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Cold comfort for librarians

Charges and competitive tendering dropped in new Government review. Diane Spencer reports.

The Government's first major review of public libraries for almost 50 years was given a muted reception at last week's launch in the new British Library.

Virginia Bottomley, National Heritage Secretary and her minister of state, Iain Sproat, failed to raise the roof of the stylish auditorium in the conference centre.

But most of the librarians in the audience were at least pleased that the Government had recognised that their institutions had a key role to play in the new technological age. And they were relieved that the review had dropped the idea of compulsory competitive tendering and imposing charges.

Mr Sproat said technological progress was so fast that plans for introducing new systems needed to be flexible enough to take account of changes and costs. A working group of the Library and Information Commission, chaired by Matthew Evans of Faber and Faber, would report to him in July on how libraries should respond to the new challenge, he said.

Mr Evans said this was a marvellous opportunity to crack the problem, but the pace of change could mean that the revolution might pass by the library service. "This would be a major cultural and educational catastrophe."

Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association, welcomed the Government's commitment to the service, after years of neglect. But he asked where would the money come from for extended hours, better book stocks and new technology.

He was disappointed that the report did not address the relationship between schools and public libraries. His association was concerned at the sharp demise of the school library service - a gap which could not be filled entirely by public libraries as they did not have the resources or staff. Mr Sproat said he was aware of the effects of local management of schools and grant-maintained status on the school library service and he hoped that would be one of the areas for comment during the consultation process. But that was all he said and the report mentions it in three paragraphs.

Royston Futter, of the pressure group, Library Campaign, was particularly unimpressed with the review. He works in Salford, the oldest public library in the country. He asked Mr Sproat if the Department of National Heritage had considered giving local authorities who had set up, funded and run public libraries for the past century, enough money to get on with the job. The minister replied:"Yes." And sat down.

The audience were a bit miffed at Mr Sproat's criticism of the contents of libraries. He thought they had lost their "high serious purpose" in favour of "mere entertainment", adding, "Entertainment has its own important place in a dismal life."

He acknowledged that many children would go on to read Dickens or Jane Austen via the William books, but he wanted to get the balance right.

Mr Shimmon did not see that education and entertainment were mutually exclusive. "Libraries can educate, inform, inspire and entertain and these functions can weave productively in and out of each other."

Heather Kirby, head of reference and information services at Croydon, was relieved that the report did not push for privatisation and charging, but was worried about the emphasis on using volunteers to increase opening hours as this could lead to a poor quality of service.

Mark Fisher, a shadow heritage spokesman, said the report ducked various issues and begged various questions. He welcomed the Government's shift in policy after years of hostility to public libraries, but "it refuses to admit that it is in any way responsible for low morale and the low level of investment because of its treatment of local authorities".

Labour wanted the gap bridged between the information rich and poor and "hoped and believed that public libraries will be the main player".

As a first step, a Labour government would negotiate with cable companies to link up with libraries, he said.

Main points from the report

* book loan and reference services will remain free of charge; * school library services should consider if joint arrangements and setting up trusts could make improvements; * libraries should be open when people most want to use them, such as evenings and Sundays; * library authorities must publish annual plans, including their charter for children's services, comparing their performance with their original targets, and standards achieved by other libraries, from April 1998; * libraries should increasingly involve the private sector in providing services and introducing new ones; * they should consider contracting out, developing trusts,raising sponsorship and applying for lottery funding;

* libraries should make more use of volunteers; * a working group set up by the Library and Information Commission will report to the Department of National Heritage by July how libraries should respond to new information technology; * some funds previously distributed by the Millennium Commission will be redirected to develop IT in libraries in 2001; * a Pounds 9m challenge fund for refurbishment will be available from April, spread over three years.

Reading the future: a review of public libraries in England, is available free from Libraries division, DNH, 2-4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DH

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