The decline of the public library

Libraries are being filled up with drama groups, crèches and slimming clubs, while books are pushed to the margins.

Philip Pettifor

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Are we witnessing the decline of the public library?

Today more than £1.1billion is spent on libraries, but less than 10 per cent of this is spent on books. Employment costs now account for nearly two thirds of total expenditure, and the number of people employed in libraries has increased since 1995 by some 10 per cent.

Over the past 10 years, the number of books available for reference or lending has declined by 10 per cent. This decline in the quality of the book stock has had a predictable effect on the use of libraries. Lending is pretty much in free fall. If current trends continue, libraries will have no books to lend well before the middle of this century.

See data on Library opening hours; Library book stocks; Public lending; Book spend and library costs

If libraries were any normal business, the panic button would have been pressed many years ago. If lapsed library users are asked for their views, market researchers MORI tell us they blame poor book stocks, the shabbiness of library premises, and the fact that libraries are open only at inconvenient times.

Yet it seems that cultural officials aren’t that interested in books nowadays. ‘Books are not everything, and book-borrowing indicators should not be used as the prime measure of how libraries contribute to local and national priorities’, says Professor Mark Hepworth in his foreword to Price Waterhouse Cooper’s report ‘Libraries Impact Project’. Not much room for misunderstanding here: libraries are no longer just about books, they are not even mainly about books, and the performance of public libraries in the way they deal with books should not be the main way we judge their contribution to society.

Today, according to the library establishment, public libraries must deliver on a new social agenda. Libraries are called on to make contributions to the public health agenda, to the agenda for the elderly, to transforming the local environment, to creating safer and stronger communities, and to raising standards in schools. These are extremely valuable agendas, which need addressing – but not necessarily by public libraries. One might better argue that libraries can only fulfil their social obligations if they are delivering adequately on the book-based services for which they were founded.

At the same time as many librarians seem to give up on their book-based responsibilities, there are pressures on local authorities to deliver more services from fewer resources. One increasingly popular strategy is to redefine the library service and develop it as a kind of one-stop shop in the high street for council services, including a job centre, crèche, coffee shop, and other services. These buildings can be safely rebranded as a Discovery Centre, an Idea Store, or a Cultural Centre – some meaningless synthetic label which can over time come to mean anything.

Lyn Brown from the Local Government Association argued that ‘libraries are not any more just a depository of books; they have become village halls’. The Audit Commission and others responsible for setting library standards adopt a similar position. ‘The fact that libraries may now be spending a much lower proportion of their total budgets on books than in the past is not necessarily a cause of concern’, the commission says.

Once libraries were known as the ‘universities of the street corner’. Today libraries have lost any prospect of being universities. They have sunk to the level of the urbanised village hall, where drama groups, crèches, karaoke and slimming clubs are in the ascendant and the book is destined for the skip.

For the last couple of years, Libri, the charity for which I am a spokesman, has been campaigning to reverse the decline in public libraries with some common-sense thinking. Let’s start with having libraries open when most library users can use them – ie, after work and at weekends. Today, there are just 64 libraries in the UK that are open more than 60 hours per week, which amounts to just eight-and-a-half hours a day. It would be great to have libraries where the stock of books is up-to-date, and reflected the needs and wants of the local library user.

Libri’s reports have raised the public profile of the decline of libraries, but so far little concrete action has resulted. Book budgets continue to be cut. Opening hours increase painfully slowly. Book lending continues to decline. Premises continue to be shabby, unwelcoming, dispiriting places.

All that is necessary for public libraries to continue their rapid slide to extinction is that library users do nothing.

Philip Pettifor is a spokesperson for Libri.

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