Government to dictate to all libraries

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THE GOVERNMENT is for the first time to legislate on how many new books libraries should buy and the hours that libraries will be open. Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will even be advising libraries which books to buy.

The Government's resolve to make new laws governing libraries follows a steady decline in library provision, cutbacks and closures. The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act already requires local councils to provide "a comprehensive and efficient library service", but there has never been any definition of what that should be.

Minimum standards for libraries will be published by the Government next spring after a consultation period. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stressed in an article on the No 10 Downing Street website that the Government expected libraries to make more use of new technology. He wrote: "I believe information technology is important in tackling social exclusion because anyone can walk in to a library, sit down at a screen and start tapping away - at absolutely no cost."

But the most crucial aspect of the new minimum requirements for libraries, Mr Smith said, would be the amount of new books they should buy annually, and the hours that they are open.

While agreeing with the opportunities for new technology in libraries, Mr Smith balanced the Prime Minister's stress on this aspect, saying: "The government expects books and the written word to remain at the core of the public library service."

Mr Smith said that he did not want to pre-empt the consultation. But he did say that the range of provision varied hugely over the country. And he said that the new minimum standards would want to ensure that all libraries contained "the classics of English literature, the texts on the national curriculum, and books on science as well as detective stories".

Mr Smith said that there would be different standards set for different areas. Rural libraries, for example, might not be able to spend as much as city centre libraries.