Thursday, 23 December 2010

Libraries really do need to change, you know

Yesterday, I had an interesting, if inconclusive conversation about the future of public libraries. Partly, this took place in the context of funding being withdrawn from the Bookstart** programme – a decision, some suggest will result in thousands of illiterate youths littering our streets unable to take a full part because they didn’t have “access” to books when they were at school.

Now, stepping aside from this argument (although I do note that even with this wonderful scheme we’re managing to churn out a truly depressing number of innumerate, illiterates from our schools), I think it sensible to consider the point and purpose of the public library. And, indeed whether the manner in which we organise the service continues to fit the purpose.

Bradford has 32 libraries (plus a mobile service of which more later) that get around 29,000 visits each week (which is around 1.5 million each year) from a population of 506,000 – which means that just below 6% of the district’s population visit in a given week. For a service seen as so critical to the future of the district this is a pretty poor show especially when 36% of library users are over 60 (and 31% describe themselves as “wholly retired”)*.

The truth is that public lending libraries are – to most of us – something of an anachronism. A generation of people brought up to use libraries continue to do so but there isn’t a replacement generation – or more accurately, not sufficient of a replacement generation to justify sustaining public lending libraries in their current form.

At the same time we continue to read – and in growing quantities if book sales figures are to be believed (these are for Q1 2010):

It reports that home sales have grown marginally by volume from 84.3m to 84.4m units, while value decreased by 3.3% from £287m to £278m. Conversely, export value sales grew by 2.4% from £196m to £201m, while volume sales decreased by 4.5% from 54.2m to 51.8m units.

And the biggest driver behind that increase was “volume sales of children’s books”!

Any local councillor will tell you, however, that you meddle with libraries at your peril! And you certainly don’t close them – that’s a sure recipe for petitions, protests and “more-in-sorrow-than-anger” letters to the local papers. Yet those same people protesting are often the very same people who have stopped using the library. The 94% who won’t be visiting this week.

Moreover, that 6% aren’t the needy, the poor, those who can’t afford to buy books. They are people who like the fact that they can get reading for free from the local council. Most of them are middle-class folk who also buy a lot of books. We should not kid ourselves that the poor are going anywhere near libraries – except on those one or two compulsory occasions when, in a search for scenery change the class teacher drags her charges down to the library.

We should begin to think more creatively about libraries – co-locating them with schools, increasing the use of mobile libraries that allow places like Cullingworth to have a service despite not having a library, targeting specific groups such as the housebound and disabled (particularly those with impaired vision where the general market doesn’t always suit) and making use of the library buildings for a wider range of services.

Above all thought should be given to what attracts folk – the old reading room concept no longer works, the lending library function is declining and specialist services (film, music and such like) are often better provided on-line. It beats me why great town centre libraries like that in Keighley don’t partner with one of the coffee chains – taking a leaf from the bookshop book so to speak. And why should we not charge those borrowing books a modest subscription? Most could afford £25 a year to use the library (and we could give discounts to children and workless) and that would go some way towards securing the service.

Lending libraries came about because books – and they were hardback books – were expensive. It meant that people who couldn’t afford all those pricey publications could have access to them – could read the wonders of our great canon of literature (or – as is more common – six romance novels a fortnight).

Today it isn’t the price of books that stops people from reading, it’s that people aren’t interested in reading. They don’t want to bury themselves in what some smug literary critic (in this case from the Guardian) calls “thought-provoking books” because, to put it pretty bluntly, most of the literary novels that clutter up the prize shortlists are really dull. A little bit of me smiles with pleasure at the fact that Katie Price (or rather whoever wrote the book with her name on) outsells the entire Booker shortlist!

The time has come to free local councils from the straitjacket of their statutory duty and to allow a new generation of creative centres of knowledge, learning and pleasure to replace the old, stale and declining public lending library.


*I will add a caveat to this by saying that the user survey – because of the way it is conducted almost wholly fails to capture numbers of users under the age of 15

**As a slight aside - I fail entirely to see why the publishing industry, filled as it is with wealthy, righteous lefties like Paul Hamlyn can't find it in its heart and deep pockets to find £10 million or so to carry on the programme. That seems a more honest and honourable approach than holding a gun to the taxpayers' heads


marksany said...

My local library has become an Internet cafe, with demand for computer time exceed in availability. Half the machines are occupied by immigrants communicating with friends and relatives back home, the rest are used by kids using Facebook and playing miniclips.
They don't seem to charge for computer use.

Should councils be doing this? There are a few commercial Internet cafee around and would be moreif the library didn't give it away free.

Raquel said...

Here is a bit of a alternative idea. Why don't we end compulsory education (or should we call it education delivered by compulsion?) and put the money that we put into schools, into top class libraries/learning centres instead? Your local library can give you everything that a school can give you and more, yet without the coercion and authoritarianism. As a teen I would have been happy to go seek out my preferred learning path rather than to be forced to take up a narrow curriculum , as was the case. I'm sure I would have excelled had I been given the freedom of a library daily, rather than the confinement of a classroom. The library has a very bright future if people started to admit how anarchic schools are. A library education is at least a voluntary one. That can't be a bad start IMO.

Anonymous said...

Great post Simon. Whilst Raquel takes us in a different direction (a superb observation, never the less) I wholeheartedly agree with your observations.

The Carnegie of the future is online not bricks and mortar - we should put our investment into broadband and WiFi infrastructures, and digital skills, and give over pandering to the views of a very small minority.

The coffee shop just has to happen but what about collaborative workspaces too for mobile and home workers?

There's a growing untapped need there.

Dave said...

Was nodding throughout this post until the reverse-snobbery of the penultimate paragraph. Is is exactly this kind of attitude that encourages people to turn away from books and reading in favour of the celebrity-soaked anti-culture that folk have pushed into their faces at every turn.

That aside, it's fair to say that public libraries have probably lost their way somewhat. Perhaps it's worth going back to think about exactly why they are there, as you note, Simon. Lending people books was never the primary purpose, and if that purpose is in fact to encourage reading amongst groups that don't tend to, then there are probably better ways of doing it.

Phil said...

I'm fascinated by your suggestion that people should pay to use the library. Here's a point for you - we already do. We pay for it in our taxes. The service should not NEED securing, since the statutory requirement already secures it.

You go on to say that people aren't interested in reading. That's an astonishing claim given that earlier in your piece you're just said that book sales figures are increasing! You can have it one way or another, but not both. Which is it to be?

Libraries are not 'old and stale' and nor are they declining. Many libraries are now seeing an increase in use - if yours are not, perhaps it has something to do with attitudes of councillors such as yours who wish to do away with them and as such have strangled their budgets.

SadButMadLad said...

Phil, the point is not that we are paying taxes, it's that we are paying taxes for a service only used by a minority. And a minority who could afford to pay for it themselves. If there was a charge for those not on benefits or any sort then the libraries would be partially self funding. It would lower the pressure on the council tax to pay for all these "statutary" duties. The tax payer would then be paying only for those who could not afford to visit the library. And those who can't afford a PC and a broadband connection or a visit to an internet cafe.

You say that some libraries are getting an increased use. But is that from the users who could afford a subscription or those who use the library because it's free rather than from those who can't afford books. The surveys seem to indicate the former.

Phil said...

A firestation is only used by a minority, but I imagine you're happy to pay for that. Ditto a sports ground or swimming pool. Part of living in a society is that we all pay taxes to benefit the entire commmunity, irrespective of it we use something ourselves.

How do you KNOW that library users can afford to pay for the use themselves. Please point me to your evidence for this.

Simon Cooke said...

@Phil - while I get your point about public goods, I'm not sure there's a direct comparison between the availability of the fire service and the availability of a library service. While there is a fairly strong argument that much of our fire service could be either merged with the (much busier) ambulance service or undertaken by volunteers & part0timers as in the case throughout most of Europe and North America, that service is universal even when we don't use it - this is on the insurance principle. That argument doesn't apply to libraries however much we might love and cherish them!

@Dave - I'll explain what you call inverted snobbery elsewhere!

SadButMadLad said...

Simon's covered it pretty much, but a firestation is an insurance scheme for everyone unlike a library which is more like a public swimming pool. Actually, in America fire services are sometimes directly paid for. They have been occasions where they won't come to put a fire out if you haven't paid, especially true in rural areas where the fire isn't likely to spread to another property.

Taxes are paid by the population to cover the things that the state wants to do, not necessarily the things that the population want. Yes some of the money goes on things that everyone needs like national defence but there are other things that many don't want their money spent on like paying for minorities to have marches and groups.

Benefits is an insurance scheme of sorts. Or at least it is supposed to be, it's not supposed to be a lifestyle choice. We pay in on the basis that we sometimes might need it.

For those on benefits or the low paid, society feels that they need some support to get back up the ladder to paying their own way, so they don't mind paying for cheap housing or other services that they can't afford like libraries in ther interim.

As for paying for libraries, I don't have to prove that library users can pay for it as the point is that those who can't afford what ever the charge will be able to use it for free. It might actually end up that everyone who does use the library is on benefits as those who could afford it don't use because they can do it at home over the internet or buy their own books. So the libraries end up totally funded by benefits, but then you know exactly who your customers are and you know exactly that you can tailer the libraries' support service to them.

Phil said...

Right, so your suggestion is that the library service is paid for by benefits. Which of course is money that comes from taxpayers. And libraries are currently funded by taxpayers, so I really don't see how your suggestion is an improvement - it simply means that taxpayers end up paying for a service that they can't use. Unlike the £20 a year that we're paying at the moment which gives us unlimited access. Seems to be something of a retrograde step.

SadButMadLad said...

Yes, I agree that if libraries are free to those on benefits then it's money coming from taxpayers. But this is on the basis that those who are at a disadvantage can get a leg up the ladder. This is what benefits are for. So if libraries are part of this package to allow those on benefits to better themselves then that is a good thing.

It's the same as swimming pools where those on benefits can get in cheaper than those who are fully waged. Taxpayers are subsidising this cheap access and it's something they can't use. What so different or special about a library service.

Phil said...

Yes, I agree that it's a strange situation where 'taxpayers are subsidising this cheap access and it's something they can't use.' Which is a perfect reason for continuing to ensure that the situation stays exactly as it is - taxpayers provide library budget and get to use libraries. Free for everyone to use, irrespective of background. I'm glad that you agree with me.

Emily said...

"Moreover, that 6% aren’t the needy, the poor, those who can’t afford to buy books. They are people who like the fact that they can get reading for free from the local council. Most of them are middle-class folk who also buy a lot of books. We should not kid ourselves that the poor are going anywhere near libraries"

I agree with a few things you've said - like co-locating libraries with schools, having coffee shops inside (which some already do) and increasing the use of mobile libraries, but I disagree with the rest.

I use my local library weekly, probably borrowing about eight books a month (mostly classics, crime, sci-fi, non-fiction or cookery, not romance as you assume), which I read during my long commutes to work. While I wouldn't describe myself as poor, I earn considerably less than the national average wage, so whether you'd count me as being middle class I don't know.

Occasionally I buy books from charity shops, but I wouldn't be able to afford to buy eight new books a month. You claim books are no longer expensive when new books from a bookshop or even online can easily cost between £5-£20 each. That may be nothing to you, but to me, on a non-Councillor wage, books still are expensive. You make the comment that library users "are people who like the fact that they can get reading for free from the local council" as if that's a bad thing - shouldn't the council be offering services that local people appreciate?!