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'Public libraries are on the verge of extinction'

8 November 2004

Last week a fresh attempt to set new standards in UK library provision was attacked by the library pressure group Libri. As reported in News Review 3 May 2004 Libri’s view is that libraries are in dire straits. Tim Coates, the author of their report Who’s in Charge? thinks that unless drastic changes are made now, libraries as we know them will cease to exist within the next 20 years. Libri has shown that 19 of the largest 20 councils have seen a double-digit decrease in the number of books issued over five years.

Although there has also been a 1% increase in library visitors over the previous year, the trend is 6% down over 6 years. There has also been a continuing decline in book loans. Only 7.5% of library funding is currently spent on books, compared to 14% in 1995. Because so little is spent on replenishing the book stock, increasingly affluent readers are buying books - and passing them on to their friends - rather than borrowing them. Last year’s small increase in library visitors is not related to book-borrowing at all, but to use of the successful People’s Network, a free computer and Internet provision. For most libraries this has been a success, but why does it have to be at the expense of the more traditional book-lending role of the libraries?

Tim Coates says: ‘Public libraries are on the verge of extinction. Action is needed now to halt their decline and renew their role in cultural life.’ His view is that the changes have embodied the wrong direction: ‘The diversification has been a disaster for reading in libraries. No one minds the videos, CDs and DVDs in libraries, but they should not have been brought in at the expense of books and reading. Rather than panicking and bringing in entertainment they knew nothing about yet they thought people wanted, they should have just made the books better.’