Recently I have become embroiled in a political argument about the state of Britain’s libraries.
A columnist in the Times commented on the public harangue that has developed by saying “if you are seeking a good book almost the last place to look in modern Britain is a public library.”
Unfortunately it seems that he hit the nail on the head. Twelve months ago Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published a report on public libraries with much enthusiasm for maintaining and improving Britain’s public lending library service. Its reasoned analysis and sensible recommendations included giving priority to improving the quality, range and number of books. A year on and most of its recommendations lie largely ignored and its wisdom unheeded.
In my role as Shadow Culture Secretary I have received many calls from members of the public asking that our prized and historic public book lending service be given due care and attention. It seems that the direction of our library service has been moved from one of book and reading material supply to community centres with IT concentrations and meeting rooms. Most people do not like it.
Librarians whose time is spent on the floors of the libraries bemoan the loss of book investment, the importance placed on books in libraries and also the loss of the tradition of silence. As a long time lover of reading quietly, this loss of silence has surely stopped countless library users from dipping into works by known and unknown authors and taking their time to choose books to carry home. It has surely led directly to less book borrowing.
From many who direct our library service there have only been warm words of assurance that all is rosy in the library garden. That is not what I hear from the reading public, from publishers, authors and the librarians who run, often with considerable personal affection, the network of small libraries up and down the country.
For most of them the important thing is for books to be brought back as the core focus of our public library lending service.
According to government figures there has been an upturn in visits to libraries over the last three years but book borrowing has seen huge falls. During the last three years the number of books borrowed has fallen from 336 million to 278 million ? a fall of 17.3%. In the same period the number of people borrowing a book from their local library fell from 28% to 23% of the population.
It is also true that the library network is shrinking. Since 1995 nearly 150 libraries have closed while more than 60 mobile libraries have faced the axe.
By the end of this year there will also be markedly less mobile and local libraries if many of the published proposals become fact. The sad truth is that unless there is a reconsideration of the direction in which our public libraries are going we can expect fewer books in our libraries, less investment in book buying and less people borrowing books from our libraries. What was once one of Britain’s public service jewels, born more than 150 years ago, is now in danger of fading and the impact upon the nation’s valuable interest in the written word will be grievous.