Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed

20 thoughts on “Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed”

  1. No – I think you made the case very well. I came across a piece from a couple of years ago in the New Statesman that makes your point, too. In ‘Time for a quiet rebellion over library closures’, Robin Ince wrote about what happened when the local council threatened to close the library in Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes to comply with government budget cuts: residents got out their library cards and borrowed every single book on the shelves – some 16,000 in total. Like you, he argued that we must ‘Use it or lose it’.

  2. Hhmm. It’s bad, of course. But really, how bad? There’s an awful lot of middle-class sentimentality and condescension, projected downwards, flowing through this debate. The facts.are inconvenient. People no longer use libraries, neither as they once did, nor absolutely. Where they do, it’s to borrow, in the main, the latest pulp fiction. Visitors numbers have been declining for 40 years; the volume of book issues (ie books borrowed) has declined even more steeply. It’s been steepest in working-class areas. Books, relative to average income, are cheaper than at any time in history. And libraries have diversified into DVDs etc – to no avail. The decline continues, closures or not

    1. Certainly ways of reading are changing with technology, but there are still a hell of a lot of books borrowed from public libraries – a great many by kids. In an analysis of the data for 2010, John Dugdale wrote in The Guardian: ‘Who borrows books from libraries? Millions of people, according to the latest book lending data from the Public Lending Right, which manages payments to authors.’ (

      The importance of libraries for young readers is underscored by the fact that ‘Seven British children’s writers are in the Top 10 most borrowed authors in UK libraries’ while ‘almost 80% of 5-10 year olds now use our public libraries’. Quite apart from the issue of class and disposable income with which to buy books, these facts seem to me really important.

      The Telegraph also reports that library use has been increasing:

      ‘ A report from The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) revealed that 310.8 million books were borrowed from libraries across the country in 2008/09. The figure represents a 1 per cent increase compared with the previous 12-month period, the first rise in book borrowing in 10 years. The figures also showed that the number of children’s books borrowed from libraries across the UK increased 5 per cent last year, with 95.4 million children’s books being taken out compared to the 90.6 million in the previous 12-month period. The statistics also show the number of visits to library websites increased by 49 per cent to 113.5 million.’ (

      The latest statistics ( show that:

      ‘38% of adults aged 65-74 use the library
      The proportion of adults using the library from the social rented sector has increased from 37% to 42%.
      Adults who are not working have higher rates of library attendance (42%) than those who are working 36%.
      People in the upper socio-economic groups (41%) are more likely than those in the lower socio-economic groups (36%) to use the library, although library use by people in lower socio-economic groups is increasing’

      So – a valuable service for children, the poor, the unemployed and the elderly. And I just think it’s not sentimental to imagine that one kid off a ravaged and depressed estate who wanders into the local library, sits down, opens a book and sets out on a journey to …. where?

  3. I suppose the question posed then is do we bow to the lowest common denominator which is a dollar sign or do we hold out for cultural integrity? I used to do a lot of family research, you could walk into the records office and do your own searching. You had to travel that was all. Now it’s digitalised and you need a computer to access records – so it’s lucre before you even start, and someone somewhere is getting pretty rich I guess. I’m sure there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in all these charges unless you are poor, and then you are also culturally disenfranchised. This idea that computers are the new portals to knowledge is a myth – many Internet sites and increasingly so, charge for access to knowledge + the Internet is notoriously unreliable for bugs and glitches, it is just no substitute for sitting quietly in a library and seriously reading something without interruption. In losing our libraries we are losing an entire way of life – we are losing a large chunk of our culture, idealism, and social history I feel.

    1. Dave and Kris – I just found this, too: a new report from the Carnegie Trust (summarised here: which shows that:

      – around three quarters (74%) of those surveyed in England felt that libraries were ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ for communities,
      – half of those surveyed had used a public library in the previous 12 months.
      – Library use by 15-24 year olds (55%) was higher than the average over all age groups (50%)
      – there was a strong and statistically significant relationship between library use and being a prolific reader (reading at least one book every 6 weeks)

      Dave was right about this, though: ‘In relation to social class it appears that senior
      managers and professionals (71%) were more likely to have visited a library that those in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations (42%).’ But isn’t that bound to be the case when literacy and love of reading is not distributed evenly across the population?
      With far fewer libraries wouldn’t the situation be far, far worse?

      1. The magic of opening a book is going to become something alien to future generations if we lose our libraries I fear. The last I heard literacy levels were actually falling after the government push to ‘raise standards’ in schools – enforced Literacy as opposed to reading for pleasure, may have seen to it that youngsters are starting to view literacy as something basically punitive. The lesson in that one is to keep politicans out of education, keep them out of sport and importantly keep them out of health care wherever possible.

  4. This is so depressing, closing libraries is always the soft option. It is a dilemma if cuts do have to be made though – the trouble is no public services should be cut. I am beginning to wonder what the answer is apart from revolution and redirection of wealth!

    1. The coalition have made it clear that bankers’ bonuses must be protected before books. You can cook them but not look at them. “Stop being simplistic,” comes the comment. Well, it seems quite simple to me. No-one’s denying that libraries need to adapt – but they have and, as Gerry points out, they are well used. We are certainly not going to change things while recent prime ministers go straight on to the bankers’ payroll.

  5. I’ve been digging around what local evidence there is for library use these days. Generally, numbers for book borrowing are DOWN, but more resilient in wealthier suburban areas. However, libraries like to see themselves these days (correctly, in my view) as information resource centres. Hence user footfall is slightly UP in places, being sustained by (free) access to computers. Some will use their private laptops via the library WiFi. But many more will go online via the library PCs.

    Now one Government policy change is driving library usage UP. Benefit claimants, including job-seekers, are now required to register online – and only online. Library computers are increasingly being used for this..

  6. “Benefit claimants, including job-seekers, are now required to register online – and only online.” OMG – if they are closing the libraries, what happens if you don’t own or can’t afford a computer or the Internet connection, what then? Do the people who bring in these ideas actually think? A lot of people may have lost the capacity for creative thought due to the narrow confines of the educational curriculum – there may be a lot of bright people out there whose imaginative lives are inert. So when these stark initiatives come out of central government the mindset responsible for them might be unable to comprehend their consequencies, because the imaginative faculty – and it follows, the ability to emphasise and feel compassion – has never been fully developed. At this juncture you are shaping human beings for society who may be in danger of not really understanding what it is to be fully human, and that is a precarious predicament for everyone.

  7. An excellent potted history of the evolution of public libraries in the UK (and in Liverpool in particular). The problem is that these familiar arguments appear to cut no ice with the Conservatives in Westminster corridors of power. Even if we could convince these people that knowledge is not, after all, power, they still would not let us keep our public libraries, but they’ll keep the two they have to themselves in the Houses of Parliament, publicly funded of course. It is not true that people do not use libraries in these times; the internet is no substitute for human contact. The secret to a successful public library service is professional librarians making selection decisions based upon their day to day knowledge of their local communities. This method of working has been undermined by what the managers call “outsourcing”, so that private companies do the selection and even the cataloguing etc. of any incoming stock, if you have a decent budget for such a thing as new stock in the first place. A society that does not wish to fund the traditional, and much more sensible way of doing things in public libraries is a very sick society heading in a direction that it will be hard to describe without falling into hyperbole.

  8. Please: let the destruction of libraries be the hallmark of the Conservative Party from this day onwards, so that all may know them for what they really are. Thanks for the article Gerry.

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