November 3, 2011

British libraries: the saga continues


There’s more sad news about British libraries. The latest figures, reported in The Bookseller, show a continued decline in visits and borrowing, with the former down 2.3% and the latter 2.9%. In a particularly tough blow, online visits also began to fall, after four years of growth: there were just 114.8m online library visits in 2010-11, down from 120.4 in the previous period.

Of course, all this is bound to be interpreted by government apologists as evidence of the obsolescence of libraries in modern communities, and by extension as justification for further cuts. But as The Bookseller‘s article suggests without saying directly, that’s at best a short-sighted reading of the cause and effect here. Some might go so far as to call it a willful perversion. The book acquisition figures speak for themselves: a 13.7% decrease in adult non-fiction buying and 7.4% in adult fiction won’t have punters queueing round the corner. The article talks about an increase in library volunteering while, sadly but predictably, the number of paid staff has fallen. There’s an obvious point to be made here about the value of trained professionals, but it’s the same point that’s been made by every critic of the big society for the past however many years, and nobody seems to have paid a blind bit of notice yet.

Something the article doesn’t report is what these volunteers spend their time doing. Are any of them working on the libraries’ online facilities? After all, there’s no shortage of complaint about this area of libraries’ performance. If there’s a glut of people wanting to volunteer at the moment, some of them no doubt with web and IT backgrounds, let’s at least hope that those skills are being put to use, and that they’re not being used to fill in for qualified and out-of-work librarians. A really great web presence might work wonders for a library’s visiting figures. Does anyone have any evidence — anecdotal or statistical — about the distribution of volunteers’ time in libraries? I’d be really interested to hear from you in the comments.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.