So this is the time of year when I traditionally look back on the last twelves months and see if I can spot any themes. Ones that stand out to me this year are:

  • Public libraries have bounced back quite a lot this year from Covid, with normal service being resumed in almost all and, crucially, many people coming back to use them. Statistics are far between and contested but it looks like fewer numbers than in 2019 but perhaps in line with other physical retail and the continued decline in usage we’ve seen for over a decade. But thankfully, people are using libraries once more. Phew.
  • Warm Libraries. Public libraries and councils moved fast after Martin Lewis tweeted about the need for “warm banks” as well as “food banks” this winter. Scores of library services registered as welcoming spaces for those who needed heating, with many offering hot drinks and coffee on top of the more traditional library and council services. This will hopefully strengthen the sector in the eyes of budget-holders next year. Libraries, which are neutral, free and more importantly in thousands of local communities, are the ideal thing for stuff like this. So far as I can tell, actual take-up of libraries as refuges was limited but it shows the speed the services can pivot and their utility.
  • Intolerance comes to the UK. Fresh off the well-funded push towards censorship in the USA against anything that doesn’t tie in with conservative beliefs – mainly LGBT and especially anything Trans – we saw a series of vocal and sometimes violent protests against Drag Queen Story Time and, less in the news, more attempts by the public to ban certain titles. These protest letters were often copy and pasted from US or US-influenced webpages. While instances of successful actual censorship were small but not non-existent in the UK, the many protests at the story-times may well have an impact in 2023. We’ll see.
  • Budget cuts were strongly threatened last year but in the end, with some notable local exceptions, did not make a huge impact on services. There are similar worries, possibly with more reason, in 2023.
  • Libraries of Things made an increasing impact, in a couple of incarnations. Tool (and other things0 libraries started in a few branches and, perhaps more interestingly, other things such as coats were starting to be donated and given out as well. The trend towards giving other items, such as feminine hygiene products, increased as did the providing of some novel services, such as sunshine-lights.
  • After what feels like an age, at least the name of the Single Digital Presence – “LibraryOn” – was announced. The job in producing it is being done very thoroughly (just the naming took a significant time) so one hopes it’s going to be worth it when it comes.
  • The continued government distractions meant another one (or was it two or three? Don’t know) ministers in charge of libraries coming and going. They don’t do much anyway – saying nice things but giving very little else. More funding for the sector is evident from Arts Council England, though. The recruitment of an ex Mail journalist as a chair of a new libraries working group made shivers tun down my spine but it’s too early to tell if she’ll go full bold-exclamation-mark when it comes to more serious work. Certainly, though, don’t expect much government funding or hands-on intervention. But do expect increasingly encouragement of volunteers, charities, and anything else that may replace actual proper funding of the sector.

Anyway, wishing you all the best in 2023! Public libraries are stronger now than I had any right to expect when I started these editorials way back in 2010 and this is down to the wonderfulness of them as a concept (and that’s pretty darn brilliant) but also the people who work and fight for them. Thank you. Now on to the next twelve months.


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