In his Budget speech last week Gordon Brown made much of the need to spread information technology throughout the country. He talked of "a national network of 1,000 computer learning centres, one for every community in Britain ... in schools, colleges, libraries, in Internet cafes and on the High Street".
Three days later it was Chris Smith's turn. The Culture Secretary announced a pound;200 million lottery boost for public libraries and lifelong learning" from the New Opportunities Fund, which will pay for the hardware and electronic link-ups to make the National Grid for Learning something more than a virtual reality.
Public libraries are the cornerstone of New Labour's plans for a society with universal hi-tech access to training and education. "Local libraries," says Chris Smith, "are the street corner universities for the citizens of Britain". Schools will also be linked into the scheme, enabling pupils and teachers to access local and community information at the touch of a button.
The newly announced funding ties in with pound;20 million already committed for training librarians, and pound;50 million for digitisation of materials for lifelong learning. Pilot projects have been run in various parts of the country (see panel), and it seems likely that applications from libraries for the New Opportunities Funding will be accepted this summer, and the first awards will be made at the end of the year. The Government hopes to have everyone linked up to the People's Network by 2002.
It is a beguiling prospect, and there is no doubt that public libraries are facing a sea change, but while government is doling out cash for new technology, in some areas the basic fabric of the library service is crumbling.
In Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, library opening hours have been cut, and many areas report sharp reductions in levels of use during the 1990s. In stick rather than carrot mode, Chris Smith recently promised action on the "small minority of authorities currently contemplating unacceptable cuts in services".
"We are in a transitional period," says Robert Craig, director of the Scottish Library Association. "The emphasis is moving away from the book-based service, but in the future more and more material, particularly non-fiction, will only be available in digital form."
While the spectre of the book-free library may haunt some people, there is little doubt that the spread of information and communication technology will democratise the library system, allowing smaller libraries access to a much greater range of materials, and widening the range of services available to the public.
Craig sounds a warning note on opening hours, however. "It's an issue that needs to be tackled. Lifelong learning can't be delivered on a nine-to-five basis."
While some authorities seem to be struggling to keep their libraries afloat, others are swimming fast into the future. In Dundee, adult education and neighbourhood services have been integrated with libraries, and two "thriving" homework clubs have been running for a year, led by library staff.
"Library staff have been involved for some time in storytelling activities and class visits," says Moira Methven, neighbourhood resources manager. "This is an extension of what they have already been doing." Looking forward to the changing role of libraries, Methven and her team realise they need training not only in the use of ICT but also in "being navigators and facilitators for the public. Machines won't do it themselves, you need people to make it work."
Dundee can also boast a successful partnership between libraries and education. A pilot project, which began in January, is offering study support to P6 and P7 children two days a week. The pupils come with their teacher, but the idea is to offer a wider range of activities, including computer use and community involvement.
Moira Methven also hopes that a partnership with the university will give schoolchildren access to subjects not normally on their curriculum. She is adamant that these new services are complementary to the libraries' traditional role. "We're looking at taking forward our business, rather than reinventing ourselves."