Book cuts to hit children

The National Year of Reading is off to a bad start, writes Colin Blackstock
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The amount of money spent by public libraries on children's books is expected to fall next year - just when the National Year of Reading is due to begin.

Despite the Government's declared commitment to reading as one of the most important aspects of education, spending on children's library books is likely to drop by 10 per cent, even though in most libraries children's issues make up one third of all books borrowed.

The figures, showing a drop in expenditure by public libraries on children's books from pounds 17.2m to pounds 15.9m, were calculated by the Library and Information Statistics Unit. They represent a drop of almost 10 per cent in spending for next year, based on advance budget plans, although a spokesman for LISU said these figures may change.

This year the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, committed his department to more funding for literacy. At the Labour Party conference he promised to make next year (1998-99) the National Year of Reading, to provide a pounds 50m fund for teaching reading initiatives, and a campaign urging parents to read with their children at home for at least 20 minutes each day.

While Mr Blunkett can declare his wholehearted backing for drives to promote reading, the very places where children of all backgrounds can acquire books - libraries - do not come within his remit. They are the responsibility of town halls and Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary.

Growing numbers of parents and librarians have voiced concern at the drop in spending on children's books. Jennifer Madden, principal children's librarian of Kirklees Metropolitan Council, said local authority funding was being cut across the board.

"The money for children's books, for all books, is just leaching away," she said. "All we can do is try to pull kids up the agenda and try to make sure that spending on them is in proportion to their number in the population."

Guy Daines, head of professional practice at the Library Association, said they were very concerned over the cuts being made especially when the Government was emphasising the importance of education.

"At the end of the day we don't feel there are enough resources going into libraries." said Mr Daines. "It's difficult to say who is to blame because the local authorities blame central government, and the Government blames local authorities. I suppose we would support local authorities in that they should be able to raise more funding for services themselves."

"If we discover local authorities cutting their expenditure on library services, we will be very concerned. It simply doesn't ring true that in a year when we begin a National Year of Reading that government is cutting funding by so much. Where we fear there will be horrendous cuts we will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport."

While libraries are faced with falling budgets and funding cutbacks, many librarians maintain the services they provide are still managing to meet a high standard of quality.

David Murray, service development librarian for Southwark libraries, said a lot of additional services like homework help clubs and family reading groups were very successful and reflected topical educational issues.

"Children and young people are really starting to play a key part in the many educational issues flying around Britain at the minute," he said. "The role of libraries now is making parents and children aware that libraries can help them in very direct ways. For children under five we can play an important social role in helping them to get out and have a bit of fun. At the other end of the scale, for the teenagers of 15 or 16 we have study texts that will help them with their exams."

Mr Murray believes it is important for libraries to develop and try to deal with the cuts as best they can: "I think on many levels libraries are re-asserting themselves, so although the overall expenditure is going down it concentrates people's minds by looking at how we can make our books work harder, and how we can reach even more people than we already do. It's terribly regrettable that expenditure is going down, but we are trying to deal with that as best we can."