THE BLOG
01/14/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

The Ideal Library

The public library service in the UK is in a quagmire of confusion.

Nobody knows what they are trying to do, and even if they did, no one would listen to them and they would probably be wrong. We expect local councillors, who mostly have no interest in the nature of libraries and certainly no experience in the management of them, to take fundamental strategic decisions without any help and within a culture of local government far more concerned about pay and preservation of jobs than what it means to run a decent public library.

This might sound harsh, but the simple evidence that expenditure on books has fallen to less than 6% of the libraries budget - where it was twice that figure 10 years ago - tells the story. And even at 12% the service was only acquiring half the books needed to keep its stock relevant and up to date.

The fall in book expenditure has been mirrored almost exactly by a rise in the central overheads of running councils - which does not inspire much faith in the ability of councils to manage the financial operation of their library service, let alone the cultural aspects of what was so optimistically called, in only 1999, 'The university of the street corner'.

There is little hope of that cheerful aspiration bearing fruit. Nevertheless it is still possible to find a good public library in the odd place around the country, and it is still possible for councils to make their libraries useful and used. The public library is still one of the best brands in the book business - people know what a library does (or think they do).

When libraries are good they are phenomenally well used. Publishers ignore - or just don't know - the fact that more reading, even now, takes place of books from public libraries in the UK than of books bought in bookshops. It is astonishing. I say it everywhere I go - last year more than 300m books were loaned from public libraries and only half that number were read following a purchase in a book store. The same ratio is true in the United States, where the libraries are better than they are here - their library service still believes that books are important.

In the UK, however, it is very hard to get a senior professional public librarian to concede the centrality of books in their service. They prefer to think of a library as a community centre in which books are a contributor to the atmosphere. I think that is backwards thinking - for me a library is essentially a collection of books and that is why they are useful in the community. And I believe I have proved that I am right: where libraries, in response to being urged to do so, have consciously increased the quality and quantity of their book stock, the use of the library immediately goes up.

So when one is asked what makes a good library, even now in 2012 the answer is really very simple. The building needs to be local to its community - the largest number of users use libraries regularly (to borrow and return as well as sit in peace), and they value the convenience of the local library. These are normally people who are not at work during the day and do not wish to make long journeys to town centres. The library, free to visit and use, is most convenient when it is within walking distance (and most are).

A library needs to be clean, bright, well lit, attractive, dignified, properly appointed, well furnished and designed. They got into a terrible habit of being morose and institutional. They were painted in the colours you would associate with a grim hospital.

Places for dirty people and not for clean ones. You wouldn't sensibly leave your children in a library for fear of what they might pick up in terms of disease. Light bulbs didn't function, windows weren't washed. I was shouted at by officers in one council for saying that the answer to their library problem was to clean the windows: they thought I was being frivolous. So I went and wrote the director's name with my finger in the very thick dirt on the front window of the central library - to show that the windows hadn't been cleaned for at least five years. In the end they found my writing - and got out the council wash-bucket.

Libraries need to be open the same hours that shops are. It is 30 years since bookshops started opening on a Sunday - and even now many libraries are still often only open two mornings a week. Where shop staff cheerfully arrange rotas to keep open, library staff mostly close for lunch, and I have even found some that also close for afternoon tea!

Staff need to be willing, knowledgeable, kindly, experienced - and mostly they are, especially in smaller community libraries. But outsiders are often fooled by the deceptions of the library profession. The people who work in libraries are only rarely what the library service calls 'professionals' - there is an awful and damaging demarcation which means that so-called 'qualified' staff are not the people behind the library counter, but those who work in distant offices, holding meetings, attending conferences, and generally moaning about how nobody loves library professionals. These are an endangered species - and thank goodness for that. We need good librarians - and they can make a big difference - but we need them at library counters, not in management offices or even warehouses.

Most of all, the difference between a good library and a bad one is the quality and range of the collection of printed books. There is a skill in building collections of new and backlist stock, and of all kinds of subjects and categories - but it is the presence of the titles on the shelves, sometimes in serendipitous fashion, sometimes well organised to be found, that makes the real and essential difference.

That is why the real battle to save libraries isn't the one that gets in the newspapers about the desperate fight to save important buildings, but is the one we have already lost in England - in which we have removed 1,000 libraries' worth of books from the shelves of our libraries in the past ten years alone.

That is where restoration is needed. We must replace that lost stock.

The issue of libraries is not all about whether the ebook will affect their future - it is about restoring the quantities of printed books to the shelves as fast as we possibly can. And the side benefit of such a restoration is that, as money came in their direction, publishers might once more start taking an active interest in what libraries are doing. They should do that.

Tim Coates was once head of Waterstone's and is now CEO of the ebook store www.bilbary.com. His own latest book, Aldeburgh, a portrait, will be published in the spring (Antique Collectors Club).

This article was originally published in The Author, winter 2012

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