The Big Question: How are public libraries changing, and what does their future hold?

Arifa Akbar
Tuesday 29 September 2009 00:00 BST

Why are we asking this now?

Because borrowing has just got a whole lot easier: the population can now borrow from any one of more than 4,000 public libraries across England, Wales and Northern Ireland regardless of where they live, under a new scheme revealed by the Society of Chief Librarians. Existing membership cards or a proof of address will allow readers to use any library, although books have to be returned to the same area. The ultimate aim is to encourage more people to use libraries in the face of stiff competition from online booksellers and bookshops with the added attraction of coffee bars. Among those who might benefit from the scheme are people who need extra reading material while on holiday. Users will be issued with cards allowing them to drop books at libraries elsewhere under plans set to be published next month by the Culture minister, Margaret Hodge.

So has there been a decline in library use?

Yes. It looks pretty gloomy for book borrowing, which has fallen consistently over the past few years; the annual statistics for 2002/3 showed that there were 15,843,000 borrowers across the country, which by 2007/8, had dropped by 20 per cent to 12,608,000. The total number of full-time staff employed by libraries has also fallen by 6.5 per cent when compared to 2002/3, with trained specialists most greatly in decline. Attendance is dropping too, with the number of visits to libraries down by 2.6 per cent in 2007/8 when compared to the previous year and bookstock has faced an 11 per cent fall. Over the past decade, book borrowings have fallen by 34 per cent and 40 libraries closed across Britain in 2006/7 alone.

Where are libraries going wrong?

While the service offers a wide range of uses, it could perhaps do with a PR makeover. Tony Durcan, chair of the Society of Chief Libraries, said that on the whole, libraries across Britain offered a "tremendous service" but not everyone knew what they had to offer. The solution, he said, was in good advertising on a national scale. "One of the big issues is around how we promote the value of public libraries. There are still people who don't realise libraries are free to use. There has to be national co-ordination to provide leadership in pulling it together, and let people know," he said.

Is there a silver lining?

The good news is that although fewer books are being borrowed, people are taking advantage of the services offered by local libraries which includes free internet access. The number of people using library services via the internet, for services including book renewals and catalogue inquiries, has risen 20 per cent this year, with more than 76m web visits. Roy Clare, chief executive of the Museums and Libraries Archive (MLA), said this could signal the future. "If you look at the supposed downward curve of the library's physical use, it is matched or even eclipsed by online access. It's something you can do 24/7 – you can order books from the library at 2am and they will be delivered to your local library for collection." He said the tenet on which the library was founded – as a place for learning – still held strong. "The core values in the mid 19th century were around a learning agenda and access to information; libraries are still a wonderful, democratic way to access information and reading".

Do libraries need an image revamp?

The former Culture secretary Andy Burnham said that libraries needed to shake off their popular image as dusty institutions filled with imposing librarians to thrive in the modern world. A consultation was launched last year that could transform the face of libraries with in-house coffee franchises, film centres and bookshops. Mr Burnham said that the sector needed to "think radical" to modernise, adding: "The popular public image of libraries as solemn and sombre places patrolled by fearsome and formidable staff is decades out of date, but is nonetheless taken for granted by too many people."

Should we end the silence rule in libraries?

Mr Burham floated the idea last year, suggesting that the traditional silence in libraries be reviewed (as well as opening hours extended). He said: "Libraries should be a place for families and joy and chatter. The word chatter might strike fear into the heart of traditionalists but libraries should be places that offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home." A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport added that the Government wanted to transform the atmosphere of libraries to make them similar to Waterstones stores. The silence debate caused a storm with campaigners accusing Mr Burnham of dodging the real issue of decades of under-funding.

Which is the best example of a successful library?

The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library in East Anglia was hailed as England's most popular in March this year; it had more visitors and lent more books than any other in 2007/8, according to the Museums and Libraries Archive. Chelmsford Library in Essex was the second highest book lender, followed by Milton Keynes, Oxford and Chesterfield. The Norfolk library attracted 1.5 million visitors and lent 1,139,090 books during the period.

How are libraries adapting to modern times?

Some libraries have already abandoned the bureaucracy around obtaining membership, with libraries in the Stockport, Blackpool and Manchester areas no longer asking for forms of identification first. Camden council in north London is set to introduce WiFi and increase opening hours. In Hillingdon, west London, libraries have been refurbished, with extended opening times and the Starbucks franchise invited to set up coffee shops. In Hillingdon's Ruislip Manor branch, the changes have led to an increase in visitor numbers by 11,000, with 12,000 more books being lent.

Are British libraries worse off than abroad?

Flagship libraries across the globe are impressive visions to behold – New York public library is one of the largest and offers patrons access to millions of books and it has worked with Google to create a selection of digital books; the Bibliotheque Nationale de France focuses on computers more than books including services from four super computers. But our system, which is funded on a local government level, is apparently the envy of many. "Libraries abroad are in many ways envious of what we are able to do. Big cities abroad have fantastic libraries but they are not so good at having the library at their doorsteps," said Mr Clare.

What's the future?

The Society of Chief Libraries is considering adopting a similar model to British Columbia Libraries' "BC One" card, where a library card from home allows access to libraries anywhere in the Canadian province. At the same time, ministers are planning a home delivery system similar to online DVD rental website where readers can borrow books online, have them delivered by post, and then return them in a prepaid envelope. The Culture minister, Margaret Hodge, has championed ideas to rejuvenate libraries, such as having libraries in shopping centres or rail stations and a possible deal with coffee chains that would see cafes opened in the building.

Is the library a dying institution?


*Attendance and borrowing figures have dipped over the past five years with no signs of an upward trend

*The commercial might of bookshops and the cheap accessibility of websites such as Amazon will kill off the local library

*Funding limits in most libraries mean their survival cannot be ensured


*Online activity in libraries has increased, with greater numbers ordering or reserving books

*Some libraries across the country have bucked the trend in dipping attendance and borrowing figures and lured greater numbers to their doors.

*Initiatives such as coffee shops and DVD rentals point the way forward

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