Geographical Analysis of Proposed Library Closures in Sheffield

Sheffield City Council are currently reviewing its provision of the library service with the goal of reducing the number of libraries to 11 (with the option for a small number of additional community-run libraries) — instead of the current 29 — in light of the latest round of budget savings required. The geographical analysis I’ve carried out suggests that the proposed provision is reasonably equal, but not necessarily equitable, and therefore fair. To make the provision fairer, I think more libraries need to remain open in the east and centre of the city because fewer people have the resources to easily travel to their nearest library.

Current Library Provision

Currently there are 29 libraries in Sheffield – including a central library and a library at Weston Park Hospital – and a mobile library service (see https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/all-libraries.html). Below is a map of the Sheffield City Council authority area with the 29 current libraries marked as a red square. The map also includes the road network for reference. The libraries are based on postcodes provided by Sheffield City Council and converted to co-ordinates for plotting. Because postcodes are not precise points, there might be a small difference between where the library is marked and its actual location, although this difference should be quite small, especially at larger scales (sources: UK Data Service Census boundary data; Sheffield City Council list of all libraries; postcode conversion with Geoconvert; Open Street Map).

Location of libraries in Sheffield

Location of libraries in Sheffield (indicated with a red square), with outline of Sheffield City Council administrative boundary and road network.

Analysing the Current Provision

The following figure shows the same information, but Voronoi polygons have been added to the map. Voronoi polygons are created from the library location information, and are essentially used to show:

  • Which library is the closest for a given location.
  • The size of the area each library serves, with larger areas indicating people need to travel further to their local library.

(Sources: UK Data Service Census boundary data; Sheffield City Council list of all libraries; postcode conversion with Geoconvert; Open Street Map).

Libraries (shown as red square) with Voronoi polygons

Libraries (shown as red square) with Voronoi polygons overlaid for location analysis.

Currently there is a concentration of libraries in areas of central and west Sheffield, probably located to meet demand. Within these areas, most residents are less than a kilometre from their nearest library, and certainly no farther than two kilometres, making a trip to the library within walking distance for many.

Conversely, in areas more remote from the city centre, and to the east of Sheffield, many residents need to make greater journeys. In city centre regions to the east, this can be approximately two kilometres. Since this is a greater distance and fewer people have cars in these areas than residents in the west of Sheffield, there is a strong case for suggesting the current library provision is inequitable.

 Review and Consultation of the Library Service

Sheffield City Council are reviewing their provision of libraries because:

  • The way people use library services in Sheffield is changing. The introduction of new technology has brought in new customers and a demand for new services, whilst at the same time we are experiencing a decline in book borrowing
  • We need to have an affordable library service within budget
  • There are fewer people using our libraries and mobile library services

(quoted from https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/library-review/Background-Information.html)

In particular, Sheffield City Council need to make significant budget savings in the next few years:

These proposals [to close some libraries] are part of the overall plan for how Sheffield City Council uses its resources. We have a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service and also to have a balanced budget.

We cannot afford to provide the same level of financial support for the libraries as we have in the past.  We need to make a saving in the library budget of £1.669 million for 2014/15 and 2015/16.

(Quoted from https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/library-review/Background-Information.html)

Sheffield City Council’s Proposals

The proposals are currently to:

  • Keep the following libraries open and staffed by Sheffield City Council personnel:
    • Central
    • Chapeltown
    • Crystal Peaks
    • Darnall
    • Ecclesall
    • Firth Park
    • Highfield
    • Hillsborough
    • Manor
    • Parson Cross
    • Stocksbridge
    • Woodseats
  • Fund running costs (but not staff costs) for up to five community-led libraries.
  • Keep the home library service.
  • Close the mobile library service.

Analysis of Current Proposals

Based on the proposals above, the following map shows the locations of the 11 libraries which are currently planned to remain open, again with the Sheffield City Council administrative boundary outline, the road network, and a new set of Voronoi polygons (sources: UK Data Service Census boundary data; Sheffield City Council list of all libraries; postcode conversion with Geoconvert; Open Street Map).

Libraries surviving under current proposals with Voronoi polygons overlaid

Libraries surviving under current proposals with Voronoi polygons overlaid

From a practical point of view, the resulting Voronoi polygons are similar in size, suggesting the distance any resident will need to travel to visit their nearest library will be similar to any other resident. The exceptions are the two central areas, but one of these libraries is the central library which arguably provides a service for all residents, complementing their local library.

While the results are fairly equal, they are arguably not equitable. The three libraries to the east of Sheffield serve a local population where a significant proportion of households do not have a car. Residents in these areas tend to have fewer economic resources, for example to use public transport to access their local library. Therefore, although the distance they will need to travel is similar to residents in other areas of Sheffield, the cost and effort required to attend their local library may be significantly greater if they need to use public transport.

The following cartogram shows the proportion of households who do not have access to a car or light van. Areas that have shrunk have a smaller number of households without access to a vehicle (suggesting a smaller problem of access), while areas that have expanded show a larger number of households without access to a car or van (suggesting a greater problem of access). Sources: UK Data Service Census boundary data; UK Data Service Aggregate Census data; cartogram creation with Scapetoad.

Cartogram showing the number of households without access to a car or van (larger areas show larger numbers of households without a car or van; smaller areas have smaller numbers of households without a car or van)

Cartogram showing the number of households without access to a car or van (larger areas show larger numbers of households without a car or van; smaller areas have smaller numbers of households without a car or van)

Many of the larger wards (i.e. those that have expanded) are concentrated in east and central Sheffield. Assuming the closures of many of the libraries goes ahead as planned, I would argue that there should be greater provision of libraries in the east and centre of Sheffield. Based on the assumption that each library costs the same to run and remain open, it would be fairer (i.e. more equitable) to preserve more of the libraries in east and central Sheffield than to go ahead with the proposal as it currently stands.

So, What?

I believe the planned changes to the library provision will not be equitable. That is because the people with greatest difficultly accessing their local library will now need to travel a similar distance to other residents, but have fewer resources to do so (i.e. a car or van, or money for public transport).

I recognise, though, that it’s easy to critique but that’s not necessarily helpful. So, what would my suggestions be? In order of preference:

  • Do not close any libraries. I am ideologically opposed to the closure of libraries since they are important local hubs for people to meet, build friendships and support networks, and participate in their area. This is important for individual social capital and well-being, as well as the resources in the local area. Libraries also represent our commitment to the free and open exchange and development of knowledge.
  • Close fewer libraries than currently proposed. In particular, I would suggest that the libraries around the outer areas of Sheffield should remain open. I would also ensure the libraries in the east of Sheffield are kept open. There is some duplication in centre and west Sheffield, so if these were closed it might have a smaller effect on geographical distance to the nearest library.
  • If all but 11 libraries need to be closed, the proposals should be tweaked. In particular, I would prefer to see more libraries in east Sheffield survive, possibly at the expense of other libraries in west and central Sheffield.

What You Can Do?

If you would like to support your local library, there are a number of online petitions that can be signed and Sheffield City Council is running a public consultation until Friday 10 January 2014. I would strongly urge you to complete both.

Update 13/1/14

I passed on a summary of this analysis through a contact at Sheffield City Council to the Executive Director of Neighbourhoods and Community Care, from whom I received the following response:

Thank you very much for contacting me. I really appreciate you undertaking this work and sharing it with the Council. I will share your email and contact details with the project team.

Hopefully something useful will come of it, then.

The deadline for sending responses to the consultation has passed. However, I’m sure the petitions are still ongoing if you want to sign one of these.

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