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How Can We Save UK Libraries?

Photo by: Martinrp, Flickr

Libraries in the UK are in real danger. The number of library visitors is dropping all the time, down 50% in the last 20 years, 9% since 2005.



In the past five years, library funding in the UK has actually gone up by 25% to £1 billion and with these hard economic times you’d expect people to be borrowing books from libraries instead of buying them, but that isn’t the case.

Why aren’t people in the UK borrowing books?

I have to admit that I didn’t visit a library for seven years. With a full-time job I found it increasingly hard to visit a library regularly. It was always shut in the evening by the time I finished work and I couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to get there on a Saturday morning. The city centre location, with expensive car parking and long queues of traffic put me off. Why would I put myself through that when I could just buy a second hand book from a car boot sale for 50p and not worry about being fined for not taking it back on time?

I eventually signed up to the library when my oldest son was 2-years-old. I wanted him to experience the love of libraries that I’d once had and, as a full-time mum, I had the time to get there. My children love their library, but as an adult I’m not that impressed. They often don’t have the books I want and although I can order some (at a cost of 50p) there are many books that never end up in my library system.

My local library is packed with people wanting free Internet access, but very few people seem to be borrowing the books.

School Libraries too good?

My oldest son started school a few weeks ago and now has access to a wonderful library in his school and computers with sodapdf to access pdf books online. I’m beginning to wonder if there is a need to go to the main public library now that he is bringing school library books home on a regular basis.

Things are different in America

In the US, despite cuts in library funding, visits to libraries are increasing, up 5% since 2006. I was astounded by the number of different initiatives available in some US libraries.

These include:

I’m going to look into the “books by mail” service a bit more and will report back with my findings soon.

The love for US libraries on Twitter was especially heart warming:

We go to storytime about 3-4 times a week at library. They also do lots of weekly crafts, put on a movie & special events. @mawbooks

Sometimes I take my kids to the library just for a family game night. We play board games there. So much fun. @pussreboots

I run a book club at my library, & there are always events like movies, writing groups, game nights, classes, etc. @pookasluagh

My boys have seen/petted more animals up close at the library at various events then they have anywhere else! @mawbooks

Compare the Usage Statistics

A Twitter conversation with @mawbooks led me to investigate her library in Utah. I have compared this with my local library system in Surrey, England.

I am aware that other libraries in both countries may have huge differences to these two, but as they served similar populations I thought it was an interesting comparison.

The difference in library usage can be seen by comparing the statistics:

Library Population Number of Borrowers

Estimated Number of Items that will be Checked Out in 2010

Surrey, UK 1.1 Million 355,000 6 Million
Salt Lake County, Utah, USA  783,000  680,000  15 Million
  • Just 32% of Surrey residents borrow books from the library, compared with a massive 87% of Utah residents.
  • That’s 5.5 items per year for each resident in Surrey, compared to 19 items in Utah.
  • Roughly 4x more items are being borrowed per person in Utah.

The staggering difference can also be seen when you look at the number of copies of new books available to borrow:

 Library Population Copies of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins Copies of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Surrey, UK 1.1 Million 8 copies on order.   No Holds 12 copies on order.   No Holds.
Salt Lake County, Utah, USA 783,000 962 copies,   2718 Holds 47 copies,   340 Holds

Note: Statistics were correct on the day each book was released in its respective country.

The Future of UK Libraries?

1000 libraries in the UK are threatened with closure in the next year.

I still visit my library, but it is more from a sense of duty than a desire to check books out.

I have been impressed by the recent advances Surrey libraries have made in some areas, including a new free audio/ebook download service, but I’m worried that this isn’t going to be enough to save many libraries from closure.

Drastic changes need to be made if libraries are to compete with the increasingly cheap second-hand book market. I’m not sure what the solution is, but we need to start thinking about it before we lose our libraries forever.

What would encourage you to visit your library more often?

Are you surprised by the difference in library usage across the Atlantic?

Which US initiatives do you think would work well in the UK?


99 replies on “How Can We Save UK Libraries?”

Jackie — I absolutely love this post and the passion you have to find out how the UK can improve its library system. I think you’ve highlighted some distinct problems with the system in your city — limited hours of operation, limited parking, inconvenient location, no free inter-library loans (ILLs). And even though you have limited numbers of popular books, you also don’t have people waiting on hold for them.
So — ideas from America:
Talk to your local librarians and find out what they would love to see changed in the libraries first to increase traffic (since free internet doesn’t seem to be increasing a demand for books).
Find out if they have a local Friends of the Library group where you can volunteer and/or brainstorm for ways to improve the system.
Campaign for evening hours on one or two days of the week to increase traffic, and see if a book club might be willing to meet there on an evening if it is open.
Talk to the teachers at school to see if they have ideas for projects to get students to local libraries in addition to the school libraries — this will get parents to local libraries and increase demand for books.
Does your library system have a bookmobile that can provide library access to those who live outside of town?
Get JK Rowling to speak at one of your local libraries. Well — that might not be likely to happen, but you never know 🙂
Community involvement is essential to keep libraries open, and I think it’s fantastic that you want to help your system in Surrey! Hope you get some great ideas from folks.

Mome Rath, Some great suggestions! I haven’t seen a Friends of the Library group, but perhaps it is time I took a closer look.

I don’t think there is a mobile library here (although there was one when I lived in a more rural area)

I’d love to get JK Rowling to come and talk at the library, but I don’t think that is going to happen 🙁

It’s really bad libraries are not used more but it’s no use blaming people because everyone wants convenience. I think the main thing should be availability of books, if there are not enough books, there is no point in other things. Te second thing is keeping the library open after 6 in the evening. Singapore libraries are open till 9 or 10 in the night and we have 24 hour drop boxes to return books. That could help too.

Violet, We have 24 hour drop boxes, but I think all libraries here are shut by 6pm – most earlier than that. It would be a real help it were open later at least one night a week. Its good to know you have extended hours in Singapore.

Jackie, I was involved in saving my own local branch library in Camden about 10 years ago and thus am in complete agreement with your post today. I visit my local library weekly and borrow virtually all the novels I read from it – indeed I no longer purchase non-work books. As to how to increase use, that’s not so obvious. Clearly providing a range of resources is important as is providing, if my main library is typical, study space for teenagers in the run up to GCSE/A-level (I’m based in London) examinations.

I’m constantly tweaking the tails of fellow commentators on literary weblogs who when enthusing about a book indicate that they have a desire for instant gratification and have thus ordered it on-line that day. This affects library use surely, as well as being to the detriment of local independent book retailers. No library can respond to a request for a book and be expected in most instances to provide it within 24 hours. I must say I am baffled by how often readers seem to need to aquire a book instantaneously and then it sits in their “tbr” pile (I don’t have one of those either) for weeks or months!

Anyway I’m already on the save the library bandwagon, thus my use and opinions are not those that matter, it’s the people who read who don’t use their local library that we need to understand.

Library loving Cat

Dark Puss, Congratulations on saving your local library!

I understand the instant online ordering problem. I find that unless I order something instantly I forget the title. I always try my local library first, but if that doesn’t have a copy then I do tend to order it (or add title to a wishlist). If there was a way to request books from libraries this would be a good solution for me. I don’t need the book instantly, but I do need to know I will get hold of it eventually. The books I normally order are a bit obscure and so I can’t see a local bookshop stocking it. Hope that provides a little insight into the mind of an online orderer!

I think a lot of US libraries are set up and strive to be community centers and not just strickly libraries, so the scope of activities and items available are a lot wider. my local library’s Friends group has school board members in it, so there is a lot of interaction with the local schools.

Several other things that make it easier for US patrons are: after hours book drop off bins, on-line and phone renewals at a lot of libraries, and the ability to return books at different libraries within a system regardless of where it originated from.

on average, my county library sytem moves 11,000 books per DAY between the different libraries.

I always loved to help new patrons at the library, especially if they were from another country. it was a constant reminder of how fortunate I am.

Cindy, I noticed the community centre aspect when doing my research. I was surprised to see that many US libraries had fitness programmes and loads of community based activites as well as the books. Such a clever way to draw people into the building.

I’m amazed that your library moves 11,000 books a day! That is impressive demand 🙂

This is a brilliant post, thanks Jackie. I agree with everything you say. I’ve heard of some brilliant initiatives happening in some places around the UK, including a library in Stoke that offers ‘takeaways’ – brown paper bags containing three books – a starter, main and dessert – to encourage people to read things they wouldn’t normally pick out. I also have an amazing library just up the road from me in Swiss Cottage, London, which is open every day, including Sundays, and has a cafe and comfy reading rooms in it. But the simple fact is, services are so hit and miss. Some people are blessed with wonderful well-run libraries, and others have outdated, musty and poorly stocked throw-backs they’d give anything to avoid.

A culture of reading is a vital part of expanding people’s horizons, encouraging understanding and empathy towards others, and instiilling a sense of peace. So the thought that anything positive can be achieved by cutting library funding baffles me.

It’s essential that we take a leaf out of the book of the US system, and I hope you and others continue to highlight this.

Kirsty Kitchen, It is great to see that some UK libraries are using their initiative to improve things. I agree that services are very hit/miss. I have moved around a lot in the UK and there are big differences. Surrey is actually one of the best areas I’ve lived in, which is quite sad considering the comparisons to the US system.

I use my local library out of a sense of duty & to keep the numbers up but I have to reserve nearly everything I want to read @ a cost of 85p an item & the self service desks can’t be used for reservations. Consequently I have to set aside a lunch hour a week because I know the queuing will take up most of that break & the out of core hours opening times don’t coincide with when I’m not working. Plus the building is a sad piece of 1970s drabbery, the shelves are untidy & the whole place has an atmosphere of down-at-heel shabbiness. Frankly, if I weren’t a regular user already I wouldn’t start. Hard to see how you turn this round, the ideas from the US sound great but you have to start with a cheerful, welcoming atmosphere & efficient service.

Alison M, I’m sorry to hear your library is so dreadful. Up until a few months ago it cost me £1 to reserve items so I feel your pain – I spent between £5 – £10 each month reserving books. I’m not sure there is much you can do about the 1970s building with the current budget problems, but I’m sure a few of the US initiatives would help a bit. Hope things improve for you soon.

Well, as Verity rightly says, I was in a grouch @ the time having just added up the reservation fees for the books I want to borrow. I still maintain, however, that, if I wasn’t already a user, I would be put off by the grotty exterior & interior badly in need of a refit.

My fiance never used to go to the library til he met me, not because he was put off by its looks but just cos he never thought of it – I don’t think he actually ntoices the building but gets really excited about the variety of books that you can have for free,and which can be returned if you don’t like them. I can take risks on borrowing him books which I wouldn’t do in Waterstones!

Fabulous blog post. I love our local library. Even though it’s in a small town, it makes a real effort for it’s customers – two reading groups for adults, plus a family reading group. Several workshops (creative writing, crafts, etc.), and plenty of author events.

The unsafe future for libraries really worries me. I must say though that like you, I was thrilled to see all the love for libraries on Twitter recently.

I’m not quite sure that you paint a fair picture of libraries in the UK Jackie – as I said to you on twitter, I find that there are a number of services in my local library which I make use of, and something I didn’t say, is that issues of books and other media are actually on the increase in my library authority (Oxon). There are also book delivery services for the housebound. And there are also loads of branch libraries, often in places where there is free parking, so if you don’t want to go to the main library, you could always go to one of them. We have events at our libraries, such as storytimes, and talks by authors, and there is always an exhibition in the local studies section of the main library. Libraries across the UK are also working in partnership with a huge number of other organisations to provide support for disaffected youth or those with mental health issues. It’s worth having a look at the Voices for the library campaign which promotes the value of Public Libraries.

Yes, book issues may be on the decline, but I think that reflects the fact that libraries are repositioning themselves to offer other services – there is a huge take up of the internet for example.

My final point is that I am not quite sure where this increase in library funding is going, (where did you get that statistic from?) as my impression from colleagues who work in the public library sector is that there are huge cuts being made.

I have to agree with Alison M that our library isn’t the most attractive library building, nor are the frontline staff always the most cheerful, but some of them go out of their way to be incredibly helpful.

Verity, I don’t deny that some libraries do a great job and it sounds as though services in Oxon are better than most, but when only 12.8% of the UK population visit a library more than once a month (source:
then I think big things need to change.

I have seen reports about huge wastage in library funding, but that is another isssue. I saw the statistic about library funding increasing here:

I’m lucky in that all the staff in my local libraries are friendly and helpful, but it is worrying to hear numerous reports about grumpy staff. Perhaps if library usage improved they might all be a bit happier?!

But how many people visit once a month? Our library lets us have 20 books out at a time, so if you read slowly you wouldn’t need to go so often.

Sadly library staff are very underpaid, which while no excuse for being grumpy, may partly explain things. Certainly, working in the academic library sector I have far better wages and conditions than I would in the public.

Verity, 20 books?! I only get 8 at a time, but I rarely need that many so it doesn’t bother me. I’d love to know how many people are borrowing loads of books at once then renewing them to avoid trips to the library – I’d never thought of doing that!

I guess you can estimate that 20% of people will be going once a month or less, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you that figure accurately.

I also have my fiance’s card (they give you two parts – a traditional one and a key fob one, so he has the key fob one), so that gives me up to 40 books, and quite often between us we have 35 or more…by the time we have recipe books and sheet music and fiction and non fiction it’s easy to get all of those. In Devon where I grew up we were only allowed 8 which I struggled with, until I started to work for the library and could use the override button.

Only 8 books at a time? We can check out 30 items including 10 movies. Also, no age limit on cardholders. So even my 3 & 5 year old have their own cards as well. So with 4 of us having cards in the house we can have as many as 120 items out at a time. Crazy!

A post that’s really got me thinking Jackie!

As a 16yr old I worked in our library for my Saturday job – indeed I would have liked to become a librarian. The summer after I graduated before I got a proper science job I spent most days in the library reading. But with wages I started buying rather than borrowing books, and used the library less and less to borrow – although I remained a large user of the reference section until the internet took off.

We only have a small library in our town – it was great for pre-schoolers and we were regular visitors, but they so rarely have the books I want to read in, and I can afford to buy them, so I’ve stopped using it. I also love new books – and physically enjoy reading grubby ones from the library so much. But libraries are doing great things – renewing online, lots of things for young children, etc. Ours is developing a space upstairs for events and it would be great to have evenings up there doing/listening to bookish things. I hope it continues to evolve and survive. Ironically perhaps, although I no longer use it for its primary purpose, I would be at the head of the queue to preserve it.

I have pondered before whether a library-mailing service along the lines of ‘Lovefilm’ perhaps could work …

Annabel, It is strange that we want to save something that we never really use or use only from a sense of obligation. As a child/teenager I loved my local library and read so many books from there. I think increased wealth is another reason I don’t use it as much, but that makes me keener to save them for those who aren’t as well off as I am.

I don’t have a problem with grubby books in my library – most of the time I’m the first person the check them out!! Perhaps it would be different if I was reading best sellers?

I’ll be back next week to answer all your questions on the book mailing service – all I can say now is that I am VERY positive about it!

Great post, and something close to most of our hearts. I can’t really speculate what would work in the UK, but I know what works here. I know someone commented about it being a community hub, and this is totally true. Our library in downtown Orlando is not the easiest thing to get to…pay for parking, traffic, etc. But there is a restaurant, readings, specialized group meetings, musicians, book sales, we even VOTE there. The very best thing about our system is that you can order things online and they deliver to your door. I believe the funds that support this program were an endowment originally meant to help the homebound. Now it serves everyone, especially busy families. I also love my library for the hundreds and hundreds of audiobooks they carry (plus they have e-reader downloads and audio downloads as well as little gadgets called playaways).

Sandy, I love the sound of your library and having done the research I’m a big fan of the books to your door system now.

I am very jealous of the audiobook stock in your library. It is very poor here. I have only been able to get one of your audiobook recommendations (Child44) from my library. None of the others have been in stock and I must have checked for over 50 different titles in the last year. 🙁

Wow, that is a fascinating post! I had no idea that people don’t seem to use libraries in the UK as much. I am one of your readers from across the pond and I think you raised an excellent point. I use my local library constantly, and I love that I can put holds online and can get a copy of a newly released book (eventually). Sometimes I am number 200 or 300 in line for a hold of a popular book, so I know people in my area must be using the library! But usually the line moves fairly quickly because the library system usually has ordered quite a few copies. I also think the convenience of the after hours drop box to return books is a huge plus. Here in Charlotte, North Carolina we have had major budget issues and huge cuts to the libraries, where they have had to reduce the hours and actually close the libraries several days per week. There was a huge response of anger from the community at these budget cuts and there have been lots of fund raisers and other community measures aimed at supporting the local libraries. Thanks for bringing up this issue!

Amy, I can’t decide whether I’m jealous of your 300 long hold queue or happy I’m always number 1 in mine! Newly released (best selling books) do make it into my library, but I often have to wait several weeks/months for them to arrive. I’ve just got an email to let me know that my copy of Mockingjay is in – weeks after it was first released (I am still only one in hold queue!). I don’t mind this delay, but do think it is another area that could be improved.

Jackie…this was an awesome post. What a disparity! One thing I’ve noticed about libraries in our state and in neighboring states. There are libraries in just about every small town, making it extremely convenient to access services. Our library is open every evening (except fridays) and on Saturday until 5pm.

Books can be downloaded from home, and yes dvd rentals are free and all the latest releases available. The other great thing is that we can borrow from other state libraries FREE and they send it to your local branch.

I love libraries, and we are lucky to still have them well funded where I live.

Thanks again Jackie.

Bibliophile By the Sea, It depends where you live. We normally have libraries in every small town too. The problem is that with out of town shopping centres and expensive town centre parking people are visiting the town centres less. With the continual closure of smaller libaries people will be pushed further away -having to travel to the biggest city centre libraries which takes much more time/effort.

You are so lucky to get all your DVD rentals for free – I’d love that!

This has been an interesting discussion thus far, Jackie. If you add in the widely reported boom in e-book sales in the US, then it could simply be that, for whatever, reason America is currently enjoying a love affair with the written word in all its forms. The importance placed on self-improvement in American culture may help explain why they might generally place a higher value on libraries than us Brits. Perhaps they see libraries as a vital resource to help their fellow citizens pursue the American dream?

That is not to say that British people do not value libraries, but the fact that our libraries are typically part of “Leisure Services” directorates does suggest that the powers that be here regard them as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a vital pillar of civil society. The power-brokers here tend to get excited by libraries, if at all, only when viewing them as facilities through which the underprivileged can gain access to information. They, the power-brokers, give higher priority to internet access than to old-fashioned books. They may even be right to do so. It is easy for me to dismiss that viewpoint because I am one of the lucky majority who has internet access at home, with all the empowerment that brings, not least when seeking employment. Incidentally, I’m not making a party political point here. I know you don’t like politics and, in any case, all three major UK parties have become embroiled in library closure battles in different parts of the country.

As well as being fortunate to have internet access, I am also fortunate to have, thus far, an excellent local library service that normal stocks most of the books featured in press reviews and, to some extent, the blogosphere. (The early twentieth century books beloved of Stuck in a Book are less evident.) For many years now I could probably have afforded to buy rather than borrow much of what I wanted to read, but for a number of reasons I have generally used the library instead. Part of me does ponder why local tax payers should enable me to read detective novels for free but not to take a swim in the local pool? However, I have taken the view that for as long as the opportunity is there it would be daft not take advantage of it. Moreover, the more people who use libraries the stronger they will be. By loaning a book that I could afford to buy I am helping keep the service available for those who could not afford it – which, as it happens, could very soon include me!

It will be interesting to see what ideas your commenters come up with for encouraging greater use, particularly in these incredibly tough times for the public finances. Sadly, twenty four hour drop boxes, unless cleverly designed, may not be practical. Even in my relatively prosperous suburb, my local library had to seal its letter box a few years back because vandals kept setting it on fire.

I’m currently first in the queue for the new McCall Smith Isabel Dalhousie book, and sixth out of twenty in the queue for the new Shardlake by C. J. Sansom. There are thirteen copies of the latter on order, so I should not have too long to wait. Nor do I mind waiting. As DP suggested, with our reading as with so much of our lives, we have perhaps got a little too carried away with demanding instant gratification.

David, You make some very good points. I have often thought that the way our taxes are spent is weirdly weighted. In many ways free swimming/exercise might be more beneficial to the community – especially if it helps improve the fitness of the population and therefore reduces healthcare expenses. I think there was a scheme to provide free swimming to children and OAPs in some areas, but this seems to have disappeared now.

I was interested by your Shardlake queue and so looked it up in my library system. There are 40 copies and 100 reservations! That is the most reservations I have ever seen. It looks as though library users have a very different taste in books to me and the best seller lists.

I don’t see anything wrong with ensuring libraries provide essential services to the underprivileged in society, but I think they have to reach a larger audience if they are to survive as anything more than a basic service. You’ve given me lots to think about. Thank you.

I think libraries across the globe can learn a lot from each other. And yes, I am surprised by the services offered in US libraries. At the moment, what keeps me from becoming a member of a libray is just that, that I have to become a member and would have to pay a large amount of money to loan the amount of books I’d like to loan (as well as the small selection of English books).

Iris, I have no idea how much libraries from different countries interact with each other, but it does seem that they could do well to communicate a bit more. Sorry to hear that your libary is so expensive. It does seem a shame that people are prevented from borrowing books for financial reasons. At least it is free here in the UK.

I’ve belonged to four library systems in the UK so far and they do vary, but I find that they seldom offer the awesome free services you can get in the US. Two of my library systems here let me reserve books for free – the other two charged, even if the book was actually in the branch and just taken out by another person. If I have to pay 50p to reserve a book, yes, I might as well just buy it from a charity shop. Then I have it and can read it whenever I want. One of them also kindly let me reserve new releases for £1, at which point I’d be placed on a waiting list for them – again, might as well just buy the book if I have to pay, in my mind. If I’m waiting anyway, I’ll wait for a charity shop to have it. Libraries here also have really small allowances for books checked out. I can only have 12 at my library and they ranged from 10-20 at the others – at my parents’ library in the US, I could have up to 100, and unlimited renewals unless someone else requested the book.

My library here actually lets me take out DVDs and CDs for free, but all three previous library systems charged for it, and the librarians here have said they would but the collection is tiny and dependent on donations.

As a general rule, I won’t buy a book I can get out of the library, and I am frequently in there reserving books, but I see very few others in there. I don’t know when I’d go if I didn’t work two minutes’ walk away from the library, either, as their hours are the same as you describe, although we can comfortably walk into town. I think UK libraries could also stand to improve their websites, so I can get emails when the books I’ve reserved come in or see what number in line I am.

Meghan, I’m surprised that your library doubled the price for reserving new releases – I haven’t heard of that practice before. So sad. I’d rather wait a few months for it to become an older book than pay the £1 charge.

I also follow your rule of not buying books I could check out of the library – unfortunately I still have to buy quite a few books 🙁

I’m shocked that you were allowed to get 100 books out of your parents library – that sort of number is unimaginable to me. I was surprised people were allowed as many as 25-30! I’ve never been allowed more than 8 and in some libraries it was just 6! Thanks for sharing your experiences of so many different systems.

I’m lucky to have a library that I can pop into on my way home from work. It used to be harder when it shut at 6pm but they’ve extended their opening times until 7pm and are also open on Saturdays. I live in north London and I’ve got access to 3 libraries close to home. My nephews visit the library every weekend and always come back with a handful of books to read.

However, reading US blogs, it seems that a lot of the bigger libraries seem to have a lot more copies of certain titles than you would find in the UK. But then, the libraries I frequent are often quite small and local.

sakura, I think opening hours are a big issue for people who work normal office hours. It is good to know that your library has extended its opening hours. Hopefully others will follow their lead.

I had always assumed that the bigger number of books in US libraries was due to the population covered by each library. That was why I was so interested to discover that isn’t the case at all. My library system covers a bigger population than the Utah one.

Wow, what a great post.
I rarely buy books anymore because my library system is so good. I’m fortunate that it’s a two minute walk to my library. Even when ours was closed for two years I still went to the branch in the next neighbourhood because it was in our community centre where the kids took swimming lessons. I think that is a plus.

My branch is small so they don’t carry many of the books I want to read. But I can put a hold on a book online and they will send it from another branch to me for free. I’m shocked you have to pay for that service. There is no way I would pay $1 for every book I have transferred (I would have paid $8 yesterday.) I would probably read a lot less if that were the case.

Our libraries in Toronto really focus on being about more than taking out books. Free internet access, quiet study rooms, free DVD and video game rentals, childrens storytimes, family movie nights, computers and arts classes, author talks and lectures, teen writing programs, writer-in-residence, reading groups, home delivery service and bookmobile for areas without a branch, free tutoring and tailoring their services to the needs of the community (my neighbourhood is mostly South Asian immigrants so there are books, magazines, and newspapers aimed at that population plus English classes and a settlement worker at the library.) I think they have been very successful at getting people into the library and that is the key.

Shannon, Putting libraries in the same buildings as swimming pools is a great idea – that would do a lot to increase passing trade.

I would reserve a lot more books if it was free to do so, but I also wonder if I’d actually read them all. At least this way I feel I have to read each book as I’ve paid for the priviledge. I wonder what the proportion of books actually read in each country is? Perhaps Americans are taking out loads of books, but taking most back as they don’t find the time to read them. I have seen blog posts where people talk about the 30 books they got out of the library and then only read 2 or 3 of them. It sounds as though Canadian libraries are just as good as US ones 🙂

I’ve had times before where a lot of my requests come in at once and I can’t read them all in the the three weeks (you could be way down in the queue and then all of a sudden the book is available for you.) I have to manage them all online to make sure I don’t get overwhelmed. However, if I do get a book that I don’t end up reading, I’ll return it and request it again.

You do make a very good point about how many of the books actually get read. If we had to pay, I’d be much more selective, but I would bet that I’d have missed out on a bunch of great books that I’ve put a request in for on a whim.

I am a library junkie, but that definitely is a newer development–within the past year or so. It is not always easy to carve out time to get there, but the nice thing about the library I go to is that it is part of a library chain that includes probably about 15 other libraries. I can request whatever I want and they will just get it from one of the other libraries. And it is free! I can’t beliebe you have to pay 50p to request a book! If that were the case, I actually probably would frequent my library hardly ever.

I really don’t take advantage of any of the other services my library and the other branches offer–storytime, free internet, free DVD rentals, but it is definitely nice to have those options.

I, too, love a library and make weekly visits with my children to our downtown branch. However, I just blogged about our library system and some of its problems, and many of them are the same you highlight: fees for borrowing from other systems, difficult request forms, never having the books I want to borrow, etc. . . We also have the opposite situation found in the UK: constantly dwindling funds for the library budget. It does seem that our corporate booksellers (B&N, Borders, Amazon) are doing things that appeal to the consumer, and our libraries are driving people away. All that said, I’m not convinced that constantly increasing other services is more important than increasing the book holdings. If traffic increases for those services but people are still not checking out books, the acquisitions budget will continue to decrease while funding for peripherals will increase. It is a conundrum.

Sara, Getting a balance between library traffic and book borrowing is going to be hard, but with budgets under threat it is only going to get tougher. Businesses have to adapt to a constantly changing market in order to survive, but I think many government run schemes are so bogged down in red tape that they don’t even bother to try new things. Most UK libraries would have died a long time ago if they had to stick to the same sort of target-led business plans of other companies 🙁

Interesting discussion, Jackie!

There’s a pretty basic reason why US people use libraries more than people in the UK – I’ve lived here in NYC for just under a month now and one of the things I’ve noticed that is drastically different than at home is the price of new books. Paperbacks are $17. PAPERBACKS. They are not cheap, throwaway things like they are at home, where you can buy 3 for 10 pounds. And there’s no chain of Oxfams where you can buy cheap secondhand copies either. The average grubby used paperback is still $5 or $6 in Strand or a thrift store. So…it makes economic sense for people to use libraries in the US, where it often doesn’t in the UK – why pay 1 pound to reserve a book and wait in line for 3 weeks when you can buy it and read it straightaway for 3 pounds?

I used to work in my local library every summer and our London Borough had just set aside huge amounts to refurb all the libraries across our quite large and also quite impoverished Borough. In doing so they basically got rid of half the books and installed a load of computers. I understand why they did this – a lot of people were I grew up couldn’t afford personal computers or the internet, and somewhere had to be provided for them to access it – but this did drastically reduce the space available for storing books, and also the range on offer. This meant that I had to buy most books I wanted, as they were too obscure for most mainstream readers and weren’t on offer in the library system, which instead had reams and reams of chick lit and Orange Prize winners etc that quickly dated. The Classics took up one shelf.

However the one strength of the library was the children’s section, which had a great selection, wonderful children’s events and story times, and summer reading programmes. This was a very heavily used resource by local parents and would be sorely missed, I think.

As for the adults – if libraries are going to survive, they need to attract young adults and professionals as well as parents and people on low incomes needing to use computer services. As such, more emphasis needs to be placed on flexible opening hours and providing the books people want and need. Busy people want to get the books they want when they want otherwise they’ll just buy them and bypass the library altogether. I’d love to use the library more – it would save me money and shelf space – but my local one in London just never had what I need.

I’d like to see librarians asking their users what books they want rather than assuming only 2 people out of several million residents would want to read the latest Booker Prize nominee, and instead filling their shelves with the sort of disposable chick lit people tend to buy from Tescos for 2 pounds rather than go to the library for. It’s a waste of money to have shelves filled with quickly dated novels that no one reads once the latest chick lit bestseller comes out.

Rachel, Thank you for the long, insightful comment!

It does seem that the price of books is a big factor in the success of libraries in the US. I would use mine a lot more if second hand books were always £4+

The libraries here do seem to do a fantastic job for the under fives, with storytime etc, but I think over 5s are probably better catered for by school libraries and so there is no need for them to visit.

Getting the rest of the population onside would be a big step forward. I think it would be very helpful for them to accept suggestions for which books to purchase and greater flexibility for borrowing would help busy people.

I hadn’t thought about the ‘shelf life’ of a book (pun almost intended!) It does make sense to invest in classics – both older classics and modern day ones. Books that are read until they fall apart! I see so many ex-library books sold on and most look as if they’ve never been read. Such a shame.

I actually think it’s weird that libraries keep conventional hours! It makes it so hard to visit during the week. Our local branch closes at 6 pm on weekdays, which is generally far too early for me to make it there after work… Rather than opening from 9 – 6, I think libraries should be open from 10 – 7 or even noon – 9 pm. That would be far better, and really who is going to the library at 9 am on a weekday? Surely this person could still go at noon!

Im going to stick up for Surrey librarys LOL Ok so my local Surrey library is rubbish but I often visit other Surrey libraries and they normally have what Im looking for even if they do have to take it out of storage for me. I have to admit though that the only reason I joined them is because of my son too. He loves them and I dont have to constantly read him the same books over and over (but again my local one for childrens books is rubbish)

Jessica, They have books in storage? I didn’t know about that! Where?

Sorry to hear that your local one is rubbish for childrens books. Mine is quite good, but I have seen a few dodgy libraries around 😉

If I request one online and its in storage then they get it for me. Cost 50p and it tends to be obsure classics like Lady into Fox and a Henry James short story which was last taken out in 1975!

What an interesting post!

I use the library less than I have done, but that is because I buy so many second-hand English books. Earlier I went to the library around once a month – because we *don´t* have any good bookshops nearby, and the local second-hand shop does not own as many crime novels as I do. Besides, the cheapest (2-star books) cost more than a pound. Used books of any quality cost 3-10 pounds.

Libraries in the US are definitely suffering. I live in a small town in Florida, and I recently went to my library to get a book so that I could participate in a newly-formed book group. I was actually horrified to see that the “new books” my library had available were books in very nice shape that had obviously been donated by someone for the new books collection. Since then I’ve funnelled many of my books still like new into their donations.

My library (and the linked library system throughout the county) offers a number of services to its users, but the majority of them are free, bringing in very little revenue. In each branch there is a “friends of the library” section, where people can buy used books to support the library, and there are various ways to support the system financially on an individual basis, but there’s still not a lot of actual revenue coming in. I think that in these economic times, while the numbers of people visiting libraries are higher here, budget cuts are putting libraries on the bottom of the list of important things to spend money on. And that has meant many library closures, which is just sad.

NancyO, It is great to see that donated books can enter your library system. I don’t think that happens here. People do donate books, but they seem to end up straight in the library sale pile. I once found a brand new, recently released hardback that I wanted to borrow (and not otherwise available in library system) for sale for 50p. I was shocked that it hadn’t been been added to library system for others to read and so am reluctant to donate my books to them.

I love my local library and go all the time. Things I think would help (and have suggested in our annual customer survey) are free parking and opening on Sundays. Our hours have gradually extended so they’re open till 7pm weekdays which I think is very good. We also have lots of events. My favourite of these is the alternative health day when you get free alternative therapy treatments in the library. I had reiki healing next to the poetry section last year. It is a £1 to reserve or request a book though. On the positive side our online system is great. You get reminders when your books are due back and you can renew and request online.

Vicky, Sunday opening woud be wonderful, but I’d want to campaign for evening opening first.

Our online system is quite good for reserving books and checking account info, but I would love a reminder that my books are due back. Another good idea 🙂

Such interesting and wonderful post Jackie! I could write a thesis on libraries and my love for the British libraries. Please come to my neck of the wood and live, Reading Borough Libraries does quite a good job, I can 20 books, I usually find all my bestsellers in stock, if not reserve stock. Unfortunately rare Japanese literature like Yukio Mishima I had to buy from Amazon, and series like Mahfouz and Mishima’s Sea of fertility are stocked with 1 or 2 books from the series and the rest are not.

The various initiatives US libraries took do not surprise me, I think they are most creative on marketing or drawing crowds for anything they set their minds to.

What I think ideas that we could adopt from cross-Atlantic? I think:
– Free DVD rental
– Free audio book downloads/rental
– Services that deliver library books to your door. Are all great!
– and a free library alert to tell me when my books are due instead of having to pay subscriptions to Library Elf.
– and more friendly librarians (Mine takes awhile to warm up to me, and I am a very friendly person!) 😀

A lot of people I asked who don’t use the public libraries, don’t use it because they can’t get hold of the bestsellers that they want quickly, and they didn’t like the thought of returning it at a certain amount of time (which the libraries can’t do anything with it).

I love stats, and actually analyse data for a living. I think another way to provide a balanced view to this stats is to check if UK readers are buying more of their own books from bookstores or e-books downloads. And analyse when visitors are most likely to come to the library, which I suspect is Saturdays and then extend evening opening hours, and watch the impact in visitors count.

JoV, I didn’t realise that you lived in Reading – we’ll have to met up at some point 🙂

Best sellers are almost always available, but agree that books in translation are often very hard to find in libraries. I find that anything older than about 5 years is also less likely to be there.

I love statistics too! I did look into whether people in the UK were buying more books, but the answer wasn’t simple and so I left it out of this post. In summary though: People of the UK are buying less books, but spending more money on them. They are buying more non fiction, but less fiction. It is a bit more complicated though – especially when you have to start factoring in ebook sales. I’ll leave you to analyse that in your spare time 🙂

I look forward to reading your thesis on libraries 😉

After this post of yours Jackie, I seriously considering asking for an analyst job at the Reading Borough Library. Moreover I got all of you great bloggers out there to tell me what you all are reading, but I suspect readers who don’t blog do have a different reading preference… 😉

ahh. don’t get me started on this, I might write a thesis on libraries. It’s my obsession remember? 😉

Excellent post, and you have made me once again very very grateful for my county library system. No fee for the card, I place all my holds online and it doesn’t matter which branch in the county has the book it comes to mine for pick up (no charge). I park, get the book off the shelf, scan my card and the book and I’m back out the door. They have DVD’s, videos, books on tape and/or CD and 9 out of 10 times will honor a purchase request on new books (which is cool, because then you are first in line).

My local branch is very convenient for me, and drop offs can be made anytime (we just got these really cool self return kiosks so the books are right back into circulation). The library is always packed (and not just the computers), and there is always a big long line waiting for the doors to open at 10 AM.

Enter the catalog if you dare,

And no, despite the cutbacks on other county services no one has made mention of cutting back on library services.

I really applaud this post.

I’m not a big user of our small, village library. So instead, I take all my advance review copies and donate them once I’ve read them (which I do very carefully!). Ditto to doubles I might have or books that don’t appeal. It helps with overcrowding on my bookcases and I feel I’m helping out.

I also want to get involved in taking library books around to the elderly people in the village who have trouble getting out. That’s always struck me as a nice thing to do, and a useful way to promote the library.

Really glad you raised this, Jackie. We all need to do something to help out.

litlove, Thanks for your words of support.

It is wonderful that you are wanting to help distribute library books to the elderly in your village. I hope you are successful with that plan. Good luck 🙂

I had no idea the state of libraries was so parlous in the UK. 🙁 🙁 🙁 I lived in Colchester for a year and visited the library maybe twice or three times, but I didn’t have a car, and the library was quite small anyway. It did have a magical check-out system where you put your books on a scale and it magically knew what books they were and checked them out to you…

As far as using my library goes, I know that their having free DVD rentals has made me visit the library more frequently. The DVDs check out for a week, so I have to go to the library more often, and when I’m there, I usually check out a bunch of new books, since I’m already there anyway. :p Plus, they often have DVDs I can’t get at regular video rental places, particularly British television shows.

Jenny, We do have the magical self-checkout service – my boys love it!

I hadn’t thought about the shorter DVD rental encouraging people to go to the library weekly – that is a clever tactic. I’m also impressed that your library has a better range than the rental places – what a wonderful library you have!

A couple of quick additions to the debate…

One or two commenters have mentioned it would be really useful to get email reminders when books are due back. This is something that my local library has started doing. I got such an email today reminding me that I have two due back on Saturday.

With regard to donating books to libraries and seeing them being put straight on sale, I suppose this might be a space issue. I also wonder to if it has anything to do with lending right – something in the region of 5 pence that they have to pay to an author each time a book is taken out on loan? This could mean that whilst you might think you are doing your library a favour by giving them a book for free, it could actually cost them money, albeit a tiny amount. As it happens, the lending right system is just one of many things apparently underthreat in this era of cuts. The novelist P. D. James has spoken out strongly in its defence.

David, I understand the space issue, but am shocked that they might not want a book because people might actually want to take it out! I would hate to see the lending right system disappear. Authors don’t get paid enough as it is so it would be terrible for this source of income to disappear.

I can relate to the reasons that you had for not visiting the library because I used to live in a city larger than the one I live in now. The library was downtown right next to the bus station, and parking was impossible to find and expensive, traffic was awful, and my young son was once approached by a scary-looking man in the children’s section (thank God I was close by) – the man literally ran out of the library when he saw me telling the librarian about him.

I love the library in my small town though. I know that a lot of people in our community go to the library to check out dvds for free (there is a large selection and you can get them from interlibrary loan too). I’ve overheard the librarian telling kids who just come in to check out movies that they have to have at least one book to check out for each dvd they take. It cracks me up because it’s not a real rule, but the kids don’t know any better, and they get more exposure to books that way.

Even with all of the unread books in my house and the many that keep arriving, I still check out books at the library once every couple of weeks. I like having the option to read books that I wouldn’t be willing to buy.

As for activities at the library, our small town library has fantastic events, especially for kids. This weekend is the Remote Control Car rally in the parking lot, last weekend was a scarecrow contest. At Christmas Santa visits the library and all of the kids who see him get a small wrapped gift (from a local charity). At Halloween there is”Trick-or-Read” where kids get a free book, at Thanksgiving there is Turkey Bingo (where the prizes are books). I could go on and on – our librarians rock! Oh, and there’s also book bingo for adults twice a year, which is a total riot! (With free books as prizes of course.)

Aylce, It sounds as though you have a fantastic library – I especially love all the events you describe. Your positivity oozes out of that comment. It is great to see library love!!

The library system in the U.S. (west coast) is great for kids, but it’s downright noisy at times.

I went in to read a book one day–just to get away, because they have a cozy fireplace and I thought it would be quiet. It turns out they were having story time with kids screaming. It was unnerving. So I realized that the libraries of today were not the libraries of old when one could put a finger up to the mouth and say, “sh,” (not that anyone ever did that). Still, that was the last time I ever went there intending to read anything. I only went a few times to check a couple of books out, but now that I have my Kindle, I just buy books and d/l them on my virtual library where I can reread them.

Times have changed. Glad for the kids, though. They deserve a great library and hope this encourages them to become avid readers.

Jeannie, That is a very interesting point. UK libraries are still deathly quiet. My boys were recently told off for being too noisy (they were getting excited about pictures in a book, not doing anything naughty) We had to leave without getting any books out as they were so upset at being told to be quiet. I have regularly seen people actually says “sh” so the old fashioned views about silent libraries are still strong here. Some libraries are more child friendly than others, but I do wish times would change – if you don’t get the children on side noone will go to the library in the future.

Wow. I wonder how those statistics compare to other parts of the US. I’m not even sure how to look up the statistics of our library system here in San Antonio.

It sounds like the library systems here have adapted and grown to fit modern times, where perhaps in the UK they have done less branching out? We still face a lot of closings – they give libraries less and less money to work with, and yet in this recession, they are being used more and more – but somehow I hope we continue to get by.

I didn’t read through all the comments, and I’m sure I’m probably repeating a bunch of stuff, but I wanted to come say what I had to say anyway.

Amanda, I haven’t checked any other indivdual libraries, but I imagine that the figures are fairly similar across the country. I’ve seen figures of 80%+ library membership several times in the US, whereas the UK always seem to be roughly 30%. I agree that the UK is failing to keep up with the times and modernise as quickly as the US ones. Hopefully we’ll get there eventually!

I am also very fortunate to work for a University in the U.S., so in addition to my local library, I have that as a resource. As a staff member here they deliver through the campus mail the books I request online to my office and I get to keep my books for a year. Yes a year-unless someone else requests it and then you still get 2 weeks to finish it. I have no idea what other Universities are like but I am very lucky. I have also requested books and been told they were unable to locate them in storage at the time and forgotten about it. However, they must keep track because months later they let me know it’s been found. The librarians are awesome here.

Heidi, I think I’d lose books if I was able to borrow them for a year – I think I’d have a very stressful two weeks at the end of the year trying to re-locate them!!

I’m so pleased your librarians are great too 🙂

Wow, great post. Thanks for putting all the research in for us! I actually never used public libraries in Toronto, but almost completely depended on my local London library when I first moved here. I think the great thing about having the computers and dvd rentals (much cheaper than regular rental shops) is that even if I’m only dropping by to get or return a movie, I ALWAYS end up getting at least one book, too. And the request system is awesome – I got my branch to buy a copy of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice last year.

Lija, I’m impressed that you were able to persuade the library to buy After the Fire – mine didn’t have a copy 🙁 It is nice to know that your library in Londone served you well 🙂

Interesting stuff. I do feel bad that I don’t use the local library, especially as I live near the city centre so I have relatively easy access to the biggest of the local libraries. However, between working full time and books being so cheap to buy, I don’t need it. When I first moved to Bristol I did sign up and visit the library a few times with a long list of books I wanted but they didn’t have a single book on my list either time. I suspect that, like you, when I have kids I will take them. I was a daily visitor at my local library between the ages of 9 and 15 and that was a very small town with limited selection but at that age I devoured everything I could find!

Nose in a book, My library has an online catalogue so at least I’m able to sit inthe comfort of my own home and check how many books they don’t have in stock!! I think I would get very frustrated if I actually took a physical list into the library building 🙁

As a child I used a library all the time, but I wonder if my boys will – their school library is so good. Probably a good thing, but it does make trips to the poorly stocked town library redundant.

I haven’t visited my local library in years. I visited lots in the Summer after my GCSEs and read all the books that interested me. I’m generally a fiction reader and they had maybe 10 cases of fiction. I do occasionally visit the Central Library in town because I can drop in on my way home from work, but despite it having about 6 floors it’s fiction section is dismal, only slightly bigger than my local library- last time I borrowed a fiction book from them I had to have it ordered from another library (it was Gregory Miguire’s Wicked, which was a book I expected them to have). I must admit the Children’s section is very good though, there’s a whole floor just for children’s books. They’re building a new central library in Birmingham now, so I hop the fiction section there will be better. I do have mixed feelings about the new library though, there is already a central library and they are building a new one while closing smaller libraries around Birmingham, it doesn’t seem right.

Lucy, 6 floors of fiction! Wow! I think I’d love just browsing a building like that! Shame that it can’t stock a wide variety of fiction though 🙁

I understand your frustration at them closing the smaller libraries – I couldn’t justify regular trips into a big city centre just for the library and I suspect it would lead to me abandoning the library.

I’ve just come back from a holiday to the UK, and I as a librarian from Australia (not speaking for his employer, however 8) ), was just shocked at how libraries work there. I visited the Enlightenment Hall at the British Museum, which was a great spiritual experience for me, and then went and looked at your community libraries, and often seemed to have things we don’t have like:

* must return to the same branch. We have 12 branches or points of presence, and we don’t care where you return them to.
* fees to borrow if you are a tourist. (We don’t have them, aqnd we are the tourist heart of this country.)
* tiny borrowing limits (here it’s 20 items per member, so families can basically stock up with a mountain of books if they like, If you have the books and people want them, why not just hand them over?)
* fees to borrow DVDs. (In my library, it’s 10 DVDs/CDs/PC games at a time for free)
* overdue fees (we don’t have them, they cost more to collect than they raise, they -increase- the number of overdue books in a system because people don’t feel guilty about overdues, and they only really impact on the spending power of unemployed people or children.)
* Fees to place holds (again…why? We allow 10 holds at a time, for free, and free ILL from any library in Australia)
* Fees to use the internet (We allow free access using one of our machines for an hour, or free wireless for 3 hours…we are upping that to 12.)

In Australia, libraries are, and can be demonstrated with doorcount statistics to be, more popular than any sport, and more popular than any other cultural venue (although some years we slip to second behind cinemas).

I’d just like to note that when library cutters tell you that less than half of all Britons are members of libraries: people have tried that piece of chicanery here too. In Australia, just over half of all Australains are library -members- but that’s because about 89% of -adults- are members and only about 20% of children are members, because families use the adult card as a family card. They may also say less than half of Britons visit a library, but that’s also a cheat: a lot of women pick up material for their partners on the wife’s card, and so these men are treated as not interested by people wanting to cut costs.

It was sad to see that many British libraries, starved of funds, are shabby, and have a beggarish need to suck the loose change out of their patrons with tiny pay-as-you-go fees that are uneconomic to collect, and serve only as a rationing system on service.

Timothy, Thank you for such an insightful comment. I hadn’t thought about family members regularly getting books for others – that makes a lot of sense, especially with the ever decreasing opening hours.

I’m also amazed that tourists are allowed to borrow books in Australia – I can’t imagine that ever happening here.

It sounds as though you have things sorted in Australia too. Why does the UK have to be so behind in these things 🙁

I have also been struck by the differences between US and UK libraries. Opening hours are just one aspect – my closest library branch to home here in the UK closes at 5.30pm most days which is hardly much use for people who work. In contrast the library in a American town I visit often for work is open until every evening until 8pm and also opens on Sundays. Many lessons we can learn from our cousins over seas

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