Technologically superb information facilities have been forecast for the 21st century, but Diane Spencer predicts a financial row before people get their dream tickets. A bold technological vision for the future of public libraries is contained in a long-awaited Government-commissioned report finally released last week.
The Department of National Heritage's review of public library services was prepared by the Association for Information Management (ASLIB). It was issued in the middle of Library Power, last week's Library AssociationTES campaign to raise young people's awareness of books.
The Library Association welcomed the ASLIB report, but chief executive Ross Shimmon was highly critical of the way it was released. "We were distressed about the low-key announcement. It is the most comprehensive report for 50 years. And why did it take so long? It was completed in February."
The report makes more than 100 recommendations to the Department of National Heritage and local authorities for improvements in the service, and future investment and development.
It conjures up a picture of "micro-libraries" which would link village stores, shopping centres and bus and railway stations with the information superhighway. It also envisages "hyperlibraries" with massive investment in multi-media databases and CD-Rom collections, which would require library authorities to collaborate.
But Mr Shimmon pointed out the "enormous gulf between these proposals and the current reality of expenditure cuts, reduced bookfunds and curtailed opening hours".
The LA's concern at the "desperate" state of many library buildings is echoed by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which estimates that capital investment of around Pounds 600 million will be needed over the next five years just to maintain the service.
The LA says that public libraries should be able to apply for National Lottery income to open new buildings or refurbish the old ones built by the philanthropists of the 19th century.
National Heritage Secretary Stephen Dorrell told Parliament last week, in a written answer, that he had no intention of introducing charges for the present free core of the service, but he was "not inclined" to bring in one of the ASLIB recommendations, a library inspectorate.
In his reply to Alan Howarth, Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, Mr Dorrell hinted at a degree of contracting out, saying he will ask local authorities to state what kind of library services they want to buy, however the service is delivered. He will explore innovative ways of providing that service, including new technology and diverse sources of funding.
Mr Dorrell has already commissioned a separate study on the scope for contracting out library services which has been completed by consultancy KPMG but has not yet been published. In his answer he wrote that the findings will "make a valuable contribution to the (contracting-out) debate".
Although he said that he was "not inclined" to set up an inspectorate, he has asked for comments on the whole ASLIB report by the end of September and then intends to make a further statement.
The LA is concerned that contracting out is still on Mr Dorrell's agenda. A pilot scheme in the London Borough of Brent has led to cuts in professional staff.
The ASLIB report says that public libraries "warrant additional finance so they can develop as focal points for extended services, facilities and activities to meet diverse needs". The country will need to marshall the investments and resources that will enable public libraries to improve people's access to knowledge and informed insights, it says.
* Roald Dahl is the most popular author among today's children but Enid Blyton came top for their parents' generation. England rugby captain Will Carling's favourite book was The Hobbit; John Major liked Billy Bunter while the Queen Mother favoured Black Beauty.
These findings emerged from a Library Power competition, the Power of Fiction organised by the Library Association. It attracted 4,000 entries and was won by Tom Newman, aged six from London, Joseph Douglas,11, from Cheshire and Rebecca Seaton, 13, from Aylesbury.
The children were asked to name their "best-ever" book, then to ask three adults - including some celebrities - to name favourite books from their own childhood. They then had to write reviews of two books - their own favourite and one of the adults' choices.
The LA analysed the results to see what children are reading and what they think of the books chosen by the older generation. Three out of four young readers liked the books loved by their parents. "I really don't know why my mum enjoyed it. Watching paint dry is more exciting," commented a 10-year-old boy from Suffolk whose mother chose It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet by James Herriot.
The LA also found evidence of how children viewed their changing world. After reading Just William, a nine-year-old wrote: "I am sure that children nowadays will envy William and his friends because of the freedom they had. They could go off completely on their own which we can't do because there are too many bad people and cars."
DNH review of public library service in England and Wales, Pounds 92.50 (Pounds 74.50 for public libraries) from Aslib, Information House, 20-24 Old Street, London EC1V 9AP.