The Big Question: Does the decline in book lending spell the end for the public library?

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The Independent Culture

Why are we asking this now?

Because new figures published yesterday show that we are taking out fewer books from libraries than we were 10 years ago. Library users in England borrowed just under 269 million books in the last financial year, according to official figures compiled by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. That is down 34 per cent on the amount borrowed back in 1997. And scare stories about library closures continue to hit the headlines. Margaret Hodge, the minister responsible for libraries, admitted at the end of last year that 40 libraries had been closed in the previous 12 months.

It all seems to give the impression that libraries, once so central to communities as the hub of learning and self improvement, are struggling to find a place in the 21st century.

Were they ever really that important?

There are always stories of Victorian workers discussing the merits of H G Wells or Charles Dickens thanks to the free learning provided by libraries, but was that really the case, or just rose-tinted romanticism? According to Jonathan Rose, an expert on the history of the book, it is not far from the truth.

"It wouldn't have been unusual to find mine workers discussing the philosophy of Thomas Carlyle, and that kind of auto-didactic culture in the British working classes could never have flourished without public libraries. They were absolutely central to that culture," he said. "And where there were no public libraries, workers would set up their own and pay for them through deductions in their wages. More than 100 libraries were set up in this way in the South Wales coal mining region."

Are we all reading less these days?

That's not what the level of book sales in the UK suggests – 2007 was a record-breaking year in terms of the amount the British spent on a good read. More than £1.8bn was spent on books last year, a 6.2 per cent increase on the previous year. That was thanks in part to some big releases, such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which took around £36.5m, and accounted for two per cent of all book sales in 2007. But with seven-and-a-half books sold every second last year, Britons seem keener than ever to get their noses into a book.

Why do we borrow fewer books then?

The rise of huge bookstores and the close competition between them has seen the price of new books plummet in recent times. The average price of all books sold last year was £7.57, and that figure includes the pricier hardbacks. Shoppers can now go to the main book shop on their high street and come out with three bestsellers for around £15. Not only that, but they can enjoy reading their new book with a coffee and a comfy seat without even leaving the store, as major bookstores have coffee shops inside.

According to Professor Rose, changes in education and social mobility must also play a major role in why the library no longer plays as great a role in our lives as it did for past generations. "At the start of the 20th century, the library provided access to learning and betterment for the working classes that wasn't available anywhere else," he said. "Now, with schooling and social mobility so much more comprehensive, people from the working class who show that kind of attitude and desire are creamed off. The library is no longer such a vehicle for social mobility."

Is a lack of funds to blame?

Actually, English libraries receive 17 per cent more funding than they did 10 years ago in real terms. Spending on libraries has now reached almost £1bn a year, up from £662m in 1997. Libraries are also spending just as much on updating their catalogues, which has hovered around the £75m mark since Labour came to power. Supporters say that more funding is needed to improve choice at libraries, though the falling cost of books and the improved buying power of councils have meant that the number of books added to library stocks in England last year was nearly 20 per cent higher than 10 year ago.

So are fewer of us visiting libraries?

Though it is the large decline in the amount of books borrowed that will make the headlines, the stats show that the number of visits to libraries has remained quite steady over the past three years, at around 288 million visits. That's because we are no longer using libraries just for book borrowing. Visitor numbers were falling until libraries began to provide free computer use and internet access. Libraries are also branching out into DVD lending as well. Purists may not like the idea of bookshelves being pushed out for computer terminals, but it could just be that the library is evolving to cater for the demands of today's users.

Shouldn't libraries just supply books?

Some supporters of libraries, such as the author Will Self, have said that libraries should not be forced into providing internet access and DVD rental, but should concentrate on providing more good quality books to visitors. But not all those with an interest in libraries agree.

"A library's core purpose is to provide access to knowledge," said Guy Daines, director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip). "In modern society, it is now the case that we get our knowledge from more and more sources and it's right that libraries should provide access to those. They complement books, rather than replace them."

Can library borrowing be improved?

Extending opening hours might help, as many people now have irregular work patterns. Opening hours are now increasing. The Government is also trying to do its bit by naming 2008 the Year of Reading, and is running a campaign to encourage parents to read to their children for 10 minutes every day. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which advises the Government on libraries, is aware of the work that it has to do. It says its "challenge" is to reach those people who still cannot afford to buy books, but are still not coming into libraries to borrow.

Advocates of the nation's libraries say that though borrowing may be down, libraries are undergoing a "renaissance" as centres of learning. "Every library now seems to have at least one reading group, while the number of reading festivals connected to libraries is growing," said Mr Daines. "Although action is needed over borrowing, there are many things that libraries are getting right."

Do libraries still have a role in 21st-century Britain?

Yes...

* The number of visits made to libraries has stayed steady over the past three years, even if borrowing has fallen

* People now use libraries for different things, such as internet access and DVD borrowing

* Many libraries are successfully starting reading groups and related events. They do a lot of good work besides book lending

No...

* If someone wants a book, they can buy it much more cheaply than in the past

* Libraries' provision of free access to books was all important in the past. Modern schooling and welfare has made this less important

* They have had increased funding and yet have been unable to attract more people to use their services

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