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Libraries still under threat

31 July 2006

It has become a cliché to say that UK libraries, in common with those in many parts of the developed world, are in crisis, but there have been many signs this year that the crisis is deepening. David Lammy, the new Minister for Culture, indicated at first that he would intervene directly to stop library closures. He now seems to have realised the size of the task and pulled back. Across England local authorities are planning to close libraries.

Recent disarray and cuts at the librarians' body CILLIP suggests that there are problems across the board. Finding more money to spend on books, which is what most members of the public look for in a library, seems to have been lost sight of in a wave of politicking for control of the libraries among the library bodies and fights about who is right about the way forward.

As Tim Coates has reported for Libri, the libraries campaigning organisation, the lack of funds to replenish book stock has wreaked terrible damage on libraries. Libri has just published a new report, which says:

'Regrettably we cannot report on any major improvements to the dire situation we reported on last time: book issues continue to decline; costs continue to escalate; value for money is eroding fast. Even the bright spot of a 4% increase in library visitors has failed to stem the decline in book issues. Use of The People's Network (of computers) seems to be almost entirely for email and internet... In addition we have identified a significant trend for senior librarians and library policy makers - the DCMS and the MLA, among others - (wrongly) to no longer see providing books as a prime responsibility.'

There are bright spots. The Love Libraries campaign is successfully transforming the three libraries which are being refurbished and provide a model for how a successful library should be run. But, as critics have pointed out, it doesn't look as if library funders, the local authorities, will be prepared to put the money into this work when elsewhere they are focused on cutting costs by closing branches.

As affluence has increased readers' ability to buy the books they want to read, the libraries' ageing stock has relegated them to a lower level of use for readers, many of whom will only use a library if they have to. Many individual libraries are bucking this trend, attracting in, for example, young people to use the computers and mothers with small children for special family-friendly activities. The library could become a community centre in many towns, but is this really what's going to happen? At present the outcome is looking depressingly inevitable. The libraries appear locked in a downward spiral where ancient book stock and shorter opening hours produce fewer visitors - and thus less justification for the funding which is needed to reverse this very trend.