Unhappy feet

The latest book issue figures from Lewisham libraries should give cause for concern to those local authorities who are thinking about transferring their public library services to "community ownership". Borrowing figures released by Lewisham show catastrophic falls in book loans at all the libraries which were transferred from council control in May. At Blackheath Library, the number of loans fell by a factor of 10, from 5,044 to just 572—a decrease of nearly 90%.

I would be the first to say that the quality of a library service should not be assessed solely on the number of books issued. But a decrease of this magnitude indicates that community management of public libraries simply does not work. It may be too early to judge the success of this experiment, but it looks like the good people of Lewisham have voted—with their feet. The irony, of course, is that while these libraries are now run by a range of new owners—a computer recycling firm, Age Concern and community volunteers—the legal responsibility for the library service remains firmly with Lewisham Council.

Lewisham may have made some short-term financial savings from this new governance model, but the buck still stops with them under the 1964 Public Libraries Act. No doubt they are hoping that the recently announced DCMS review of the 1964 Act will lead to amendments (or repeal) which will free them from their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service to local residents.

Lewisham were early adopters of community management which forms part of the government's vision of the "Big Society". Many other councils are looking to follow Lewisham into this brave new world, including Doncaster (set to hand control of 12 libraries to community groups), the Isle of Wight (scrapped direct council funding to five libraries), Bolton (invited community groups to submit business plans to run five libraries), Camden (set aside £150,000 to help community groups run three libraries) and Hampshire (two libraries will close unless volunteers are recruited to run them). Others—like Brent, which closed six of its 12 libraries—have not even considered community management.

We certainly live in interesting times. While libraries continue to close, it was announced that the sale of books to the teenage market has gone up. This was balanced by a warning from the National Literacy Trust that almost four million children do not own a book. It said that poor youngsters were more likely to miss out. The trust's latest report raises concerns that the number of children without books is rising—from 10% in 2004 to 33% today. Boys are more likely to be without books than girls, and children eligible for free school meals are more likely not to own a book than their richer peers.

That is why public libraries must stay democratically accountable, publicly funded and free at the point of need.