Libraries In Northern Ireland Are Now So Underfunded That They Can’t Buy Books

Northern Ireland’s library service has said that it does not have sufficient funding to buy new books for its libraries. “Regrettably due to funding constraints, Libraries NI is unable to purchase new books or take requests for new books at present,” says the authority on its “service updates” page.

Libraries will also operate with reduced opening hours. The service said the funding situation is presenting “significant challenges”, and that the board’s decision to reduce operating hours was not taken lightly.

Libraries NI is funded by the Department for Communities (DfC) and oversees 96 branch libraries across Northern Ireland, as well as mobile libraries. A spokesperson told the Guardian that the service is facing a £1.7m shortfall in funding for 2023/24. (While the funding for 2022/23 was £30.7m, the 2023/24 budget is £29m.)

At a meeting in June, chief executive Jim O’Hagan told the board that delivering the “public library standard” for investing in new books would cost £4.3m but that the funding proposed in the DfC budget would allow only £260,000 for book buying. He said this reduction would impact participation levels and reduce the provision of books in large-print and audiobook formats and languages other than English.

O’Hagan added that the negative effects would reach “far beyond libraries”, “causing longterm harm and damage at the intersection of library services with other priority areas such as education, health, social inclusion and societal wellbeing.”

In June, the DfC confirmed there would be a 5% reduction in the budgets of Arm’s-length bodies, including Libraries NI. DfC faced a funding gap of £111.2m (15.5%) for 2023/24, and the department’s permanent secretary Colum Boyle said that “difficult decisions had to be made to live within the funding available”.

Given the constraints, Libraries NI “is only able to cover existing subscriptions, and no new book stock can be purchased”, according to a BBC report. “Existing subscriptions” are understood to be annual subscriptions to newspapers, journals and magazines.

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“Libraries NI staff will continue to engage with the Department for Communities for an adequate level of funding to support the essential work of libraries in communities across Northern Ireland, including for book purchases,” added the authority.

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