Reading, as we know, is not in crisis. But does the continuing decline in library services, and book loans, put its future in jeopardy? Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon proclaims her lifelong love of reading in a column for The Bookseller’s Scotland Focus this week. She confirms the value of reading for pleasure for children both educationally and emotionally, and gives a strong shout-out to public and school libraries, with a boast of Scotland’s national public library strategy and its School Library Improvement Fund.
These initiatives north of the border are good and welcome, but they are also much needed: the CIPFA statistics released in December showed Scotland lost 5% of its libraries in 2015/16 (28 in total), against a 2.6% loss in England (78 libraries); book loans in Scotland fell nearly 5% (by 947,000 loans), only a small improvement on England’s dreadful 7% (12 million) fall for the year.
In a blog for TheBookseller.com to mark the start of his tenure, new CILIP president Ayub Khan has argued that we need to highlight the opportunities that exist in the sector as well as the challenges. Libraries remain "the most visited cultural service, most trusted civic space, most used by young people," he affirmed, while saying they also need to "redefine their role in the digital age", and become "both cultural and community hubs and centres of digital excellence and opportunity".
Khan also raised the prospect of planning for a future beyond the Libraries Taskforce, whose funding is confirmed only until 2020/21. If its lifespan isn’t further extended, those who criticise the Taskforce for the limits of its leadership at a time of crisis will not greatly mourn its departure.
Meanwhile at Westminster, we have the third new libraries minister in 18 months: Northampton North’s Michael Ellis—an MP whose chief claim to fame thus far is persuading the government to put more money into pothole repairs. With the constantly rotating door of ministerial posts, will he stay in the role long enough even to master the brief?
Waterstones m.d. James Daunt decried the "disgrace" of library cuts in an interview this week, saying the decline of the service will damage the future of British society; a view widely shared in this industry. If between them Khan and Ellis can push the case for libraries up national and local agendas, that assistance is badly needed; but the chronic threats to the service must be acknowledged, and whatever the digital opportunities for the library service, books and reading must stay absolutely at its core.