons behind the decline include changes to people's habits as well significant cuts to library budgets. Credit: PA
  • Article and research by Granada Reports Apprentice Journalist Ajai Singh

Public libraries have faced an 18% decrease in the North West, it has been revealed.

Of 22 local authorities, data shows 17 have lost public libraries between 2011 and 2020, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) said.

Oldham is the only council to have created one, it added.

Lancashire County Council has the biggest decrease in libraries from 86 open 10 hours or more in 2011, to 70 in 2021.

However, the council covers a wider geographical area, as well as working in other council areas.

Public libraries are usually funded by the local authority. 

Julie Bell, Head of Lancashire Libraries and regional member for Libraries Connected, which promotes libraries, says people's habits, issues with expanding a digital offer and funding pressures have led councils to consider closure - despite libraries often being the social hub for many communities.

But, libraries often form a lifeline for many. One retired teacher, who was shielding during Covid lockdowns, says a reading club held on Zoom, became the "social highlight" of her calendar.

Mary Kirrane says the group allowed her to maintain her close knit friendship group - despite lockdown bringing an abrupt end to meeting in person.

A Libraries Connected report, 'Libraries in Lockdown', found that out of all libraries surveyed, 75% were able to deliver online events, with 60% continuing their home library services - books being delivered on people's doorsteps who were clinically vulnerable and shielding.

During the lockdown, more than 50% of libraries reported an increase in their online audience.

A Government spokesperson said: "Local councils have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. 

"They are responsible for managing their own resources, and are accountable to local residents for how they do so.

"The Government has allocated more than £12 billion directly to councils over the past 20 months - with more than £6 billion available to spend as they see fit - recognising that councils are best placed to deal with local issues.

"There will be around £1.6 billion of additional grant in each year of the Spending Review. This increase follows year-on-year real terms increases in local government spending since the 2019 Spending Review.

"The additional funding allows councils to increase their spending on vital public services they provide and will ensure those services, including libraries, can respond effectively to rising demand and cost pressures."

However, the Institute for Government reported that central government grants to local councils were cut by 37% in real-terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20, from £41 billion to £26 billion.

Mary says Covid gave her the opportunity to try new activities such as yoga online which she found beneficial to her mental health.

In 2019/20, the Reading Agency reported that over a third of people aged 65 - 74 visit their local library, with over one in three people aged 75 or over visiting.

Sadly, Age UK found that two million people aged 75 or over live alone, with over a million reporting that they can go over a month without speaking to friends, family or neighbours.

Reasons for this often include: people getting weaker as they get older; leaving the workplace; and deaths leading to an ever diminishing support network.

Libraries are often an opportunity to stop older people from fading into loneliness.

Julie brands loneliness as "one of the biggest ills in today's society."

She added that her libraries provided over 31,000 'Six of the Best Books' for her users - with one older gentleman remarking that it was an important part of his daily routine.

For Mary, it was computers that provided a torch to the darkness of isolation and shielding.

As a result, when Sandra and Marion were told that the libraries were reopening, they were excited to return.

They have been part of the 'Knit and Natter' club at Sale Library for over 10 years - in which they say the nattering takes precedence.

But when they get the time, they help the library with festivities such as Christmas and Easter - knitting Easter ducks and Christmas figures.

For Sandra and Marion, being part of the club allows meaningful friendships and interaction which would otherwise be difficult to access.

Hence, they embraced the reopening of libraries with great excitement.

As life begins to return to normal, Mary is excited to be returning to familiar habits and routines.

She remembers: "It's nice to have a shelf of books to go along and pick this one out and think 'No, not for me.' and then find one you like better.

"That's an experience I've had all my life and I miss that. I'd like to be able to just do that."


An enduring and fondly remembered library service are the services provided to children such as rhymetimes and storytimes.

When libraries largely closed during the lockdowns, these services were transferred online.

Marika and her four year old son, Felix, told Granada Reports about the importance of those times and how online services opened possibilities to continue his development.

Although libraries were largely closed to the wider public, some did remain open for vulnerable people as well as outdoor play areas on library grounds still open for use.

Marika described these as a "sanctuary."

Whilst young children were cut off from forming friendships with children, online storytimes and rhymetimes allowed Felix to help build those social skills, as well expanding his experiences of being able to do activities such as crafting.

Before Covid, Felix and Marika went to Lego clubs at Trafford Libraries.

Often at Lego clubs, children learn to share Lego pieces, cooperate when playing and build their communication skills.

Lee and his three year old son Jonathan regularly attend the Lego Club at Sale Library. Lee hoped that this would make a significant impact on Jonathan's ability to engage with other people.

Esraa, and her nine year old daughter Malika and her three year old son, Selim, moved to their area just before the pandemic.

She explained how she and her children are taking advantage of the opportunities they were "deprived of" for nearly two years.

She feels that they are happier since restrictions eased and that coming to the Lego club helps to develop Selim's fine motor skills.

For Malika, it's a welcome opportunity to simply "have some fun."

The National Literacy Trust found that as a result of lockdowns, children lost an average of 1.3 months of learning.

Charities also estimate that 1.5 million children are at risk of not being able to speak or understand language at an age appropriate level.

In Lancashire, libraries managed to deliver over 58,000 book bags and early reading material to families.

Sadly, Julie added: "That may be the only book of bags that arrives in that house."

Whilst the Government responded that local authorities are responsible for public libraries (which they are), the bigger picture is that the government grants provided to councils to fund libraries and other services have been cut significantly in the last decade.

But although the Government says that there will be extra funding for councils, it is likely that rising demand for services such as social care will take the lion's share - meaning libraries could become a distant priority.

It is clear that libraries can have a significant impact in tackling some of these ills: from keeping older people a full and active part of society; to being a safety net for children and families from less privileged households to have access to equal opportunity; to allow adults a second chance of success.

Libraries often have the infrastructure, space and expertise to make these a reality - right from school to retirement.

For Jonathan, it's an opportunity to develop his communication and interaction skills.

For Mary, Zoom was a significant part of her life when she was shielding - it was a "mystery" to her on how people coped without it.

It shows the 'Universities on every street corner' can be transformational for individuals across our society.