Saturday, March 22, 2003


Libraries of the future will incorporate cafes and crŠches, provide expert help in basic literacy and contribute to wider social inclusion objectives. What's more, a range of respectable celebrities publicly endorsed this vision by singing the praises of libraries: Alvin Hall loves them because they're free; Dawn French uses hers for reading, eating and snogging; and Gary Lineker says 'Power up at your local library!'.

So libraries may soon become the place to be. This would be good news, were it not for the fact that the only thing that makes a library any good - its book collection - is likely to be neglected in the process.

Of course, book stocks get a mention. 'Framework for the Future' identifies the successful public library as having 'a good range of books carefully selected to meet the needs of its community'. However, 'a good range of books' is not necessarily the same as 'a range of good books'. And what are the needs of the community? Are they literary? Possibly not, for although the report emphasises the importance of reading, this is seen as a means to an end; namely, the development of citizenship skills among the socially excluded.

in the new libraries, space seems to be more celebrated than the books it could contain. These bright, open spaces are seen as focal points for visitors to gather and mingle, to chat with friends or simply to admire the view.

Spaces are occupied by 'People's Network' computer terminals, allowing the public free access to the internet. There are some excellent articles and a great deal of useful information published on the internet. However, there is no logical reason for such facilities to be provided in public libraries. After all, the private sector successfully provides internet access in coffee shops.

Furthermore, these terminals are acoustically abominable, being both a source of noise and constructed of wholly unabsorbent moulded plastic. Shoehorn a bank of these into a traditional library (as many local authorities are now doing) and the silence standard becomes impossible to maintain.

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