On borrowed time in Libraryland

A report on public libraries yesterday described a vision of informatio n 'telecentres' open to all. Marianne Macdonald wonders where the money will come from, while Charles Landry attacks conservatism among the bookshelves
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The Independent Online
Over the past decade, Libraryland, as the library service likes to call itself, has been slipping into quiet crisis. Its funding has been slashed by relentless local authority spending cuts, its book-buying budgets frozen, its opening hours reduced and its public image mired in the Fifties.

In the real world, meanwhile, a revolution has taken place. The information superhighway has opened up unlimited possibilities on the Internet. Computer networks have revolutionised the exchange of information by taking the learning place into the office and home.

Other changes have happened, too. Marketing is slicker than ever and brand image vital. Businesses are orientated to consumer needs. Disabled access has become an increasing priority and the emphasis is on quick, courteous and efficient service.

It is in contrast to this kind of service from the private sector that public libraries look so frayed and shabby. The small branch libraries are often open for only part of the week. Their selection of books is small, old and, in the case of textbooks, frequently out of date. Lighting is poor and shelves out of reach of users. Decor is old-fashioned, computers are thin on the ground and professional librarians have been replaced by untrained staff, to save money.

From the outside they look intimidating or unappealing. The buildings are literally falling down, either because the libraries are housed in Sixties prefabs with an original life expectancy of 10 years, or in the Carnegie buildings built at the turn of the century. Graffiti is lavished on the walls because the cost of removing it is too high, and there are structural problems with the buildings not originally intended to house large swathes of books.

Libraryland clearly has a problem of imagination, and image. Certainly, letters in the Library Association magazine frequently lament the dowdy and boring public perception of librarians. But the more fundamental problem is that it lacks the money to provide the service legally demanded under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. Where it is forthcoming - in the big regional libraries, which the profession regards as centres of excellence - the signs of the future are encouragingly evident.

Warm and centrally located, they offer gaily decorated children's sections with professionally trained children's librarians. Computers are provided to allow the unemployed to search for job vacancies and undertake self- education courses. Cafeterias provide a place to meet and there is a wide array of newspapers, magazines, CDs, tapes, and travel guides.

Such libraries show that, with some cash available, they can be made inviting and relevant. But they need to go further. Book stocks need to be replaced regularly. Libraries should, without exception, be on the Internet and thus linked by computer to each other. Access should be possible via the information superhighway to the disabled, the wheelchair bound, to schools and to offices. Proper provision should be made for children's literature, local studies archives and - just as important, perhaps - decent cafeterias, seating, lighting, signs and shelving.

The money for this would have to come from central government, as it does at the moment. But there are other possibilities for topping up funding for the service. Research shows that 37 per cent of the population would agree with charging users for services such as book borrowing, which are at present provided free. Higher fines could be levied for late returns. Business could provide sponsorships. Above all, there is the option of changing the rules to allow public libraries to apply for the lottery loot, £500m of which has accrued for good causes since November.

Yesterday's report by the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux (Aslib), which was commissioned by the Government and represents the most comprehensive survey of public libraries since 1943, offers a technology-driven conception of the future. It advocates library "telecentres" linked by the Internet, smart cards to speed up borrowing and a better marketing image. Accessibility is also a priority, with studies recommended into improving disabled access and the excellent idea of establishing library kiosks at motorway service stations, rail and bus stations, and village shops.

What it fails to explain is where the money will come from for this brave new world. Its main funding proposal is that the private sector should be encouraged to undertake joint enterprises with public libraries - a notion that the authors of the report say has attracted "top level interest" but about which librarians are cynical. It does not advocate charging for book borrowing - too much of a political hot potato - and misses the crucial opportunity to call for lottery money to be made legally available.

In fact, the message that comes through in both the report and the Department of National Heritage's response is that the Government is still hoping to privatise the libraries. Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, said in yesterday's statement that local authorities should "state explicitly what kind of library service they wish to buy", while the Aslib report suggested that the new hyperlibraries would be "largely" under the control of local authorities. Who will have the rest?

Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association, put his finger on the problem with the long-awaited report. "There is this enormous gulf between the report's ideas for the future and the lack of funding over the past few years. How is the Government going to bridge it?" he asked.

It is easy for consultants to talk about creating hyperlibraries and telecentres, about developing a positive image for public libraries, creating a staff training colleges to attract high-calibre candidates, and for libraries to make better use of the information superhighway. If the Government continues to cap local authority expenditure without offering a funding alternative, such dreams will be pie in the sky. Instead, it will be more of the same: more cuts, fewer libraries, older books, leaking roofs. What should be the public's greatest asset will become so impoverished as to be invalid. As Francis Bacon said: "Knowledge itself is power."