Leading Article: More bought than borrowed

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The Independent Online
THE report on Cultural Trends published yesterday by the Policy Studies Institute raises two interesting questions. Why does Britain as a nation appear to be buying more books, defying alike the recession and evidence of an increase in functional illiteracy? And why are libraries apparently in decline, with 8 per cent fewer books lent in the 1991- 92 financial year than two years earlier?

The answer to the first question is probably straightforward. Books may be no bargain in Britain (not only do they cost more than in America or Japan, but their average price has risen 58 per cent since 1985), but they are still cheaper, hour for hour, than many other forms of entertainment. People buying for themselves are apt to reflect that a book can now cost less than a ticket to the cinema. Those buying for others, particularly for children, know that books compare rather favourably with video games, too. On top of this, there is also what might be called the 'Hawking' factor - fashionable, intelligent books that people honestly intend to read when they buy them, but somehow never get around to.

Rather harder to explain than the popularity of book buying is the unpopularity of book borrowing - even when it is free. Contrary to the public impression that library services are being cut, budgets have in fact been rising modestly in real terms. There were 21,468 public libraries open in 1992, compared with 20,620 in 1989. On average libraries spent pounds 2.41 per reader on buying new books in 1992, compared with only pounds 1.53 in 1985. And, nationally, the total number of books in stock has stayed roughly constant.

The PSI report observes rightly that libraries and bookshops now serve different markets. Writers such as Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson - who between them account for 25 of the 100 most borrowed books in British libraries - are less spectacularly successful in the bookshops. The decline of the library, however, is likely to be due to something more worrying than that alone. One factor might be that in seeking to provide new services such as video rentals and space for students to work, libraries might have made themselves less appealing to the old-fashioned browser - just when booksellers have been getting a great deal better.

Another factor could be that libraries have failed to take best advantage of the technological changes of the past decade. Bar-codes inside books (and computers on librarians' desks) save time and work, make cataloguing easier and help with the job of finding a given title. Yet, although 127 of 167 British library authorities have installed such systems, their effect on costs or on how often each book is borrowed remains unclear. In the meantime, other countries have forged ahead - the New York Public Library, for example, offers customers free access by computer to a staggering range of information stored on CDs.

The wide-ranging review of Britain's library services that the Government has in hand is therefore highly welcome. A working party has been formed, and asked to report in 1994. Yet the group consists entirely of insiders - five professional librarians, an academic and a brace each of local councillors and civil servants. Since the most pressing questions are about readers, and how to bring them back to their local libraries, why are there none on the committee?