Cyberspace in a Victorian setting

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Charges and competitive tendering dropped in new Government review. Diane Spencer reports.

Behind the reassuring Victorian brick facade of Croydon's town hall is a state-of-the-art public library replete with Internet, CD-Rom and PC terminals.

The Central Library, featured in the Government's report, opened in 1993 as part of the Clocktower development which includes a museum, exhibition galleries, a cinema, arts workshops, a cafe, a bar and a shop.

It manages to open 54 hours a week, higher than the national average, and is among the 10 busiest in the country with more than a million users a week.

Visitors to these light and airy premises first catch a glimpse of the children's library behind a glass partition as they walk to the reception desk. It looks fun. There are shallow steps to lounge on, cosy niches for a quiet read, tables for serious work, and the latest technology.

Under fives have their own area with pint-size furniture, toys and rocking horses along with masses of picture books. Every day children can join a story-telling session or make messy things in an activity room.

Grace McElwee, head of children's services, said Croydon's service with 13 libraries and 220 staff, was fortunate because the book fund was "reasonably healthy" and it employed qualified children's librarians.

She and her staff work closely with the borough's education resource library which is run like a school library service by providing in-service sessions such as new book reviewing or on boys and reading.

Her staff visit schools to introduce children to the libraries, invite them to hear authors give readings in the library and the annual Book Trail.

The Book Trail, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, is a summer reading programme aimed mainly at primary schools, although secondary schools will be approached this year.

"It's about giving children the desire to read so it becomes as natural as breathing. They like it, numbers increase every year. Teachers and parents love it."

About 50 books are chosen from the best published the previous year for three age groups with some old favourites like Peter Rabbit. Children can gain badges for the number they read and for their understanding of the books.

Library staff present certificates in September in school assemblies which encourages others to take part the next year.

Last year 6,000 children read 49,000 books in five weeks; 1,600 under-fives read 15,000 books, she said. The service does a lot of work with under-fives, targeting nursery classes, playgroups, clinics and childminders with visits and leaflets.

Chris Batt, the borough libraries and museums officer, is as enthusiastic about books as he is about the latest information technology.

Computers will not replace books, he insists, but hoped the report would lead to a commitment for an urgent investment in IT for libraries as he regarded them as "the nerve centre for learning experiences - the heart and brain of the information society".

His library is doing its best to be at the cutting edge of what he sees as a revolution which will change society as dramatically as the industrial revolution. In 10 years' time people will have access to a network of resources and libraries will deliver a 24-hour service, he reckons.

The 1.3 million visitors a year already have access to the Internet with beginners' courses on Saturday, and PCs on the top floor of an area heavily used by students for quiet study.

"We want to offer visitors a palette of learning, show them how to make contact with people with the same interests on the Internet,and how to find courses to extend their knowledge. Never before have there been these resources available to ordinary people. You don't need monumental establishments like universities. Libraries have a rosier future than they do."

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