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Have you been into a public library recently? If so, what did you borrow? What services do you use? If not, you should try putting your head round the door to see what’s on offer. You might be pleasantly surprised.
I base the observations below on my experiences as a holder of 4 library cards for the last few years – London is divided for local government purposes into 32 boroughs which each have their own system – I have cards for the area I work in (the nearest branch is actually in the same building as my office – a great perk for me), the area I used to work in and where my boyfriend now works, the area where we live, and another central London borough. Mike has 3 library cards and yes, I do use his too. I am a compulsive borrower of more books than I can possibly read.
Public libraries now commonly offer
• free books - the opportunity to read a range of fiction and non-fiction for free, including many of the latest bestsellers and some other less well-known books. Currently councils have to provide a library service which lends out books for free, although they can charge for other items
• audio books – both abridged and unabridged – the cost of buying these is out of many people’s reach – two of my library services make a small charge for borrowing these (30p/50p for an audiobook for 3 weeks) but they are free for blind and visually impaired people, and in Camden, for children’s audios (including the Harry Potters). When I was at school, I used audio recordings of two Shakespeare plays to help memorise useful quotations (which we were expected to be able to reel off in exam essays)
• Music CDs for a small charge – when I first started borrowing music recordings they were on vinyl, complete with those skull and crossbones “home taping is killing music” logos. This is a good way to try music by a new to you band or singer. For those of us over 30, it’s also very useful if you’re reluctant to replace your old vinyl with CDs. Islington has to wait 3 months after a CD is released to lend it out, but that is no problem for me as I often want older stuff anyway. Charges in my libraries range from 50p-90p for 3 or 4 weeks (Islington lends for 2 weeks at 50p but offers a free renewal).
• Videos and DVDs – Libraries are often cheaper than video shops and have a far more diverse range of material available, including arty and foreign language films. Students who would like to see film adaptations of a book they are studying should try the public library. As the loan period is often just for a night or two, you do need to be able to get to the library concerned easily. I only ever borrow videos from the library branch in the building I work in, £1.50 for 3 nights (borrow Thursday for return Monday).
• Free computer and internet access, usually on the basis of booking for a limited period – anyone who visits a library for any reason will see how popular the government initiative for bringing computer facilities into libraries has been with users of all ages from children to pensioners.
• Language courses – I haven’t actually tried using one of these but love to know they’re available when I muster the motivation.
• Newspapers and magazines – papers for reading in the library and for reference, a range of magazines for reading there or borrowing – I’ve only used this a little bit but it’s good to know it’s there
• Local history – many library services have a special local history library where people can find out more about their area or do genealogical research. A lot of libraries also sell local history books with photos of how an area used to look.
• Study areas – this varies according to the location of library branches but some have large areas set aside for school and college students to do their homework, and clearly this is useful for those who need to get away from distractions or interruptions at home to study.
• Toy libraries – my local branch has a toy library where children and parents can go to borrow toys. As for books, music and the other materials available for loan from libraries, this seems like an excellent way to try out a wider range of toys than you could afford to buy.
• CD ROMs and computer games – for a charge
For some users, libraries are useful places to relax and keep warm, or to provide routine and social interaction. I’m not sure government policy makers have ever understood the extent to which some people like to be able to visit their local council services in person.
The past few years have brought lots of other changes, good and bad, in library services. One of my favourite changes is the development of online library catalogues. When I was a student in Manchester the public library was in the process of replacing card catalogues and paper ticket systems with computerisation and plastic cards, but this took a few years and computer catalogues remained something you had to access in the library for a long time after that.
Camden and Westminster have had their library catalogues accessible over the internet for several years now, Islington was a bit later and Haringey only caught up in the last year. I can renew books, check what I have out, look up books I would like to read to see if the library stocks them, make reservations, and see whether they are available, online.
Policies vary between boroughs on such matters as the number of online renewals and renewing items when you owe money. Camden and Haringey allow late online renewals, whereas at Islington or Westminster, you have to ring up at the right time to catch a human being or go in to renew any item you owe money on (for fines or fees on chargeable items like CDs).
Reservations normally cost 60p-80p although they are free in Islington. I get most of my reservations from Westminster because they usually buy new books quite quickly and always seem to process reservations efficiently. So I get to read a lot of new in hardback novels, and a few hard to find books, for 60p each, and they often come through within a week or two of placing a reservation. I’m currently reading Val McDermid’s new book courtesy of this system, and last year I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake just a few weeks after publication.
To find out if your local library has an online catalogue, you can go to your council website which will be at (your council name).gov.uk. Camden is at www.camden.gov.uk but not all are so obvious – use google if you’re not sure. If there is a searchable catalogue links from the libraries section of the website will usually take you there.
Public lending libraries in Britain began in the middle of the 19th century. A campaign to set them up led to the passing of the Public Libraries Act in 1850, despite vocal opposition. One Conservative MP argued that the "people have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage." Such sentiments, combined with hostility to increased local tax for those middle and upper class people who owned property and had to pay rates, meant that the development of library services was limited. Some were set up and there were 295 public libraries by 1900, but funding through rates was restricted and could not be used to buy books (!). These limitations were lifted in 1919.
The duties of public libraries now are set out in the Public Libraries Act 1964. An important part of this is that libraries have to lend books for free.
There are many problems facing public libraries in 2004. These include cuts in funding, threats of privatisation in various forms,
Since the 1980s both Conservative and Labour governments have been concerned to limit public spending and this has included placing and keeping constraints on council budgets. Libraries are often seen as a luxury, compared to say social services, housing or education.
My own local council had a financial crisis in the 1980s and responded by closing the libraries entirely for a few months, then spending very little money on the service, including new books, for the next 15 or so years. It was no surprise when an Audit Commission inspection rated our libraries as some of the worst in the country.
A private consultancy/library management firm was brought in to identify solutions. They spotted that our libraries had opening hours which made it very difficult for a lot of people to get there and that they had no new books. Why no action had been taken in response to library staff and users pointing out these very obvious facts before the Audit Commission report is not clear. I also don’t understand why my council has to bring in a private company to choose and buy books or to open the libraries 6 days a week instead of 4.
Camden Libraries had a cut in the book fund this year, as a less visible economy measure than, for example, slashing opening hours. The difference is noticeable, though.
Another method of cutting costs in library services is trimming staff costs through restructuring and deleting or downgrading posts. Camden Libraries pioneered recent government thinking on making services more efficient by cutting “backroom” staffing to concentrate resources on the frontline. So long as there are counter staff, less people or time to do the other work shouldn’t be a problem, right? Wrong, I think. That admin work includes such things as deciding what books the library should buy, what should take priority within a limited budget, and processing requests and reservations. Westminster City Council is hiving off services to a call centre, including telephone lines which go through there even in hours when the library is open. So tonight I waited for a while for someone to talk to me about renewing my library books before giving up in disgust on the stupid recorded messages.
Also, there’s another reason why, as a service user, attacking staff is a way of making a service worse not better. For me, library assistants make a big difference to the library service and I love meeting really enthusiastic counter staff who are interested in the books etc that they issue. I would like to see library staff recognised and appreciated by policy makers at local and national level, and I think most of them deserve better pay than they get now, for their hard work in providing a service that is so important to many users.
Finally, a few suggestions
If you haven’t been to your local library recently or ever, find out where it is and have a look round.
If you don’t have time to get to the library where you live, how about one near work, at lunchtime or when you finish? Many London boroughs will give you a plastic card to borrow books etc on if you want one and can produce proof of your address, for example a bank statement. Westminster will give a card to members of any other London borough library, subject to proof of address. I believe all libraries though will also give you a card if you can show that you work or study full time in the borough, even if you are a non-resident. I keep telling my colleagues they should join downstairs.
If you do use the library, do you know about all the services it offers? Have you looked at videos or music or audio books? Does your library have an online catalogue? Do they stock books you would like to read now rather than waiting for the paperback? Why don’t you try to find out?
Another tip which topcat's comment below reminded me of (thanks) is that many libraries have a sale shelf for books you can keep. Some might be in poor condition but this isn't always the case. As they have to make space for new books, ones which are rarely borrowed or which they have a lot of copies of are often weeded out. Westminster library sale shelves often contain copies of last year's bestsellers as they often buy lots of copies of a new book and then sell some off after a few months. At 10p-50p I also buy spare copies of books to pass on to my crime fiction reading friends. It's a relatively cheap way to satisfy my compulsive book buying.
If you’re a library user, think about writing about it for Ciao under this category.
I agree with everything you say! Far too many people do not realise how useful libraries can be - they dismiss them with stereotypes of being boring and old fashioned. As a proud member of 4 different libraries, I beg to differ!
simoncjones 29.04.2005 18:08
I didn't know that you can join a London borough library if you are just working in the area. That is useful to know. Great review.
Tea65 06.04.2005 10:02
Haven't been to a library in a few years and there isn't one near to me where I now live, but I am aware of where there is one, so might just go and have a nosy...great review. Tea xx