Public libraries will need to mould a broader role for themselves if they are to survive, writes Diana Hinds
For many people, one of the reassuring pleasures of the public library is how little they have changed since we were first introduced to them as children: the books are there to be sifted from tall stacks; the benevolent, but never intrusive, librarian is busy behind the desk; and the building itself is quiet, a little dowdy and not too comfortable.
But if public libraries are to retain their role into the next millennium, then change on a large scale is exactly what they need most, according to a public policy seminar to be conducted by Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University, on May 8. The seminar will examine the future for libraries, the need for them to broaden their role and to embrace the information revolution.
As any regular public library user will be only too well aware, the public library service has been seriously damaged by financial cutbacks. Public libraries are spending less on books, employing fewer professional librarians and opening their doors for fewer hours each week.
But new opportunities are arising for libraries to broaden their funding base and build partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors. A Government Challenge Fund has pledged Pounds 9 million over three years to improve library reference sections and invest in information technology, with a further Pounds 300m, partly aimed at libraries, to be available for information and communications technology after the millennium.
Matthew Evans, of Faber and Faber, who will be speaking at the seminar, is chairing a working group of the Library and Information Commission, to report by July on the task of wiring up the public libraries to a national information network. Information technology, he firmly believes, is the way ahead for the library service - but not at the expense of the book.
"This should not be a debate about new technology versus the book, because in reality the two are going to work in parallel. In my view, reference and academic work may be more accessible on screen, because you can download specific chapters, but the traditional book will remain the best way of delivering creative writing."
Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association, agrees that public libraries have no choice but to go in the direction of information technology. "So much information is now published electronically, that if we do not provide access to it, many people will be disadvantaged."
Mark Fisher, Labour arts spokesman, who is speaking at the seminar, believes that the public library service has always been a "cornerstone of the cultural welfare state", and that it is now doubly important because of the increase in value of information as a tradeable, democratic asset.
"For most of my constituents, the information revolution is simply not happening," he says. "The library service is absolutely central here, because it can make the bridge between the information rich and the information poor."
Some libraries are already investing in new technology, but provision is patchy. To be properly effective, a national network is needed, which would also link up with prisons, hospitals and schools.
At the same time, libraries need to maintain their traditional book-lending services, but funding and resources could be better used if public libraries were able to integrate their services with schools and colleges.
"We need to make sure that school libraries and public libraries are not duplicating one another," says Catherine Blanshard, head of services to young people at Hertfordshire County Council, and another contributor to the seminar. "It could be that there are economies to be made by these libraries being clearer about what each other is doing."
In some areas, school libraries have begun to stay open for longer hours to accommodate adult borrowers, although, as Catherine Blanshard stresses, this raises important issues of safety and security for the school. Some universities also share their libraries with members of the public, but, says Ross Shimmon, this has become more difficult to sustain with the rapid expansion in student numbers making increasing demands on library facilities.
However sophisticated the new technology of the public library becomes, the library building itself should continue to be a focal point for the community. Janice Morphet, chief executive of Rutland County Council, which became a library authority on April 1 this year, will suggest at the seminar ways in which libraries can become more integral to their local community and make better use of their buildings.
"Too often the identification of what a library does is drawn too narrowly. We hope our library will have a broader role, as a place for courses and meetings, for training to support local employment, for arts events and children's activities. The building, and not just the books, should be regarded as a local resource."
Buildings, of course, cost money to maintain. A survey by the Society of Chief Librarians in England and Wales in 1994 estimated that a total of Pounds 612m was needed to improve building stock. Add to that money needed to maintain the core library service, and the essential investment in new technology, and the obvious question is, where is it all going to come from?
Lottery funds have, so far, not been forthcoming, and Catherine Blanshard agrees with the LA that a relaxation of lottery regulations is needed to allow public libraries to benefit. Mark Fisher argues that there is enough money already there in information but that it is "not properly co-ordinated". The role of the Government, therefore, is not to pump in more money but to hold the reins and help foster effective partnerships.
Library spending on books, he says, could be improved by proper policing of the 1964 Public Libraries Act, which makes it a statutory duty to maintain standards. "We would say to libraries and local authorities, 'You have got to find the money'."
Getting public libraries onto the national agenda and raising their profile would also help to bring in funding, says Matthew Evans. "One of the difficulties up to now has been that librarians are not naturally political animals. There are no leaders in the public library system; they have little influence and do not flex their muscles. What we have to do is start attracting attention."
If libraries, and librarians, rise to the challenge and seize and mould a broader role for themselves, the future for the public library service could be extremely positive. But if they fail to act quickly, others will step into the breach to grasp the opportunities of the information society for themselves. Then, libraries could, all too soon, become a thing of the past.
A Future for Librarians and Information Services, Royal Over-seas League, London SW1, ThursdayMay 8. For details, ring: 01422 845584.
In this week's Times Literary Supplement: how public libraries are financing themselves by selling off stock