Big UK publishers need to lobby councils over the importance of their libraries in a “last ditch stand” to save the service, campaigner Tim Coates has claimed.
With council budgets under threat across the country, many local authorities have announced plans in recent years to close or outsource their library facilities in a bid to slash costs. Essex and Ealing are two of the most recent examples while proposals to close all but one of 17 libraries in Aberdeen were pulled at the last-minute earlier this month.
However, Coates, a former Waterstones boss, argues the main problem with libraries is not a lack of funding but a shortage of books inside them. According to his analysis of figures last December, library spending on books fell 20% in year-on-year in the 12 months to the end of March 2018.
Coates said publishers need to intervene or the country’s love of reading could be impacted - alongside the industry. He argues only they have the clout to call for an improvement in library book stock.
He told The Bookseller: “The reason why they should take action is that within a decade, unless there is a dramatic change of method, there will be no public library service in the UK. The figures show that clearly - that is the rate of the decline in use.
“Public libraries in almost all other countries are one of the main ways that people come to enjoy reading. Therefore, in the UK we have lost one of the major marketing forces that was available to the industry. We will be almost alone in the civilised world in letting that happen.
“In America public libraries thrive and publishers support them. Publishers in the UK have lost interest in public library services because they now sell so little to them . What they are missing by this lack of concern is the longer term advantage that libraries offer of bringing readers into the market.”
The campaigner has continually questioned why library services in the US and Australia appear to have held up while figures for the UK show a service in decline.
Coates insisted that devoting more funds to libraries would be a “waste” while official bodies had little influence. Instead, he claimed councillors who control the library system needed to be targeted. He argued they should be convinced that libraries are still useful, the supply chain should be brought into line with the wider industry’s, the facilities should focus on reading over other activities and, vitally, stronger collections of books were required.
Coates said: “This means senior managers of publishing houses, for example, approaching the cabinet members of councils in Essex, Derbyshire, Lambeth Aberdeenshire and those other councils who are currently proposing to close or strip out their library services and discovering what are the arguments that will effectively reverse the actions in progress.
“It is a last ditch stand - but without it, within only a few years we will have lost a great part of our audience. We are already seeing it in YA and children’s books. It happened several years ago in reference books. It will gradually diminish all parts of the audience for trade books in the UK.”
Nick Poole, c.e.o of CILIP, said his organisation was also trying to build a partnership with the book industry, but insisted funding had a part to play.
He said: “Books and reading are the heart of a modern public library service, and as a sector we forget that at our peril. There is clearly a correlation between the quality and currency of book stock and the usage of library services, so we welcome any impetus to improve the overall provision of books in libraries. We do also have to be realistic that expenditure on public libraries in the UK has fallen by at least 20% in the last nine years, which has inevitably had an impact on the sector’s ability to maintain and improve book stock.
“Under our ‘Nation of Readers’ programme, CILIP is working to build stronger relationships between the book trade and libraries. Ultimately, we have a common interest both in promoting readership and ensuring the supply of fantastic, exciting and diverse books.”