Fairy tales with a long shelf life: Are our public libraries in terminal decline? Ken Worpole separates fact from fiction

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the more self-punishing myths of contemporary British intellectual culture is that of 'the decline of the public library', a powerful nostrum that is five parts nostalgia, four parts metropolitan myopia and only one part fact.

Public libraries are a regular Aunt Sally for jaded columnists such as Keith Waterhouse, writing recently in the Daily Mail: 'Nowadays the local library is likely to be a cultural slum, festooned with reams of printout paper and leaflets offering information on the nearest gypsy encampment, its tattered books being gradually edged out by videos and compact discs, its bejeaned, earring-sporting assistants treating their 'customers' to the self-righteous evangelical smile of the Politically Correct, and whining for more 'resources'.'

The Daily Telegraph's Martyn Harris has even issued a call to arms: 'Throw out the video libraries, the 'feminist book' sections, the fragile and expensive children's books and the money-pit micro-computers.'

But this lament for 'the decline of the public library' has no basis in detailed evidence or hard fact. The library service in Britain has its own Library and Information Statistics Unit (Lisu), based at Loughborough University, which each year publishes more facts and figures about public libraries and their users than most people would wish to hear or know. Here are some of them:

Total expenditure on public libraries in the United Kingdom was higher in 1992- 93 than 1982-83, even allowing for inflation.

The number of library service points - that is, permanent libraries, mobile libraries, libraries in hospitals and prisons, et al - rose dramatically from 11,346 in 1981-82 to 19,118 in 1991-92. This was achieved partly by reducing opening hours in some of the larger public libraries, a policy decision one might rightly question, though Scotland witnessed not only an increase in library outlets but also in opening hours in the same decade.

Although the number of books issued in 1991-92 was 12 per cent lower than in 1981-82, audio-visual lending was significantly higher, and visits to libraries for other purposes increased (Redhill and Reigate libraries, for example, now handle more than 3,000 information inquiries a week).

Spending on books compared to audio-visual materials remains in the order of 92 to 8 per cent, hardly the stuff of which Mr Waterhouse's nightmares are made.

The total number of staff employed in public libraries in the UK dropped from 29,397 to 27,956 in the 10-year period under review, a fall of 4.9 per cent, which, when compared with the huge staff cuts in many other areas of employment seems hardly catastrophic.

And in spite of restrictions on local authorities' capital expenditure, more than 300 public libraries were built in the Eighties, some of them genuinely hi-tech centres of light and learning. John Sumsion, director of Lisu, says: 'Overall expenditure on the library service increased by some 10 to 12 per cent between 1982 and 1987, and has stayed virtually constant since 1987.' This is hardly a portrait of terminal institutional decline.

Figures alone cannot fully express the central role that the public library plays in everyday British life. It is our most popular and resilient cultural institution, with between 35 and 55 per cent of the population (the figures indicate local and regional variations) using libraries regularly, a pattern that most commercial leisure companies could never hope to emulate.

Unlike many other cultural institutions, libraries are popular with almost all sections of the population, black and white, male and female, rich and poor. They are perceived as safe and neutral cultural territory. In Northern Ireland - where I visited libraries in Belfast and Omagh - the public library was, I was told on several occasions, 'the one place where sectarian religion and politics get left at the door'. On research visits to dozens of libraries throughout Britain in 1992 and 1993, especially those in town centres, I found them packed and buzzing.

Of course, there are problems and dangers ahead. Constant local government reorganisation causes upheavals. Libraries are continually being overwhelmed by the effects of policy decisions made elsewhere, such as care in the community and the massive expansion of further and higher education without parallel expansion of academic libraries and study places.

And there is, ironically, the danger inherent in the loss of professional self-confidence brought about by the constant denigration of provincial public libraries - a modern trahison des clercs - from people who are writing within a great cloud of their own metropolitan unknowing.

Public libraries have helped to sustain the diversity of commercial publishing for more than 100 years - as, for example, large-scale buyers of reference, foreign language, experimental fiction, large-print and children's picture books. More recently they have probably provided the largest single market for spoken-word and avant-garde music recordings. They are now a large supplier of Open Learning materials and on-line computer access to information, particularly for the growing body of students of all ages. They have learnt to promote poetry and new fiction as successfully as their counterparts in commercial book- selling, and have shown themselves to be adept at responding to the complexities of cultural change.

In an era of lifelong learning, public libraries could lead many communities successfully into a new century, as they did once before.

Ken Worpole was one of the authors of the Comedia report 'Borrowed Time? The Future of Public Libraries in the UK', the book version of which is to be published by UCL Press at the end of this year.

(Photograph omitted)