CHRIS SMITH, the Culture, Media and Sport secretary, has seen the library of the future - and it is in Luton.
The town's recently transformed library - which now boasts a bank of computer terminals for public use - was held up as a model for the 21st century at the launch of the Government's new strategy for information and communications technology (ICT).
The strategy - Our Information Age - envisages a central role for libraries in widening access for all to ICT, including those who cannot afford their own home computer.
The Government wants every library to be connected to the National Grid for Learning by 2002. The proposed National Lottery new opportunities fund would provide pound;50m for turning educational and cultural materials into digital format, and pound;20m for training every public librarian in ICT use.
Funding for the hardware and infrastructure needed for the network is expected to come from public-private partnerships.
Mr Smith said library users of the future will still be able to browse and borrow from "very substantial" book stocks.
But they will also have free access to electronically stored knowledge via public computer terminals - with trained assistants on hand to help them through the intricacies of the Internet.
"Education is not just about schools, colleges, universities, the national curriculum, degrees and diplomas, important though all those are. It is about acquiring new skills and new knowledge through every stage of our lives for a variety of purposes, and sometimes just for the sake of doing the learning," said Mr Smith.
"Having access to new technology through public libraries is essential to that. It is also crucial to ensuring there is no division between the information technology haves and have-nots."