Cash-strapped councils have cut the public's access to their ageing book stocks. Jon Slater reports below and right
Nothing highlights the decline in public libraries over the past 20 years better than the reduction in opening hours.
During a period when shops and services have raced to introduce a seven-day week, libraries have not only failed to keep pace, they have gone into reverse.
In the mid-seventies there were 173 libraries open 60 or more hours each week in England and Wales - now there are just six. As recently as 1988, after almost a decade of Thatcherism, there were more than 700 libraries open more than 45 hours a week - now there are fewer than 500.
Despite the cuts, libraries remain popular. Three out of four people have visited one within the last year, according to a TES Lancaster University telephone poll conducted by Paula Hodgson and John Wakeford. They asked 300 randomly-selected people for their experiences of libraries.
However, the poll reveals that cuts in opening hours are restricting library use. More than a quarter of people said it would help them if their library was open longer. Of these, just under half wanted it to open later in the day. A similar number favoured Saturday or Sunday opening.
A quarter of those who had not used their library within the past year blamed pressure of work. "People's use of the public library is heavily conditioned by the move away from the job for life," said Dr Wakeford.
While supermarkets and bookshops have responded to changes in the working hours by opening longer, libraries have yet to catch on. A second TES survey of local authorities in England and Scotland found that only three out of the 55 councils which responded had any libraries which opened on Sundays.
Despite their emphasis on community learning, the election of a Labour Government has so far failed to stop the rot. Opening hours continued to fall between 1997 and 1998, as Tony Blair stuck to the Tories' spending plans.
The problem for policy-makers is that while opening hours would boost library use, people are not keen to pay for them. Only 15 per cent of the people polled said they would be prepared to pay more in council tax to fund an increase in opening hours.
Ministers are attempting to get round this problem by consulting on minimum standards for local authorities' library services. These are likely to include a provision on opening hours.
Certainly there are currently great differences in opening hours between authorities. Westminster has managed to increase the average opening times of its libraries over the past 10 years and a third of its libraries open on Sundays.
By contrast, less than half of the London borough of Ealing's libraries are open more than one evening a week and on average its libraries are open 14 hours a week fewer than five years ago.
The Library Association is a partner in the minimum standards initiative. However, Guy Daines, the association's head of professional development, still has concerns.
"There is always a danger that when you set minimum standards, some authorities will look at them and think that is what you can get away with," he said.
Mr Daines hopes that by also setting "aspirational standards" local authorities can be encouraged to aim higher.
Libraries cost the nation 24p per head per week. This compares with:
1 packet of crisps 25p
1 chocalate bar 40p
1 can of beer pound;1
1 swimming session pound;2.50
1 cinema ticket pound;4.50
1 football match pound;15