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A tale of two successful libraries – one may be closed

Public libraries are under unprecedented threats as cash strapped councils take the soft option to close libraries. This Saturday (Feb 5) is Save Our Libraries Day when everyone can demonstrate their support.

But I want to look at just two 21st century East Anglian libraries — one huge and the other tiny — that show how investment really works.

The Forum Norwich

The Forum

The first is the Millennium Library in Norwich. Norfolk County Council is not planning to close libraries. The second, is the tiny library in Debenham, in neighbouring Suffolk where the council has put 29 out of 44 libraries on the endangered list.

Everyone who visits Norwich knows its main library, housed in The Forum, a modern building to mark the new century. You can borrow the latest CDs, DVDs and console cameos and use one of more than 100 computers with internet access. And yes, it does lend books.

In fact, it lends more books than any other public library in England. In 2008-09 it made 1,124,233 loans. The next most successful was also in the East, Chelmsford with 740,927 loans. Some of the loans were of AV material but the vast majority were books. (These figures and others in this post are from LISU, a research unit at Loughborough University.)

Debenham Library

Debenham Library

Debenham — population 2,000 — library is newer than Norwich’s and is housed in an old bank building which was converted in 2003 to serve the village and surrounding parishes. In its first year it had 9,414 visits. In 2007-08 this rose to 14,455 and in 2008-09 to  25,138. That is in the 16 hours it is open each week.

Loans have risen too, up 36% in 2008-09 and have continued going up since then. More people have been using the library to get information with 366 enquiries in 2009-10. There are a range of activities for children and adults and support to a wide-range of community organisations. (This information is from a report to the parish council in October.)

Here we have two libraries that show well considered libraries with enthusiastic staff are a really good investment. I don’t know of any British research, but work by the University of Pennsylvania showed that Philadelphia’s Free Libraries produced $30m of economic value in 2010 (see my recent post).

While Debenham and Norwich libraries are loaning more books, the national trend is far from as bad some of the anti-library brigade are suggesting.

The number of public libraries in the UK dropped slightly between 2003-04 and 2008-09 from 4,622 to 4,517.

The number of loans overall fell from 340m to 310m but within this there was a rise from 86m to 95m for loans to children — up 10.5%. The number of library members has increased.

Those figures simply do not support the idea that public demand or use of libraries is falling substantially, in an age of home broadband and Amazon. The examples of Norwich and Debenham suggest that there is an increased demand to be tapped by innovative and enthusiastic library services.

So please send a message to the politicians by taking part in Save Our Libraries Day on Saturday. It need only take a few minutes. Go into your local library to borrow a book or ask a question, go on-line to order a book. If you don’t have that time, send an email or letter to your local councillor or MP. Even a tweet with the hashtag #savelibraries will help.

More about Save Our Libraries Day at the Voices for the library website

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