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England's public library service, once the envy of the world, has declined to its worst state since its foundation ...
England's public library service, once the envy of the world, has declined to its worst state since its foundation in Victorian times, according to The Independent on Sunday (p8).

A survey and analysis by the paper - based on local authority library services' performance indicators - shows almost 500 branches have closed in 10 years, 90% of libraries open for less than seven hours a day, and the sum spent on books is less than half what it was 20 years ago.

South Gloucester Council spent only£1 per resident per year on buying books. Even the council with the best library service, Sutton LBC, spends only£3 per head on books and recordings.

The headline findings show the damage to library services caused by cash-strapped councils making deep cuts. The evidence is supported by official figures which highlight the severe reduction in library services across the country over the last 20 years.

South Gloucestershire, Stoke-on-Trent and Sheffied provide the worst library services in England. The best are provided by Sutton, Wandsworth and Barnet.

South Gloucestershire issues only 6.6 books or recordings per head of population a year compared with Sutton's 13. South Gloucestershire gets only 3.3 visits per resident each year compared to almost nine for Sutton.

Culture minister Chris Smith plans nationwide standards for library services. He has ordered longer opening hours, improved services for borrowers and extension of lending periods. Councils will have to provide at least one library open for 60 hours or more a week and ensure all libraries serving significant catchment areas are open for 45 hours.

Twenty years ago many councils would have met the proposed standards. Now a handful of local authorities achieve them. In many cases, councils intend to reduce rather than extend services.

A Library Association spokesperson said: 'Buildings are not only likely to appear shabby and unappealing, but without refurbishment may not be suitable for cabling or computer workstations, and in some cases may even pose health and safety risks.'

Mr Smith said authorities which do not meet set threshold standards will be subject to government intervention. Councils will be asked to buy 216 books, CDs or other items each year for every 1,000 residents.

But if a council buys less than the threshold of 170 per annum it would be subject to intervention. Although Mr Smith is promoting libraries, many Labour-run councils - including Leicester and Haringey - have recently tried to cut back.

The 10 Best:

1, Sutton; 2, Wandsworth; 3, Barnet; 4, Bromley; 5, Hartlepool; 6, Southampton; 7, Westminster; 8, Isle of Wight; 9, Redbridge; Redcar & Cleveland.

...and The 10 Worst:

138, North Somerset; 139, Lambeth; 140, Wigan; 141, Barnsley; 142, Windsor & Maidenhead; 143, East Riding of Yorkshire; 144, Telford & Wrekin; 145, Sheffield; 146, Stoke-on-Trent; 147, South Gloucestershire.

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