More to libraries than getting wired

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The Independent Online
Everyone who cares about this country should be waiting, with bated breath, for Virginia Bottomley's statement, expected this week, on the future of public libraries. Libraries cannot simply be maintained as they are. If they do not develop quickly to provide what we need in the next century, they will be marginalised and decline.

Mrs Bottomley must make it plain that public libraries are for everyone. Used by 60 per cent of the population - not just by particular social groups like children, pensioners and the unemployed - they must continue to provide a first-class service for life-long learning. Without that, our national ability to respond to change will be severely restricted.

The Department of National Heritage must ensure that we have a coherent national electronic information network, not an ad hoc patchwork. The Library Association's Millennium bid indicates one way forward, with its scheme to connect every library in the country to the Internet. Once all libraries are networked, the possibilities are enormous. People will no longer physically have visit the library building. Information can be made available down the line to businesses and to individual students.

But that does not mean the death of the library as a physical place. In a multicultural, multi-faith society, the library building provides an important social centre for everyone, offering not merely information, but friendly, professional advice. All kinds of people can meet on an equal footing. We should build on our infrastructure of 4,000 public libraries and use them for exhibitions, for community activities and for advice centres. They could become places where people meet the mentors who will help them to plan their learning throughout their lives. They could provide suitably informal centres for assessment of that learning and the awarding of qualifications. The opportunities are there to be seized.

Wiring up libraries does not mean the end of book-borrowing, either. For the foreseeable future, a great part of what people want to read will still be found in books. We must ensure that libraries have a comprehensive stock.

All this will need money. But what is required, above all, is vision. Previous Secretaries of State for National Heritage have failed public libraries by largely ignoring them, and so making them politically invisible. They have given the impression that libraries are dull. Libraries are not dull. They play a crucial part in our national life, culture and economy. If Mrs Bottomley understands that, and proclaims it with fervour and commitment, she will put libraries at the top of everyone's agenda. We must all hope that she does not let us down.

The writer is a children's author and a member of the Government's Advisory Council on Libraries.