The public side of public libraries

Public libraries are as the name suggests, a public service, but the public has little real say in how the service is delivered.

However, the public decides whether or not to use the service and, unfortunately, it seems that they are increasingly deciding to stay away. Official statistics show the number of library visits has dropped by 12.5%, and borrowing by 20%, in just five years. The longer term decline has been even more dramatic with the number of visits down by a third since 1997.

The reasons that the public are voting with their feet are undoubtedly complex and will probably include tired book stocks, reduced opening hours, a poor digital offering and increasingly, library closures and transfers to volunteer management. 

With this disturbing level of decline, one would expect the libraries minister, Arts Council England and especially the professional bodies to be asking some very hard questions. One would also expect the recently established "Leadership for Libraries" task force to ensure that they understand what is happening and why. But, sadly, no - the reality of what is happening does not appear to be on the agenda, though some senior librarians privately admit that they are very worried.

It appears that a sizeable and influential section of national and local government increasingly see public libraries as an anachronism and the decline in usage simply re-enforces that view. After all, books are widely available to purchase in bookshops, in supermarkets and on the internet and can be read in print or e-books and listened to in audio, so why do we still need libraries?

This argument avoids the inconvenient truth that public libraries are by far the most popular cultural activity in this country and that 8 million people are active library users. To the young, the elderly, the less well off and the disadvantaged they are an essential service providing free access to books, study space and online services. Public libraries support and promote literacy, reading, education and access to information and knowledge. They support mothers and toddlers groups, home work clubs, reading groups and home delivery to the house bound. Libraries are also important community spaces.

The essential issue facing the service is not that the need is going away but that it has been poorly managed and resourced for so many years. It has almost become a cliche to say that public libraries lack effective leadership, that the service is poorly structured and is supported by old legacy systems and that there is woefully inadequate management of resources. Those asked to look hard at the service use terms such as "dysfunctional" and "in crisis" when describing what they find.

The new "Leadership for Libraries" task force is the latest attempt to address the issues while trying to retain the support of local government. The approach of its chair, Dr Paul Blantern seems very cautious and he has packed his panel with senior council chiefs as well as administrators from the professional bodies and agencies. However, he promises to try to "build a real library service that is fit for the future."

Mr Blantern seems concerned to align public libraries with Government and local government agendas and to promote the wide variety of roles that libraries play in their communities. That may be important but must be secondary to first aligning libraries to the needs of the millions of people who rely upon and need public libraries. That requires Mr Blantern's task force to gain a proper understanding of what is really happening in the sector and how a modern service can fulfil the changing needs of our diverse communities. Until the task force does that library users will continue to vote with their feet, and our society will be much poorer.

Desmond Clarke is a former president and c.e.o. of Thomson Publishing Services Group and a director of Faber, and a veteran campaigner for public libraries