Taking advantage of the British library system


The UK has one of the best public library services in the world (although it has suffered in the last decade, as local authorities have been forced to economise and reduce their budgets), and public libraries are found in all centres of any size.

Residents in rural areas without a local library are often provided with a mobile service. Public libraries are run by county and borough councils and around a third of residents are registered users (one hopes the rest are book buyers).

Anyone who lives, works or studies in the UK can join their local library free of charge, on production of proof of identity (e.g. a medical card or driving licence) and their current address, although children under 15 or 16 must usually be sponsored by a parent or guardian. Library members can borrow books from any library within their borough or county, and also elicit details and schedules regarding mobile services. When you join a library, you’re usually given a computer membership card with which you can borrow up to eight to ten books (fewer in some libraries) at a time, for a period of three or four weeks.

At the end of the period, you may renew the loan of a book (in person or by telephone or post) for a further three or four weeks, provided nobody else has asked for it. Renewals may be repeated a set number of times before the book must be returned. If books aren’t returned by the due date (stamped in the front of the book or written in if you renew by telephone), you must pay a small fine. Fines may not be levied on children or pensioners (although some councils have ended these concessions). Occasionally libraries have a moratorium on fines on overdue books, so that lenders can return them without financial loss.

Opening Times

Library opening times vary, but are usually around 9.30 or 10am to 5.30 or 6pm. There may be late opening (e.g. until 7 or 8pm) on a few days a week and earlier closing on one or two other days (e.g. 4 or 5pm), as well as a half-day (usually, but not always, on a Wednesday) when closing is at 1pm. Some libraries may close on one or more days a week (e.g. Mondays or Wednesdays) and all are open on Saturdays, e.g. 9.30am to 4pm. Where there’s a demand, as in some London boroughs, they also open on Sundays, usually between 11am and 4pm. (In some places, council budget cutbacks have reduced opening hours drastically). Most libraries have computerised catalogues which can be used by borrowers to locate any book held in stock by the county library service. You can normally log on to these on the internet. Books can be requested from other libraries within the county or borough, for which a small fee is usually charged.

In addition to lending books, local libraries also provide reference sections where you will find encyclopedias, dictionaries, trade directories, Stationery Office publications, atlases, maps, telephone directories and any number of other reference works. Many also have computers connected to the internet, which can be booked free for periods of up to two hours. Nearly all include copies of local and national newspapers and magazines in their reading rooms. All this makes libraries the best source of local and general information on almost any subject. Stocks of books in large type for those with poor eyesight as well as free ‘talking books’ (on cassette) for blind and partially-sighted readers are also normally available.

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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