The number of books being borrowed at Sheffield libraries has fallen by more than one-third since the sites were turned over to volunteers by the council in cutbacks.
New figures have shown a ‘dramatic dip’ in book lending at the city’s 15 volunteer-run libraries - with some of the facilities seeing loans dropping by more than 50 per cent in the past year.
Sheffield Communities Against Library Privatisation say the statistics show the transfer of the sites out of council control has failed.
But the council and the volunteer groups now running the libraries say the figures do not capture all book loans, while there has been a national decrease in the number of books being borrowed from libraries.
Fifteen of the city’s 28 libraries are now run by community groups after the council approved plans in February 2014 to relinquish control of the sites in a cost-cutting move.
The handover of control went ahead in September 2014 after hundreds of volunteers came forward to keep the sites open.
The council has been providing financial support to the community groups, with the current deal ending next year.
A Freedom of Information response to the SCALP group showed that in March 2014, 48,435 books were loaned from the 14 libraries. In March 2015, this figure had fallen to 31,877 – a 34 per cent drop.
There was a similar 36 per cent reduction in recorded book loans between April 2014 and April 2015 - with numbers going from 42,933 to 27,399.
Checkouts from Frecheville library dropped from 2,034 in March 2014 to 1,188 a year later, while at Newfield Green loans fell from 1,658 to just 685 between April 2014 and April 2015.
At Park library, 1,055 were taken out in April 2015 – a 63 per cent drop on the 2,918 book loans recorded the year before.
A spokesperson for SCALP said: “These figures show that moving Sheffield’s libraries from a professionally-run model to a series of volunteer run sites has not maintained the great library service that the city deserves.
“It has had the opposite effect; the number of people borrowing books and using the library for information purposes has plummeted, proving our worst fears correct.
“Worryingly, many other UK local authorities are being taken in by the spin of councils like Sheffield and using the city as a model for destroying their own library services.
“We hope one day that the people Sheffield and the UK will have their first class library and information services restored.”
Bob Mynors, of the Stannington and District Library Group and a member of the volunteer libraries co-ordinating group, challenged the claims of the SCALP group and said the community-run libraries are not failing.
He said reductions in books being borrowed in libraries is a national trend.
Mr Mynors said: “This is a trend that has been happening for many years – it didn’t begin in 2014 when volunteers took over. It is not just in Sheffield, it is national.”
He said local factors included the uncertainty over the future of the libraries, the lack of ability to invest in new books and the community groups having their own systems for lending books which are not recorded on the official figures.
Mr Mynors added: “Volunteers are keeping libraries open, not closing them.
“None of us wanted to be in this situation.
“But if the option was lose your library or do something about it, we have chosen to do something about it.”
He said the volunteer-run libraries now offer activities that weren’t previously available – with Walkley providing sign language lessons, Totley running a community cinema, Stannington having a writers’ group and ongoing efforts being made at Broomhill library to restore the building’s garden after it fell into disrepair.
Mr Mynors said: “The freedom to do that couldn’t have happened in a local authority-led library. It wouldn’t have fitted in anybody’s budget.
“We can do things that are great fun and includes the community.
“Libraries are unique because there is no expectation of you when you go in – you don’t have to spend any money.”
Mr Mynors said he believes there are a number of reasons why borrowing books from libraries across the country is becoming less popular. “You can buy a book in a supermarket very, very cheaply, buy a book in a charity shop very, very cheaply,” he said.
“There are 10 million TV channels, the internet – they are going to compete for people’s time. Books still exist. The end of the book has been predicted many times.”
Mr Mynors said the community-run libraries are still serving their communities.
He said: “Book loans have fallen, the usage of libraries hasn’t.”
Coun Sioned-Mair Richards, cabinet member for neighbourhoods at Sheffield City Council, said: “The figures do not capture all book loans from volunteer run libraries as some also loan out books that have been donated to them, which are not on the council system. The number of book loans is decreasing nationally as is also the case in Sheffield.
“That’s why more libraries are offering an increasing range of services and I absolutely applaud the volunteer-run branches for everything they have done.
“Our libraries are hugely important to the people of Sheffield and books loans are only one measure of their vibrancy.
“Volunteer-run branches are providing groups, events and services their communities want, and I’d like to thank the volunteers who stepped in to run branches and keep them all open.
They, and the council-run libraries, provide a valuable service, which goes much further than books. We’d encourage everyone to visit their local branch and see what’s on offer.”