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Liberating libraries;Leading Article;Opinion

Shockingly, Britain's Rolls Royce public library system has been allowed to decline and decay as local authorities have come under unrelenting pressure to cut their spending. Today, The TES launches "Open All Hours" - its summer campaign. Our aim is to reverse this 20-year trend, and put libraries squarely in the centre of the "learning society" of the future.

Libraries have had their opening hours drastically reduced, and their book buying curtailed. Only six public libraries in England and Wales are now open for 60 or more hours a week, compared with 173 in 1976. And last year less than pound;1.50 per person was spent on library books, a big drop from the pound;2.26 of a decade ago.

Yet libraries are not simply withering away because the public no longer wants or needs them. A recent TES opinion poll shows a high level of support. More than half the 300 people in the survey had visited a library within the previous month. One in four said that their main reason for not visiting more often was pressure of work - suggesting that increased and more flexible opening hours would enable more libraries to meet their needs.

So our campaign aims to increase libraries' opening hours, especially in the evening and on Sundays. And if the service is to play its part in encouraging lifelong learning, the fall-off in book purchasing must be reversed. The Campaign for Learning found in a poll last year that nearly three-quarters of adults prefer to learn through books and written materials.

Author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg describes in today's TES (page 15) how much he owes to the gas-lit public library of his youth. Many others, brought up in modest circumstances, owe a similar debt. "Where else," asks Lord Bragg, "could we have set our eyes on those books?" We welcome whole-heartedly the Government's plan to set minimum standards for libraries, because they are one of society's most potent weapons against social exclusion. Through them, individuals - no matter what their social or educational background - can take charge of their own learning. What's more, a clean, warm, well-lit building full of free books carries a message, loud and clear: "Society cares about you and your learning."

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