BOOKS: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture
Librarians have contributed a lot to modern literature, beyond making sure that it stands in the right place on the shelves. Think of Angus Wilson, Jorge-Luis Borges and Philip Larkin: all maestros of stock and stack. Where the author-librarians have let down their profession is in failing to supply positive role-models to future entrants; unless, that is, you covet a Larkin-style purgatory, with nothing to relieve the gloom of dull Hull apart from explosive parallel affairs, erotic role- play, wild binge-drinking and hot jazz... Now, remind me what was bugging him?

Fictional librarians on screen and page have done much better as ambassadors. First, the impeccably cool Rupert Giles brought erudition to high-school Southern California in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, the charming but elusive Henry DeTamble - in Audrey Niffenegger's mega-selling The Time Traveler's Wife - adds librarianship to the novel's Chicago cultural mix. What's notable about these figures is that they care, above all, about books. In many UK local authorities, this would not be a wise career move.

True, the complaint that today's librarians see themselves as internet- access managers with a sideline in DVDs and CDs tends to come from the sort of pundit who hasn't set foot inside a public library since he failed to return a cricket manual to East Grinstead branch circa 1965. Books still matter desperately to staff and users. But it can hardly be denied that libraries' recent claim on extra funds has rested more on their role as hi-tech, one-stop resource centres than on the old business of warehousing bound paper. Fresh statistics show that, of the pounds 1 billion the service spent last year - a rise of 8 per cent - only pounds 94 million, under a tenth, went on book acquisitions. In the past decade, real spending on books has dropped by a fifth; loans by more than a third.

Even that depleted figure amounts to a mighty annual total of 360 million loans. Released today, the new Public Lending Right figures reveal that children's superstar Jacqueline Wilson remains - with more than 2 million loans - the most borrowed author. Six other stalwarts had more than a million outings: Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox, Mick Inkpen, Catherine Cookson and James Patterson. Ian Rankin scrapes into the top ten at number nine - only to find the inextinguishable Dame Agatha Christie still ahead of him at eight. It's enough to send DI Rebus on another bender.

As usual, the PLR results show a pattern of loans divided between genre favourites for older users, and those titles selected for or by children. In the middle looms a gaping hole - where most of the action in ambitious commercial publishing currently takes place. This is the constituency that has forgotten the magic of the library.

A new venture, led by the Reading Agency and entitled Reading Partners, will be trying to lure it back. Uniting the marketing and publicity skills of firms such as Bloomsbury, Faber and Penguin with the local knowledge about readers that only libraries can boast, it aims to make the private and public sectors allies rather than rivals. It would mean - for instance - that publishers sold books at author events in libraries, just as they do at literary festivals. Money-changing aside, publishers will hope to bring a little of their PR-led pizzazz to our secular temples of learning.

Many reading groups meet in libraries, and publishers are keen to tap into their tastes and enthusiasms. In fact, 48 branch-based clubs will act as testing-grounds for promotions. Reading Partners calls these clubs "focus groups". Oh dear. Surely the first lesson of PR would be to dump that tainted term? I can't see Rupert Giles or Henry DeTamble hosting a "focus group". As for Philip Larkin, he would surely chuck the whole pack out on the stroke of closing-time.