During the last few months, various articles about beautiful libraries around the world have caught my eye, and I’ve posted some of them on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Something weird happens to me when I see pictures of shelves full of books. I feel happy and positive, as well as nostalgic, and generally feel a warm glow inside. I imagine many proofreaders and editors have a similar reaction. I’ve always loved reading and the physical feel of having a book in my hands and turning the pages, but it’s hard to explain why these images should have such a dramatic effect.
Reading from a young age
I’m sure it’s something to do with the fact that my mum introduced me and my sister to our local library when we were toddlers and we used to go once a week, pretty much without fail, until we were old enough to go on our own, which I continued to do until I left home. The library was pretty small, and by the time I was about twelve I’d read all the books I was interested in in the children’s section and graduated to the adults’ books. I read a lot of books I didn’t understand, but I loved reading new words. I don’t remember looking many of them up – I think I just enjoyed the process of reading them rather than understanding them at that stage.
Having access to hundreds of books was a luxury and amazing, and although I was bought books for Christmas and birthdays, I wouldn’t have read the several books a week I often got through had it not been for the library. I still feel a rising sense of anticipation when I go into my local library and see rows of books, there for the taking.
I’ll always be grateful to my mum for starting my love of libraries and reading – which has continued throughout my adult life. It’s led me to a career that I love and I feel that I have the right skills for.
Library closures and a decline in users
Sadly, there have been dramatic cuts to libraries’ budgets over the last few years, and about 105 libraries have closed in the last twelve months. By October of last year about 500 libraries (of the then total of 3,745) were run by volunteers because the only other option was closing them. These community-run libraries often have no professional librarian and tiny budgets. Of course the problem is complicated, and I don’t have room to discuss or even mention all the issues here. The number of library visits has been declining for at least 25 years, though, and fell by almost a third between 2006 and 2016. It is continuing to decline by 3% each year.
There’s been a lot of debate about why this has happened, and it was hoped that the Carnegie UK Trust Report on Public Libraries of April 2017 would make it clear what was needed to get library user numbers up. But the report received heavy criticism, most notably from Tim Coates, former head of Waterstones, publisher, and campaigner for the improvement of public libraries. You can see some of his criticisms here. The parts that I found most interesting are from the ‘Complaint’ section of the article:
- The second piece of evidence is the finding that is not sufficiently emphasised is that only 6% of library use is of computers and 70-80% is dependent on the quality of available printed reading material in the library. Public Library User Surveys of 10 years ago show that the figure for computer use was then was about 15-20%: it has declined dramatically in ten years
- The third piece of information in the report that is not given sufficient weight is that among library users the single improvement they seek most is an improvement in the range of books available when they visit and online
- In simple terms the significance of these findings is that the comments we so often hear from local councillors, library professionals and government officers that ‘library use is changing’ and that ‘we need to emphasise that libraries are not just about books’ are misleading for both the public and for library managers. Those officials imply that increasingly the public use libraries to access the computers and reading in digital forms that are available and that libraries should concentrate less on their book collections and pursue other activities than book reading. This research shows that the opposite is true. Use of computers in public libraries is less than half what it was a decade ago. It is a very small part of library use. What matters to users are the collections of available printed material when they visit and their ability to obtain quickly what they need. Improving these features is the key to increasing use. That is a really important management finding that the report fails to highlight or even mention.
Just. More. Books.
So it seems that one of the simple answers to this complicated problem might be to have more books in libraries that users want to read. But surely if that’s the answer then that would have been sorted out years ago as soon as the number of users started declining? Obviously not.
I’m not suggesting that my life would have been completely different if I’d never been to a library, but I know that my local library was a hugely important part of my childhood and was essential for the development of my reading skills and my lifelong interest in reading and words. I’m very grateful to have had access to a local library all my life, and I hope that in the future all children and young people will have access to and will want to use this fabulous and invaluable resource.