Public Libraries

What are Public Libraries?

Public libraries in the UK are collections of books and other informational resources maintained by local authorities for the benefit of the public. Dating back over 150 years, many of the services provided by public libraries are free.

The public library service in the UK is delivered via thousands of local branches, mobile libraries, and other institutions such as old people's homes and youth centres. In two-tier local government areas, the library service is the responsibility of the upper tier (the county council).

However, many fear that the library service is in decline. Between 1993 and 2000, 203 libraries and 29 mobile libraries were closed, with a lack of local authority funding most frequently cited as the reason. Consequently in recent years, considerable effort has been expended to make libraries relevant and useful to more sections of the community, particularly through the use of Information and Communication Technology.

The Coalition government has insisted it is committed to maintaining a high quality library service, but has also said it believes a "radical rethink" is needed on how it is delivered. 


Public libraries began to appear in Britain in the mid-19th Century, in the aftermath of the Public Libraries Act 1850. The Free Library Movement was one of the many groups in the mid-Victorian period working for the "improvement of the public" through education.

The Act followed a period of campaigning led by the Liberal MPs William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton, and the Chartist Edward Edwards - a former bricklayer who had educated himself in the libraries of the Mechanics' Institute.

However, despite a long history of public libraries in Europe, the Movement was widely opposed in Parliament by the Conservatives, who were alarmed by the cost implications of the scheme, and the social transformation it might effect.

In order to get the Bill through Parliament, William Ewart was forced to make a number of compromises: only boroughs with populations of more than 10,000 would be allowed to open libraries; local referendums would be required, with the support of two thirds of ratepayers needed to approve plans; and local rates could be increased by no more than half a penny in the pound to pay for the service - and this money could not be used to buy books. The first free public library was opened in Campfield, Manchester in 1852, and the Act's scope was extended to Scotland and Ireland in 1853.

Although the rate that boroughs could charge for libraries was increased to one penny in 1855, it was not enough for councils to fund new libraries, and as such the growth of libraries was heavily dependent on the donations of philanthropists, such as John Passmore Edwards, Henry Tate and Andrew Carnegie. By 1900, there were 295 public libraries across Britain.

The Public Libraries Act 1919 reformed the old system, taking responsibility for libraries away from the boroughs and giving it to county councils, which would now have the power to establish libraries without a referendum. This, and the abolition of the penny rate under the Act paved the way for the library service to become a truly national service.

The service was put in jeopardy in the 1970s, when many writers threatened to withdraw their works from library collections, in protest at the lack of a satisfactory compensation scheme. The Government responded by passing the Public Lending Right Act 1979, which provided for a centrally-funded scheme to pay writers and artists. This was provided in 2003-2004 by £7.4 million from the Government.

In October 2010 it was announced the total funding for the Public Lending Right (PLR) would be reduced over the Spending Review period, and that in light of the need to find savings in the difficult economic climate, the extension of PLR to audiobooks and e-books would not proceed at that time. It was also announced in January 2011, following an eight week consultation, that the PLR rate would be reduced from 6.29 pence to 6.25 pence.

The library service today is governed by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. The 1964 Act puts upper tier local authorities under a duty to provide a "comprehensive and efficient library service", and puts that work under the superintendence of central government. This is currently the role of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The DCMS published its 'Framework for the Future' in 2003 which set out an 11 point vision for public libraries to aspire to by 2013.

In 1995 the DCMS' predecessor, the Department of National Heritage, set up the Library and Information Commission (LIC) as a national source of expertise - advising government on all issues relating to the library and information sector. This was replaced in 2000, by Resource: The Council for Museums, Libraries and Archives, which in turn changed its name to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in February 2004.

The former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was chair of the MLA for four years from July 2008. In September 2008, two projects run by the MLA - the People's Record and Literature and Story Telling - were granted the London 2012 Inspire mark as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

However, in July 2010, as part of the Coalition government's plans to merge, abolish or streamline public bodies in a bid to drive down costs, it was announced that the MLA would be abolished.  Arts Council England assumed responsibility for supporting and developing public libraries in October 2011 and the MLA finally ceased operations in May 2012.

Responsibility for archives was transferred to the National Archives.


It is widely agreed, by library groups and by local government, that library services have been historically underfunded. Library services are funded out of Revenue Support Grant - that is, local authorities' main general funding stream. Many argue that without ring-fenced funding, libraries will almost always lose out to the "big" spending departments.

This underfunding has led to closures and reductions in opening hours or services in some areas. In 2000, the Library Association warned that only 15 libraries in the whole country were open for 60 or more hours per week, and that cuts frequently came in popular evening and weekend shifts. The rise of "friends of" library groups in recent years has largely been prompted by proposed closures.

Frequently, however, local authorities have defended closures in terms of widening access: it has been argued that many libraries are located in areas that are difficult to access, having been built before many newer housing developments. Many older libraries have also struggled to comply with disability access requirements.

Some libraries have therefore found themselves in a vicious circle of low funding, leading to declining services, leading to diminishing popularity with the public. Studies have shown, moreover, that library users are predominantly middle class, with an "exclusive" atmosphere that puts off working class users. Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to widen the range of books held by libraries to make them more relevant to ethnic minorities and other groups, with some success.

The rise of Information Technology has provided opportunities and challenges for the library service. New media have impinged upon the popularity of books, but successive governments have sought to ensure that libraries make available extensive IT facilities. In 1997, only 5 per cent of libraries had Internet access; by 1999, this had risen to 41 per cent and in 2004, it was 67 per cent.

The Coalition government has encouraged this trend. In July 2010 Culture minister Ed Vaizey, in collaboration with the Society of Chief Librarians, made a 'public library promise' to help Race Online 2012 - the Government's campaign, led by UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox, to ensure that many more people are online by the end of the Olympic year. The library network pledged to help half a million people gain digital skills by the end of 2012.

The proposed closure of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council also attracted controversy. The Government defended the move by claiming this would enable efforts to be focused on front-line, essential services and ensure greater value for money. The Government also insisted that support for museums, libraries and archives would continue.

In September 2012, Arts Council England opened a 'Grants for the arts Libraries fund' which will invest £6 million of National Lottery money in projects delivered by public libraries or library authorities working in partnership with cultural organisations. Public libraries can apply for grants of between £1,000 and £100,000, covering activities lasting up to three years. The fund will run until March 2015.

Also in September, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey launched a review of e-lending in England; the review panel is expected to report back in the New Year.


Individual public library services are delivered by 151 local authorities in England.

There are more than 3,300 public libraries in England, and councils invest £900 million per year in public libraries.

The DCMS sponsors the British Library, the UK’s national deposit library.

Source: DCMS 2012

More than 60% of Britons have a library card.

There are more than 92 million books in UK libraries.

Reading can reduce stress levels by up to 67% and social activities based on reading, such as reading groups, promote well-being, combat isolation, and help bring people closer together in communities.

Books can also help with more serious mental health issues such as dementia. Evidence suggests that reading can reduce the level of dementia by 35%.

Source: Society of Chief Librarians - 2012


“Libraries are places in which people develop a real love of books and can access information, but they are also at the very hearts of their communities. They can be exciting places in which you can encounter music, drama, sculpture, or any kind of art; somewhere that sparks an interest that might just become a real passion.”

Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England - 2012

“Lending e-books and audio downloads is already an important part of the offer for many public libraries and it does offer a great new way for people to access library services through the web and their mobile devices.

“I don’t believe that they will replace printed books or other information sources totally but they will complement and enhance them."

Janene Cox, President of the Society of Chief Librarians, commenting on her appointment as a member of the Government’s e-lending review panel – September 2012.