This article has been corrected.
"A figure of 600 library closures is regularly quoted in the media — but it is very wide of the mark. A truer picture of building closures would be about a tenth of that."
Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, 28 July 2012
"[Mr Vaizey] talks about only a few dozen branches being closed. In fact 157 libraries have been reported shut down or handed over to unpaid volunteers since April 2011, and another 225 are currently under threat".
Dan Jarvis MP, Shadow Culture Minister, 30 July 2012
Speaking at The Future for Library Services Conference last Thursday, Mr Vaizey attempted to quash fears that there is an epidemic of public library closures, criticising a "regularly quoted" figure as largely overestimating the extent of the closures.
Snapping back, Mr Jarvis cited further figures which placed the extent of public library closure somewhere between the two extremes.
The 'official' measure
Finding official statistics on library closures isn't possible, as the Earl of Clancarty discovered when he asked the Government in July how many public libraries had closed since the Coalition came into office. The Minister responded at the time:
"Central government do not produce data on the number of public libraries that have been closed or opened each year. Data about the public library sector are published annually by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). Their annual statistics do not provide the number of openings or closures, or the number of libraries that have transferred from the public library service to community-management; but instead show the net figure of public libraries open in each year."
The best available data therefore comes from the CIPFA, who collate annual surveys of local authority operations which are used by the Government to estimate the total number of public libraries open in any one year.
Their most recent statistics from November last year show that, in the 2010-11 financial year, there were 4,579 library 'service points' in the UK, 33 fewer than in 2009-10. The Government's response to the Earl of Clancarty in July set out figures for England alone.
The net fall of 33 in the number of libraries could of course involve any number of openings and closures, so is there any better data?
An alternative measure
Looking at both MP's specific figures, we can trace them to research carried out by Public Libraries News, a campaign group for public libraries.
Between April 2011 and 2012, the group monitored the number of public libraries withdrawn from direct operation by councils, using information they had gathered from news reports. This includes libraries which were closed or are now run by volunteers, a social enterprise or a parish council.
Due to the fact that these figures were gathered through news reports, Public Libraries News acknowledges that the list may be incomplete. However they do source all of their examples, so the figures can be used as an imperfect estimate of library withdrawal.
According to the Public Libraries News figures, since April 2011: 57 'static' libraries (buildings) have closed; 53 'mobile' libraries (based in vehicles) have closed and 46 libraries have been taken over by volunteers, social enterprises or parish councils.
So Mr Vaizey's statement is supported by the figures, as it estimates that only 57 static libraries have closed completely which is close to his 'tenth' of 600 quoted closures.
However, Mr Jarvis is also correct to point out the wider picture of library withdrawals, as Mr Vaizey's statistics do not account for the extra 53 mobile libraries closed, nor the total figure of 157 libraries taken out of direct council control.
The Public Libraries News also provides estimated figures using similar methods on the number of libraries "under threat", in its blog monitoring changes by local authorities to public libraries. A library "under threat" is considered one which the council wishes to become run by volunteers, or "community run".
The blog made clear that, when faced with an uncertain number of libraries threatened in a local council, it assumed the "worst case scenario" and recorded the maximum number of libraries "under threat".
With these limitations in mind, the Public Libraries News estimates a total of 221 static libraries and 36 mobile libraries under threat (or have left council control since the last measurement in April 2012).
Once again, it appears the figures are close to Mr Jarvis' claim that 225 public libraries "are currently under threat", although these only refer to static libraries.
So while all the figures are correct on their own terms, both are based on estimates that may not be comprehensive. So far then, the disparity between the figures of opposing MPs is more down to selective use of the same source rather than conflicting data or poor reporting.
600 libraries closed?
But what about the "regularly quote" "600 building closure" Mr Vaizey dismisses as "very wide off the mark". This seems to largely contradict the information collected so far, so where does it come from?
This surprising figure can be traced to a statement released by the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) in February 2011 in response to the Government's Spending Review in 2010, which proposed to reduce grant funding by 28 percent up to 2014/15.
As there was expected to be a 20 to 30 percent loss of funding for public libraries, CILIP estimated that 20 percent of the 3,043 static libraries would close in the years up to 2014 to 2015. This means, as CILIP told Full Fact, that:
"over 600 libraries in England could close, especially if communities don't come forward to manage libraries".
Comparing this prediction with the estimated reality of public library closures, Mr Vaizey is correct to say that only 10 percent of the 600 estimated static library closures have occurred so far (57 in total).
However, it is worth noting that Mr Vaizley perhaps compares two figures in a slightly misleading light, as it is not made clear that the 600 library closures were a longer-term, four year prediction and not a claim about the number of libraries closed already.
What is more, after contacting CILIP, it was clarified that their original 2011 prediction was a "way of sizing the magnitude of the problem and not based on any direct data". It is therefore not a reliable or up-to-date statistic to use as a solid prediction of the scale of library closure between 2010 and 2014/15.
Both Mr Vaizey and Mr Jarvis correctly quote figures from the Public Libraries News, which, it should be noted, do not provide comprehensive data on library closures.
Mr Vaizey chose to cite only the number of static libraries completely closed, comparing this relatively small number with an out-dated CILIP prediction made in February 2011, concerning the possible scale of library closure upto 2014/15. It is not, therefore, claiming that 600 libraries are already closed or threatened.
Mr Jarvis, for his part, preferred to include the estimated figures for libraries under threat and those which have been withdrawn from local authority control.
This article originally stated that the Government's figures given to the Earl of Clancarty represented a subset of the CIPFA's figures showing 'public libraries'. This was wrong: the figures supplied in the parliamentary answer were actually figures specifically for England rather than the UK as a whole, and were drawn from the same dataset.
Thanks to one diligent reader for pointing this out.