Thursday, 22 September 2011

Libraries in the 21st Century

Posted by Leigh Russell
I was pleased to be invited to talk about my books at the relaunch of Bushey library. Before speaking about my own books, I decided to say a few words about how fantastic it is to see a refurbished library in the current climate.

With over 430 libraries closed or under threat, the professional body of librarians CILIP are forecasting another 600 more will soon be under scrutiny. That’s around 20% of our libraries threatened with closure.

Under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 local authorities have a statutory obligation to provide a library service. But the government are changing the rules, claiming attendance has been dropping since 2005, although children’s visits have remained steady.

Libraries, on the other hand, report increased use since the start of the recession. In the past year around 50% of adults in England visited libraries. They go there for free books, information, learning resources, work and ICT. New communities seek help with English, material in their first language, and help with citizenship procedures.

But whatever the true picture, there is no question that funding is a problem, provoking a lot of debate about what can be done. Reducing opening hours would only make visiting more difficult; reducing stocks would have an adverse effect on users’ satisfaction; and replacing staff with volunteers would, in my opinion, be disastrous. Part of the value of libraries is the expertise of the trained librarians. Introducing any of these measures would inevitably hasten the demise of any library, in my opinion. You can’t rescue a good service by making it mediocre or worse.

The question should not be solely about money. As US Publisher’s Weekly says: ‘‘The value of libraries should not be measured in economic terms alone’’, although of course economic considerations can’t be disregarded. We have to decide what we want from libraries in the 21st century, with our 24/7 culture, cheap books, ebooks, and almost limitless information accessible to all without having to stir from our homes.

What kind of society do we want?

Borders closed, the whole Waterstones chain has recently been bought for price of one footballer, and the past 15 years have seen an increase of over 1,000% in lap dancing clubs in London alongside a 6% decline in libraries in the capital.

As book lovers, we should all care about libraries, even if we don’t use them ourselves. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to speak up in support of our struggling library service, because without pressure from the reading public, libraries as we know them may not survive for much longer. To paraphrase Burke: “All that is necessary for the disappearance of libraries is for readers to do nothing.”
Leigh Russell writes the Geraldine Steel crime novels:
Contact Leigh on
CUT SHORT (2009) - shortlisted CWA Dagger
ROAD CLOSED (2010) - top read Eurocrime
DEAD END (2011) - bestselling kindle detective
DEATH BED (2012)


  1. Well said, Leigh. I have done two library events in my little neck of the woods this year, with three more planned. The common theme of each is the importance of libraries. Without them, how many of us would have "found" our calling as writers?


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  3. Hi James, glad to hear you're out there supporting libraries. It's not just authors, but many readers depend on libraries. I just heard that Brent are planning to close 6 out of their 12 libraries - at the same time they are spending more on 'consultants' than on librarians... Leigh

  4. It astonishes me that people can even contemplate closing libraries. Did our powers that be never sit in the corner of a library as a child - sanctuary from the hurly burly of home and school? Have they never visited recently, seen the numbers who use the computers, read the newspapers, or discuss the latest Ian Rankin?

    And - how can it be possible to keep them open using only volunteers? Our librarians have studied for years; their role is so much more than stamping books.

  5. I couldn't agree more, Jo. Thanks for joining in the discussion. Leigh Russell