Public libraries are very beautiful things

Taken from a speech delivered by a member of the Public Lending Right Advisory Panel at the PLR2000 seminar in London
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Hearteningly, libraries are now central to government plans to widen access to education - in its broadest sense - and tackle social exclusion. Everyone who has championed the cause of libraries over the years feels a huge relief to be working in this atmosphere of recognition. The two departments heading the Government's programmes in these areas, the Departments of Culture and of Education, sensibly see public libraries as uniquely placed to help them to deliver on their commitments.

Hearteningly, libraries are now central to government plans to widen access to education - in its broadest sense - and tackle social exclusion. Everyone who has championed the cause of libraries over the years feels a huge relief to be working in this atmosphere of recognition. The two departments heading the Government's programmes in these areas, the Departments of Culture and of Education, sensibly see public libraries as uniquely placed to help them to deliver on their commitments.

Why? because we have brilliantly managed to build over 150 years an irreplaceable asset - a public library system that has a magic blend of culture, education and community involvement and trust. It offers everyone free access to information and imagination through a vast network of sites, and where people cannot get to the library, the library will go to them, even inside prison walls.

Most people using libraries still do so for reading. And the public lending right (PLR) underpins libraries' powerful role in supporting and developing readers. Libraries have a unique and unbiased focus on the reader - they do not need people to read in order to make a sale or pass an exam; they are simply interested in connecting the right reader to the right book at the right time.

Take just one thread of central government priority: social exclusion. Through their work with readers, libraries are already doing a lot to combat exclusion and are poised to deliver a lot more.

Reading has an important contribution to make to developing tolerance and a culture of citizenship; people who read can see things from someone else's point of view. There's nothing like fiction for getting inside someone else's mind and accepting that other people work very differently. Reading breaks down barriers; it overcomes isolation. It connects people to other worlds and ideas. Reading combats passivity and dependence; people can feel excluded through low self-esteem, and reading has a role to play here - a particularly powerful role in building the emotional literacy of emerging adults, helping young people to understand themselves better.

So reading is part of libraries' core, very inclusive offer, and you can't support and inspire readers without writers. Just as the public - millions of people - relies on libraries to provide free access to an unrivalled range of reading and information, so libraries are dependent on the writers whose output and creativity provide the backbone of the service.

PLR plays a key role in recognising and rewarding what writers bring to libraries. Every year it pays over 17,000 authors for the free lending of their books by public libraries. So it neatly does two things at once - pays for a crucial national service and encourages writers through precious feedback on how widely and often their books are borrowed.

Central government PLR funding means libraries do not have to find the funds to compensate authors for the lending-out of their books.

Let's look at one group of authors for whom PLR payments are crucial, and whose library loans are holding their own in the face of stiff competition from other leisure pursuits. I am referring to children's writers. I do not need to tell you how important writers and libraries are in building the next generation of readers. PLR figures show that children's loans account for 28 per cent of all library loans - compared with 21 per cent 10 years ago. Half of the 20 most borrowed authors are children's writers.

This is what Shirley Hughes has to say about PLR. She talks of the "thought of someone, perhaps a very small someone, sitting on a library floor enthralled in a book, and borrowing it over and over again until it becomes an old friend. The arrival of my PLR print-out is one of the great spurs to fresh endeavour."

For Nicola Throne, PLR has been "a life-saver in a writing career of ups and downs. PLR has sustained me and has been a continued source of satisfaction through some dark days."

If we value what having writers writing and illustrators illustrating means, we must value the difference PLR makes to them. The free public library is a beautiful idea.

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