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Sad story of libraries in decline

In the past five years 175 libraries have closed, not good news in the National Year of Reading. Diane Spencer reports

With the National Year of Reading due to begin in September, new figures show that public libraries are still in decline.

Latest figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show the number of books issued has declined by more than 75 million in the past five years, a decrease of 13.1 per cent.

Opening hours have also dropped with the number of libraries open more than 60 hours a week falling from 50 in 1991-2 to 40 in 1996-7.

Nearly 175 libraries have closed during the same period, including one in Culture Secretary Chris Smith's London constituency. The number of mobile libraries has fallen by 12 to 697.

Guy Daines, head of professional practice at the Library Association, said the CIPFA figures confirmed the trend of smaller book budgets, reduced opening hours and fewer loans.

"There's a desperate irony that in the Year of Reading, funding for public libraries is under attack."

Their beleaguered state could also prove embarrassing for the Government in its drive to promote lifelong learning.

The decline in borrowing is mainly in popular fiction, with children's books and non-fiction remaining about the same. As libraries can no longer afford to buy multiple copies of best sellers people have to join waiting lists and the restricted opening hours mean declining numbers of borrowers.

The school library service is in an equally parlous state. A report last summer showed a dramatic decline in the service over the past five years with budgets falling by 18.5 per cent in England and 48 per cent in Wales. A quarter of local authorities did not operate a service.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Mr Daines is optimistic that the Government will soon respond positively to the Library and Information Commission's report.

Published last autumn, the report recommended spending pound;700 million to develop electronic links for libraries over the next five years.

The network is similar to the proposals for the National Grid for learning for schools, he said. Some money has also been earmarked for libraries in the National Lottery Bill. "Although we don't expect to get anything like the amount recommended in the report, we trust there will be some money available which will be a shot in the arm for a demoralised sector."

The Government's response to the commission's report is expected later this month.

Public Library Statistics 1996-1997 Actuals, CIPFA Publications, 3 Robert Street, London WC2N 6BM, pound;80

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