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Catering for people who read

30 August 2010

Last week saw a flurry of articles about libraries in the UK press, starting with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey's views on libraries and the future, which included proposals to cut costs by giving libraries to communities to run and to run them from pubs and shops. Public libraries have long been at risk, but in the current economic climate they seem absolutely endangered. If the Department for Culture, Media and Sport withdraws their support, many local authorities will find libraries a soft target when they start to make cuts.

There is even some doubt about the DCMS's figures, which claimed that the proportion of adults visiting a library decreased from 48.2% in 2005/06 to 39.4% in 2009/10. This seems like a terrible decline, which could well lead you to think that no-one wants to use libraries. In fact though, as Rachel Cooke has pointed out in the Observer: 'In 1996/7 there were 92.3m books available for lending in the UK; in 2007/8 that figure fell to 75.8m. The result of this is that fewer people borrow books - at some councils the number of book loans to adults has fallen below 2.5 a year - at which point it is very easy for a council to claim a library is poorly used and should be closed down.'

Many library campaigners believe that it is the declining expenditure on book stock which has affected the number of people who use libraries and this certainly makes sense. Most people who use libraries still go to them to borrow books - and why should they bother if they can't find the book they want or may have to wait months for it? Increasing prosperity has also played a part in this, and so has cheaper book prices - it's all too easy for people to buy paperbacks, if they can afford them, and to pass them on to family and friends.

The situation is however slightly more complicated than it at first appears. Children do use the library and the recent National Year of Reading was responsible for a substantial increase in the number of children who have a library card. In contrast to the adult figures, and despite the fact that children's books account for only 1.6% of councils' library spend, visits among children aged 11-15 stayed pretty much the same over the five years, at 71.6%.

Library campaigner Tim Coates told the BBC: 'I believe we will lose between 600 to a 1,000 libraries in the next 12-18 months and that may be only the beginning, we are seeing the destruction of the public library service.' The story has been picked up by the mainstream press who have also reported on Ed Vaizey's library support initiative, which proposes cutting costs by giving libraries to communities to run amid other measures. His ideas are anathema to the library profession and they clearly endanger the service, which needs to be freely available and administered by people who know what they are doing, ie librarians.

Tangled up in the figures, however, are some far more complicated realities. As John Harris has pointed out in the Guardian: 'The DCMS figures suggest that library visitors had dropped 25%. This is nearly true when you look at the drop in respondents to the survey of people saying that they are regular users of the library. But it is nowhere near true if you look at visitor counts in libraries. The 2009 actuals are available and the drop is from 342,168,000 in 2005/06 to 324,991,000 in 2008/09, a drop of 5%. Or put in another light we are still getting over 5 visits for every single member of the UK population.'

As the Good Library Blog put it when commenting on the DCMS report: 'The very same report records that reading is the most popular cultural activity for most people in the country and three quarters of people read, 80% of those every week. So why are libraries unpopular? Because they don't cater for people who read. It's blooming obvious.'