Victorian pile offers a base to explore the world

19th March 1999 at 00:00
From the outside it looks like any other red sandstone Victorian public library, but step inside the Ewart Library in the centre of Dumfries and the first thing to catch the eye is an electronic message welcoming you to the Cybercentre.

Through the door is a clean-lined room dotted with PCs and Apple Macs, more like a state-of-the-art communications centre than a library, but then this library is a state-of-the-art communications centre.

More than 100 years ago, when public libraries began, they were conceived as the universities of the working man, offering free and freely available information to anyone who wanted it.

"We've always been about open learning, quietly, in the background," says Alastair Johnston, libraries, information and archives manager, "but it's important the community becomes aware of what we have to offer."

What they can offer in Dumfries and Galloway is access to and instruction in computer use, the Internet, e-mail, publishing on the web and video-conferencing. This is the Government's much-vaunted People's Network up and running. In the Cybercentre, there are 12 PCs and two Macs, with scanners and printers. Two of the PCs are for drop-in use, and the others can be booked for group courses, or individual instruction at prices from pound;15 for a half day.

The emphasis is on friendly instruction and overcoming "the fear factor" which holds back many people from getting connected. "It's all about responding to what people want from the service," says section librarian, Janice Goldie.

Since the Cybercentre opened last April it has registered 1,725 users: groups come from schools to research specific projects or to explore the encyclopedias on CD-Rom; people come in to update their genealogy on Family Tree Maker; craft workers have been experimenting with publicising their work on a web site; doctors, the Forestry Commission, and business people of all sorts have taken advantage of the tailor-made courses and straightforward access.

"There has been an amazing amount of custom," says Johnston, "and 24 per cent of those using the Cybercentre are new users to the library service."

Dumfries and Galloway is reversing the trend of declining library use. "With the Cybercentre, we're also seeing the libraries moving into the area of economic development," says Johnston. "That's something completely new."

Dumfries and Galloway Libraries has to cover a vast area. Its three main centres of population, Dumfries, Stranraer and Kirkcudbright are as broadly spread as Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Access is an issue at the top of the agenda, and of the authority's 24 libraries, 10 now have multimedia computers for public use, and a field training officer has just been appointed to offer individual computer training in the branch libraries. The ultimate aim is to have ICT facilities in all libraries.

"It's all about local access," says Goldie. "There may be huge growth in home computers, but there are still a lot of people who don't have access to one. ICT in libraries is about social inclusion."

Open learning is another big growth area. In 1996 a pilot Open Learning Centre, set up with assistance from Scottish Enterprise, opened in Lochthorn Library on the outskirts of Dumfries.

"People here might be keen to take up educational or training opportunities, but there are often time and travel commitments involved," says Goldie. Open learning packs, which come in various formats (workbook, cassette, video, CD-Rom, software), and cover a spectrum of subjects, from language learning to business skills and counselling, give people the chance to learn at home.

"Libraries are a non-threatening environment," says Goldie. "Before they take the formal step into education, it gets people back into the learning society."

Even Dumfries and Galloway's mobile libraries are getting in on the act, with computerised stock information and a photocopier on board. The impression is of a service in touch with the needs of its communities and making great strides towards meeting them.

"A lot of the new initiatives are self-funding," explains Goldie. The Cybercentre was set up with European Regional Development funding and support from the Scottish Office public libraries challenge fund, but charges to the public cover running costs, and the revenue from the growing video and CD-lending service may ultimately be used to buy more books. "We are trying to be innovative, and at the same time maintain our traditional services," says Goldie. "When we get people through the door, for whatever reason, that is our golden opportunity to make them aware of all the services we offer. It's not just about borrowing books."

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