A Trip to the Library Should Be Inspiring ; Those Rare Libraries That Have Embraced Change Have Discovered a Great Enthusiasm for a Community Hub
Orr, Deborah, The Independent (London, England)
If there was one building, during my childhood, that I truly adored, it was Motherwell Library. For me, its very walls were suffused with all the grandest ideals that civilisation cherished. It was an Andrew Carnegie library, and the fact that it had been gifted to the town by a Scottish migrant philanthropist only added to its high-minded glamour and generous wonder.
Its entrance was elegant and imposing, with its motto above the open, welcoming, double doors, picked out in gold: "Let there be light." Inside, there was light, which streamed brightly through tall Victorian windows. Large, plush, peaceful, dignified, the library was an oasis of lush possibility in a tough little town.
About a decade ago, I returned to the library for the first time in many years, and found that it was crushingly unlike the place of my memories. It was more sparse than I had thought, and much shabbier. Far from being an Aladdin's cave of endless possibilities for the voracious reader, it was thinly stocked with grubby, elderly titles.
I put this down, in part, to "Lost World Syndrome", the process whereby a film that seemed utterly realistic and frightening in childhood turns out, in adulthood, to have been embarrassingly crude and silly all along. A child's eyes work in tandem with their imagination in a way that most adults lose the knack for.
A few years on, when my first son began to love books, I felt my changed perspective all the more keenly. My mother had made our weekly trips to the library into a wonderful and special pilgrimage. But when I took my son to our own local library, the outings felt desultory, with the books no match for what was available at school or at home, and the ambience depressing when compared to a browse - no purchase necessary - though the children's section of a bookshop. The visits gradually ceased.
I've come to realise, though, that the decline I saw in public libraries was real and awful, not just the ghastly readjustment of a jaded adult gaze. I'm not the only one who has decided that using the public library is no longer an attractive option.
Recent figures suggest that library visits have fallen by almost a fifth since 1992, while book loans have dropped by a quarter. Last year alone, lending rates fell by another 5 per cent. Report after report has pointed out that Britain's libraries are rotting away, with several predicting that on present rates of decline, the library service will no longer exist in just two more decades. The Government has launched initiative after initiative, each containing sensible and useful advice. It has been ignored.
And the problem is not money. Britain's public lending libraries have enjoyed a funding boost of 25 per cent in real terms over the past five years. A hefty pounds 900m of taxpayers' money is spent on public libraries, working out on average at pounds 40 per household. In some areas, though, more money is spent per household on maintaining libraries than is spent on the television licence.
Astoundingly, as public use of libraries declines each year, libraries spend less and less on books and more and more on administration and management. Currently, only 10 per cent of the money libraries receive is spent on buying books.
A former managing director of Waterstone's, Tim Coates, has become an outspoken campaigner for change. His report, Who's in Charge?, was published by the libraries charity Libri, this year, and is pretty unequivocal.
Coates believes that "the libraries have lost touch with the public who pay for them and whom they are supposed to serve". He notes that in general they have made none of the improvements that bookshops have over the past two decades, and points out that if they took advantage of the discounts negotiated by booksellers from publishers alone they could spend an extra pounds 12m on books. …