Technology is vital to improving library services for the millennium, but it is not the be-all and end-all, reports Chris Johnston
DESPITE the fact that computers have failed to put millions out of work and have if anything created more jobs, some people still fear that information technology is going to render the book obsolete and make libraries a thing of the past.
However, just as video failed to kill the radio star, neither are we about to start reading War and Peace or the latest Nick Hornby bestseller on screen rather than on paper.
That is not to say that technology is failing to have a profound impact on the way libraries work and the way people use them. Most users will now be familiar with computerised catalogues, which make it easier to find what books on a subject are in the library, but still does not make locating the information you need any simpler.
That is where computers come into their own, as they make available the vast amount of information now stored electronically on CD-Roms, in databases or on websites.
The Government is moving to make these resources available to everyone by linking every public library to the Internet by 2002 through a project called the New Library Network.
The New Opportunities Fund is providing pound;200 million of Lottery money for the network. Tim Owen, head of policy and communications for the Library and Information Commission, which is advising the fund, says the aim is not only to make the Internet available in every library but also to provide access to content created specifically for the new network, as well as material from local authorities and other regional bodies.
"It will be a community information resource that is accessible across the country and has a great deal of community input," Mr Owen explains. The New Opportunities Fund has allocated a further pound;50m for content creation.
The new network means that even the smallest branch library will have access to facilities previously found only in central libraries, a move he describes as an "enormous step forward". "This will open up so many opportunities for people who previously have had to travel some distance."
Mr Owen is convinced that libraries will play an important role in increasing the public's use of the Internet. Only 20 per cent of respondents to the TES survey said they would use the Net at their local library, but he says many people still do not understand it or its potential, and librarians can help to change these attitudes.
A pound;20m Lottery-funded programme will pay for librarians to be trained in using information and communications technology and in showing library users how to find what they are looking for electronically. Owen says technology supplements the existing resources available to librarians, giving them an "infinitely more powerful tool to help them help library users more effectively".
Technology now means a trip to the local library is not always necessary. The Ask a Librarian website operated by EARL, a consortium involving about 75 per cent of local authorities, allows users to send a query on any topic and get a response within 48 hours.
Helen Baigent, EARL's liaison officer, says the site attracts questioners from all over the world and is a model for similar services on a local level as well as in other countries.
An ever-increasing number of libraries have their own websites, but as well as containing information about services, they are the gateway to the 24-hour library.
Further, the Internet is allowing libraries to promote and develop activities such as literature services. "Stories from the Web" is a LIC-funded project headed by Birmingham Libraries that develops both the traditional and electronic literacy skills of eight to 11-year-olds.
The TES survey of local authorities revealed that almost all regard developing ICT in libraries as a priority. However, it is an expensive business and there is always the danger that councils may think other services can be sacrificed for more computers.
This attitude would be a mistake - technology is now a vital part of the library puzzle, but not the game itself.
WEBSITES FOR THE HIGH-TECH LIBRARY:
Ask a Librarian www.earl.org.ukask
Library and Information Commission www.lic.gov.uk
Stories from the Web http:hosted.ukoln.ac.ukstories