The impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on public libraries in the UK : findings from a national study

McMenemy, David and Robinson, Elaine and Ruthven, Ian (2023) The impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on public libraries in the UK : findings from a national study. Public Library Quarterly, 42 (1). pp. 92-110. ISSN 1541-1540 (

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This paper explores how public libraries in the United Kingdom were impacted by the lockdowns imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Freedom of Information requests were made to all UK public library services. The data received indicated that almost 65% of UK library services saw a reduction in physical loans of between 70% and 90% of pre-pandemic borrowing levels. The cumulative data also revealed that almost 120 million books that were issued in pre-pandemic years were not issued in the 2020/21 lockdown period. Meanwhile, 47% of library services saw their e-loan provision rise between 100% and 200% on pre-pandemic levels, although these numbers rose from a low base and were comparatively small when measured against physical loan losses. The data also highlighted that active membership of the public library services (members who had borrowed an item in the previous year) dropped to 40% of pre-pandemic levels across the UK. The evidence highlights that while e-loan provision rose significantly while physical library services were largely unavailable, this rise was from a very low base, and this rise in digital usage did not come close to mitigating the drop in physical borrowing that occurred across the UK. The findings of the paper suggest that even when the public had no choice but to move to digital, they did so in limited numbers when compared to usage of physical library buildings and collections.


McMenemy, David ORCID logoORCID:, Robinson, Elaine ORCID logoORCID: and Ruthven, Ian ORCID logoORCID:;