Libraries link up to the future

Networks and databases may soon transform a dusty corner of public life, says Paul Gosling
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A report just landing on the desk of the National Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, will revolutionise the public library. Gone will be the days when research normally involved blowing the dust off old books. Most inquiries will be dealt with on-line, often without even visiting a library.

The Public Libraries Review is recommending that all reference libraries are connected, using Internet, local, national and regional databases and interactive facilities, such as signing for the deaf, and interpretation for all the commonly spoken languages.

The draft report, published last September, caused a storm in the library world, as its emphasis on strong regional libraries was perceived to be at the expense of an information technology network for all public libraries. The final report makes it clear that even the smallest local library should be fully integrated.

Academic libraries are already committed users of IT, but the poor old public library has until now been left behind in the midst of the perpetual local government funding crisis. Next year the Libraries Association, with business partners, will submit a bid to the Millennium Fund to connect all libraries electronically by 2000.

A visit to Croydon's central library, with its 40 terminals available for hire, gives a glimpse of the new library. By next year, businesses and residents of Croydon will not need to visit or phone to obtain information they want. Send the question by e-mail, and the reply will hit an electronic mailbox by the following morning. Library staff will be able to spread work across the day, while fewer callers will have to wait.

Computers are an efficient means of centralising library information, local and national. People thinking of running a business in their own homes would be able to check on local planning regulations, the latest national tax rules, details of unions, advisory groups, consultants and suppliers without having to flick a single printed page.

Chelmsley Wood in Solihull offers perhaps the most exciting vision of the future, not so much for the services it offers, but for who uses it. The area is a deprived part of the West Midlands, with 20 per cent unemployment and a host of social and economic problems. The British Library provided a grant of £127,000 to see if IT would be used in such a deprived area: the answer is an overwhelming yes.

Libraries have traditionally been a home for the middle classes, but alien territory for the proletariat. IT changes all that. Just as satellite aerials are mostly seen on council estates, so multi-media CDs and free use of Internet have the local youth queuing to get into the library at Chelmsley Wood. And just behind them have been their unemployed grandparents, who have never had their hands on a computer.

Until the IT point was installed, fewer than one in three of the local population used Chelmsley Wood's library. Now the figure is one in two.

The Chelmsley Wood experiment goes to the heart of what the purpose of a modern library should be. Academic libraries have formed partnerships with business, for their mutual benefit, but often excluding the public from the most advanced IT use. Public libraries say they need the same technology if the country is not to be divided in a new form, between the information-rich and the information-poor.

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