The hardware and software are in place. But who will fund the 'library without walls' that promises universal access to data? Andrew North on an opportunity beckoning to a philanthropist
Early in the next century, you will be able to visit your local library and call up on screen the text of any book from any library. You will have access to the vast collections of the British Library, downloading copies of documents and ancient manuscripts. You may also be able to browse through online museums. Of course, if you just want to surf the Internet, public libraries will offer that, too. At least, that's the theory.

Some have dubbed it the "library without walls" and it is already generating a lot of excitement. "It will allow libraries to offer far more than they do today," says Matthew Evans, head of the Government's Library and Information Commission (LIC), which is looking at how this most traditional of institutions can exploit information technology.

Using the Internet, libraries around the world are already exploring the concept. In Singapore, the national library allows users to reserve and renew books via its Web site and request home delivery. They can also suggest books the library should buy, and have reference questions answered by e-mail.

It may surprise some that Mr Evans's main job is chairman of the book publishers Faber & Faber. But he sees no reason why the emerging digital library should undermine the traditional paper book. "This is a parallel, not an opposing development. People will still want to read books."

None the less, embracing this concept would be a dramatic leap for libraries as we know them today and would put them far ahead of library services anywhere else in the world. In terms of technology, it is hardly revolutionary. The necessary hardware, software and expertise already exist. Yet so far, attempts to grasp the opportunity have been foiled by traditional British indecision and lack of vision.

There is one essential prerequisite for the library without walls: a high-capacity network linking together Britain's 4,200 public libraries. In its current form, the Internet is only a half-way house, because it cannot handle sufficient data traffic.

On current estimates, a nationwide library network could cost well over pounds 100m. A high price, but one that everyone - the main political parties, library bodies and local authorities - seems to agree is worth paying. Getting agreement as to who is going to pay for it, though, is much harder.

Even before the forthcoming general election froze the political process, the Government was in no mood to cover the bill on its own. And with the Labour Party apparently singing from the same hymn sheet as the Tories on spending, there seems little chance of a change if Tony Blair moves into Number 10. Cash-strapped and capped local authorities - which run local libraries - cannot afford this kind of money. Some hope telecommunications companies might be persuaded to help out. For instance, Telewest has provided Croydon library with a local high-speed network linked to two branch libraries and six schools, as well as Internet connections. But such generosity is unlikely to be repeated nationwide.

One answer to the funding question could have been the Millennium Commission, which is dishing out pounds 300m of National Lottery money annually up to the year 2000. Last year, Information for All, an offshoot of the Library Association, bid for pounds 50m from the Millennium Commission to link the UK's public libraries to a high-speed computer network and provide free Internet access. With this sum in the bag, Information for All hoped to get matching funds from the private sector and local authorities.

But in February, to much surprise, the bid was rejected, partly on the grounds that it was not distinctive enough. It was a big disappointment, says Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey, chair of Information for All: "This was one bid that had the potential to benefit everyone in the UK, bridging the gap between the information-rich and information-poor." As a result of this rejection, the Library Association's chief executive, Ross Shimmon, believes "there's little chance now of a national library network being built before 2000."

The one positive result of this mess is that it seems to have forced the Government to tackle the issue head-on. Soon after the Millennium Commission decision, the Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, asked the LIC to consider ways of funding the project as part of its "Reading the Future" review of public libraries. The LIC is due to report in July, and with cross-party support for its work, Mr Evans is confident it is election-proof.

Mrs Bottomley has also promised that after the year 2000, the Millennium Commission's pounds 300m pot will be redirected towards a new "Information and Technology Fund". The "Reading for the Future" document makes a point of saying that "public libraries could benefit significantly from this new ICT fund". But this promise may not survive the general election.

Yet although this holds some promise for the future, this situation effectively leaves the public library system in limbo as regards its use of information technology. Many libraries cannot even afford to provide basic Internet access to users, let alone networking services. As a result, the provision of this most basic of IT services is happening piecemeal. The Library Association's most recent estimate is that just 3-4 per cent of libraries now offer Internet access, compared with almost 50 per cent in the United States.

This is just the infrastructure, though - the plumbing of the library without walls. In the long run, it is the content that is the most important if it is to develop into a genuinely useful service.

But the delay in sorting out the plumbing sets back even further the huge task of making library content in digital form. With no time scale or plan to work to, it is much harder for libraries to justify the costly process of translating and storing books and other documents and materials in digital form.

Some institutions are going ahead anyway. The British Library has started digitising some of its collection and is receiving some government funding. Some local libraries, such as Leeds, are now exhibiting photographs from their local history collection on their Web site. In addition, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum have organised well-received displays on their sites using the latest multimedia techniques. But this level of activity is nothing compared with what is happening in Washington DC at the Library of Congress, the American equivalent of the British Library.

It is in the process of digitising all 70 million items from its non- book collections. These include historic documents, photographs, maps and the papers of eminent Americans, including those of the first 23 US presidents. More than 300,000 items have already been digitised and are available on the Library's Web site under the title "American Memory". You can see the Declaration of Independence, photographs of life in the Depression - even films of the San Francisco earthquake.

By 2000, the Library of Congress hopes to have more than 5 million items available in digital form. This mammoth project could cost up to $60m, but it has already raised $23.5m in sponsorship and commitments of $15m from the US Congress.

It is still not too late for Britain to catch up. All that is needed is a bit of vision - and perhaps a few Andrew Lloyd Webbers to dip into their pockets.

Information for All:

The Library Association:

The British Library:

The Library of Congress:

The Science Museum:

The Natural History Museum: