Children's Laureate says libraries are guilty of letting down young readers

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The Independent Culture

The Children's Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, has warned that British libraries are failing to offer children the range of books that inspired her as a youngster, after being named the most borrowed author for the fourth year in succession.

After beating the adult novelists James Patterson and Josephine Cox to the top slot in new lists of loans, Wilson said that there was a need for more classics alongside popular authors on library shelves. She said that she understood why mass-market writers were on offer but was saddened that children would fail to discover classics as she had as a child in the 1950s. "It's lovely that I'm the most borrowed author because it means that children are still using libraries," Wilson said. "So many of us worry that children just play on their PlayStations and watch television."

But she said she was worried about the range of work available. "I understand where libraries are coming from, that they are very much trying to please the customer, but most very popular authors that people ask for you can buy quite cheaply for £5.99.

"It just seems very sad that there isn't the tradition of having classic authors so that a browsing reader who doesn't know what they're doing can discover the great works of literature that I feel is the reason that libraries are there. When I was a child in the 1950s I went to the library as a matter of course because that was your only source of good reading matter."

Wilson said since being made laureate she had been contacted by many people concerned at the closure of their branch libraries and that this was "a tragedy". "I think it's appalling that so many libraries are being closed. What does it say about us and our culture?," she said. "I feel that libraries and librarians are such a valuable part of our life. I just want more money invested so that libraries can be open and more accessible."

The figures released today by Public Lending Right, which administers payments to authors for library loans, show the range of interests libraries are catering for. Jamie's Dinners by Jamie Oliver was the most borrowed cookery title and Kelly Holmes' autobiography, Black, White and Gold, was the top sporting read. Sheila Hancock's book The Two of Us, about her life with her late husband John Thaw, was the most popular arts title. Four authors clocked up more than one million loans in 2005-06 - Wilson, James Patterson, Josephine Cox and Danielle Steel - while Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was the most borrowed title.

Despite Wilson's concerns, libraries continue to be popular. The number of people visiting a library rose to 290 million last year, the fifth year of growth. While many visitors are taking advantage of internet access, which is standard and free in libraries, the number of book loans - particularly children's titles - has also increased. Funding has remained steady at £1bn a year, and nearly £80m extra has been made available from Lottery funds. This includes £600,000 for "book bars" aimed at promoting library use among 11- to 19-year-olds.

The Reading Agency's Fulfilling Their Potential initiative has helped to make libraries more welcoming to young people. It is part of the Government's 10-year library strategy which is giving the service a further £2m a year.

However, spending on books has continued to fall, dropping to just 8.8 per cent of the overall budget in 2006. It is expected to fall again this year.

David Lammy, the Culture minister, confirmed last year that 107 libraries in Britain were threatened with closure. In the first six months of 2006, 21 (or 1.4 per cent) of the country's 3,500 libraries closed.

However, John Dolan, head of library policy at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, said the figures masked a more complex reality. More than 80 new state-of-the-art libraries had been built in the past three years and 200 modernised.

The new North City Library in Manchester, which has won architectural awards, plaudits for its green credentials and is hugely popular, has replaced two ageing libraries nearby, creating a net loss of one library.

Mr Dolan said: "No one is out there deliberately trying to choke off the service. But that is not to say there are not challenges associated with small rural or small urban libraries which may not show up the greatest level of use."

However, he accepted criticisms that much of the new money had not gone on books and that many library buildings were in a parlous state.

"Two-thirds of libraries are not the bright, vibrant, modern places you want to see, even though much of the work that is going on there is very good," he said. In 2005 MPs estimated that the cost of the backlog of repairs was £660m.

The writers in demand

Most borrowed fiction authors (June 2005-June 2006):

1 James Patterson

2 Josephine Cox

3 Danielle Steel

4 Ian Rankin

5 John Grisham

6 Nora Roberts

7 Agatha Christie

8 Bernard Cornwell

9 Katie Flynn

10 Patricia Cornwell

Most borrowed children's authors:

1 Jacqueline Wilson

2 Janet & Allan Ahlberg

3 Mick Inkpen

4 Roald Dahl

5 Lucy Cousins

6 Lucy Daniels

7 Eric Hill

8 Enid Blyton

9 Francesca Simon

10 Nick Butterworth

Most borrowed classic authors:

1 Roald Dahl

2 Agatha Christie

3 Georgette Heyer

4 C S Lewis

5 Beatrix Potter

6 Charles Dickens

7 Jane Austen

8 J R R Tolkien

9 William Shakespeare

10 A A Milne

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