New Labour, new libraries;Platform;Opinion

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
Chris Smith adds his backing to The TES Open All Hours campaign, and predicts the rebirth of the library service as street-corner universities

I WELCOME the TES campaign to raise the profile of public libraries and the expectations that we have of them. In particular I share your aim to reverse the decline and decay of the last two decades and "put libraries squarely in the centre of the learning society of the future".

That is an aspiration the Government wholeheartedly endorses and it has guided all the initiatives we have taken in the last two years. It is why so much of what we have done has focused on the need to weave new technology and new services into the fabric of the library system - and to do it now.

The features of that "learning society" landscape are beginning to emerge, and we want libraries to be part of it from the very beginning, making IT literacy part of every adult's life in the same way that 100 years ago they opened up the delights of reading and learning for a generation who had been unable to explore their full potential in the formal education system.

Our pro-active approach to introducing new technology and the necessary new skills into the library service is not driven by some unthinking love affair with new technology but by the knowledge that if we do not do it now, libraries will be left permanently behind the action, always striving to catch up with services available in schools and homes.

We want them to be at the cutting edge, not trailing behind. As we develop new styles of lifelong learning, libraries will have an increasingly important role as "street corner universities", a role for which they are particularly well suited because - unlike many formal education institutions which can seem daunting to those whose memory of school is unhappy and negative - libraries are unthreatening and welcoming institutions. They are, in that sense, truly accessible and we need to make sure they remain accessible in every sense.

We have not forgotten that the core business of libraries is to have available a comprehensive range of books at locations and times that are in tune with people's habits and lifestyles. That means rethinking where libraries are located, how they are run, and when they are open.

The introduction of Annual Library Plans and my use, earlier this year, of powers under the 1964 Libraries Act to prevent local authorities from making unacceptable cuts in their provision is beginning to get the message across that we are serious about what we are doing.

We are establishing a set of national minimum standards so that, for the first time, we will be able to assess the services and proposals set out in annual plans by testing them against a jointly agreed and enforceable set of benchmarks. They will cover such factors as the level and regularity of book purchase, the provision of trained staff and the range of opening hours - not just how many per week but when in the week, to match the available leisure time of different age groups in the local population.

We don't want these standards simply to be a club with which national government can beat local government. We are determined that they should be developed and "owned" by those who will have to implement them, the profession and the library authorities themselves. That takes time. And to those who fear that minimum standards will too easily allow the minimum to become the norm, let me make clear that as well as minimum standards we also intend to set specific aspirational targets and then ratchet up the minimum over time to match those aspirations.

The new Museums, Libraries and Archives Council will help us to maintain both the momentum and direction of change. Taken together, this amounts to an enormous programme of change. We have had to prioritise, and our first commitment to ensuring that libraries are at the heart of the learning society has been matched by resources.

We have made available pound;200 million through the New Opportunities Fund programme for Community Access to Lifelong Learning in order to help develop the new public library IT network and a further pound;50m to create content for it. We have set aside pound;20m to train public library staff to get maximum value out of the network.

To ensure that these facilities are properly housed, and are not at the expense of other services, libraries are able to bid for a share of a pound;470m capital modernisation fund to create information technology learning centres.

We have created a co-ordinating group to develop these different funds in a complementary and strategic way and to ensure that libraries and local authorities can adopt a sensibly "joined-up" approach to their bids. We have taken other initiatives to help to drive these changes forward, including a new Library Award for ICT - sponsored by my department and administered by the Libraries and Information Commission - to provide pound;20,000 in prizes for the most creative use of IT in libraries.

We still have a mountain to climb if every community in Britain is to have the library service it wants and needs. But we have made a start and, perhaps most important, we have a sense of direction and a clear ambition. The TES campaign demonstrates that libraries are clearly and prominently back on the national agenda and back at the heart of local communities.

Chris Smith is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

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