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Crisis in the libraries

3 May 2004

The publication of a damning new report on libraries in the UK has turned the spotlight on to what they are and should be doing. The report, published by the library charity Libri , can be found at It is by Tim Coates, an ex-MD of Waterstone's, well-known in the book trade as a forceful character who does not mince his words.

The report claims that unless radical reform is undertaken immediately libraries will die on their feet and could have mostly ceased to exist in just fifteen years' time. Coates says that there are four statistics which show how rapidly the situation is deteriorating:

  • The number of library users has fallen by 21%.
  • The number of books borrowed has fallen by 35%.
  • The national cost of the service has risen by 39%
  • Spending on books has fallen to just 9% of total expenditure.

The report states that what the public wants is longer opening hours and a better range of stock, including the books they actually want to borrow. Spending on books and reading materials should be trebled. £200M a year could be found from big cuts in administration, including overhauling outdated management and stiflingly expensive supply train processes, which make it extremely expensive to add a book to stock.

Coates has exposed a depressing reality: the library service, once a model of its kind staffed by dedicated professionals, has lost its way. As readers have become more affluent they have deserted the library shelves and bought the books they want to read, rather than trying, often without much luck, to borrow them. But the libraries have also been focused on developing a wider role as resource centres, and it is the book holdings, the central reason for the libraries' existence, which have suffered. We can only hope that this report will cause sufficient alarm for the problem to be taken seriously and a major reform to be put in hand, before it is too late.