Smith orders libraries to extend opening hours

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Britain's public libraries were ordered to lengthen their opening hours, improve services to borrowers and extend their lending periods in an overhaul announced by the Government yesterday.

Chris Smith, the Secretaryof State for Culture, Mediaand Sport, said councils across the country needed to act urgently to reverse the trend oflibrary closures, and libraries should boost their dwindling book stocks by turning themselves into "street-corneruniversities".

He warned: "Where necessary, the Government will not hesitate to protect library services by direct intervention."

The national standards would come into force in 2004 and ensure libraries become more customer-friendly. Ministers hope hundreds of libraries will become more accessible if councils open at least one library for a minimum of 60 hours a week.

At present, only 11 out of 3,504 libraries across the country have such hours. In 1979 there were 87 libraries out of a total of 3,634 open such hours.

People in rural and urban areas should have a branch or mobile library available within 20 minutes' travel time. And authorities should buy 216 books, CDs or other items each year for every 1,000 residents.

Mr Smith said: "When libraries came into existence 150 years ago, they provided much-needed free access to entertainment, learning and community resources.

"It is essential that modern public libraries are equipped to fulfil their role as street-corner universities, providing access to learning and enjoyment and also bridging the gap between the information haves and have-nots."