Cry to save 'libraries in distress'

<p>Tom Holman</p><p>Books and reading need to be put back at the heart of failing public libraries, according to the House of Commons select committee chaired by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman.</p><p>The committee's report, published yesterday, savaged the long-term neglect of a service "in distress". It calls on the government to make radical changes to the way libraries are managed and monitored.</p><p>The report criticised the neglect of books at a time when total spending on libraries was rising and interest in reading high. It urged all library authorities to prioritise "a substantial increase" in the percentage of funding they set aside for books.</p><p>In the 1980s 18% of library budgets were spent on books--the current figure is 9%. It acknowledged the heavy demands on libraries and conflicting ideas of what they stand for--but warned that diversification into IT, audiovisual stock and other services had come at the expense of books. "We are in no doubt that while libraries are about more than books, these traditional materials must be the bedrock upon which the library service rests."</p><p>The committee called for book stocks to be monitored through an overhaul of the standards by which authorities are assessed. It said there should be new measures of opening hours, value for money and free internet access.</p><p>Local authorities must be kept accountable to these standards, and greater resources should be given to an enforcement body, led by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, to drag round the 50% of library services that are failing. </p><p>The committee said its four-month inquiry had revealed "a service in distress". "There were pockets of excellence but, overall, there were equal proportions of satisfactory and less than adequate services across the country."</p><p>The report applauded "the many committed and talented people" in libraries, and singled out for praise the Reading Agency, PLR and British Library. But it also spotlighted a crisis in leadership and a need to pull in better staff.</p><p>It said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport needed to put pressure on local authorities to deliver good services. "It is vital that the DCMS raises its game and acts far more effectively as a champion and advocate for libraries."</p><p>An action plan is needed to improve tired library buildings, which it estimates will cost at least &#163;650m. "Deterioration in the public library estate is a scandal that must be rectified."</p><p>A drive for greater efficiencies and economies of scale in libraries should begin soon, the committee urged. This will be influenced by a report into the supply chain by consultancy firm PKF, due to be published later this month.</p><p>The report received cautious early welcomes by stakeholders including the Society of Chief Librarians and the Reading Agency. The government now has two months in which to respond.</p><p>tom.holman@bookseller.co.uk</p><p>C:WINNTTEMPACFC28B.tmp</p>