Tuesday, April 29, 2008

British Librarians Are Getting Lonely

Is the library experience in the U.K. different from that in America and Canada? According to this Guardian Unlimited book blog, libraries in the U.K. are hurting due largely to non-participation by the general public and the disappearance of library materials that are checked out and never seen again.
Partly one can blame the outdated stereotype of bespectacled dragons demanding absolute silence for putting people off. More recently, the image of the library as the warm retreat of the homeless hasn't helped either.

However nimbly they have adapted, modernised, lost books and gained technology, become determinedly "functional" as invaluable resource centres rather than bookstores, the libraries are always needing to boost their profile. They need more borrowers and yet, one of their biggest problems, in my experience, is that "borrowing" is not a readily understood modern concept, however well-embedded it was in Carnegie's day.
I'm just not buying the fact that the concept of "borrowing" is no longer understood by people in the U.K. I lived in London for a few years, until the summer of 1999, and I didn't see that as a problem during my regular visits to the Richmond library. What struck me was how empty the library always seemed, no matter what day or hour I dropped by. In comparison to the regular crowds I've seen in several Houston libraries since coming home, the Richmond one may as well have shut down and no one would have noticed other than the regulars who came in to play or work on the computers provided for their use.

Even having seen that, I'm surprised that things are so bad for British libraries and I wonder what the real cause is. Americans often joke about our tendency to believe the stereotype about Brits being so much more "cultured" than the "boobs" in this country. Come on, my British friends, you are going to ruin your image if you don't start using your library cards again.


  1. That is very strange. Where I live we have one of the most-used library systems in the country. The branches are always buzzing.

  2. I think that the piece by Julia Eccleshare was very ill informed. I suspect she herself is not a regular library user. I belong to the local library system in two boroughs, and also to a private independent library, and I use them all. What I have observed in all the libraries I use does not match her comments at all, so I found out some facts for you.
    There are 4200 public libraries in the UK
    Six out of ten people are members of a public library
    Public libraries lend 341 million books a year - just under six per person. They also lend 9.5 million music CDs, 13.6 million talking books and 16.2 million videos.

    Libraries have a broad range of users:

    Socioeconomic status: AB 14% C1 30% C2 25% DE 31%.
    Gender: Male 41.1% Female 58.9%

    Children's writer Jacqueline Wilson is currently the UK's most borrowed author: her books were borrowed over 2 million times from public libraries in 2003/04. Second is Danielle Steel, third Josephine Cox. Harry Potter is the most borrowed title.
    The libraries I use have helpful and well informed staff, the range of books is excellent, and new books come in every week it seems. Through the inter-library loan system I can request just about any book on any topic and it will be obtained for me.
    It is true that in the 1990's some libraries were not being used much as various local authorities cut library opening hours. Now I can use my nearest library seven days a week, and on four of those days it is open until 8pm.

  3. Sylvia, I'm sure that it does vary a lot from area to area - and my personal observations are almost a decade old now. I'm happy to hear that this blogger may have it all wrong.

  4. Herschelian, I did have to wonder if the writer had a clue or not and how much time she spent in pulling her piece together. As I mentioned above, I left London in mid-1999 so my observations from the Richmond library are almost a decade old already.

    My biggest frustration with the system there was the limited number of hours and the early closing times. I commuted by train and metro to Uxbridge every day and the closing hours limited my access to weekends only. I do remember that the Uxbridge library appeared to be busier but I was only there during the occasional lunch hour so it may have been filled with people just trying to get out of the cold for a minute...like me.

    From what you and Susan say, it sounds like the article may have been a bit sensational and written just to cause a bit of a stir. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Apologies...I meant "Sylvia" and not "Susan" in the last paragraph of the comment just above.

  6. Oops, I think I might have given the impression that I live in the U.K. I live in Canada (though in a place were we do pride ourselves on our Britishness!). Sorry for the confusion.

  7. I guess I was a bit confused, Sylvia, but that's usually my fault, not anyone else's. :-)