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Libraries - the fight-back

23 March 2009

Our libraries seem to have been facing inexorable decline. In the boom times people switched from libraries and started buying their books in greater numbers. The free internet access libraries provided proved attractive, particularly to younger library visitors, but became less of a draw as home internet access has become the norm.

The latest news is of cash-strapped councils in the UK, most recently in the Wirral and Swindon, closing large numbers of libraries to make economies. The irony of this is that there is evidence from both the US and the UK that people are turning to libraries in this time of recession. That is when people remember what libraries stand for and what the wide range of free services can offer them.

In the UK library campaigners Tim Coates and Desmond Clarke have fought a long-running battle to prevent the inexorable decline in the proportion of library budgets spent on books. Coates has proved that it is possible to make economies elsewhere and successfully run a library service which spends a much greater percentage of its money on books.

Librarians feel under threat, not just because of the book budget cuts and library closures, but also because this once proud profession, which is full of people who genuinely believe in the importance of what they do, finds itself undergoing death by a thousand cuts, with shorter opening hours, fewer staff and less qualified ones the norm.

But libraries are fighting back. Fiona Marriott at Luton Libraries calculated that the amount a regular borrower of books and CDs can save in a year by borrowing from the library rather than buying is, surprisingly, nearly £1,000 ($1,447) The slogan 'Buy none, get eight free' has been hitting home.

Libraries have re-energised themselves and have done a great deal of excellent work to encourage people to use them. The Reading Agency (TRA), which works to promote libraries' work in the UK, found in 2008 that the number of library reading groups had nearly trebled since 2004, with 100,000 people belonging to 10,000 groups. Last year's National Year of Reading was successful in getting 2.3 million people to join their local library, 2 million more than more than the campaign had expected.

Liz Dubber and Miranda McKearney of TRA write that: 'On the face of it, the latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) statistics about the use of public libraries do not make for very happy reading. Visits to public libraries fell by 2.7% in 2007-08, while issues of books slipped by 2.3%. Loans of books have been declining steadily for well over a decade now.

But despite these falls, there is some cause for optimism. The number of children's books borrowed has risen in each of the last four years; the increase in 2007-08 was modest, but an increase nonetheless.'

There's been a particular success story with children and libraries' programmes for young people have been a notable success: 'There has been an explosion of reading activities - author events, story times, reading groups, challenges, book awards, promotions... In last year's Summer Reading Challenge 690,000 children took part in "Team Read", and 2.8 million books were borrowed as a result.'

So what we see is a mixed picture. Successful big promotions have shown that there is still plenty of life in libraries. People are flocking back to them in this time of recession. But libraries can only do their job if they are funded sufficiently to stay open (with sensible opening hours); have decent book buying budgets to keep their stock up to date and attractive to borrowers; and continue to be staffed by knowledgeable library professionals.

A good public library system is a prerequisite of a civilised society and one to which many developing countries aspire. In this time of economic crisis and huge pressure on local resources, we need to say clearly to local and national government that libraries are a top priority.