Libraries: A Sorry Chapter for Libraries

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Dale

The Government's determination to set deadlines for local authorities to improve key services has found Birmingham wanting on the subject dear to the hearts of the city's Victorian forefathers - its public libraries.

As is the case with deteriorating roads, crumbling housing and outdated old people's homes, the city council has virtually no chance of meeting Whitehall's latest targets for improvement.

It has until 2004 to comply with 19 standards for public libraries published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

These cover a variety of subjects ranging from the size, number and quality of libraries to an assessment of book stock, staffing levels and public use.

At the moment Birmingham fails to meet 11 of the 19 standards and there appears to be little confidence at council level that matters can be turned around quickly.

Major areas of failure include opening hours, an average 33 per week against a target of 63 hours, and customer satisfaction which is sharply below that required by the DCMS.

Birmingham has fewer libraries per head of population than all but two other local authorities in England and Wales.

Reductions in the book-buying fund mean that many customers are unable to find what they are looking for, which the council admits is impacting on the number of visits to libraries with disgruntled members of the public staying away.

In fact, the number of people using the city's libraries continues to fall although the scale of decline has begun to slow. In 1996, there were 6,227,624 visitors. Last year, there were 4,061,200.

The drop, about a third in four years, can be attributed to many factors, the growth of modern technology being one.

According to a city council spokeswoman, the Internet boom has meant more people going online to reserve and renew books rather than visiting in person.

It may also be that more people are turning to the Internet for their information.

In its Annual Library Plan submission to the DCMS, the council offers a flicker of hope with the announcement that an additional pounds 2.9 million of capital money will be available over the next three years to refurbish and replace the poorest of Birmingham's 40 community libraries. …