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