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A brave new library

Chuck out the "quiet please" signs. Get rid of the image of fusty librarians. The time has come to reinvent the library and bring this 19th century invention into a 21st century electronic network.

Attitudes are changing and libraries are now about much more than books. Standing alongside the bookshelves are banks of gleaming computer screens, and today's librarians are prepared to dance to the tune of the new communication technologies.

Public libraries are the cornerstone of the Government's plans for a society with high-tech access to training and education, hence the allocation of pound;200m of NOF lottery money to the New Library Network. This project, dubbed "the people's network", will link all public libraries to the Internet by 2002, and provide extra training for school and public librarians in the use of ICT.

Vast amounts of information are now stored on CD-Roms, in databases or on websites. They can make the world your oyster, hosting interactive tours around the Louvre and visits to the Taj Mahal, and inspiring as well as informing. The idea of the people's network is to make all these resources and community information available to everyone including students and teachers at the touch of a button.

The printed word is not dead though, and while the spectre of a book-free library may haunt some people, the spread of ICT will allow smaller libraries to flourish. Our street-corner universities, as culture secretary Chris Smith describes libraries, have managed to devise ways of accommodating the Internet revolution. Staffed by librarians with ICT attitude, they now work closely with local schools.

In Southwark, for example, pupils are encouraged to help run south east London's acclaimed Library and Information Centre in Peckham. They get to say what goes on the shelves of this stylish seat of learning which offers free Internet access for adults and children, word processors and CD-Roms. It is also open seven days a week.

"The role of the free public library as educator has been recognised and we are working in collaboration with schools and students on a number of initiatives involving the joint use of computers and books," says Adrian Olsen, the borough's arts, libraries and museums manager.

"They complement services we already provide for youngsters and, as a result of consultations with children, we regularly host class visits and teenage reading groups. We realise that children are more likely to turn to computers for information than they are to books. But the fact that they are encouraged to come to libraries to plug into the network means they will be surrounded by books and librarians ready and willing to help them explore both the printed (and electronic) word."

Twice a week after school, Peckham Library is buzzing with youngsters who use its homework club. Special helpers, ex-eachers, classroom assistants or youth workers, are drafted in to help locate appropriate resources, either stored on the library's shelves, CD-Roms or available on the Internet.

The success of such clubs does depend on the level of involvement of schools and Olson says: "We rely on teachers to tell us what the current topics or projects are. This enables us to gear a lot of our stock to the national curriculum and provide a well-rounded facility for children."

Now that they are no longer considered outmoded cultural backwaters libraries are on a roll, but not all of them are fully equipped yet. Judith Chambers, learning support librarian in Leeds, is excited by this rebirth but says: "Many librarians find themselves thrust into using technology without proper training and it can be daunting. We do not have general online access for the public in all our libraries, but this has been a steep learning curve and it has extended my knowledge and given me so much confidence."

Jean Beck, of Belle Associates, who runs ICT training programmes for librarians says they must have the skills and the confidence to use ICT. They have to learn to evaluate education websites and CD-Roms, which has forced them to work collaboratively with school library staff. "In the past the child who got to the bookshelf first would get the homework done in time - now, with ICT, everyone is a winner," she says.

More than 1000 school librarians have taken the NOF training plunge and Sue Beever, a librarian trainer, says that after initial trepidation there is now a feeling that they have become more effective in the delivery of an information service. Moreover, a recent straw poll conducted by her company, Beever Solutions, among school librarians in the south east reported improved collaboration between staff and librarians, as well as an increased awareness on the part of teaching staff as to the potential of librarians' skills.

"The NOFtraining has also enabled school librarians to think more carefully about the role of ICT in the library and the ramifications for how pupils will learn in the future. Most have found that it made them more effective and confident of their ownership of ICT in the library," says Beever.

NOF's impact on school libraries, however, will be maximised when all schools get their libaries online to the NGFL. One teacher in charge of a Hampshire school library points out: "The biggest problem with NOF training and developing computer use with the school library has been time. The NOF training I have received has been of a high quality as far as the classroomcurriculum is concerned. As someone who was virtually computer-illiterate, the transformation has been quite spectacular. NOFtraining has, however, yet to have a full impact upon library services."

Maureen McTaggart is a TES staff writer.

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