Library column: children's books show the way

Liz Dubber and Miranda McKearney
Opinion - Libraries Tuesday, 17th March 2009

The apparently gloomy CIPFA figures reveal a formula for success in libraries, Liz Dubber and Miranda Mckearney write On the face of it, the latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) statistics about the use of public libraries do not make for very happy reading. Visits to public libraries fell by 2.7% in 2007-08, while issues of books slipped by 2.3%. Loans of books have been declining steadily for well over a decade now. But despite these falls, there is some cause for optimism. The number of children's books borrowed has risen in each of the last four years; the increase in 2007-08 was modest, but an increase nonetheless. We do not believe book lending statistics should be the only measure of libraries impact. However, improved book lending tends to be linked to other success factors.

It is no coincidence that the rise in children's borrowing has followed better investment in libraries reading services for children and families. Children's librarians are clear that reading is central to their mission. And, tellingly, there has been an explosion of reading activities author events, story times, reading groups, challenges, book awards, promotions We at The Reading Agency (TRA) are proud of the contribution the Summer Reading Challenge is making to the turnaround. Last summer, 690,000 children took part in Team Read , and 2.8 million books were borrowed as a result.
There is no doubt in our minds that the reversal of the downward trend in children's loans has happened because of a combination of local and national developments to create a much livelier, appealing offer to children. Powerful local partnership work coupled with big national interventions like the Summer Reading Challenge and Booktrust's BookStart, and investment in new books, have all helped.
So can we now write the same success story in adults books? As the recession cuts deeper, there is already evidence of growth in library use in the US. And in the UK, last year's National Year of Reading created 2.3 million new library members. What's needed is a focused plan. At TRA we defy the notion that a continued decline in borrowing is inevitable or forever.
We need to analyse what has worked for children and apply the relevant success factors to adult audiences. Councils are much more likely to invest in a service that looks like it's going places. With the right focus and partnerships, libraries can become more important to their communities than they have ever been.

Liz Dubber is Director of Programmes, and Miranda McKearney is Director, at The Reading Agency.