Public libraries, with their vast scope and accessibility, will continue to satisfy the nation's thirst for all kinds of enlightenment into the information age. Yet many have suffered from lack of resources and a musty-municipal-monolith image. Opening a two-page report for National Libraries Week, Gillian Cross revels in their recent revival
Suddenly, libraries are popular. In the past few weeks, both the Audit Commission and the Library and Information Commission have published reports which look forward to a growth in public libraries; the Government has brought out a consultation paper on the National Grid for Learning, in which libraries have a key role to play; and Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, has said that libraries are "catalysts for involvement" which should develop and "become the hub of community life".
This is a startling change. Four or five years ago, those of us who value public libraries were preparing to chain ourselves to the bookstacks. Opening hours were being axed, book funds were shrinking, and we foresaw a long, hard battle to preserve what was left. A few backwoods Conservative MPs even attacked the whole idea of providing free access to knowledge and culture for everyone. The future looked depressing.
Now, the mood is quite different. It is true that nothing concrete has changed, that many book funds are still worryingly low and opening hours are too short, but there is a new sense of excitement and purpose in the air. Where has it come from?
The answer is that there has been a major shift in public thinking. For a long time, academics and professionals have been talking about the global information revolution and the need for lifelong learning. Now, at last, ordinary people are grasping the fact that as the world changes, seemingly faster every year, our children will probably change careers several times, and learning can never end. In future, one of the major tasks of formal education will be to prepare children for such lifelong learning, so that they can cope with unprecedented and unpredictable change.
But if we are all going to keep learning, we need learning resources. Providing those is a complex task. If the future really is so unpredictable, how can we foresee what knowledge we shall need? What system could cope with providing resources for everyone in a constantly changing world? How can any nationally based organisation keep pace with the global information revolution?
The answer lies with public libraries, which might have been tailor-made to cope with the new learning society. For almost 150 years, with little fuss and hardly any government intervention, they have been adapting to people's changing needs.
They have been able to do that largely because no one has ever succeeded in defining their objectives. Even the Public Libraries Act of 1964 says simply that they should provide a "comprehensive" service. That means that they should offer the whole range of all recorded knowledge and culture, for everyone in the country. This is impossible, but it is a useful impossibility, because it has kept public librarians on their toes. They may not be able to provide everything, but, by staying alert to changing needs and demands, they provide much of what people actually want, in any particular time and place. The apparently disastrous requirement to be comprehensive has been helpful, because it has saved libraries from restrictions. They will always provide books and literature and educational resources, but they are also free to stock audio-visual material and popular novels and magazines. Libraries are as flexible as human imagination and as unrestricted as the growth of knowledge, constantly reinventing themselves as people discover new ways to record information and to express creativity.
They respond to the needs of their users, as well. Through reservations and inter-library lending, by means of enquiries and lending records, readers help to shape the service. The variety of demands is phenomenal. The last page of the Library and Information Commission's report, New Library: The People's Network, carries a list of questions asked of public librarians. They range from "How did Mrs Tiggywinkle die?" and "Could you give me the price of BT shares on 13 October 1995?" to "When did electricity first come to the Gateshead area?", and "What did Genghis Khan look like?" The system can handle all that. Good public libraries deal with everything the human brain has devised, from War and Peace to Where's Wally?, from knitting to nuclear physics.
What makes them crucial for the future, however, is not just that vast scope, but their accessibility. No one lives far from a public library; even in the depths of the country, mobile libraries make their rounds. The house-bound have books brought to them, and prisons and hospitals have their own service points. Everyone feels at home in a public library, from the oldest scholar to the youngest child.
This combination of easy access with enormous resources is exactly what the new learning society requires. Most public libraries may have been set up in the 19th century, but they are built of bricks from the future. Given the right support and investment, they will go on providing infinite riches to our children and their children, for generations to come. The current optimism is a recognition of that potential. Let's make sure it is fulfilled.
Gillian Cross contributed "Mozart's Banana" to Stacks of Stories (see below). Her books for children include the Demon Headmaster series