UK library lending down, generation of readers to go missing?

Charlie Stross looks at some leading indicators of library decline in the UK, which he attributes to cuts and closures, and notes: "if the drop in my PLR loans reflects library closures, then we have just slammed the door in the face of a new generation of readers. I got my start reading fiction from my local library; the voracious reading habits of a bookish child aren't easily supported from a family budget under strain from elsewhere during a time of cuts. I hate to think what the long term outcome of this short-term policy is going to be, but I don't believe any good will come of it."


  1. Libraries are becoming increasingly depressing places as administrators (not librarians) try to make them more fun for the kids and make them pay.
    Nothing is more fun than sneaking around looking stuff up in books, stuff that you could never find at home, with no algorithms to decide what you might like to read, interfering with natural serendipity. I may be getting old and curmudgeonly but I do not want to hear kids singing in my local library. There is a time and place for everything.

  2. I wonder whether ebooks are playing a role in this?

    I haven’t been into a library in a very long time but I still read a fair amount (I think I read around 25-30 books in the last year give or take).

    1. My local library has a good ebook library as well; with any luck that lending should be part of Stross’s figures already.

  3. I sometimes wonder if the UK opposition is missing a trick on this one. I understand that they can’t commit to rolling back any of the big spending cuts until they see what is happening with borrowing/tax revenues but if Ed Miliband were to get up and say under Labour no libraries would close then I doubt anyone would be able to make a coherent argument against it without sounding like a vicious Tory.

    I know that they are financed via local gov and seen as easy targets for cuts in their budgets but it all plays back into Ben Goldacre’s theory of economic growth:

    What do politicians think drives UK economic output, if not an educated workforce? Our empire? Our imaginary gold mines?!/bengoldacre/status/12952805031546880 

  4. Pirate content is the new lending library. People across the world are still checking out books, audiobooks, comics and movies but why go to a stuffy building across town when you can just go to the piratebay instead ? Much more convenient.

  5. my daughter (17) read more books last year on her android phone (yikes!) than she has borrowed from the library since she was about 6. our local library is well stocked, welcoming and about a 10 minute walk away. closures and other factors affecting libraries are bad news, but lets get the reasons why correct. 

  6. The reason people aren’t going to libraries is because they’re as good as redundant for 90% of the population. Reference material can be more easily found online – even during my university years more people in the library were using the computers than looking through the books.

    Unless of course you’re not referring to reference libraries and instead entertainment libraries – in which case I’ve always had internal debates over the value of tax payer funded fiction rental services. I often find it difficult to separate the importance of saving a library in this context to saving Blockbuster. People that are gonna read, are gonna read. Those that aren’t, aren’t. Libraries don’t turn philistines into well read intellectuals. The only people I know that check fiction in and out of libraries tend to be either over 85 or book addicts that would otherwise be buying the titles anyway. In this context a book is just an entertainment medium, no different from a DVD. The government doesn’t subsidise my netflix subscription, so why should they subsidise libraries? I love books, but I don’t consider the written word any more consequential from an entertainment perspective than film, which can be just as rich and capable of broadening the mind.

    Incidentally I’m all for the people; the principle of libraries is very important; I just believe that the reality doesn’t coincide with the ideology; at least from what I’ve seen in the UK. It’s an outmoded concept that people seem to hang on to as much for nostalgia as any logical reason.

    P.S. My partner (personal, not professional) disagrees with me entirely, so feel free to pitch an argument against my hypothesis, I’m very much used to it – I just haven’t heard an argument based on anything other than ‘Libraries are important, because!’.

    1. In the US, most public libraries also host public computers.  Lots and lots of Americans can not afford a computer and/or internet service (a situation that probably isn’t much different in the UK).  Libraries fill the gap.  Librarians have been very helpful during the recession helping the recently jobless and computerless find employment oportunities via the ‘net.  There’s still no better way to introduce your kids to the written word than by introducing them to the library.  Depending on your hobbies, the library may be the only place you’ll find long out-of-print books on your favorite subject.  Many libraries lend DVDs and books on CD to people who wouldn’t be able to afford outright purchasing large volumes of such things, nor desire to purchase that much media (takes up a lot of space at home).  All of these services are brought to the public for a measly 1.5 mil tax in my city (my overall property tax is approximately 54 mils).  I can’t imagine that the tax you pay in the UK for libraries is much higher.  To put it in perspective, I expect my natural gas bill for February will exceed what I’ll pay in taxes to support the libraries for the entire year.  That’s a lot of bang for the buck.

      1. I can’t dispute most of that; I guess it’s about ROI (not financial of course).  The one thing I will dispute, in the UK at least, is children’s access to books; as every school has a library, as does every university; so from the day you’re born (minus those first few books you get for Christmas and your birthday – I’m looking at you Hungry Caterpillar) you’re catered for right up until you’re in your early 20’s – same situation for computers.

        But at the same time I’d agree that I don’t resent the cost, there is a list as long as my arm of things that I’d scrap (or reduce) to save money before I touched libraries.

        As I say though, it’s an internal debate, I see both sides.

    2. Books aren’t neatly divided between reference and pulp, nor people into philistines and bibliophiles. I am firmly in the latter category; I read about 40 books a year, nearly all of which I buy. Many, maybe most, people would find it hard to indulge such a habit, esp. for multiple members of a family. So the question is, should libraries exist to fill that gap?

      Yes, there are mindless books and deep movies in the world. I’ve seen and read plenty of both. Still, all but the most vapid books *force* you to think in a way that movies just don’t. Movies don’t just replace descriptive text with images and sounds, they also subtract the majority of characters’ thoughts and introspection, author tangents, and other thought-provoking asides. Do you know what books first convinced me to start reading philosophy? R.A. Salvatore’s forgotten realms novels. Sci fi and Fantasy in general can be very good at making readers think more philosophically- the genre are made for big ideas.

      It was A Wrinkle in Time that showed me how much fun science and math and be. That’s when I started looking through the library for non-fiction like Stephen Hawking’s Universe, anything by Carl Sagan, any anything by Robert and Ellen Kaplan.

      I later ended up buying many of these books, or when not, at least the rest of those writers’ books (take note, RIAA and MPAA). But that wouldn’t have happened without the library being there first.

    3. The library provides access to research articles that you probably can’t afford to buy (this access will vary given the type, budget, and location of the library).  I’m thinking of, say, a SCIENCE article or a JSTOR article that is prohibitively expensive for the normal American/British citizen.  Are you, as an individual, really open to paying 30+ dollars for an 18-page article on JSTOR?  Can you, normal citizen? 

      That said, libraries are becoming increasingly redundant.  They are having trouble keeping up with the rapid changes in tech, though many librarians will deny this, claiming they are “leading the change”.  Some yeah, but most, nope.  

    4. “The only people I know that check fiction in and out of libraries tend to be either over 85 or book addicts that would otherwise be buying the titles anyway.”

      I’m over 21, far under 85, a voracious reader, particularly for fiction, and couldn’t afford to buy all the books I check out of the library. Or even a few of them.

      Also, I’m somewhat annoyed by your implication that fiction is not ‘worthy’ of library storage. The gov’t doesn’t subsidize Netflix because it’s a business. However, libraries are MEANT to be places where information— of all kinds, regardless to fictionality, content, type— can be shared freely (with limits, that is to say due dates). To repeat that, libraries are not businesses; they promote the free exchange of information.

      And information wants to be free. (Preferably in a way that won’t have people arguing over piracy)

  7. My local library has had a big relaunch recently. Mainly adding a cafe. They claim that they’ve as many books on display as they had before, but it doesn’t feel like there are. Certainly there are no books by Charlie Stross available. Which is a pity. I’d take them out.

    1. Have you tried ordering them? My library doesn’t have a lot of SF on the shelves, but there’s a lot more to order from the other libraries in the county

  8. (tl;dr alert)

    I definitely can’t speak for any library systems outside my own (I know many across the US are struggling, ravaged by the Economy dragon), but we’ve managed to do pretty well at attracting a new generation of patrons. We recently opened our new headquarters library (about twice the size of the old one).

    I wish I had exact numbers, but it appears that our usage has tripled since opening the new library. We’ve attempted to bring in new patrons by changing the direction of the traditional library (which many libraries are doing now, I think), adding access to more technology, classes, etc. We are one of those libraries with a cafe, like NickPheas’ (though we do have a bunch of Charles Stross books). I work out of the Teen Center, where we’ve provided our young adults in the area with access to video games (since not all of our patronage is in the income bracket to afford most games, if any), books, as well as things like digital video cameras they can check out of the library.

    In any case, blahblah, I don’t mean to play up our system–I don’t think we’re as innovative as we should be yet–but “innovation” seems like the key. When we introduced the video games, our tween and teen attendance went up, which resulted in more of our books being checked out (I push the “Steampunk!” anthology on every kid I can). Other libraries, some of which Boing Boing has covered before, are doing awesome things, such as the Toronto Public Library building that “collection” of interesting people, or the OWS library. MAKE Magazine also had that great article on ideas for libraries in the US, — I’m not sure if Boing Boing mentioned it yet. My old public library on Long Island, in Port Jefferson, doesn’t charge late fines for most of their materials now.

    I know that some people love their traditional library, but the world moves forward–the kind of stuff MAKE explores and the Toronto Public Library is doing are the kind of innovations we need. The elimination of fines, too, makes sense, if only from a standpoint of promoting intellectual development.

    Anyway, thanks for your time, sorry for rambling on. Long-Time-Boing Boing-Reader,-First Time-Anxious-Poster (LTBBRFTAP).

  9. Leading indicators of library decline would be things like figures for library opening hours, books loaned, library membership and mean distance to a library.

    One year’s change in the amount of money received by a single author from the library system does not say anything useful about the state of libraries, any more than the change in the ratio of long- vs short-sleeved T-shirts in your wardrobe over the past year tells us something meaningful about climate change.

  10. I use libraries all the time. Graphic Novels, DVDs and sometimes reference material. Anyone who claims everything can be found online is likely not doing actual research, and not necessarily creating new knowledge. Books still have useful information in them that is not online.

    1. I must admit I didn’t know you could pick up graphic novels in libraries – is this in the UK?  DVD’s (last time I was in a library) cost money to rent, so they weren’t really any better than your local Blockbuster – and these days services like Netflix and Love Film blow physical rental outlets out of the water.

      For proper reference I’d just head to my local University library, as it’s got 20x the books in it anyway and I can become a member without being a student for a very low fee. But I appreciate that not everyone is near a University.

  11. Fortunately some libraries are doing well – attendance at our local Banff Public Library was up 10% in 2011 over 2010. We do carry graphic novels and DVD’s. We have no fees for library cards, no over-due fines, free children’s programs, and no fees for internet whether using library computers or wifi. It is the best non-commercial indoor social space in town.

    1. Your public library may well be “the best non-commercial indoor social space in town”, but given Banff’s population, how many rivals for the title could it possibly have?

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