Bibliophiles of the North-east head the borrowing league

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Josephine Gardiner opens a two-page report on the Audit Commission's scrutiny of local councils' performance by asking what the deluge of raw data from relatively crude indicators can tell us about education.

The spirit of self-improvement and intellectual inquiry is alive and well in some of the most deprived parts of Britain, if the Audit Commission's findings are to be taken at face value.

The citizens of Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside, areas associated with unemployment and derelict shipyards, borrow far more books from public libraries than their comrades in the ancient university city of Oxford.

They also put to shame the affluent inhabitants of the Home Counties - a person in Kent, Berkshire or suburban Surrey borrows around eight books a year compared with the average 13 borrowed in Gateshead.

However, the bibliophiles of the North-east are bucking the general trend identified by the Audit Commission which shows that people in more affluent areas are more likely to make use of free borrowing, which could be said to show that libraries are not serving the people for whom they were originally intended.

Borrowing patterns in London conformed strictly with this trend, with inhabitants of leafy Sutton borrowing 17 books each per year, compared with three borrowed in Lambeth.

But among the metropolitan authorities there were other anomalies - people in Liverpool borrowed fewest books , while those in Manchester, a comparable area socially and economically, borrowed a respectable nine.

Manchester spends a few pounds more per head on libraries than Liverpool, but in general the take-up of the library service does not necessarily correspond to the amount spent on it, according to the Audit Commission.

Liverpool, for instance, actually spends more per head (Pounds 17.82) than North or South Tyneside ((Pounds 10.90 and Pounds 11.70) These findings, like much of the data produced by the Audit Commission, naturally provoke more questions than they answer.

The number of books issued by libraries per head of population is the only performance indicator used.

It would perhaps be more interesting to find out what the assiduous borrowers of the North-east were reading, whether they tend to be younger or older than borrowers in Cornwall, or to discover that people in Wolverhampton borrow Iris Murdoch while those in Oxford prefer Catherine Cookson.

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