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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2018

1 - Public libraries: the modern context

from Part 1 - The public library: history and modern context



As an evolving collection of national institutions, public libraries have been in existence for over 150 years, and for much longer as a series of ad hoc libraries serving local communities. Over that period they have grown from being an informal network to a nationwide, statutorily accountable service.

In recent years there have been several key reports that have examined the UK public library sector and its perceived challenges. These have come from varying sources including the expected government advisory departments as well as advocacy groups and think tanks. A key strand in all of them is the desire to create a modern mission for the public library within the information society. How for instance does an idea that was adopted in the Victorian era to enhance access to learning and knowledge remain relevant in an age when many people now have such access within their homes via the world wide web? All of this has led to what has been dubbed as a volatile time for its history (Goulding, 2006, 3).

To set the scene for the remainder of the book, this chapter will discuss some of the recent discourse around public libraries in the UK, with emphasis on key government reports and contributions to the discussion from researchers in public librarianship, and interested other parties such as library advocacy groups.

The 21st century context

The picture of the public library service in the UK in any given period can be accurately gleaned from the twin publications of the Library and Information Statistics Unit (LISU) entitled Annual Library Statistics and Public Libraries Material Fund and Budget Survey. According to Annual Library Statistics, during 2004–5:

  • ■ Public library expenditure increased for the seventh consecutive year, to £18.32 per head of population.
  • ■ Although the greatest part of this was on library staff, over £95 million was spent on books with a further £29 million on audiovisual and electronic materials. Increasing staff costs reflect in part an increase in opening hours.
  • ■ The number of visits to public libraries continued to increase, although fewer books are being borrowed overall. An estimated 48% of the adult population visit the library each year, drawn in part by the information and communications technology (ICT) facilities available in 97% of branches.