Library book expenditure in decline

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Media captionLibrary book expenditure has dwindled across Scotland since 2012

The purchase of library books has decreased by up to a third in parts of Scotland, according to data obtained by the BBC.

The largest cuts in book expenditure were made in Clackmannanshire, East Lothian, and North Lanarkshire between 2012 and 2014.

The total spending on books decreased by more than £854,000 in this period.

The new figures come in the wake of a warning that councils face up to half a billion pounds of cuts next year.

Local government body Cosla last week said councils were in a "financial straightjacket" and already faced difficult decisions.

The majority of Scotland's libraries are run by councils, although nine are managed by independent companies or charities using council funding.

At a time when councils are looking to make further budget cuts, libraries are often at risk of being on the cutting block by way of closures or shorter operating hours.

And, as Book Week Scotland draws to a close, the data obtained by the BBC - collated from a series of co-ordinated freedom of information requests - reveals overall library book spending is also declining year on year.

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Image caption The purchase of library books has decreased by up to a third in Clackmannanshire, East Lothian, and North Lanarkshire

By 2014/15 the purchasing of new library books decreased by 10% across Scotland to £7.6m.

The largest decrease in spending was the more than £179,000 by CultureNL (a decrease of 41% over three years) which manages public libraries within the North Lanarkshire council area.

Clackmannanshire and East Lothian councils reduced their expenditure by 34% and 33% respectively.

Between 2012 and 2014 the total book stock in Clackmannanshire council's libraries declined by 42% - the average variance in council book stocks was a 7% decrease.

Only a third of Scottish councils, or managing bodies, increased their spending on physical books in the last three years with East Ayrshire council investing the most (a 35% increase).

'In a tailspin'

Trade union Unison released a report in September which raised the concerns and difficulties of staff who are simultaneously being expected to expand services while being in the frontline of cuts.

One contributor said: "Reduction in book purchasing means customers are waiting longer for stock and so are prone to purchase the item themselves.

Another added: "The public are noticing the budget cuts more each year, asking why they pay their council tax when services are being cut so severely".

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Image caption Unison secretary Gray Allan warns of the knock-on effects of cutting library book funding

Gray Allan, secretary of the Falkirk council branch of Unison, warned that the impact of reduced book funds would not be immediate.

He said: "When you start to reduce your book fund, what tends to happen is that the popular material doesn't get cut…and you're also not buying as many copies of the popular material.

"So over time, the stock degrades and the depth of the stock you're carrying narrows, and the cleanliness of the stock reduces.

"Over time stock deteriorates, it becomes less attractive and you end up in a tailspin with less customers with less interest in material".

He added: "It's always frustrating when you can't help your customers…when the stock isn't there, and the stock's reduced, you can't deliver [a public service] in the same way".

Behavioural changes

But a Scottish Library and Information Council (Slic) report published in June 2015 stated that libraries are in a period of transition.

Slic was asked by Cosla to develop a national strategy for public libraries as public services faced continued financial pressures.

The resulting report not only laid out a five-year plan to develop Scotland's public libraries amidst financial constraints, but also how libraries could innovate to deal with a change in user behaviour and how library-goers consume information.

The report claimed that while book lending in public libraries had dropped by more than 20% in four years, eBook loans were increasing.

And while library spaces still offer a book-lending service, the report stated that they were increasingly used to host a wide range of cultural activities ranging from concerts and films, writing groups and author visits, to performances and exhibitions.

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Image caption Libraries offer an array of digital services in addition to traditional book-lending

A spokesman for CultureNL said: "Due to the changing market in DVD and console games where downloads are now becoming more popular, the income previously derived from those items has significantly reduced.

"Allied also to our introduction of customer-friendly online services, such as the ability to renew books, we have seen fines income drop too.

"Any shortfall in income requires to be balanced by a reduction in expenditure".

CultureNL also said it had invested £23,000 in its eBook services since 2014.

A Clackmannanshire Council spokesman said: "Like all councils, we are having to take difficult choices to balance our budget and ensure that essential services are delivered.

"There has been a significant channel shift in what customers expect and want from public libraries...and our libraries now provide facilities like internet access, digital resources such as eBooks and eMagazines and local events."

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Image caption East Lothian Council said it is now investing more in eBooks than traditional physical stock

An East Lothian spokesman added: "We have sufficient stock to continue to provide a wide range of reading materials to our readers and we are increasing what is available in terms of eResources, so we are not aware of any negative effects [related to a decrease in expenditure]".

Despite the purchase of fewer books, the council said that not only had the numbers of people borrowing books declined, but that it had increased its spending on eAudiobooks and eBooks by 21% over the last two years.

The council added that funding from 2011 was bolstered by Heritage Lottery funding to build the new John Gray Centre for which £160,000 was allocated to purchase new stock.

However, despite the claim that user behaviour is evolving, an Audit Scotland report from 2005 shows that, even a decade ago, councils were failing to meet Cosla targets.

The report, prepared for the Accounts Commission, stated: "Councils have failed to meet the national targets for additions to lending stock every year since the targets were established in 1995.

"In 2003/04, for the 30 councils reporting reliable information (excluding City of Edinburgh and Shetland Islands), adult stock additions fell to 66.2% of the target."

Cuts or savings?

Jamie McIvor, BBC Scotland Education correspondent

In the debate on public spending, one man's cut is another man's efficiency saving.

Councils are responsible for the library service in Scotland - most run the service directly themselves though some have passed their services on to arm's length bodies such as the charitable body Glasgow Life.

The actual statutory obligations on councils to provide a library service are vague. They do not, for example, require a certain amount of money to be spent or a certain number to be open.

When councils look at actually shutting libraries though, big rows can erupt. Fife Council is currently facing protests over a plan to shut 16 libraries.

But spending on books in libraries is, perhaps, a more subtle issue.

A cut in spending one year, may go almost unnoticed by the public. The problem can be what this leads to over time. Some books decay in condition or become out of date while a lack of new books may, over a few years, become apparent. That could be called a stealth cut.

On the other hand, there is the question of value for money and what the public now wants from the library service.

Might channelling resources into fewer, better libraries actually lead to a more efficient and cost-effective service? One which the public may actually prefer.

And are traditional books the be all and end all of a library? Some are now also buying e-books which, naturally, some customers find more convenient.

Against all this, libraries are about more than lending books. Libraries can have a social function too.

If a library in a small community faces closure, it can be seen as a blow to the community itself - even by people who rarely use it but appreciate the fact it is there. A visit from a mobile library may not balance out the loss of a full-time local service. Rural councils are all too aware that the option of centralisation may not always be realistic.

Libraries can also play a role tackling social exclusion - for instance helping provide internet access to those who do not have it at home. This can be a vital tool in education or in helping the unemployed find jobs. It can be argued that centralising this service, can hit the most vulnerable.

Ultimately though all debates like this boil down to a key argument. How much are you prepared to pay for local services? And if you don't believe that councils should have more money, what should be cut to protect or enhance something else?

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