Socialist Worker

Less books equals less library users

by Matthew Cookson
Issue No. 1803

'LIBRARIES GAVE us power.' The first line in the Manic Street Preachers' song 'A Design For Life' expresses how important libraries have been to working class people over the decades. But a new report by the Audit Commission has revealed the desperate state of Britain's library services.

The underfunding of libraries is already having a terrible impact on working class access to books and other resources. The report found that the number of people who use libraries for borrowing has dropped by 23 percent since just three years ago. This is despite the desire of working class people to read-when they have access to books. Just look at the success of the £1 classics series of books. Spending on libraries has remained at around £770 million for the last ten years.

This is simply not enough for libraries to improve their book stock and buildings, and meet the needs of users. In 1990 to 1991 libraries spent £118 million on books and periodicals while last year they spent just £80 million. Libraries now have significantly fewer books than they had ten years ago. The books are also much older.

Many libraries have good collections of CDs, DVDs and videos-because by hiring them out for a charge they pay for themselves-but the books many people need are not available. Staff numbers have fallen in the last ten years. Services have been cut-9 percent fewer libraries are open for over 30 hours a week than in 1992 to 1993.

There are also 8 percent fewer mobile libraries and 7 percent fewer libraries in total. Over a half of all libraries are situated in buildings in poor condition or are badly located.

'Underfunding and the closure of libraries are the biggest things happening to libraries,' a library worker from east London told Socialist Worker. 'We just don't have the money to buy the books we need, and the buildings are tatty and haven't been decorated for 20 years. Libraries are a vital service, especially for young people under 16 and pensioners. Management have the idea that books are an old thing and the internet is the way forward for education. But it's not true. To reverse the decline councils have to reopen all the local libraries they've closed and keep all the others open. There has to be a massive investment in books and other resources. But management seem more interested in opening super-libraries next to supermarkets-drawing all the money away from smaller libraries, miles away from the communities they're supposed to serve.'

While more and more people have to work 'flexibly' in the 'new 24-hour society', many libraries have cut their opening hours or are not open in the evening. This excludes a huge number of people from using their nearest library. Libraries are absolutely essential for working class people to have free access to information and culture.

They have a vital part to play in people's lives-during 2000 to 2001 there were 290 million visits to libraries in England and Wales. They also provide computers and internet access. But to stop the catastrophic fall in the numbers of people using libraries a radical change of direction is needed from councils and the New Labour government.


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Sat 8 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1803
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