Libraries urged to go more by the book

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Public libraries should open in the evenings and on Sundays, when people most want to use them, the Government said yesterday in its Public Libraries Review.

The review, which is published by the Department of National Heritage, also warned that "the original concept of the British public-library system was one of high seriousness and importance.

"In more recent years there has been a shift away from that high seriousness towards entertainment".

The National Heritage junior minister, Iain Sproat, said yesterday that too often library shelves were packed with paperbacks that could be easily bought at nearby shops.

The Government ruled out charges for book loan and reference services.

The review added that in order to raise standards, library authorities should annually publish plans setting out clearly how they have performed compared with their own targets, the standards they set themselves, and the standards achieved by other libraries.

The report also states that in order to open outside normal working hours, "libraries may have to consider changed patterns of working, such as those common in other service- providers, including flexible- shift working, closure at slacker times and the use of volunteers."

The report received a mixed reaction yesterday.

Royston Futter, arts and leisure manager for Salford City Council, and a spokesman for the pressure group Library Campaign, said the report was "very, very trite".

"There is very little in here," he said.

"The reason they are closed is that libraries don't have the funds to stay open. We would love to stay open all day, every day. There are only two libraries in this country which are open for more than 60 hours a week. It is simple government cutbacks, and local-authority priorities have quite rightly been social services and education. The report is facile."

But Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association, which represents librarians, said: "We do not see the libraries' role in education and entertainment as mutually exclusive. Libraries can educate, inform, inspire and entertain and these functions can weave productively in and out of each other. The Library Association is heartened to see the Government embracing the function of libraries as the hub of information and imagination in the next century." Sixty per cent of adults use a library at least once a year; public libraries cost pounds 639m in 1995, of which pounds 109m was spent on books and other materials.

Reading the Future: A Review of Public Libraries in England, is available free from the Department of National Heritage, 0171-211-6132