Decades of under-investment in Britain's public libraries could undermine Labour's vision of a "learning society".
A TES investigation has revealed that since 1976, the number of libraries in England and Wales open at least 60 hours a week has fallen from 173 to just six. Spending by libraries on books is down by more than a fifth since the late 1980s.
These figures show how urgently the Government's plan to set national minimum standards for libraries is needed. Without them - and the funding to underpin them - ministers' drive to turn libraries into local learning centres could run into the sand.
Today, almost 150 years after the birth of public libraries, The TES launches the Open All Hours campaign to reverse the cuts and make Britain's 4,187 libraries once again a first-rate public service.
The campaign is supported by an opinion poll which suggests that more than a quarter of the British public would use libraries more if opening hours were extended. One in four of those who don't use the service blame their long working hours.
Cuts in the number of libraries open at least 45 hours a week are shown in statistics compiled by the Institute of Public Finance and Loughborough University.
They are in sharp contrast to other services, such as supermarkets, bookshops and leisure centres, which have responded to changing lifestyles by extending their opening times.
Results from the opinion poll, conducted for The TES by Lancaster University, show that public support for libraries remains strong. More than half of the 300 people surveyed had visited a library within the last month, three-quarters in the last year.
And a MORI poll for the Campaign for Learning found that adults put libraries third on the list of places where they learn most - after home and work.
Ministers have promised up to pound;200 million to link all libraries to the Internet by 2002. They hope that adults will use libraries as a gateway to distance learning initiatives. But the money for computers is an exceptional - and short-term - area of growth in a service that has faced relentless cuts as council spending has been squeezed. In the past five years, spending has fallen by pound;54m.
"You undermine the value of this investment in information technology if you are cutting back on infrastructure," warned Guy Daines of the Library Association.
And author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, writing in today's TES, says: "The library system must not be allowed to crumble away sadly and slowly."
The amount authorities spend on books per head has fallen sharply, even though book borrowing is the reason most people visit a library.
Ministers plan to introduce minimum standards for council library services next year. Earlier this year, Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, told six local authorities to rewrite their service plans.
Although Mr Smith refused to name the councils, the six are believed to be Barnsley, Surrey, and the London boroughs of Islington, Brent, Lambeth and Haringey.
The TES campaign is supported by Bill Lucas, chief executive of the Campaign for Learning. "We need more libraries, open when we can use them," he said. "It is nonsensical to be creating new learning centres at the same time as we are closing existing libraries."