Saving our libraries

<p>Margaret Hodge, Minister of State for Culture, Media &amp; Sport, commenting on declining library usage, has lectured librarians on how they can increase visitors by getting in with the young generation. And what does this hip, war-mongering granny suggest? She wants the library to be a &ldquo;leisure and recreation hub&rdquo;&mdash;sounds like a futuristic Japanese knocking-shop. &ldquo;Leisure&rdquo;: what is it about that Orwellian word that makes one reach for one&rsquo;s service revolver?</p>
<p>This week, one of the first of these hubs, Margate library&mdash;sorry, &ldquo;Thanet Gateway&rdquo;&mdash;hit <i>Private Eye</i>. It seems visitor numbers have not risen according to the Hodgeian plan. A Ramsgate councillor, threatened with the next hub, has called Margate&rsquo;s Gateway &ldquo;a disaster&rdquo;.</p>
<p>Libraries have tried DVDs&mdash;but now DVD borrowing is outmoded and plummeting. They have tried internet terminals: another dead end, as every schmo now has the web at home. They tried de-stocking, disgracefully flogging off collections donated lovingly for the public good, in perpetuity. A west London library recently sold a great ornithology collection off cheap to a back-street dealer. I gave my father&rsquo;s old books to a dusty university because I could not trust the public library to keep them. Rather than applying crude algorithms to reserve collections, selling them if they haven&rsquo;t been borrowed in a certain period, all reserve stock should be orderable via the internet.</p>
<p>Worst of all, recruitment guidelines now prioritise customer skills; book knowledge is inessential. Consequently, staff turnover has shot up. Local councils have shed veteran librarians by the hundred so that they can &shy;delegate book-buying to the book &shy;supply companies.</p>
<p>Let&rsquo;s remember the ideal: the librarian at the centre of the British Museum Reading Room. For 200 years this post was held by various extraordinary polymaths. Customers, from Dickens to Lenin, could ask the librarian about, well, anything.</p>
<p>There is a future for libraries. Norwich library, Britain&rsquo;s busiest, focuses on local studies (a national growth area), and staff are infused with pride in their job. New York Public Library, the world&rsquo;s best, has always been part-financed by entrepreneurs. NYPL&rsquo;s full collection can be searched worldwide, it never sells off stock, it has a good caf&eacute;, a library shop, NYPL-branded book accessories, inventive author talks and debates, Friends of the Library and an e-newsletter covering acquisitions of both new and old books.</p>
<p>Britain invented public libraries; now we need to re-invent them.<br />