It's always the same crowd who turn up on any afternoon at any library. The blue-rinsed bevy buzzing around the Mills and Boon; those rheumy-eyed gents whose noses drip over the day's newspapers as they wait for their sundry Godots; the toddler trying out a tantrum, and his red-faced mum who wouldn't mind a book on how to become invisible.
There is always a swotty girl of indeterminate age eternally at work for an exam which she is obviously never going to pass. She has a fluffy pencil case bulging with more equipment than you'd find in the average branch of W H Smith's. All she ever seems to do is copy from books in her bestest handwriting, illuminating her neat pages with a firework display of underlinings and highlights. She works feverishly, sustained only by the odd Polo and a touching faith that if she can somehow manage to fill more ring-binders than any other student ever has done, success will at last be hers.
The gangle of schoolboys clump cautiously past her, terrified that such chronic swottiness might be infectious. They are the truants. Teachers, marooned in classrooms through the long afternoons, might be surprised to discover how many absentees forgo the pleasures of shop-lifting, ram-raiding, alcopop binges and Carol Smillie on day-time TV for the simpler pleasures of the library. They inevitably gravitate to the children's section and, cramming their awkward bodies into chairs designed for tiny tots, embark on a scholarly perusal of back issues of The Dandy.
They never seem to cause any trouble, but then people - whatever their motives for being there - invariably are on their best behaviour in a library. It would seem that you don't have to read books to be affected by them. Those packed shelves are quiet testament to the lonely hours that authors down the centuries have spent at their desks trying to make sense of the world. Even if we don't get around to reading as much as we ought, it's comforting to know that should we feel a sudden impulse to mug up on a particular subject, the books are there, ready and waiting for us.
We know that the authors have shed, perhaps not blood, but certainly sweat and tears doing the necessary research and distilling the accumulated data into a form that is accessible, authoritative and - an added bonus - often a pleasure to read. It's because they have done this hard work on our behalf that books are such a precious resource. It also explains why that jungle of unsifted and often unreliable information on the Internet can't begin to compete with the treasures to be found in even a modest local library. And it's not Luddite to say so. Indeed, those of us technophiles who pride ourselves at being dab hands at the Internet should be willing to confess that every trip we make into cyberspace only serves to confirm what an invaluable asset the public library service is.
Years of criminal under-funding mean, of course, that the service is in dire need of extra cash. About Pounds 770 million could work wonders - that's the sum that the Library and Information Commission report, published earlier in the month, recommends should be spent on filling libraries with hardware and linking them to the information superhighway. It's a colossal price to pay but it will at least enable the fabled have-nots to surf the Net and, by so doing, to discover for themselves that the money would have been far better spent on books. I suppose the regular crowd will have to come to terms with this new high-tech environment. They'll find there are plenty of on-line newspapers, romances and even sites for aficionados of The Dandy. And the swotty girl can always keep herself busy copying down some of the prettier Web pages.
Full text of the government report at http:www.ukoln.ac.ukserviceslicnewlibraryLibraries and Learning, a television programme on how libraries are already using IT, Friday November 7, 5.30 am, and background details at http:www.ncet.org.ukncettv email@example.com