A trip to the library should be inspiring

Those rare libraries that have embraced change have discovered a great enthusiasm for a community hub
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The Independent Online

If there was one building, during my childhood, that I truly adored, it was Motherwell Library. For me, its very walls were suffused with all the grandest ideals that civilisation cherished. It was an Andrew Carnegie library, and the fact that it had been gifted to the town by a Scottish migrant philanthropist only added to its high-minded glamour and generous wonder.

If there was one building, during my childhood, that I truly adored, it was Motherwell Library. For me, its very walls were suffused with all the grandest ideals that civilisation cherished. It was an Andrew Carnegie library, and the fact that it had been gifted to the town by a Scottish migrant philanthropist only added to its high-minded glamour and generous wonder.

Its entrance was elegant and imposing, with its motto above the open, welcoming, double doors, picked out in gold: "Let there be light." Inside, there was light, which streamed brightly through tall Victorian windows. Large, plush, peaceful, dignified, the library was an oasis of lush possibility in a tough little town.

About a decade ago, I returned to the library for the first time in many years, and found that it was crushingly unlike the place of my memories. It was more sparse than I had thought, and much shabbier. Far from being an Aladdin's cave of endless possibilities for the voracious reader, it was thinly stocked with grubby, elderly titles.

I put this down, in part, to "Lost World Syndrome", the process whereby a film that seemed utterly realistic and frightening in childhood turns out, in adulthood, to have been embarrassingly crude and silly all along. A child's eyes work in tandem with their imagination in a way that most adults lose the knack for.

A few years on, when my first son began to love books, I felt my changed perspective all the more keenly. My mother had made our weekly trips to the library into a wonderful and special pilgrimage. But when I took my son to our own local library, the outings felt desultory, with the books no match for what was available at school or at home, and the ambience depressing when compared to a browse - no purchase necessary - though the children's section of a bookshop. The visits gradually ceased.

I've come to realise, though, that the decline I saw in public libraries was real and awful, not just the ghastly readjustment of a jaded adult gaze. I'm not the only one who has decided that using the public library is no longer an attractive option.

Recent figures suggest that library visits have fallen by almost a fifth since 1992, while book loans have dropped by a quarter. Last year alone, lending rates fell by another 5 per cent. Report after report has pointed out that Britain's libraries are rotting away, with several predicting that on present rates of decline, the library service will no longer exist in just two more decades. The Government has launched initiative after initiative, each containing sensible and useful advice. It has been ignored.

And the problem is not money. Britain's public lending libraries have enjoyed a funding boost of 25 per cent in real terms over the past five years. A hefty £900m of taxpayers' money is spent on public libraries, working out on average at £40 per household. In some areas, though, more money is spent per household on maintaining libraries than is spent on the television licence.

Astoundingly, as public use of libraries declines each year, libraries spend less and less on books and more and more on administration and management. Currently, only 10 per cent of the money libraries receive is spent on buying books.

A former managing director of Waterstone's, Tim Coates, has become an outspoken campaigner for change. His report, Who's in Charge?, was published by the libraries charity Libri, this year, and is pretty unequivocal.

Coates believes that "the libraries have lost touch with the public who pay for them and whom they are supposed to serve". He notes that in general they have made none of the improvements that bookshops have over the past two decades, and points out that if they took advantage of the discounts negotiated by booksellers from publishers alone they could spend an extra £12m on books.

He points to awful, rudderless management, with no accounting control, no measurement of performance and few regular board meetings. He suggests that the management and administration of a council library should be confined to no more than two or three people, one of whom should be a qualified accountant.

Coates suggests that libraries should stay open until 7pm, and should not close for lunch. He believes that it is not necessary for all the library staff to be highly qualified librarians, although he does stress that the "front-of-house" staff in libraries are usually far more enthusiastic and well-intentioned than their moribund leadership has a right to expect.

It might appear that perhaps Coates is fighting a losing battle and that the great days of public lending libraries are simply over. This could not be further from the truth. Those rare libraries which have embraced change - which have introduced lounging areas or coffee bars, and which have started sprucing up their appearance or putting on literary events - have discovered that there is great enthusiasm for a comfortable and stimulating community hub, where people can meet, talk, use computers, read, and borrow books. In fact, despite declining lending rates, library visits increased last year by 1.4 per cent, because of demand from computer users.

Council-run libraries, over the past 20 years, could have been in the vanguard of expansion and change, if they had decided to be, rather than retreating into the joyless, insulting idea that a public library was a free service and therefore had some sort of right to look like the charity shop from hell, and offer little but rules and penalties to its unfortunate users.

Yet instead there is little evidence that those who have presided over the decline are willing to change their sullen attitudes. Over the summer there was bitter complaint from those running libraries so badly, that so few of their number were invited to a conference organised by the Government to discuss ideas for improving libraries. Yet if they have dynamic ideas about what change ought to be, they are keeping oddly quiet about it.

What has come out of the conference is a modest proposal indeed. The Libraries Minister, Andrew McIntosh, yesterday announced a set of national guidelines on how many new books public libraries should buy - 216 per thousand of the population they serve - and how often they ought to replace worn-out stock - every 6.7 years. Simple as it seems, the truth is that a visit to the library is disheartening most of all because the shelves are so empty and the books so tatty. If Britain's libraries are to be turned around, this is where to start. But there's much, much more to do.

If the idea of public libraries now seems paternalistic or out of step with the ideas of ownership that our consumer culture worships, then that is because it is not only the managers of public libraries who have lost touch with library users, but the rest of the population too. For those on a budget, libraries are a great asset as they are for students and for children. But they are also fantastically environmentally friendly, and for this reason alone their concept should be extended as we move into the millennium. As for the great blight of the reading household - the endless demand for new bits of wall to put bookshelves on - libraries can sort that problem too, without the sacrifice of a single inch of medium-density fibreboard.