The interior of Battersea library in Wandsworth. There are rows of desks and bookshelves

Library usage in Wandsworth returning to pre-pandemic level

Library usage in Wandsworth is returning to its pre-pandemic level, data from a Freedom of Information request shows. 

In the first ten months of 2022, 1,151,178 items were borrowed from the south west London borough’s libraries, up from 747,524 in 2020 when Covid-19 swept the globe.

This number will rise to 1,381,413 if borrowing rates remain the same for the final two months of the year, a 21% increase from 2021.

The libraries are overseen by social enterprise Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) in collaboration with Wandsworth Council.

Daniel Andrews, GLL’s partnership manager for Wandsworth libraries, said: “It’s really positive news after the difficult years we’ve been through with the pandemic.

“Since then it has mostly been about re-establishing people’s confidence and reintroducing our very popular activities.”

In the last five years, borrowing rates were at their highest during 2018 and 2019, but fell the following year as all libraries were forced to close during the first national lockdown.

Unlike in most areas however, Wandsworth’s libraries remained open continuously after the first lockdown, operating a reduced service with social distancing and safety restrictions in place to help members feel safe. 

Andrews said: “Giving people that continuity and consistency has made it easier for them to keep coming back.”

Membership uptake at Wandsworth’s libraries is also rising again, with 20,679 people joining the service in the first ten months of 2022, up from 11,034 in 2020. 

This is a 37% increase from 2021’s figures, with this year’s membership rates projected to be higher than they have been at any point in the last five years. 

Andrews explained that many of this year’s joiners are returnees who have renewed their membership to the service, with school groups proving ‘really keen’.

He also attributed the rise in new members to the commitment of the staff at Wandsworth’s 12 libraries.

Andrews said: “It is a reflection of the effort we have put into extending our activities programme.

“I would advise anyone who has not been to a library in a while to check out what we have because you might be surprised by the range of things that are available now.”

There has also been a rise in computer usage at the libraries this year, with the 84,703 sessions logged to the end of October over double 2021’s overall total. 

Assuming these rates stay the same in November and December, only 5.7 % less computer sessions will have been booked in 2022 than in 2019, the year before the pandemic. 

While computer usage will be down 52.2% from 2018, Andrews explained this is due to more members opting to use their own devices on the libraries’ free Wi-Fi instead. 

Additional statistics provided by the library service show a projected 269, 616 hours of Wi-Fi will be used by members during the 2022/2023 financial year, up 38.7% from the 2018/2019 term.

Participation from Wandsworth’s libraries in a nationwide scheme set up as a response to the cost of living crisis should cause computer usage to rise.

The Warm Spaces initiative will see the libraries open for longer hours during the winter months, offering members and non-members free food and refreshments along with access to the PC terminals and Wi-Fi.

Councillor Judi Gasser, Cabinet Member for the Environment at Wandsworth Council, said: “Not everyone has the money to access the internet for booking health appointments or doing school work so these facilities are vital.

“We are really trying to push them as community hubs and will be encouraging people to get involved in the activities on offer.

“There’s a lot of isolation after Covid so it’s a nice way of bringing people back together.”

Like all local authorities, Wandsworth stopped collecting library fines during the pandemic, with its cessation running from March 2020 to December 2021.

Since reimposing charges for overdue items, the council has generated significantly less revenue from fines, and is projected to collect over two times less this year than it did in 2019.

In light of the cost of living crisis, the library service is in discussion with Wandsworth Council about altering the fine rates when they are next reviewed.

There were some London authorities which decided against reintroducing library fines following the pandemic, with these including Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Newham and Tower Hamlets.

Wandsworth’s libraries offer a range of free services for residents of all ages.

To find out more, visit this link.

Featured image credit: GLL

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