Public Services: Reading the signs and changing: Cathy Aitchison reports on National Library Week and the future of the service

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The Independent Online
AT THE launch of National Library Week on Monday, Ross Shimmon, chairman of the Library Association, was keen to point out how much libraries have changed. He has no time for misplaced nostalgia: 'Quite a lot of our supporters look back to what they imagine libraries were like in the late Fifties. I would much rather work in a library like the one I opened last week. Yes, it had videos, CDs and a computer information system, and it sells postcards and birthday cards, but the vast bulk is devoted to books.'

Libraries seem to be caught both ways: innovate and there are complaints that books are being pushed out; remain static through lack of resources and it is suggested that the public no longer wants their services. While confirming his commitment to libraries, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, also commented that, as with any publicly funded service, 'I would want to assure myself that I was getting value, not doing something because it has always been done'. He confirmed that the public library review, first mooted in 1991, was being given a high priority, and would take the views of users - and current non-users - into account.

Mr Brooke added that he was encouraged by one of the results of the opinion poll carried out by NOP for the Library Association - that many of those looking for a database would turn first to a public library: 'If the public have got it into its mind that a library is the first place to look for a database, that's an asset which libraries shouldn't throw lightly away.'

The poll highlights the increase in book buying which has taken place over the past few years: of those who had looked for a book In the last 12 months, 64 per cent said they would go first to a bookshop, compared with 33 per cent who would go first to a library. On Monday, however, those in the profession strongly denied that the result was disappointing. Mike Hosking, head of libraries and information services in Cambridgeshire, is optimistic. 'Cambridge has had a lot of bookshops opening in the past few years, but we've also seen the public coming to the library more. I look on bookshops and libraries as complementary. Many small market towns don't have a vast range of bookshops. Cambridgeshire is very much a rural county; we also have a mobile service, which is going to areas where there are no bookshops.'

He does agree that the public's experience in the retail area leads to high expectations, especially among young people, 'because of the quality and ambiance in the High Street; but those shops are refurbished every three or four years, and we just don't have the budget to contemplate that'. Perhaps more revealing is the result from the poll which shows where books sit in relation to other leisure items such as magazines, cassettes and videos: in the last 12 months 84 per cent had tried to find a newspaper or magazine, compared with 72 per cent a book, 64 per cent a record or cassette and 57 per cent a video.

Mr Shimmon is worried by the retail trade, but more by the shift in shopping patterns that has occurred in recent years: 'We do know that people use libraries when they go shopping, they are now used to shopping within a broad spectrum of opening hours, and public libraries are not matching that.' Huntingdon, in Cambridgeshire, is experimenting with late evening opening to accomodate the increasing numbers of commuters living there, although the extra hours have been taken from elsewhere in the week.

Library users in the London Borough of Westminster (whose Central Reference Library is a highly respected research source) are split between residents and commuters, with the main libraries open 55 hours a week. David Ruse, assistant director, feels that his staff have adapted well to the business ethos of Westminster; his main difficulty is with the buildings: 'Our libraries operate out of old buildings, many of them listed - which are beautiful, but in terms of a modern library very difficult to run, demanding capital which is not available at present.'

Michael Messenger, of Hereford and Worcester, is a member the Libraries and Information Services Council (LISC) which advises the minister. 'It's generally assumed that libraries don't have a high profile, that there aren't too many votes in libraries.' He feels, however, that where they are really threatened with closure, local communities are often vociferous in their defence.

Sheffield libraries have seen a 30 per cent staffing reduction over the past four years and a similar reduction in the number of books issued, yet the number of registered readers has grown. Keith Crawshaw, the director, also a member of LISC, says: 'People still wish to use the service, but once they get here they're not being satisfied by our ability to meet their full range of needs. Opening hours are not accessible, and increasingly we're not able to provide a book stock which a city of this size demands.'

Regarding the future, Mr Messenger feels positive but cautious. 'I do actually have confidence in the future of the library service, which is not to say that you don't also have to keep up your guard and be very wary - and very ingenious, too, in the way in which resources are applied.'

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