Libraries axed under coalition spending cuts could be resurrected in pubs, shops and GPs' surgeries if radical proposals being studied by ministers are put into action.
Councils have already invited Starbucks to open coffee bars between the book shelves to generate funds, while people in rural areas are being told that they can keep up their reading by borrowing e-books.
With local authorities ordered to save millions of pounds this year, libraries were quickly singled out for closure. For several, including some in London, this is imminent. But after an angry backlash from readers and authors, a blueprint for the library of the future is being developed.
It envisions sharing sites with the police, NHS and legal advisers, lending books through pubs and generating funds by selling branded coffee. Bradford council is looking at siting library services in a shopping centre. Even supporters of the modernisation programme admit it risks angering traditionalists, who see the essence of a library as a quiet space being undermined in the drive to save money.
Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, has written to all councils setting out ideas from the Future Libraries Programme in the hope that the tide of closures can be reversed.
With local authority budgets in England being reduceld by an average 4.4 per cent this year alone, many proposals focus on cutting costs. Sharing buildings is being tried out in several areas and volunteers are being encouraged to take over the staffing of libraries that would otherwise close.
Chris White, from the Local Government Association, said: "The definition of a library does not have to be confined to a municipal building full of books. Opening up libraries in shops, sports centres, village halls and even down at the local pub means that far more people can benefit from the library service councils provide."
In some rural areas, e-book readers are being offered free to residents, with time-limited downloads of a variety of titles.
The measures follow a huge public outcry when up to 400 branches were told in January they faced closure. Some councils, including Oxfordshire, have already backed down and will keep libraries open using volunteers. In other areas, including Somerset, Gloucestershire and Isle of Wight, legal challenges have been launched.
Last week the author Alan Bennett compared the closure of local libraries to "child abuse". Addressing 400 people at a meeting to save Kensal Rise library in north London, he added: "The period after you learn to read is essential. Hinder a child's access and you damage a child for life."
Mr Vaizey has been criticised for not intervening in closures, despite councils having a statutory duty to provide a library service. He is adamant that central government should not impose a library policy on councils, but help them diversify. "Local authorities are keeping their libraries open and understand what an effective public library service can bring to their community," he said.
Henry Higgins, has overseen a£3m refurbishment of all 17 libraries in Hillingdon, west London. "It is about getting people to read, whether it is on a computer, a book, or even subtitles on a TV," he said. As well as introducing Starbucks coffee, he has focused on stocking books "that people want to read", such as David Beckham's autobiography.
Organisers of the Save Our Libraries campaign now hope to initiate a National Libraries Day next February. Alan Gibbons, the children's author, said: "We see National Libraries Day as a positive day of celebration to promote the whole culture of reading for pleasure, information and engagement. It is time to make reading a universal culture."
A new chapter?
Starbucks Hillingdon council has begun installing Starbucks coffee machines in every library, to entice a younger crowd. Profits are ploughed back into the service. Visitors have more than doubled year-on-year.
Pub The George and Dragon community pub in Hudswell North Yorkshire, has a little library in its snug, as well as a shop and allotments.
e-books Stockton libraries offer audiobooks and e-books to download. A £1.9m refurbishment has transformed the Central Library, bringing a 15 per cent rise in users.
Registrars Cornwall residents will soon be able to register births, marriages and deaths in their libraries, and access council services at such one-stop shops.
Police In Windsor and Maidenhead, there are police reporting points in every library where residents can report lost property or seek advice on the law. Some give adults with learning disabilities the chance to work alongside library staff.
NHS In Telford and Wrekin, parents can check their baby's health, and teenagers can get health advice. Books on Prescription helps people with low-level mental illness.
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