A phoenix rises and heads for cyberspace

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Norwich's central library went up in flames on 1 August last year, leaving 200,000 books destroyed, the building devastated, and Norfolk's county librarian, Hilary Hammond, almost in tears as he surveyed the loss of irreplaceable historical material.

But plans for a future library are taking shape amid the ashes. Norfolk County Council, Norwich city and the University of East Anglia have joined with a number of local business organisations in a proposal that propels the traditional municipal library into the electronic age. The plan is for the region to have what is being called, perhaps predictably, the virtual library.

"There's no reason why people should have to travel to a library," says Mr Hammond. "Within 10 years, I would like to see us giving users the choice of receiving the information and documents they want electronically." His vision includes dial-up access to the library's databases (including comprehensive information on local and national government and EU services), perhaps from rural telecottages, village shops, schools or direct from people's own homes. The local cable company, Norwich Cablevision, is a partner in the virtual library proposals.

Not that Norfolk is immediately ready to give up on books. "The library will be rebuilt," says Tim Anderson of Norwich City Council. But he adds: "This is an opportunity to recreate a library for the next century, extending it into cyberspace. One lesson from history is that economic development is based on communications, and the next trade route will be the information superhighway. We need the infrastructure, particularly in an area like Norfolk, which is largely rural and where there are difficulties with the transport network."

Tim Anderson is one of a team of officers charged with converting the virtual library vision into a form that will satisfy the European Commission. Bids for funding under the EU's Fourth Framework research and development programme must be in by 15 March, and Norwich and Norfolk plan a series of applications. Helpfully, the EU's specific Telematics Applications programme, worth about £650m, includes support for library development. Norfolk hopes to divert a few of these millions in its direction.

European money is not essential to the plans, but it will speed up the process considerably. Mr Hammond is also determined that the rebuilt library will be geared towards new technology. "Every desk will have facilities for PCs, either for people to bring their own or use ones we will have. I'm pretty certain we'll have a public callbox for using the Internet, too," he says. Given the slow speed of data transfer down telephone lines, however, a proper broad-band connection to the Net would probably be wiser.

Today's public libraries emerged from a Victorian determination to ensure all citizens, rich or poor, had free access to knowledge. The Internet has been built up on a remarkably similar philosophy. But its gradual commercialisation will raise issues about citizens' rights to information. Norfolk is still pondering its charging policy for the virtual library. "We want to make sure we don't have an information-rich and information- poor split in society," Mr Hammond says.

The ruined library stands as a stark reminder of Norwich's loss. "But the fire has created an opportunity that wouldn't have arisen of its own accord," Mr Hammond says. He pauses. "Having said that, I'd rather not have lost the library."