Library column: silver linings?

Miranda McKearney
Opinion - Libraries 07 Apr 2009

Libraries are now a hot media topic, and the Wirral inquiry offers hope for a turnaround, Miranda McKearney writes As money gets tighter, the value of libraries as sources of free reading and information becomes more apparent. Last week's article in the Guardian by John Harris picked up on the effect of the recession. Hard proof won t be available until the 2008-9 CIPFA figures are published, but at The Reading Agency we re already picking up loads of anecdotal evidence that the recession is sending more people into libraries. Some are visiting for business or job information (if they ve been made redundant, for instance) and some are coming in for free books. Since research points to book borrowing and buying as complementary activities, it has to be good news for the book trade as well as for libraries that people are finding a way to keep reading through the credit crunch.

The best library authorities are seizing the moment to remind people of what they offer. Ciara Eastell, formerly of The Reading Agency and now Head of Libraries in Devon, can point to data showing increased use this year, thanks in part to recession-related promotions such as Buy None Get Eight Free . Lots of other library services have similar evidence.
Many of these extra visits are from lapsed users. To adults who haven t visited since childhood, finding resources such as a rich variety of reading activities and computers with fast internet access can be a welcome surprise.
Lots of libraries use our reading promotions - the Six Book Challenge and the Summer Reading Challenge, for examples. These are designed to encourage repeat visits. We are also busy on new projects to support libraries reading groups, which help people feel committed to their local libraries.
This combination of local marketing and national promotions is a powerful marketing approach. When the whole network agrees to works together as happened during the National Year of Reading the results can be startling. The NYR's national membership campaign brought in 2.3 million new library members, and individual local authorities agreed to a shared 'one proof of address' approach to previously varied joining requirements. We re looking at what it would take to mount a follow-on campaign.
But libraries will have nothing to shout about unless they get proper investment, during and beyond the recession. With tighter budgets, local authorities may see the recession as an excuse to reduce their investment in libraries. A wave of closures has already been announced, the most serious in Wirral. Thrillingly, late last week, the Government seemed to come to its senses, and decided to invoke the Secretary of State's powers under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act to run a local inquiry to test whether the Council's plans are consistent with their statutory duty to provide all residents with a comprehensive public library service.
I remember the shock waves when a similar inquiry was launched in Derbyshire in 1991, and the huge turnaround in the library service since then. It's now thriving. Let's keep fighting!
Miranda McKearney is Director at The Reading Agency.

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