The Uncertain Future Of Britain’s Public Libraries:

When was the last time you used your local council library? Is there one near you that you can go to? The Reading Agency (RA) emphasises on its website that anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow books free from public libraries, so as to ensure that “everyone can have equal access to the power and pleasure of reading, information and ideas”.

The latest available statistics provided by the RA (for 2017/18) show that there are 3,618 public libraries, including mobile ones, in the UK with 15,483 staff who cater for 8 million active borrowers and issue almost 183 million books each year. During the 12 months cited, 58% of 5-10 year-olds, 72% of 11-15 year-olds and 36% of adults (of whom 38% were women and 27% were men)visited a public library .

The RA states that “72% of people in England think that libraries are an essential or very important service to the community, with 22% regarding them as fairly important”. The conversation.com/hard-evidence website has observed, however, that whenever a library is threatened with closure, “community groups and public figures spring into action to save it” yet simultaneously far fewer people are now using libraries than in the past.

This continuing trend has been attributed by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) to the “catastrophic’ scale of library closures resulting from £66 million being “slashed from libraries’ budgets as part of the Government’s austerity programme, which is turning the sector into a “war zone” and making it difficult to recruit staff.

As Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of CIPFA, has pointed out, in order for public libraries to be able to thrive, local authorities need adequate and sustainable levels of funding. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has responded to the criticism by insisting that the government is “completely committed” to helping libraries to prosper and that it recognises the “important place they have in communities across the country”.

The “Top Five” most visited public libraries (according to “The Bookseller”) are: the Library of Birmingham, Central Library Manchester, Wembley in Brent, Woolwich Central Library in Greenwich and Croydon Central Library.

One way libraries have traditionally been able to augment their finances, of course, has been to levy fines for books that have been borrowed and then returned late. The amounts involved, though, are fairly modest. Lewisham Council,London’s “standard overdue charge” for customers aged 14-59 is 20p per day (maximum £10) and for senior citizens / over 60’s it’s 10p per day (maximum £10).

The rates are similar elsewhere in the capital and Hackney Council, for example, has a policy of no fines at all for anyone aged under 18. Last year, Trafford Council in Greater Manchester abolished the fines altogether with the objective of removing all barriers to its residents accessing its libraries. Hatton Council in Cheshire did likewise as from 8th January, for the same reason.

There have been several recent cases of books being returned many years after they were due back: On 4th January, BBC News reported that a copy of the crime novel “A Touch Of Danger” by James Jones which had been borrowed from the central library in Aberdeen in Scotland in 1978 had just been taken back: “Luckily for the person concerned, the fine was capped at £3.60”.

On 19th April, the Guardian journalist, Sarah Marsh, highlighted the reappearance of “The Manual of Daily Prayers and Litanies” by Jeremy Taylor, handed in anonymously after 43 years to the Royal Holloway University library – which estimated the accumulated fine to be worth about £6,278. As Marsh’s colleague, Alison Flood, has noted, this was still far less than the £209,000 theoretically owed for “The Law Of Nations” by Emer de Vattel, borrowed by the first US President, George Washington, in 1789 and returned to the New York Society Library 221 years later.

Universities tend to be much stricter regarding library items returned or renewed after the due date. As with many of its counterparts elsewhere in the UK, Kings College London charges 10p for each day beyond a stipulated 4-week loan period; 30p per day in excess of a one-week loan; £5 per hour or part of an hour for laptops and 50p per hour or part of an hour for headphones. If the amount owed reaches £20 or more, borrowing rights are suspended until the total is reduced to less than £20.

Research conducted by the Press Association a few years ago and cited in the Guardian revealed that Britain’s universities had collected almost £50 million in library fines over a six-year period. Top of the list was the University of Leeds with £1,2869,340, followed by Manchester (£1,299,342), Wolverhampton (£1,252,253), Kings College London (£1,197,715) and Hertfordshire (£1,147,238). The University of Westminster apparently doesn’t fine its students for returning library books late but instead bans them from using the library for the length of time the books were overdue. The investigation also indicated that many UK universities bar students from graduating until they’ve paid their library debts.

Filed under: Society | Posted on May 7th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon

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