Computers offer libraries a new lease of life if people can be convinced of the benefits, reports Jon Slater in the second week of The TES's campaign to revive an ailing public service
Britons like institutions to remain unchanging. Modernisation is often seen as a euphemism for cutbacks. Change - even when beneficial - tends to be forced on a public which at best remains sceptical, at worst hostile. Library reform looks like being no different.
Since early this century, the library service has remained essentially the same. Its core function has been the storage and loan of books. This emphasis has been challenged over the past 20 years by the rise in popularity of music, videos and information technology. But while the resources at libraries have changed, until very recently how they have been provided had not.
The traditional system was built on the success of the local branch library. But after years of tight budgets, the strain is showing. Many authorities complain that they can no longer maintain high quality branches. Others have libraries which, because of population shifts, are no longer in the best place for users.
The impact on the number of book loans may be small; committed library users will make detours and put up with declining stock. But new and casual users will be less willing to do so.
Local authorities have started to create their own blueprint for the future of libraries. Information technology is at the heart of the revolution. As a key part of their plan to make libraries community learning centres, the Government is providing up to pound;200 million directly from the National Lottery fund to link all libraries to the Internet and a further pound;50m for the development of learning materials on the web.
Computer technology will do more than give library users the chance to go online. It opens up opportunities such as libraries becoming one-stop shops for local authority services and a new way of delivering library services.
A number of authorities have already taken steps towards this brave new world. One of these is Croydon, south London, where residents can communicate with their library 24 hours a day via e-mail. Likewise, the library catalogue is available on the Internet to search at any time of any day.
Chris Batt, director of leisure services in Croydon, believes that this is just the beginning. "There will be more use of technology. Services will be available through kiosks and in the home and the workplace through the Internet," he said. "The service of libraries will no longer be confined within four walls. The library will exist in cyberspace."
In Derbyshire, the public can talk to council officers via the Internet at their local library.
Suffolk has also set out down the superhighway. Members of the public and schools can reserve and order books online and have them delivered to their nearest library. The county's director of libraries, Amanda Arrowsmith, hopes that books will soon be delivered to village pubs, schools or post offices so that people do not have to go far to borrow them.
A number of these initiatives are funded by the Government through the pound;3m Wolfson project.
The move towards increasing accessibility is driven by changes in society. "The demand for information is expanding exponentially. The information in libraries will need to be accessible by some means or other seven days a week," said John Wakeford, of Lancaster University, who conducted a poll on public library use for The TES. "A generation ago banks were open at highly inconvenient times. Now you can deal with them over the phone or use a cashpoint."
The east London borough of Tower Hamlets is merging its libraries with adult education facilities to create "Idea Stores", sited close to supermarkets. Eric Bohl, the borough's director of customer services, says:
"The old adage for retailers - location, location, location - holds true for libraries as well. People want to combine visiting libraries with doing something else," he said.
Although technology is opening new doors for library users, it may close old ones. Under pressure to save money, some authorities are looking to rationalise library services by closing what are deemed unpopular libraries and concentrating resources at fewer sites or even in one "super-library". The assumption is that over time kiosks or local access to the Internet will fill the gap.
But many people are wary of new technology. A poll last year for the Campaign for Learning found that three-quarters of adults would prefer to use books or written materials to learn, under a quarter would choose computer software, and only one in 10 would opt for the Internet.
Libraries are often more popular than crude statistics on book issues or visits suggest. They also are a place where people can spend time and meet friends. Technology is no substitute.
The London boroughs of Camden, Lambeth and Merton have all met with resistance when trying to modernise their library services - including closing "unpopular" branches. In one case, public opinion and a celebrity campaign led to a revolt among Labour councillors and a stay of execution for three libraries (see left). By contrast, Tower Hamlets' proposals have been well received. Despite plans to reduce the number of libraries from 12 to seven, public opinion is running four to one in favour.
18 Briefing Analysis TESJjuly 23 1999 The new face of a familiar institution: the London borough of Tower Hamlets plans Idea Stores (above and below), merging libraries with adult education facilities tower hamlets borough council