IT IS almost 150 years since the creation of the modern public library service. But the problems of access and resources which dogged it from the start are still present today, writes Jon Slater.
The end of the post-war political consensus and tightening of the public purse-strings have put libraries under pressure. Funding has dropped by more thanpound;65 million since 1992. Closures and declining opening hours have hit access, and book loans have dropped by 20 per cent.
Yet libraries are vital to the Government's ambition to create a "learning society". Despite the problems, 75 per cent of the population still use libraries. They have played a crucial role in improving Britain's education levels over the last 150 years and they will be central to initiatives to boost adult learning such as the University for Industry.
The sheer scope of information and entertainment available opens up new worlds to library readers. "The education that mattered most to me began when my mother first took me to the public library and I registered for my own hallowed ticket," said Will Self, award-winning author.
The story of public libraries is older than Britain itself. The first, the Guildhall Library of London, was built by the executors of Dick Whittington in the 1420s - a century and a half before the widespread development of the printing press.
Before then, libraries had been mainly limited to the cathedrals and monasteries, and used only by the clergy. And the high cost of hand-copied manuscripts meant a very limited stock and no lending.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, as books began to proliferate, so did libraries. Set up by institutions, using endowments from wealthy individuals or later by subscription, they began lending books to the public and became increasingly common - especially in market towns.
But it was not until the Public Libraries Act of 1850 that a proper service was created and libraries were state-funded. The policy was inspired by a report by MPs which argued that extensive public library provision was essential for the welfare of the country. In an early echo of the current political orthodoxy, it argued that growing industrialisation increased the need for a literate working population.
In the 19th century, however, the popular case for libraries was not to promote learning but more to combat drunkenness. As John Passmore-Edwards, a leading library philanthropist, said: "What the country wanted were fewer public houses and more public libraries."
From the start, funding was a problem. The 1850 Act allowed mayors of municipal boroughs with a population of more than 10,000 to levy a rate of up to a halfpenny - subject to the approval of ratepayers. Although this ceiling was quickly doubled, most authorities could barely afford an adequate book stock, let alone purpose-built accommodation.
It was private philanthropy rather than public funds which in the end made the difference. As W A Muntford wrote in the Library Association Journal in 1950: "We owe nearly all of the public library development to benefaction."
The largest donor was Andrew Carnegie. A Scotsman who made his fortune in American steel, he provided $60 million to set up more than 2,800 libraries worldwide. Without his help and that of others, such as Passmore-Edwards, it is doubtful whether many of today's libraries would have been built.
By 1870, just 39 authorities had taken advantage of the law and set up their own library service. But by the turn of the century, people in more than 300 local authorities had a local public library.
Provision was still restricted to urban areas, however. People living in the country had to travel to their nearest town to gain access to library facilities. It was not until 1919 that legislation was passed to allow county councils to follow their urban counterparts.
That year also saw the removal of the limit on rate charges. It was much needed. Prices had risen sharply and local authorities were struggling to maintain standards. Now, for the first time, libraries could provide more than just books and newspapers. Lectures, adult education, art exhibitions and story hours for children all became a common part of libraries' work.
Although the Second World War caused damage to the service - especially in urban areas - it also encouraged moves to expand access. Inter-library co-operation was forced by the problems of dealing with evacuees. And following the war, mobile libraries, school loans and services for housebound people prospered.
Like the National Health Service and full employment, libraries became an integral part of society for post-war baby-boomers. For some they offered entertainment or information. For others such as Peter, a poet from Leigh, they offered a second chance. "I had a poor education, was dyslexic and was told I was illiterate. To go into a library where I could build up my reading at my own pace was brilliant. It was a kind of rebirth."
In 1964, a "comprehensive and efficient" public library service finally became a statutory requirement of councils. But the lack of detailed requirements left libraries vulnerable when local authority spending was squeezed by central government. Compared to schools and social services, they have often presented a soft target.
Just as in the 19th century, local authorities have struggled to maintain book stocks of good quality in the face of reduced funding. Spending on books has been cut by almost pound;25m since the mid-1980s.
As the recent celebrity campaign in Camden has shown, library closures are politically unpopular. So most libraries have been kept open, while opening hours have been slashed to save cash. Between 1976 and 1998, the number of libraries in England and Wales which were open more than 60 hours a week fell from 163 to just six.
Culture Secretary Chris Smith recently rejected library plans from 15 local authorities because they did not come up to scratch. It was the first time ministers had used the 1964 Act to prevent cuts.
But simply passing the buck to councils may not be enough. If the Government is serious about protecting and improving libraries, it may have to put even more of its money where its mouth is.
Although the Government is investing up to pound;200m to connect libraries to the Internet, it will be of limited use if they are not open when and where people want and need them. How ministers meet that challenge will have a big impact on their chances of creating a true learning society.