Madsen Pirie

The role of libraries

The role of libraries
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New government statistics show that libraries are less popular than ever, with a drop over 5 years of nearly one-third in the number who visit them. Over 60 percent of adults do not use them even once a year. Libraries seem vulnerable. With government striving to make economies and councils made to cut budgets, libraries could see their spending cut dramatically.

Libraries face a downward spiral in which councils try to make savings by cutting hours, letting some staff go, and closing some facilities altogether. Libraries then become less convenient to use, and usage figures decline even further.

There are alternatives. Although libraries mostly loan popular bestsellers and do-it-yourself books to adults, they also introduce children into the world of reading. Despite the falling figures for adult use, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport reports that 77.9 percent of children aged between five and ten visited a library during the past year. This is a much more valuable function.

Libraries encourage and enable children to read. Starting children in the habit of reading is a very good way of putting their feet firmly on the ladder of education. Children who read tend to do better at school, and to gain the qualifications that later open so many of life's doors.

The reasons for the decline in adult library use may be obvious. The rise of alternative media outlets, plus the growth of internet booksellers may have reduced the habit of borrowing books from libraries. If councils do have to look long and hard at library budgets, they might well decide that making fiction blockbusters available free to readers is not the most effective use of their funds.  

Nowhere is it written that libraries have to provide the same services in traditional ways. Now might be a good time to change their role, making it their prime objective to facilitate reading by children, rather than adults.  Imaginative campaigns, done in partnership with local schools and teachers, could boost children's library use, and make an important contribution to raising educational standards. Social mobility in the UK declined over the past 13 years, but a reading habit for children provides them with a ladder that ultimately leads to better jobs and salaries.  

Libraries might be ideal candidates for the 'Big Society' approach, making much greater use of local volunteers, as one or two places have started to do. Library work is quite suited to retired people who want to keep active and play a useful role in their communities.

Some US public libraries have been handed under contract for private firms to run, securing longer hours and bigger book-buying budgets. The result was increased library usage. Other US places have handed their libraries over to non-profit groups to run with volunteer labour, also with improved results.  These could be a template for saving threatened library services in Britain.

We should not be closing libraries, but asking instead what we want them to do, and using imaginative methods to make sure they can do this efficiently.

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute