PUBLIC libraries will be redundant by 2020 on current trends, according to a new report by Tim Coates for Libri, a charity that worries about such things. Mr Coates, a former managing director of Waterstone’s, a chain of book stores, also says that though spending on libraries is up, visits have declined by 21% and numbers of books borrowed by 35% in the last ten years, making a once public-spirited enterprise bad value for public money. The libraries’ sad state is being interpreted as a symptom of modern philistinism. But their decline is the consequence of a happy tale.
The first public libraries were established in 1850, for the same reasons as the Public Health Act of two years earlier. Paternalists wanting to improve the minds and bodies of the working classes had another hit in 1919, when a second act gave power over libraries to counties, spreading their benefits further from the metropolitan centres where they were first built.
But the falling price of books sent libraries into a decline. Over the long run, books have become much more affordable (see chart). The first blow was the introduction of the sixpenny Penguin in 1935; the second, the end of the net book agreement in 1997. Since then, both sales and variety have increased. About 280m books were bought in 2003, an increase of 20% since 1997. And in 2002, just over 125,000 new titles were published, or one new book for every 470 Britons.
Recent attempts to make libraries more visited include filling them with easier forms of entertainment (why read the book when you can watch the DVD?) or computers with internet access. But those, too, are increasingly affordable and therefore available at home. For libraries, it may indeed be the final chapter.