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Humming between the bookstacks

Something is stirring in libraries. Past the Agatha Christies and Aga sagas you may find the future of information technology. Chris Abbott looks at public access to CD-Roms and the Internet.

In a few years' time, if Bill Gates and others are to be believed, we will all be checking our PC wallets in at the library so that they can be re-charged with reading material, rather than taking out books in the way we do now. Libraries are changing, and changing radically; across the UK, new initiatives and projects are forming the future of this long-lasting public service.

Changing an institution as well-established as a library is not an easy task. Only one library service, Norfolk, has the opportunity to plan and build a 21st-century library - Technopolis - and then only because the previous Norwich Public Library burnt down in a disastrous fire which may also turn out to have created a unique opportunity.

In many libraries, CD-Rom computers have now joined database terminals, which themselves took the place of laboriously-produced card catalogues. These changes have mirrored developments in the home and school, and have therefore caused little surprise to most library users. The next wave of change is likely to have much more effect, as libraries grapple with the difficulties of setting up loan services for electronic data - services which could well be offered at a distance, with personal visits to the library no longer required.

Wimbledon Library in the London Borough of Merton, like all libraries in the borough, has a Windows-based software package on all its PCs so that users can search for items. Children and their parents can frequently be seen hunting down information on a particular topic, and a useful side-effect of this is the way that those parents are becoming much more IT-literate.

What most libraries are not able to provide is a facility for parents to learn how to use the kind of applications that their children are using at school, or to experience surfing the Internet for themselves, and that is where Input Output Centres come in.

If you walk right to the back of Wimbledon Library, past the fiction shelves and through the reference section, you come to a fairly insignificant door with a welcoming notice pointing up a staircase. Following the signs leads to a room with a suite of computers, centre manager Tim Wright, his welcoming smile, and information about what the centre has to offer. It's one of a relatively new chain of Input Output Centres.

The new centre opened in Marylebone Library in central London, but as the company's director, James Golfar, explains, "This is just the beginning. We open in Richmond in October, Brixton in January and then 12 other centres around the country." During its first nine months of operation, the Marylebone Centre had over 5,000 people through its doors, all of whom paid for the training and access they received.

Although most library services have traditionally been free, the Input Output Centres are commercial ventures. Their reliance on self-supported study makes them much cheaper than traditional group training courses.

The company chose Personal Training Systems from the United States to provide courses, and these are available on major applications such as Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, Excel, Powerpoint, Photoshop and many others. A 10-hour course costs Pounds 85 and can be taken over any time period. The centres are supported by Apple, Microsoft and IBM, which is reflected in the equipment used and applications supported.

The centres offer scanners and printers as well as computers, and users can also learn to search the Internet, investigate the World Wide Web or even check their own electronic mail. As James Golfar explains, the company sees itself as very different from other models of training. "We offer a non-threatening environment with very much the library philosophy; a lot of people are scared of learning in groups."

A crucial difference between the company's approach and that of some libraries where open-access computers are available is that James Golfar feels that having a person available to help at all times is crucial. "People are prepared to pay a little more if they know the technology is going to work. Some libraries have tried to make PCs available for Pounds 2 an hour, but this doesn't work, you must have support always available."

Interest in the Internet on the part of parents and other library users has provided another growth area for the centres. James Golfar describes the centres as "The first bus stop on the information superhighway. We didn't want to become a cybercafe. I make terrible coffee anyway," he says.

The centres attempt to emphasise the use of the Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web, as a way of looking up information, much as the other parts of the library are used. Internet access is currently through high-speed (28K) modems but the centres will soon move to leased telephone lines with greater capacity (64K), and users will also be able to prepare and publish Web pages.

Despite all this development, James Golfar is aware that the information available on the Internet may not yet realistically compete with the resources of the library downstairs, although he expects this to change. "Public access to on-line resources is important. I think the whole area will become more commercial and that will bring the quality up. My gut feeling is that developments like CD-Rom will be superseded by on-line information services. "

One of the supporters of the Input Output Centres is Microsoft, and many of the training packages offered relate to that company's products. Microsoft's David Gregory is keen to see the company involved in such activities. "It is a step towards ensuring that everyone can take part in the information revolution.

"Any member of the public can now learn new fundamental IT skills by simply walking into their local library."

Although they are not encouraged by the centres, some children have found their way in, but the main benefit for education would seem to be the opportunity given to parents to catch up with the skills already developed by their children. The Marylebone Centre has been involved in a Cities and Schools Project with Westminster education authority, working with young people who are outside the formal educational system.

Some companies have also seen the cost and learning benefits of individual study and have chosen to sign up groups of employees for training which can then be taken at times to suit the individual.

Meanwhile, back in Wimbledon, there is just one problem for local parents. The Input Output Centre offers a range of IBM-compatible PCs and Apple Macintosh computers; but most schools in the London Borough of Merton are equipped with Acorns.

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