A week in books

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The Independent Culture
Thank Ginny for small mercies. At least her new report on public libraries steers clear of calls for a prompt sell-off. So, for the moment, Mrs Bottomley or her heirs won't be extolling the streamlined fine-collection run by Thames Tomes or Bookshelf South Central. (If this week's events are any guide, South West Brains would end up having to pay its borrowers.)

"Reading the Future" promises that book loans and reference material will stay free (ie, funded by taxes) while libraries will need to make their sites into user-friendly gateways for the latest information technology. Remember, though, that these pious hopes were contradicted by this month's refusal to grant Lottery money to a pounds 50-million plan for every public library to give free access to the Internet.

Public libraries remain a resounding British success story. Some 58 per cent of people use them; they receive 13 visits for every one paid to a professional football match. Yet, for years, their national strength was masked by the fact that many media folk live in the inner-London boroughs where vengeful Tory ministers and posturing Labour councillors played a hideous game of beggar-my-neighbour with vital services. Elsewhere, municipal flagships spread the word as well as ever, even though librarians' status within councils has fallen.

So it's worrying to learn (from a survey by the Society of Chief Librarians) that 95 councils expect to cut library budgets in the next financial year, a few by as much as 20 per cent. A service forever struggling to stand still can hardly renovate itself to greet the wired society. Predictably, the government report drones on in dated High-Thatcher style about "creating trusts" and "involving the private sector". Points of principle aside, no demand exists from firms to manage libraries for profit. Yet this moribund regime recycles its rhetoric as if it were still flogging shares to old Sid. Bourbon-like, it has learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.

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