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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
Love it or lose it
By Simon Fraser
BBC News

Public libraries are on the verge of extinction warn campaigners. How can they be protected for the future?

Be honest - when did you last use your local library? Do you even know where it is? There is a chance you might find out too late and it'll have closed.

Most of us probably know library usage has been falling for years. But how many realise that a crossroads may be looming for a prized public service - and do we care?

Across the UK more than 100 libraries now face being shut as councils search for savings to ease budget deficits.

"Public libraries are on the verge of extinction and action is needed now to halt their decline," warns campaign website Libri.org.

If the cuts go ahead, campaigners say a network once central to communities will be lost forever - and they are starting to fight back.

Unconvincing

"There is widespread concern that the rationale for closure is unconvincing," says a press release from residents in the Fleetville area of St Albans.

Mother and children in library
Families in Essex enjoying local libraries

They were responding to news that their local branch and another of the city's four libraries have been earmarked to close.

Hertfordshire County Council says Fleetville library does not meet disability access requirements, that there are "catchment overlaps" and that visits and borrowing are low.

"To ascertain which libraries would be proposed for closure a series of tests were carried out against all the libraries in Hertfordshire," director of children, schools and families, John Harris, told local MP Anne Main in a letter in June.

To offset the proposals, the council says it plans major improvements and extended opening in other libraries.

Local residents deny Fleetville library is poorly used and want more regular opening hours.

Little has been done to tailor the service to local needs and many people will find it harder to visit the main library in town, they say. They are to meet the council to advise ways of improving the library after a four-month review was granted.

Long-term cost

Basic lessons from the book retail trade should be learnt, Fleetville residents say.

Jacqueline Wilson
Jacqueline Wilson says libraries helped her to become a writer

Tailored stock, 21st Century opening hours, a stronger service ethic, promotions, community outreach and learning partnerships are all suggestions they plan to put to the council.

The United Kingdom's 3,500 public libraries cost more than £1bn a year. In many cases, shutting a branch saves a few tens of thousands of pounds when councils are millions in debt.

Short-term gain at long-term cost, say supporters who see libraries as having intrinsic value as places of discovery and learning.

"I practically lived in my local library when I was growing up and I'm sure that's why I'm a writer now," says children's laureate Jacqueline Wilson, a prominent supporter of the Love Libraries campaign.

"I think it is such a shame that so many of them are now under threat of closure."

Social benefits

Since Victorian times, public libraries have played a key role in social improvement in Britain for millions of people. Greater literacy affects the types of job people do and their standard of living. Young children who read more are more likely to prosper at school.

School library
Social reformers saw libraries as ways of helping the young

The benefits of extending literacy and knowledge are immeasurable - but times have changed dramatically since the Public Libraries Act of 1850. In today's information age, it seems libraries must adapt or die.

Although library spending has risen nationally for the sixth year in a row, book issues continue to fall - down 40% over the past 10 years. The average consumer price paid for books has also fallen. Surveys show young people largely see public libraries as irrelevant these days.

Despite this, when asked, most people don't want the service to disappear.

Essex County Council found that a majority of respondents thought libraries were a sign of "a civilised, caring, responsible society".

Users and non-users alike said society would lose out if services closed. Essex is trying to transform its library service and wants them to be seen as a "front door" for council and other public services.

Working together

Sixteen branches are now open seven days a week and strong community links are being forged.

"Because of the beneficial contracts we can negotiate with our suppliers and because we manage our processes in a very efficient way, we are able to buy 39% more books and other items than we did in the early 1990s," says libraries manager Michele Jones.

"All we wanted was one reading group per library. We now have 350 across 73 libraries and 43,000 children attended our summer reading activity last year."

Essex has invested in its libraries and borrowing rates remain healthy, she says.

Librarians are having to be more than "gatekeepers" stamping books in order to deliver a dynamic, relevant service these days. They must publicise what's on offer and embrace change.

In Cumbria, officials are talking about setting up "library links" in village shops as a way of avoiding closures.

Library supporters say maintaining adequate book stocks - a library's "core business" however many internet access points it has - is also essential.

Spending on books now accounts for just 9% nationally - while staff costs eat up more than 50%.

Tim Coates, who runs the influential Good Library Blog, says it's really about efficiency, not money - and radical reform could bring huge savings. He says London is a case in point with 330 libraries over 33 boroughs - but no effective co-operation.

"The service in London costs £220m per annum. It should have one website, one library card," he told a parliamentary forum last week. Doing so would eliminate £30-40m a year in "wasted replicated management effort" in London alone, he says.

Officials might dispute his figures - but it's increasingly clear that big ideas are needed if the public library network is to survive.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What an absolutely tragedy it would be if we were to lose public libraries! All the public library services need is an injection of common and business sense, much like the NHS. They provide a service, and like any service provider, should use any available technology to make their service more efficient and cost-effective. It would be outrageous if the government, who claim to care about this nation's education, allowed public libraries, those free fountains of knowledge, to fall by the wayside.
Kate, London,

Having books and being open when working people can get to them is essential if libraries want to be useful. Mine the Durning Library in Lambeth is never open and doesn't seem to have bought any books since about 1989! One library card for all London's libraries would be brilliant - as I work as a temp I move around a lot and would then be able to benefit from a really wide range of books and be able to get to them in my lunch hour - it would certainly save me from having to build yet another bookcase!
Deborah Mason, London

Public libraries are essential public resources. Knowledge must be available to the public as a whole, not just those who can afford to pay for it. University is no longer an option for those whose parents cannot afford to subsidise them, and libraries represent the only method for people without money to educate themselves. Even if only one person walks through the library doors in a day, that library is still a vital public resource.
Mark Wilkinson, Westerham, Kent

Our village library is likely to be closed, based on largely irrelevant metrics of book borrowing (forgetting reference, computer and other services provided) and aspirational savings through centralising services. The only hope is for a local group to continue to provide a service, paying the County to do so and effectively ensuring we all pay twice for the same service. The true social, economic and environmental costs of closure are never assessed - due to the focus on cash savings for remote County Councils and their lack of accountability for the resulting destruction of village life. It's just someone else's problem of course. But neither is the status quo tenable. Reduced hours or 'office hours' mean that it is increasingly difficult for residents to access the service. Low investment in book stock means that borrowing will continue in decline. Unless the fundamental weaknesses of the library networks and their service offerings are addressed it will not just be village and smaller libraries that are threatened.
Andy Scott, Little Chalfont, Bucks

Always an avid reader, I was until a decade ago a regular library user. I hardly bother these days because they are such grim places, offering a poor and grubby selection of books. The DVD seems to have taken over. Libraries are a lifeline for the elderly and make an important contribution to a child's education.
Marylyn Martin, London

The best example I've ever seen is in Wellington, New Zealand, dating from the mid-90s. The old neo-classical library had its dusty book stacks knocked down to turn it into an art gallery, and the library moved next door into a striking modern building, all wavy glass walls and metal trees in place of classical columns. Leather arm chairs line the glass walls so readers to dip in and out of books while looking out at the comings and goings in the public square outside. There's also a stonking café, with fresh-baked muffins and smoothies. There's always people in there, of all ages, sizes and shapes. If you built it, they will come.
Patsy, Sheffield

We have a great local library in Norwich that I use and so do many of my friends... it has a coffee/bar and a pizza express in the same building! it was built for the millennium.
Alex, Norwich

The Suffolk libraries are excellent. I never used to use them - but they opened a new library on our new estate here in Kesgrave and I visit most weeks. I can reserve books online, they e-mail me when it arrives at Kesgrave and I can pop down and pick it up. All at no charge. Cheaper (and sometimes quicker) than Amazon! They are open some evenings and at the weekend and there are often young families there.
Andrew Gosden, Kesgrave, Suffolk

Libraries are a valuable local resource in the face of falling levels of literacy. The idea of closing them to save money is just penny-pinching. People who rely on libraries may be in a minority, but since when did being a member of a minority deter local authorities from squandering millions of pounds on you ? Find somewhere else to make savings !
Lorraine, Cardiff

I have used the library service since before I was a teenager. I am now forty and attend my library regularly. Since my parents couldn't afford books and records, it's what intoduced me to the world of music and reading. I feel strongly that this gateway should not be denied to the privilaged and underprivileged. I feel it's one of the few genuine reasons to justify a local income tax.
Ger Brannan, Kilmarnock

If useage has been falling and has reached a point where some libaries are not being used, then to be honest I do see the problem with closing them. I havent been in one for well over a decade, I can honestly say my local library closing would not bother me in the least.
Andy, Surrey

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