I watched a youngish chief librarian take a gaggle of weary bigwigs on a conducted tour of his domain. They obviously weren't engrossed by his explanation of the Dewey Decimal system as they took sly peeps at their watches, and hoped that if they nodded sagely, they'd con the librarian into thinking they were hanging on his every word. He, of course, was equally bored. Or was, until the party arrived at his pride and joy the library's crown jewels a 486 computer, complete with CD-Rom drive.
The visitors, too, suddenly became animated. Here, at last, was something worth looking at. The librarian put the machine through its paces, summoning up text and pictures from an electronic encyclopaedia. Like children at a fireworks display, his audience rewarded him with a medley of oohs and aahs. He demonstrated the wonders of hypertext, and the miracle of the keyword search; he summoned up digitised sound bites and flickering video sequences; he made old-fashioned books appear to his bedazzled audience to be a miserable second best. "It won't be long before all these," he waved dismissively at the shelves of books, "will be replaced by a handful of these." He brandished a CD-Rom, holding it as carefully as if he had the future itself in his fingers.
I knew that he wasn't exaggerating, having just read a pamphlet written by Chris Abbot, a regular contributor to these pages, and an indefatigable champion of IT in education. Teachers who already take an interest in new technology won't find much in the 16 pages of Reading IT which they don't already know. But this easy-to-read introduction to the ways in which computers can be used to promote literacy will prove useful to student-teachers, governors and any practising teachers who have somehow managed to avoid the hype and brouhaha of the past decade.
"Information technology," Mr Abbot argues, "is moving from the evolutionary to the revolutionary stage." And teachers who want to do the decent thing by their pupils must be at the forefront, "not trailing along behind and sighing for an age that we knew and loved but which has passed for ever". As well as using computers to teach or reinforce basic literacy, teachers should be preparing pupils for a world in which most of the words they read will be on a screen.
He insists that before long each of us will have a miniaturised electronic notebook into which we'll download digitised books, either directly from a modem or by going to a library where we'll be able to pump it in like a gallon of four-star.
But as I watched the librarian and his clutch of converts turning their backs on the shelves of old-fashioned books, and huddling around the VDU, I imagined a similar group on a compulsory visit some time in Mr Abbot's utopian future. They'll stifle their yawns as they are shown all the high-tech wizardry. But then, they'll chance upon the library's only book probably propping up the leg of a table. They'll ooh at the quality of the display, and aah when they discover how quickly they master the knack of turning over pages, or using the index to track down the information they want. They'll be amazed to learn that a book, unlike its electronic equivalent, can function perfectly well after a week in the bottom of a schoolbag or vigorous use as an offensive weapon. They simply won't believe that it requires no telephone line, no batteries and no operating manual. They'll probably all want to rush off to write useful pamphlets explaining how this ingenious device makes even the smartest electronic book seem decidedly second-best.
Reading IT (Pounds 2.95). Reading and Language Information Centre, University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Earley, Reading RG6 1HY