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Comparing U.S. and U.K. libraries

An article about libraries in the London Observer has things hopping–for us, too, as the article mentioned our Good Library Blog, written by Tim Coates. Here’s the related blog, “Bring Them to Book.” Rachel Cooke’s analysis of the mess that UK libraries are in is echoed by many people on the blog, but it’s this comment that I found most helpful, because it highlights some of the differences between the United States and U.K., when it comes to public libraries:

I have recently returned to the US after nearly four years of living in the UK (England.) While there are a number of things the UK does better than the US (health care, fuel efficient cars,etc), libaries aren’t one of them. I was horrified by the state of public libraries in the UK and that horror never abated while I was there. It was a constant struggle to find something to read, especially if I wanted anything current. Oh, that’s a lie. If I wanted to read Catherine Cookson, that was always there. Otherwise…

One of the things that dismayed me was the lack of structures to allow the community to support the local libaries. In our local library in the US, there is a large booksale every year which raises considerable funds to allow for the purchase of new materials. It is run by the local “Friends of the Library” group and all materials are donated by local residents. It is possible to volunteer to work at the library and do things like reshelving and organising the shelves (the main library in Birmingham is in a constant state of mess and chaos.) These volunteer duties were said to be impossible in UK libraries due to health and safetly and other reasons.

Also, I do not understand the constant selling off of stock for silly low prices. I wanted to get the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams in 2004, just two years after its publication, I was told it was no longer available as it had been sold off–probably for something like 50p.

All of this seeks to discourage library use by making the whole experience nearly pointless. Add to this the constant noise by unruly children which librarians seem unwilling to deal with, and a visit to the local library was a constantly frustrating and discouraging experience. (And I’m sick of hearing the reason for this noise, preference for computers over books, etc, is because “libraries are changing.” Yes, but not for the better.)

Anyway, back in the US I can check out as many books as I want from my local library, as well as 5 videos/dvds and 5cds at any one time, all for free, along with 5 magazines (current month’s issues exempted.) It is a rare occasion that I look for something only to find the library doesn’t have it. Oh, and it’s lovely and quiet, not to mention full of people.

Posted by Willow819 on June 11, 2006 04:02 PM.

This could have come straight out of the Libraries We Love, which we’ll be publishing this autumn! When we will be able to do an edition for the U.K., I wonder? We’ll start with Tim Coates’s Bloggington-on-Sea, where the libraries are, he says, the best in the world.

One thought on “Comparing U.S. and U.K. libraries

  1. Having lived in the US for 8 years, I had precisely the same problem. Book and CD selections were exceedingly narrow (if unacquainted with local preferences); passing through all the hoops of bureacratic nonsense to request the library purchase a copy of a book, CD or DVD beyond its regular limited fare made for an interesting, but painful, 18-month ordeal; the inter-library loan system was an embarrassment of inefficiency particularly if the book you were chasing resided outside the state of the library. Mostly, the libraries I used were glistening, extravagantly furnished new buildings, but once you scratched away the superficial gloss and tried using them as places to work, study or, behold! find a book to read, they performed no better than their UK counterparts, and in many cases a lot worse. I suppose it’s a case of what you are used to.

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