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A tale worthy of Brothers Grimm

Public libraries "remain the most popular cultural institution despite enormous disparities in spending and opening hours," said Ross Shimmon chief executive of the Library Association, in response to the Audit Commission's report.

The widely differing levels of spending per reader were particularly marked in inner London, with Westminster spending Pounds 6.05 on books and materials per head of population and Southwark spending Pounds 1.51.

Westminster also came top in London for opening hours with 12 out of 13 libraries opening for more than 45 hours a week. Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, and Hammersmith and Fulham have none.

The commission's report comes a week after the Federation of Local Authority Chief Librarians' survey revealed that Pounds 600 million was needed over the next five years to prevent buildings from crumbling.

But the book-loving community still flocks to libraries: there are more than 10 million readers in Kent and Lancashire and even half a million in the small Welsh district of Llanelli.

Of the metropolitan authorities, Knowsley spends a miserly Pounds 1.23 on books and has no libraries open more than 45 hours, while Mancunians fare the best with Pounds 4.10 a head and five out of 24 open. Wakefield spends only 90p per capita with three out of 29 libraries open for the longer hours. Gateshead keeps all of its 17 libraries open longer and spends Pounds 3.12 a head compared with Barnsley which spends Pounds 1.31 per head and has one of its 22 premises open for more than 45 hours.

Per capita spending in the counties is more consistent, with the majority spending around Pounds 2. However, there are big variations in opening hours: 15 of Cleveland's 44 libraries are open more than 45 hours, but none of Cornwall's.

In Wales, Clwyd is the meanest county, spending Pounds 1.09 a head, but has the longest opening hours with eight out of 40 at 45 hours or more. Dyfed is the top spender with Pounds 2.52 and three out of 26 open longer. No libraries in Gwent and Gwynedd are open for more than 30 to 44 hours a week.

Mr Shimmon thought the commission's report made a "pretty grim story" although it failed to reveal trends. "And it is retrospective: we know there are enormous problems looming." Referring to the chief librarian's report, he said some of the National Lottery money should be unlocked to rebuild and refurbish public libraries which were established by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century. Current rules do not allow lottery cash to go to libraries as they are statutorily funded.

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