In 2014, Arts Council England commissioned Simetrica to conduct a study to value the health and wellbeing benefits of public libraries. The two main research aims were: The value of engagement in library services in terms of the impact on people’s overall quality of life and the value to society of the health benefits of library services. This is the first ever valuation to focus on the broad range of services offered by libraries rather than specific functions e.g. book lending. The results were published in March.
The research found that regular library users were prepared to pay an extra £19.51 per year in increased council tax to maintain current library services, whereas non-users of libraries were prepared to pay a £10.31 per year increase in council tax. In total, this means the general public are prepared to pay a combined cost of £723.4million per year in order to maintain current standards.
Now before you start to panic that your council tax will be going up, bear with me. There is a happy ending to this blog post as far as your wallet is concerned.
The survey found that library engagement has a positive effect on health, with a regular library user associated with a 1.4% increase in the likelihood of reporting good general health, which in turn represents potential savings to the NHS through reductions in visits to your GP. The medical cost savings are calculated at £1.32 per person which equates to £27.5million per year (this figure is calculated using exchequer cost savings, all of which are explained in the methodology of the report). This is deemed to be a secondary health benefit by the report and that there are other areas such as social care, education, skills training and employment that may also benefit as a result of library users. At the economic level, combining primary and secondary benefits represents a value of £748.1million.
The important factor here is that if we subtract the £723.4million additional council tax people are willing to pay to maintain libraries in their current state from the £748.1million that will be saved from the NHS due to our improved health and wellbeing, then we are actually saving the government £24.7 million per year. So remember that in April when your council tax goes up while services are being cut.
The results were concluded from an online survey of 2,000 adult library and non-library visitors. Although there isn’t a perfect representative sample figure, any survey boils down to people who can be bothered to fill out the forms and this does impact on findings. For example, the study found that the average income was higher for library users (£30,000) in comparison to non-users (£27,000) though there isn’t a big difference between the two.
I’m suspicious of these figures as I suspect a lot of lower income library users have neither the time nor inclination to partake in such a survey. If my local library is anything to go by (Central Library, Angel Row, Nottingham) then the majority of people simply want access to a computer because they don’t have one at home and must be on a lot lower average wage (if they have one at all).
I don’t think that it is unfair to say that non access to the internet at home, at least in the UK, is a new form of poverty that needs to be addressed. It serves a vital function in both applying for jobs and maintaining contact through social media and email. Needless to say it was deemed by 41% of the survey as the second main reason for visiting a library and is a major reason why libraries still serve a vital role for the community.
Actual figures for library attendance vary dramatically. According to Fisher (2013) 60% of the population use libraries whereas the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2014) place the figure at 35%. I’m not surprised by this discrepancy, and would be cautious of any statistics produced by the government given that this then feeds into policy with regards to funding. What would perhaps be of more use in determining the value of a library would be an ethnographic study which would paint a better picture of the lived experience of users. But this is not meant to be a criticism of this useful survey, rather additional data.
Trust me, I spend a lot of time in libraries and one observation I’d make is the amount of families reading to children in designated areas. Children’s books are expensive and so free access is vital in maintaining literacy levels as well as bonding with parents through reading. But libraries also offer big open reading spaces which gives parents a bit of breathing space, particularly if they come from cramped shared homes.
Dawn of the Unread was created to support libraries through reading but also to see whether libraries could still act a focal point of the community. Nicola Monaghan gave a stark warning in Issue 6 of our comic when a disused library was turned into an illegal rave. Our blog is used for more general conversations around this topic and we are always open to contributors, so please get in contact.
One of my original aims was to prove that our project could increase both membership and the loaning of books but unfortunately this has become impossible as we were unable to link our App with library cards. There were many reasons for this not happening but two in particular stand out: 1) the outsourcing of work in the public sector (library card data) to third parties 2) the inability to work directly with a named individual within the public sector due to constant restructuring. So it is perhaps a good point to end this blog by considering the health and wellbeing of library staff.
Adele Finch is a superb librarian in Northamptonshire who is having to reapply for her job as I write. I met Adele at a School Librarians’ Conference she organised last year and through this met another incredible librarian called Angela Best, who features in Issue 12. Angela used to drive a library bus into the most deprived areas of Nottingham to pick up truanting kids and get them reading. This was an invaluable form of outreach work that no doubt would send ‘health and wellbeing’ benefits through the roof. It was cut in the early 1990s.
Adele, Angela. This blog is for you. Hang on in there.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- The health and wellbeing benefits of libraries report, March 2015, artcouncil.org.uk
- DCMS (2010) Taking part 2013/2014 Quarter 4 Statistical Release. London, UK: Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
- Fisher, B. (2013) Libraries and learning resource centre. London, UK. Routledge.
- Fujiwara, D; Lawton, R; Mourato, S (March 2015) The health and wellbeing of public libraries. Simetrica, Arts Council England.
- Dawn of the Unread at Northampton School Libraries Conference, Sunrise newsletters, cilip.org.uk
- On the Buses, Angela Best and the School Library Bus, dawnoftheunread.com
- Hearts and Minds – Arts Council Library Report, Brian Ashley, artscouncil.org.uk
- Measuring the Value of public libraries, voicesforthelibrary.org.uk
- Economic contributions of libraries, June 2014, artscouncil.org.uk