They have always had a dusty image – and never more so than now – but libraries are at the heart of our communities. With the axe about to fall, Bella Bathurst reveals just what we're about to lose

This article titled “The secret life of libraries” was written by Bella Bathurst, for The Observer on Saturday 30th April 2011 23.05 UTC

You can tell a lot about people from the kind of books they steal. Every year, the public library service brings out a new batch of statistics on their most-pilfered novelists – Martina Cole, James Patterson, Jacqueline Wilson, JK Rowling. But in practice, different parts of Britain favour different books. Worksop likes antiques guides and hip-hop biographies. Brent prefers books on accountancy and nursing, or the driving theory test. Swansea gets through a lot of copies of the UK Citizenship Test. In Barnsley, it’s Mig welding and tattoos (“I’ve still no idea what Mig welding is,” says Ian Stringer, retired mobile librarian for the area. “The books always got taken before I could find out.”) And Marylebone Library in London has achieved a rare equality. Their most stolen items are The Jewish Chronicle, Arabic newspapers and the Bible.

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