REVEALED: Dramatic fall in book borrowing at Sheffield libraries taken over by volunteers

Book borrowing.
Book borrowing.

The number of books being borrowed from Sheffield libraries has fallen sharply since the sites were turned over to volunteers by the council in a cost-cutting measure.

Figures revealed book lending at the city’s 16 volunteer-run libraries has dropped by more than 50 per cent in total - with one library seeing loans plummet from over 10, 000 per year to just a couple of hundred.

Parson Cross Library.

Parson Cross Library.

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The council stressed the figures do not capture all book loans and pointed out there has been a decline in library visits nationally.

But campaigners today claimed this was evidence that the council's policy to hand over control of some libraries to volunteers has failed.

And they raised concern that some volunteer-run libraries could close unless the council takes them back under their control.

The former site of the Tinsley Library.

The former site of the Tinsley Library.

A librarian who works for a private company said she has many colleagues within the city's libraries who have concern about their future.

She said: "Opening hours are reduced, there is less staff and budgets for new books that people want are being reduced.

"When you factor all that in it is a death by a thousands cuts rather than one. They are essentially marching them towards a slow closure."

She added: "There should be a standard introduced where by if visitor numbers or book borrowing falls below a certain level, then the council should take them back under their control.

Coun Mary Lea.

Coun Mary Lea.

"We need libraries, they have a huge value in communities."

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Another woman who works for a council-run library described the venues as being in a "precarious position" in a "climate where everything is measured in monetary terms."

16 of the city’s 28 libraries are now run by volunteers after the council approved plans in 2014 to relinquish control of the sites in a cost-cutting move aimed at saving £650, 000 a year.

At the time the council agreed grants of up to £262,000 a year for 'associate libraries' - run and maintained by volunteers - and 15 hours of support from council staff per week for 'co-delivered' libraries.

A Freedom of Information response to The Star showed there were 497, 934 books borrowed from the 16 libraries while they were still council-run in the financial year 2013/14.

But since they were taken over by volunteers that figure has dropped by about 57 per cent to 213, 469 for the financial year 2017/18.

In that time Tinsley Library in particular has seen a dramatic fall in figures.

Four years ago 10, 917 books were borrowed but for the most recent 12-month period that figure has dropped to just 252.

Tinsley councillor Zahira Naz said the library was closed as a permanent asset a couple of years ago and re-opened in January 2017 as a "pop-up library" run out of the Tinsley Forum building.

Ms Naz, a trustee of Tinsley Forum, said: "It is sad that the figures are down because there is still a need for a library in the area.

"But it now operates on reduced hours. It used to be open four and a half days a week, but is now only open about three days.

"We also do not have as many books in stock and we used to have about 20 volunteers, but now we have about 10. We really need more volunteers."

Despite the dramatic fall in book borrowing, she remains "confident" that the library will have a future.

Said coun Naz: "The council has given us a grant to refurbish the inside and in the future we hope to have an IT suite up and running and a proper reception area that should bring more people in."

In comparison libraries still under council control have also seen a decrease but this has not been as severe as those run by volunteers.

And some have boasted fairly consistent figures. For example, Parson Cross Library had more than 24, 000 books borrowed in 2013/14 and last year this figure remained almost the same at just over 23, 500.

Sheffield Council stressed that the figures do not represent the whole picture.

The statistics only show books borrowed in council stock and some of the libraries operate their own lending service which are not included in the figures.

The authority also pointed out that nationally book borrowing has fallen and they have introduced a number of measures to encourage reading such as Book Start, the Summer Reading Challenge and events like baby time sessions.

However, the authority rejected calls for volunteer-run libraries to be taken back under authority control.

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Councillor Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure, said: “There is a package of support in place from the council for community libraries so that they remain open.

"There are no plans to bring them back under the council’s control or plans to close any library.”