The end of local authority libraries


Local-authority-run public libraries are going the way of launderettes and video stores. Technology has swamped them, and they haven't responded to the changing pattern of demand. We still have 4,145 public libraries in the UK, about fifteen times as many as we had in the 1920s, despite the fact that more and more of us access our reading material (and even our phone books, newspapers, dictionaries and encyclopaedias) in digital form, that over 84% of households have internet access (76% of us access the web every day) and pretty much all schools have and use the internet.

Bookshops have responded to these changes, bringing in cafe-style environments and organising events and book clubs that bring people into the shop, where they might just browse around and buy something. Libraries like to say they are doing this sort of thing, but it is half-hearted. Birmingham says its new library will only do events that are self-funding, for example: no concept of using events to bring more people in. That dearth of thinking is why Birmingham has discovered that the £10m-a-year cost of running its £188m spanking-new library (which of course won lots of architecture prizes) is unaffordable, given all the other urgent demands on the city's budget.

It will always be like this. Local authorities have to provide life-saving services, social care, transport, roads, schools, you name it – libraries are always going to be something of a luxury, particularly when 70% of the borrowings are fiction, and much of the rest are about cookery, DIY and cars. Local authorities know this is not  a debate about 'public education' but about free entertainment for largely elderly and middle-class users.

LSSI, a company founded by librarians, which works with 78 communities in the US, reckons it can cut the UK libraries budget by 35%, increase opening hours, raise the number of library users, and still spend ten times more on books. Frankly, it is about time we put libraries out to commercial tender.  Let us specify what they are actually there for – not something that up to now there has been any public debate about – and the outputs we want, and then invite private, voluntary and charitable groups to make an offer. You can be sure of two things. Firstly, they would not build £188m white elephants, but would create libraries near to shops, schools and other places that people find local and convenient. And secondly, that the entire business would be revolutionised in short order, leading to everything that libraries are supposed to be there for being do cheaper and better.