Libraries on the high street

5 minute read

High Streets are important. In December there was an announcement of £830 million funding for high streets, covering 72 regeneration projects.

High streets are more than simply shopping areas. They are important hubs for communities and play a big role in entertainment, housing and our health – as highlighted by Public Health England’s Healthy High Streets research. They are important for the UK’s economy and for our well-being.

Ordnance Survey

What is a high street? Many streets are called ‘High Street’, but the dictionary describes it as “the main street of a town, where most shops, banks, etc. are”.

Defining high streets

By analysing concentrations of retail buildings alongside streets, Ordnance Survey (OS) defined and mapped Britain’s High Streets.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) use these definitions to develop intelligence. See High streets in Great Britain for analysis, such as employment and population patterns. This helps understand high street changes, and the effect of regeneration projects.

There are 6,136 individual high streets in England. Yet more than one street in a single shopping area can count. For example, Gloucester has four streets leading from the centre, with all 4 counting as high streets. It would be useful to combine these to define single destinations.

Map of the centre of Gloucester with lines plotted for the high streets and a point for Gloucester library
Gloucester centre high streets, and the library a short distance from these. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights 2021.

By grouping high streets within 150 metres of one another, there are 3,131 high street destinations in England. Different clustering options give different results, so there’s no exact number. The rest of this post tries to avoid being deceptively precise.

Libraries and high streets

Venues bringing culture and learning to the high street should be as welcome as retail. It’s refreshing to have a location where you can take a break from shopping, and still have a great time. In 2020 the Arts Council looked into these benefits with Culture on our High Streets.

On behalf of public libraries, Libraries Connected are a part of the Sector Leaders Group which provides insight to the High Streets Task Force. Documents like Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England are key high street resources. Libraries are important to high streets, but there’s little information about their relationship. How many libraries are on a high street? What proportion of high streets have a library?

Much more is possible. Libraries and high streets measure footfall, how do these compare? Do they show similar patterns throughout the day, across the week, and between seasons? For libraries with declining visits, is the same true of the associated high street? National patterns are useful, but there should be detailed exploration at local level, allowing any insight to be shared.

Not all libraries are the same

Taking a step back, libraries are located in different types of areas. Each library will serve a different mix of users who are local residents, shoppers, visitors, etc.

The ONS publish rural/urban classifications for areas in England. These classify locations as rural or urban, with 10 sub-groups. These range from the most urban of ‘Major Conurbation’, to the mega rural ‘Hamlets and Isolated Dwellings in a sparse setting’.

For libraries in England, 75% are in urban areas, with 25% in rural areas. But libraries are present in all the sub-groupings. In comparison, over 90% of high streets are in urban areas. It would be wrong to only consider libraries with reference to high streets and urban life; libraries serve all areas of the country. And that’s not even considering mobile library stops, and other services designed to serve rural populations.

I also looked at library locations alongside deprivation. National measures of deprivation provide information such as income, education, and health. Areas are assigned a multiple deprivation index from 1 to 10. Those with an index of 1 are the most deprived in England, with 10 being the least. Libraries are spread across all these deciles, with close to equal numbers in each. It’s only an overview, but suggests a sector (correctly) focused on equitable service rather than retail strategy.

Data on library locations isn’t good, but could be made better. Current statistics collect counts of libraries, but don’t provide location. The sector-led open data schema project defines shareable formats for library data. This includes a structure for the location and opening hours of libraries. This builds upon previous data collection, and is essential for future insight into libraries.

Libraries on the high street

With OS high street data, and ‘good enough’ data on libraries, I looked at how many libraries are directly on a high street: about 25%.

It’s also worth looking at libraries that are relevant to a high street. The Arts Council report included organisations within a 5 minute walk. That analysis has to be considered carefully; for example a walking distance doesn’t acknowledge different access requirements, and straight-line distances are often deceptive. An astute commenter on Twitter pointed out they visit a library due to it’s convenient location when walking from the high street to the train station. In that situation the library is relevant to the high street by being on a particular route.

But using a 5 minute walking distance, around 65% of libraries are near to a high street. And over half of high street destinations have an associated library.

For extra context I compared this to Waterstones book shops. Almost all were in urban areas, with 75% directly on high streets and almost 100% within a 5 minute walk. It’s hardly breaking news that a high street outlet is found on high streets, but it highlights the difference.

Strategy

Libraries are not retail, and remaining in a variety of locations is a strength.

But for high streets, libraries have a hugely significant presence. Other venues may be exclusively located on high streets, but few with comparable numbers to libraries. Funding and regeneration of high streets needs to consider library activity as essential to attracting visitors. To enable this, libraries should make usage data openly available with the aid of the library open data schemas.

Summary

  1. There are around 3,500 high street destinations in England and 2,500-3,000 libraries.
  2. Libraries in England exist in all rural/urban and deprivation classifications
  3. About 25% of English public libraries are on high streets, with 65% close to high streets.
  4. Over half of high street destinations in England have a library.