In Shakespeare's stomping grounds, libraries face cuts

More than 100 libraries in England face closure as local councils tighten budgets.

For 30 years, Hugh Wood has quietly enjoyed his local library, browsing the shelves, scanning the newspapers, ordering books, using the computers. But now Mr. Wood is furious.

The regional authority is looking for budgetary savings, and Virginia Water Library, the hub of this village in southern England, has been earmarked as a possibility. Residents are up in arms.

"This is not just a library, it's a community center," fumes Wood over coffee and cookies amid the towering stacks of the reference section. "We pay substantial [local taxes] and this is one of the few things we want our money spent on."

First, local grocery stores were squeezed out of rural English communities. Then post offices and small banks were shuttered. Now public libraries, some of them more than 100 years old, face closure, as local authorities across the country look for "soft targets" in an attempt to make budget savings.

More than 100 libraries are currently threatened with closure, the national government has admitted. Earlier this month, Culture Minister David Lammy played down the development, noting that there are more than 3,500 outlets in the country.

But opponents say it is a barbaric assault on cultural heritage, a cavalier negligence that will have a deep impact in a country where 1 in 6 adults have trouble reading.

"As well as being key points in the community, libraries are part of our cultural transmission, and we have got to do more to defend them," fulminates Michael Fallon, a member of Parliament who led a recent parliamentary debate on the issue. "You can get information from lots of sources nowadays, but the habit of browsing, reading each line of the shelf – this is access to the story of human knowledge and we have to be doing better than this."

Landmarks of British society

Public libraries mushroomed in Britain in the last century – not only in number, but in significance as well.They became one of the most familiar urban landmarks, a point around which to orient oneself, a reference for giving directions. They survived the technological advances in the postwar era: radio, television, and competition from myriad new leisure pursuits of the affluent society.

"They blossomed to nearly 4,000 buildings," notes Tim Coates, a consultant on public libraries and a former managing director of Waterstones, the United Kingdom's largest retail bookseller. "McDonald's will never get close to 4,000 buildings."

Figures show that even in the 1980s, 650 million books were loaned out each year. That figure has fallen to 270 million.The Internet competes as a reference source; and bookstores have now become more like libraries, with the opportunity to sit and drink coffee while you browse. Some libraries, meanwhile, have a distinctly outdated feel, with tired shelves packed with piles of well-thumbed pulp fiction.

"The problem lies in the quality of the service," says Mr.Coates. "If you had a clothes shop and all it sold was second-hand tat that was dirty, then people would go off it too."

So now, some of the less popular outlets are presenting an easy target for county councils keen to make cutbacks. An official at Surrey County Council, Matt Burrows, says rather than spend money on all those tiny outlets, it might make more sense to channel the money into mobile libraries or larger regional venues.

That argument doesn't resound with Virginia Water residents. One local, Alan Thorogood, even suggested that residents might resort to civil disobedience if the library is shut. Another, Diana Seaman, adds: "We need to encourage people to read generally, so what on earth are we doing closing libraries? People's habits may be changing but they still need their library."

They also question how much authorities will save by closing library doors. Estimates suggest it costs perhaps £20,000 ($36,500) a year to run the library. Both Mr.Fallon and Coates say that councils would save more by cutting bloated back-office bureaucracy that oversees libraries, rather than the frontline libraries.

Innovation provides a ray of hope

But the future might not be entirely bleak for Britain's libraries. Miranda McKearney, director of the Reading Agency charity, says that libraries that reinvent themselves can thrive. A new campaign, "lovelibraries," aims to show that a redesign and some creative thinking about stock, presentation, author events, reading chains, online catalogues and tie-ups with other libraries can help revive interest.

Libraries that are innovating – bringing in banks of computers, CD and DVD rentals, self-checkout, even audiobooks for MP3 players – are finding the interest is still there. Edinburgh's Central Library pulls in half a million visitors a year – more than the combined spectators who watch the city's top two football clubs for an entire season.

In England, the lovelibraries campaign is overhauling three venues at Richmond, Coldharbour, and Newquay, all in the south. Launches next week should indicate whether the modernization will entice new and old visitors to the library network.

"Libraries still offer something unique that bookshops can't," Ms. McKearney says. "Because it's free to borrow, you can take a risk, a new author, a cultural experiment, something you haven't thought of before." Besides, she says, not everyone can afford to buy all the books they want, and "kids should get through far more books than any family can afford to buy.

"The case for libraries is as strong as ever. Libraries just need to get smarter in articulating it better."

British bookworms

• There are 3,600 static and 460 mobile libraries in England.

• Around 60 percent of people in England have a library card.

• Over 285 million visits were paid to libraries to England in 2003-04 (more than to the movies or to soccer games).

• Public libraries in England lent over 310 million items in 2004-05, averaging more than six items for every person in the country.

Source: UK Department for Culture, Society, and Sport

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