Sunday, 31 October 2010

Are UK public libraries expensive to run?


Expanding on a previous tweet, in the UK for 2008-09 the cost of public libraries came to a shade under £1.2 billion. This was only slightly up on five years previously; factoring in inflation, library funding actually diminished over that time.

£1.2 billion, then. How does that average out? At approaching 62 million people, less than £20 each per year for every citizen of the UK. What can you get for that?

A starter, verdue and a dessert at Pizza Express. The basic Sky TV package. A fraction of the cost of seeing one Premiership football match. 16 litres of unleaded petrol. 6 or 7 pretentious drinks in Starbucks (it's just coffee). A pair of cinema tickets with drinks and popcorn. Just half of the cost of an adult ticket, on the gate, for Alton Towers. Any of those.

If you're in work or well off, you wouldn't think twice about buying goods at those price levels, so there shouldn't be a quibble about public libraries?

But some politicians and councillors do want to close libraries, as it looks like a savings 'win'. Or, as in the case of a village I lived in, want to move the public library into a shared building with one tenth the space. Which will no doubt make usage figures plummet, giving the councillors an excuse to close it completely in a few years.

Even if savings could be made, the extreme of closing all public libraries will not 'save' the taxpayer that £1.2 billion pounds anyway, as:
  • That's 25,000 less employed people paying tax
  • ...and 25,000 more unemployed people claiming benefits.
  • The knock-on effect to the suppliers of goods and services libraries need, will take a hit
  • will the providers of goods and services bought by those 25,000 library staff
  • ...and author and publisher payments will be down, so less tax to be gained there as well.
  • There's the unquantifiable number of people who use library services to get back into employment, through re-skilling, self-education or finding work. Close libraries and that's more tax gain lost, more people still claiming benefits.

Closing libraries also means people have to pay more for information, knowledge and communication services. That ranges from a person chatting to housebound relatives online, to a senior finding travel and bus information, to someone learning a foreign language to add to their CV, and thousands of little examples in-betweeen. There's no enquiry or reference desk, no staff or librarians to answer those information queries any more. Close public libraries and the costs of information pursuit and communications are shifted directly onto those least able to pay for these things.

You may (selfishly) think "I'm okay Jack. Not my problem. I have a well-paid job and don't need to use these services. Why should I pay for them?" Perhaps you don't use your library ... at the moment. But unless you've been living in a (luxury) cave for the last few years, you will be aware that the jobs of many people - including perhaps your own - are not safe. Your circumstances may change for the worse; they are certainly going to for a lot of people over the next few years. You may find yourself wanting and needing that source of cheap and free services and knowledge to help get you back into employment one day.

So if you think your local library shouldn't be funded because you haven't used it in a while, think of it this way: would you want the government to close your local hospital because you've been healthy for a while?

City Concrete 2/08 (bo43)

Anyway; what does that £1.2 billion pounds of funding allocated to UK public libraries per year compare with? Here's ten things:
  • The UK public spends for just one night of Halloween (£280 million) what would keep the public libraries running for three months.
  • The alleged £6 billion that Vodaphone didn't have to pay in taxes due to a settlement with HMRC; that alone would have funded UK public libraries for five years.
  • Aircraft carriers that will be built and sailed, but won't have aircraft on them (isn't there a Trades Description Act issue here? Oh, never mind). £5 billion plus; enough to keep public libraries going for over four years.
  • The recent cost of reorganising government departments (note: 'reorganising' is not the same as actually 'doing stuff'). £780 million, or public library running costs for eight months.
  • What about taxpayers? Pet food sales in the UK? £2 billion annually to feed rover, tiddles and perkins et al; enough to keep the libraries going for a year and eight months.
  • Getting really obscure, hair conditioner sales. £311 million; over three months of public library funding. And I don't want to even think about how much British people spend on bottled water per year. Especially as, per usual, our MPs demonstrate spectacular ingenuity in spending money on drinking water.
  • Lots of eights. In 2008, the eight largest rail franchises received £800 million in government subsidy; enough to keep public libraries going for eight months.
  • The NHS national programme for IT, run by a civil servant who failed his undergraduate computer studies course, eventually ran up a bill of £12.7 billion and was far from completion when halted. Oopsie! That's enough money spent to run the public libraries for eleven years.
  • Trident? Well, in 2008 it cost twice as much just to keep the existing Trident programme ticking over and operational (in other words: no new missiles or warheads) than it cost to keep the entire UK public library system running.
  • Portcullis House, which provides offices for less than a third of the MPs and their staff, officially cost £234 million (unofficially a lot more as the enquiry report was never released) which would keep public libraries going for nearly three months.

Hmmm, something missing. Oh yes...

  • The 2008 United Kingdom bank rescue package. £500 billion. Enough, at the 2008-09 level, to keep UK public libraries going for another 423 years. Even the bonuses (on top of substantial pay) for the staff in just one arm, of just one of those banks, for just one year, would be enough to keep the UK public library system going for 15 months.

Library of Birmingham - Mecanoo architects

So are UK public libraries expensive to run? No. In context, or in comparison to the costs of lots of other British things, they are astonishingly cheap.

Postscript 1...December 2011.

let's have a quick look at public libraries compared to GDP (gross domestic product) for the UK.

For 2008-09, the cost of public libraries was:


Which may at first sound like a lot, till you look at the GDP for 2009. Different organisations will give you slightly different figures, but they're all in the same ballpark. The IMF puts it, in US dollars, at $2,183,607,000,000 - which at the current exchange rate gives us a family fortune, erm, GDP, of:


Whoa! So public library funding, as a percentage of GDP in 2009, was:


Yes; the UK spend on public libraries was less than one tenth of one percent of GDP.

And that percentage was the high mark. Before 2009, GDP was significantly higher, making the calculated percentage lower. After 2009, library closures and reduced funding also make the calculated percentage lower. The current exchange rate also inflates the percentage somewhat.

So there's a little more perspective. Though the focus of cuts this year has often - suspiciously very often - been on public libraries, the total cost of running them is a ridiculously tiny proportion of the wealth that the UK generates.


Postscript 2...also December 2011.

Not wishing to harp on, dear chaps and chappeses, but £12 billion for just one rail link, to cut the journey time between two cities by 30 minutes? When (nearly) everything else is being savagely cut?

Entering Hyperspace

I thought we were told that the country had no money? Was broke? Was in serious fiscal debt? Was spending more than it generated? And so forth. So where did £12bn come from?

How useful would that £12 billion be if it was directed to something like ... the public library network, at the 2008-09 level of funding.

How long would the £12 billion last for that purpose? If spending started on January 1st 2011, then at that level of funding, it wouldn't run out until 1st March 2021. That's 10 and a sixth years. Which is rather a lot longer than the 30 minutes saved on the train trip...

On a highly related point; shouldn't businesses be using video conferencing and online communications more? By the time the train line is built - and remember there's several existing lines (that also serve more stations) so it's not a priority spend - more businesses should and would be using online forms of communication, making this extra rail option less necessary. And, ironically, one of the places you can get online is... the public library.

Cadi checks her email

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