A minute's silence, please, for the late public library

A new report condemns the failings of Britain's public library system which, it warns, is facing terminal decline.Ian Herbert analyses the writing on the wall
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The Independent Online

The blue paintwork is fading fast on its drab 1970s premises but there is no lack of innovation at the Heald Green public library as staff wage a daily battle to entice readers through their doors.

According to a new report on the future of the public lending library, it is a battle the librarians of south Manchester and the rest of Britain may not win. Libri, a new campaign group formed to save that most revered of national institutions, has warned there could be as little as 20 years left for Britain's public lending libraries.

Yesterday, however, the keepers of Heald Green's books were in no mood to give in without a fight. One of their more daring recent book promotions took the title "Textual Intercourse" and, although none of the three staff present were too sure of the precise book titles, they were unanimous about the aim. "To get them off Catherine Cookson and reading something different," said Pat Lee, 65, who retires after 30 years service at the library this weekend.

The shock tactics had evidently not worked on Solomon Cohen, a voracious reader who was here to replace his weekly collection of seven hardbacks. He swept past the display of new works (a Patricia Highsmith, Chinese Medicine Explained and Complete Plumber and Central Heating , bypassed advertisements for the new library book group and ignored a selection of newspapers before settling beside his old favourites - the large-print thrillers. "By rights, I belong to Cheadle library, nearby," he said. "But I've worked my way through all their supply. It's all I get."

Stewart Fawcett, 65, has long since exhausted the library's supplies of travel books on Crete, something of specialist genre for him. His Heald Green borrowing record on the subject includes the 1890 tome Travels in Crete , which he obtained on order, but the most modern guide he can find today is dated 1993. "The Crete books are way outdated," he grumbled, settling for a James Herbert paperback instead. "I can't find anything of interest."

These apparent limitations are typical of a chronic failure among Britain's libraries, according to the Libri report, which claimed yesterday that the number of visitors has halved since 1984 and could slump to a terminal decline within two decades.

The group said that inefficiency and lack of focus in the library system meant it was failing to provide an adequate range of reading, had presided over a halving in levels of book lending since 1984 and that municipal bureaucracy was failing to deliver value for money.

The report, commissioned by a commercial book buyer, Paul Coates, drew on an examination of the Hampshire council library service and Audit Commission data. It suggested that while UK library funding had increased by 25 per cent in the past five years, spending on books - now "frequently old, out-dated and incomplete," according to Mr Coates - had fallen to 9 per cent of the total budget and that books had become a low priority for library managers.

Opening hours were a reflection of a failure to keep up with the times. Only a small number are open 50 hours a week, while "the now normal retail expectation is seven-day opening for up to 14 hours a day." Mr Coates laid the blame on management systems for libraries, which are left to councillors who have failed to focus on the decline.

Among the recommendations of the report are a 30 per cent increase in spending on books between now and 2008-09, empowerment of local library-users and library book shelves which provide a 95 per cent level of satisfaction.

The money needed can come from streamlining the service, according to Mr Coates. The bureaucratic costs involved in consulting on and approving the choice of books purchased is colossal - and in one case it meant £2m being spent to buy £1.4m worth of books. Other recommendations include better lighting, and an end to the "drab, dismal" premises.

Mr Coates' attack is not the first. Last year, a study by the the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) concluded that councils were caught in the grip of traditional notions about book-lending, ruled by fines for late returns, and had encouraged a 17 per cent national fall in library visits. Libraries had the potential to be the "living room of the city" or a "club for everyone". They should increasingly be "long-stay places for students, a safe haven for children, even a home from home" with cafés, lounge areas with sofas, and chill-out zones for young people to "watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on listening posts".

Britain can boast some examples of the results of such practice. Library use has quadrupled in Bow, east London, with its glass-walled "idea store". And in Bournemouth, Dorset, where an open-plan, glazed building like a landlocked cruise ship has replaced a library once damned as the second worst in Britain, reader levels have tripled.

But Libri's views were a cause of indignation in Manchester, where lending traditions began with the opening of the first public library 150 years ago, an event so important that Charles Dickens felt compelled to travel north to help.

John Condon, head of the Stockport library service, which includes Heald Green, said the report was focused on an outdated notion that libraries exist only to lend books. "Twenty years ago, you'd be lucky if you found a WH Smith's in Stockport," he said. "Now there's Borders Books and Waterstones. There's also more affluence, so people buy books. There was also the decline of the Net Book Agreement which means books now sell for pocket money prices."

Stockport insists the vital performance indicator is not book lending figures (2.1 million in Stockport last year - a 7 per cent decline on the previous year and 19 per cent fewer than 2001 at 15 static and two mobile libraries) but visitors through the libraries' doors. Stockport had 1.3 million last year, a 6 per cent increase on the previous year and 15 per cent up on 2001.

The attractions include internet access, welfare advice and learning courses. "Libraries are a community resource, a place where you can seek information, borrow books, CDs and DVDs," said Mr Condon.

There has been need for changes of the kind yesterday's report recommended. Local library opening hours were extended to include Saturday afternoons in late 2002 and the borough has also initiated a stock-purchasing consortium with nine Manchester authorities and two in Lancashire.

In Heald Green, library staff were waiting for the afternoon rush which would prove that the bank of 10 computers are the main attraction these days. "In the past, we'd have a rush of book inquiries when children came out of school with their homework at four o'clock," said Mr Lee. "Now it's only the internet. It's been the biggest change in my 30 years here."

LIBRARY FACTS..

The Public Libraries Act came into effect in 1850 after it was introduced in the Commons by the campaigning MP William Ewart. Ewart met tough opposition, with one MP saying people had "too much knowledge already".

There were 377 million loans recorded from British libraries in 2003, down from a reported 480 million in 1999.

There are a total of 4,000 public libraries in the United Kingdom, including 406 in London.

Manchester got its first library in 1852, Birmingham in 1866.

More than half of Britons are members of libraries.

More than 80 million books are available for lending in the UK.

Andrew Clennell

SIX MOMENTS OF QUIET REFLECTION

Nick Hornby,

writer

I used to go every Saturday morning as a kid to my local library, Maidenhead public library, from the age of five to 13. We never bought books, so I would have been stuffed without the library. I remember being chased out when I was older because we went there to study with the girls from the local girls' school, revising for school exams. I used to just get giggly, you know. What did I read? I used to like Jennings and Darbyshire [from the books by Anthony Buckeridge], some cowboy author and a lot of Neville Shute when I was 11, 12, 13.

Edwina Currie,

politician and writer

I grew up in Liverpool and visited the local Chiltwall public library from the age of eight to about 18. I was taken to the library by my mother. She still goes now at the age of 92. I think I read just about every book there. I started on adult fiction about the age of 10, starting with A, and worked my way through the authors alphabetically. My favourites were the Brontes. I was Catherine in Wuthering Heights at the age of 11.

Brian Aldiss,

writer

I'd come out of the Army by the age of about 25 when I began to visit the Oxford public library. I remember getting out a book by a man of the extraordinary name of Beaglehole [John C Beaglehole]. He wrote books on the journeys of Captain Cook to the South Seas which I thought were wonderful. That was the nearest thing we had come to interplanetary exploration. It's a long time since I have been to the Oxford Library, but the last time I did they had a case full of books on cooking and a case full of books on dieting. This is not the sort of thing the public library system was set up for.

Lynne Truss,

journalist and writer

I spent my nerdy youth in the little local library at Ham [near Richmond, south-west London] which smelt of polish and had a complete run of Andrew Lang's Fairy Books. I remember going every week.

If I went into that library now, I know I could be blindfolded and still find the exact place where the Milly-Molly-Mandy section used to be; also the John Wyndhams, Daphne du Mauriers, Ronald Searles, mythology, travel and poetry. I was ambushed once and scared by some boys who knew I'd be going to the library, because my visits were so regular.

Billy Bragg,

musician

The most interesting thing that ever happened in my local library in Barking when I was a child was when it burnt down. I use our library in Dorset now for reference. For example, if I need to know some stuff about how people felt about Lords reform in the 1960s, I go and wade through the biographies. The last time they tried to reform the Lords was in the time of Enoch Powell. But I don't want to buy his biography or I'd have to carry it in a brown paper bag, so I go down the library.

Julie Burchill,

journalist and writer

I used to go to the library so much it made my mother cry. I practically lived at the local library I visited - Sandy Park Library in Bristol. I withdrew 10 books a week and went once during the week and twice on Saturdays. I used to love the series of books by Lorna Hill about ballet school. And books about ponies by Ruby Ferguson. It seems a world away now. It would really upset my mother. [She thought] if you read books it meant you were depressed. She wanted me to be normal, go to stuff with other children. She'd follow me from room to room crying when I tried to read.

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