After changing little in 150 years, libraries are gearing up for a revolution. Chris Johnston looks at how technology is making them more useful and accessible to more people
Miss Primrose asked the children what they thought libraries were for. "I know," said Lucy as her hand shot up. "Yes Lucy?". "They're for borrowing books from." "Very good Lucy," the teacher said. If this was 1969 instead of 1999, it might have been possible to say Lucy's answer was correct. Today, however, libraries are about much more than books. While for some, libraries might conjure up images of row upon row of dusty shelves with snooty bespeckled librarians telling you to be quiet, the reality is much more appealing.
In 199596 377 million visits were made to libraries - 10 times the number who attended professional football matches - suggesting that they are places many people like to spend time in. Going to the library is the fifth most popular leisure activity. Fifty-eight per cent of British adults are library members and in 199798 there were 408 million book loans.
But as we enter the new millennium, libraries, both public and school, stand at the crossroads - perhaps the first time in their history (which dates back to 1850 when the first public library was established in Manchester). They are changing, partly because of shifts in government policy, but technology is the means allowing libraries to improve their services and become more accessible to more people.
This year the New Library Network, which aims to electronically connect all public libraries by 2002, will start to be rolled out. National Lottery funding of pound;70 million has been allocated to get the project started. The Libraries and Information Commission, the agency advising the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on the network, says that libraries must play a critical role in realising the Government's ambitious plans for lifelong learning.
By linking them to the National Grid for Learning through the network, libraries will become "a vital extension of mainstream online educational programmes". The LIC also states that a high-speed network will encourage adults to use libraries for informal learning and reskilling and encourage more instructional material to become available online, dove-tailing with the new University for Industry. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, calls them "street-corner universities".
The Government says that libraries contribute to four of its most important policy objectives by underpinning education, enhancing public access to knowledge, promoting social inclusion by giving "information have-nots"access to technology and helping to modernise the delivery of public services. A Culture department report says that a libraries' network, linked to the NGFL, will help to deliver these objectives.
Technology has slowly but steadily been changing the way libraries operate over the past few years, as more provide Internet access, make information easier to find with CD-Roms and offer other computer-based activities. From April, Lottery funding totalling pound;50 million will be available to digitise and make available on the network material from resources such as museums, galleries and archives. This scheme will make even more information available.
It is no longer necessary to go to your local library to ask a librarian a question: you can send a question to "Ask a Librarian" on the EARL Consortium for Public Library Networking's website. Guy Daines, the Library Association's head of professional practice, says this could be the model for how some of the information services that libraries provide will be delivered in the future: "People will be able to access the reference desk from their digital TV."
While he believes that online sources could largely render reference books obsolete, technology is not going to make books disappear - just as the computer has not created the paperless office. For this reason alone, libraries are not going to disappear, but Daines says the growing need for public study spaces will ensure they still require a physical presence. As well as providing areas for people of all ages to use as they please, more and more local authorities such as Knowsley, on Merseyside, are setting up homework clubs in libraries.
Daines says these clubs need to be at the neighbourhood level, yet this trend comes at a time when many local authorities are considering closing small branch libraries and reducing opening hours. Lambeth, in south London, is closing five of its 10 libraries and reopening the surviving facilities as "centres of excellence" with modern equipment and longer hours.
Daines says this policy is a reflection of some councils believing they have a finite amount of money to spend on libraries and opting for a few well-equipped facilities rather than several that are run-down and under-utilised. However, he says this could prove to be short-sighted as an additional pound;200 million is expected to become available to libraries over the next three years (see panel on page 12).
The Government is taking a stand on local authorities that are contemplating cuts to their library services. Last month the first report on the future plans of England's 149 library authorities was published. Chris Smith said the Government was pleased with the overall standard, but 15 authorities would be asked to carry out more work on their plans and six others would be given written warnings asking them to review possible "unacceptable cuts" to services. Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association, welcomed Mr Smith's commitment to a modern library service and said it gave great confidence for the future.
Despite the Government's positive attitude, economics may still prevent small libraries as we know them from surviving, but Guy Daines predicts that they could be combined with other social services such as youth clubs or council offices with some services provided from the central library via networked computers.
The establishment of homework clubs in some libraries is perhaps the most visible evidence of the way the division between schools and libraries is starting to blur. It is a trend Grace Kempster, head of libraries, information heritage and cultural services for Essex County Council, believes is long overdue. In her opinion, children learn in schools because they have to, but they learn in libraries because they want to. She contends that the two institutions need each other and must form new alliances.
Kempster, who is involved with the group set up by the Library and Information Commission to create the New Library Network, is confident that libraries across Britain are warmly embracing information technology:
"Public libraries want to be wired up not because it is cool or fashionable, but because they know what to do with it and will be as effective in organising and assaying information and imagination as they are in the actual age."
Just as some public libraries are better resourced than others, the picture is the same in school libraries, according to Trish Botten, professional adviser with the Library Association. She says they have been through a very difficult period during the past five years - as schools can now manage their own budgets, some are deciding to cut spending on libraries. In a House of Commons debate last month, Derek Wyatt MP pointed out that spending on school library services had fallen from pound;2.17 per pupil in 1994-95 to pound;1.98 in 1996-97, with more than 30 per cent of secondary schools no longer having a full or part-time librarian. There are no regulations stipulating how much schools should spend on libraries, a situation he called "absurd".
A Library Association survey of more than 1,000 secondary schools found that IT provision in libraries varies widely. There were no computer workstations in 8.7 per cent of schools, one to four in 52.7 per cent and five or more in 38.5 per cent - an average of one workstation per 100 pupils. Just over 30 per cent had Internet access, with larger schools more likely to have the facility. Thirty-nine per cent of schools had a computer network that included the library. The Library Association hopes that some of the money set aside for schools from sources such as the National Lottery Standards fund will find its way into improving libraries.
In both school and public libraries, technology is being used to inspire children to read, and to encourage them to discuss books as well as make information more readily accessible. One example is the Treasure Island website, set up by the UK Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN) based at the University of Bath. Users can send in their own review of the book, give feedback about the site to Captain Flint, complete a quiz or treasure hunt and find out about other similar books.
Croydon Online, a website that stemmed from an influential 1996 report which found that the Internet is a key tool in the development of information resources in public libraries, allows users to search the catalogue, send an inquiry and access a host of information about the Croydon community. Chris Batt, head of leisure services for Croydon Council and the author of several books about libraries and information technology, says the 12 branch libraries are already connected to the central library (the second largest in Britain).
In addition, a growing number of Croydon school libraries can access both the full library catalogue and its CD-Rom servers, which contain reference material like Hansard and broadsheet newspapers amongst other information.
Even with the rise of the Internet, there will always be data that you have to pay to access, but libraries are likely to remain a place where it can be viewed for free, or for a nominal fee. And that's another reason to feel confident that they will be with us for some time yet.
So while book borrowing is more than likely to decline in the coming years, the signs are that while technology is will radically alter the way libraries operate and are used, their star will continue to shine in the world of lifelong learning.
Department of Culture, Media and Sport 0171 211 6000 www.culture.gov.ukLIB.HTM
Libraries and Information Commission 0171 411 0059 www.lic.gov.uk
Library Association 0171 636 7543 www.lahq.org.uk
Essex County Council 01279 434641 www.essexcc.gov.uklibraries
Treasure Island www.ukoln.ac.ukservicestreasure
Croydon Online www.croydon.gov.ukindex-library.htm