Your library: use it or lose it

Now, more than ever, libraries need support, including whatever investment or bold financial plannin

This past week was certainly a busy one for the intrepid culture minister, Margaret Hodge. First up, she caused a minor storm by suggesting that the Proms weren't particularly welcoming to people from a wide range of backgrounds - something I had always assumed too, from the footage of people bellowing anthems and waving Union Jacks on the last night but which, according to Hodge's detractors, is very, very wrong. Okay, then. A couple of days later she gave a speech to the Association of London Chief Librarians, outlining her solutions to library decline, and while this second outing drew a lot less press, it was also fairly important.

For years now, the outlook for libraries has verged on worrying, to very worrying, to grim. Forty libraries closed in 2007, with the overall book-spend falling by 0.6 per cent. Qualified librarians have been leaving in droves, with a dip of 4.1 per cent in the number of professionals employed in UK libraries last year, and a further 6.6 per cent decrease expected this year.

All of which is bad news. Particularly because, for more than a century, libraries have been one of Britain's great success stories, cultural institutions that have achieved what Hodge accused the Proms of failing to do: appealing to a wide and varied audience. The best local libraries reflect this democratic principle by including a huge range of literature on their shelves - Shakespeare jostling with Danielle Steel, James Patterson with James Baldwin - a great, teeming record of human imagination and knowledge.

When it comes to current progressive ideals (the notion of mass recycling, for instance) libra ries are decades ahead. And while the plummeting price of books has naturally affected library footfall, there is still a huge uptake of services. Five books were lent for every British citizen last year, with 53 per cent of the population - a small majority, but a majority nonetheless - using their local facility.

It wasn't until I decided to write this column that I realised how much the local library had shaped my life. As a small child I faced some difficult circumstances, including my older brother's death in a road accident, which naturally made my mother unenthusiastic about me playing outside. My younger brother, my only other sibling, is autistic, which meant he needed a lot of looking after, and so, like many other kids, I found myself quite cut off and lonely.

The library provided an escape route. My mother is a highly intelligent woman who left school at 16, and she was determined that her own kids would do better, schooling us with flashcards from the time we could talk. Then it was off to the library for four (later eight) books a week. One of the best aspects of reading as a child is that there is no pretension: you really can just read for the fun of it, and the people around you tend to be mildly thrilled that you're literate, rather than sneering at your lowbrow tastes. So, I flew through the pages of Judy Blume and Paula Danziger novels, the Chalet School and Sweet Valley High series, too, sometimes reading the same book four or five times in the week that it sat by my bedside.

I have heard arguments that a bookish childhood points to an essential loneliness, and I would absolutely agree. Yet, given the circumstances, what would I have done without the outlet of the library? What would I be doing now? It's hard to imagine how my life would have panned out without such ready access to books.

So I was particularly interested to see what Hodge was proposing to address those depressing trends. Reading through her speech, I thought most of her ideas seemed perfectly reasonable - extended evening and weekend opening hours; a single London library card, allowing users to borrow a book in Clapham and return it in Clapton; an increase in material, such as manga comics and film scripts, that might appeal to young men. But then I came to her plans for paying for these innovations. "I know what you're thinking," Hodge said. "How do we afford this when budgets are under such pressure? . . . Well, it seems to me that with 33 boroughs working in such close proximity there ought to be scope for efficiencies through greater collaboration." In other words, no new money on the table.

Now, more than ever, libraries need support, including whatever investment or bold financial planning is needed to take them forward.

We as a nation have just been through an extended period of economic growth, during which time many of us have been lucky enough to buy the books we want, at will. That period looks likely to reach an end, and one of the first things that will drop is our luxury spending. At the current rate, there will soon come a day when, keen to read the latest Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel or Hari Kunzru novel, we look around and realise that one of our proudest resources is gone. And once that happens, it will be much too late to claw it back.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us