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Tuesday, 16 May, 2000, 09:16 GMT 10:16 UK
Libraries: Read not dead

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

If the opening of Tate Modern was a shot in the arm for British art, the unveiling of the equally striking Peckham Library may prove a boon for book lending.

The 4.5m building in south London is said to be one of the "funkiest" in Britain. Opening on the 150th anniversary of the Public Libraries Act, it seems concrete proof there is life left in this much loved institution.

According to Bill Macnaught, secretary of the Society of Chief Librarians, libraries are set for something a renaissance.
British Library
By volume: The British Library opened recently

"There's a transformation under way. The library service is being revitalised."

While still well over one million books are issued every year, our libraries have experienced a decline.

In the early 1980s, Britons regularly checked out 11 books per head. By last year that figure had fallen to seven books each.

"What has happened in the libraries service is not so much a crisis as chronic neglect. Successive governments have put pressure on local government, with the net result that public libraries were squeezed."

New leaf

Today, just 16 of the nation's 4,160 libraries stay open more than 60 hours per week, compared with 79 in 1984.

Mr Macnaught says "challenging" nationwide standards for library authorities, just announced by culture secretary Chris Smith, are a great encouragement.
Book squirm: Shoppers are now welcome to linger

"It's a very clear sign they want us to continue to thrive."

But is funding the real threat to the future of pubic libraries? Are they in fact losing ground to the new breed of bookshops?

Self-confessed library fan Tim Godfray, of the Booksellers Association, says book retailers have pulled their socks up.

"Our bookshops have got very much better in recent years. We don't just have a rack of books and say: 'Here, buy them.'"

Shop and search

Larger Highstreet stores boast lectures, book readings and cafes. Customers are positively encouraged to loiter, often in comfier armchairs than they have at home.

"Some of the bigger bookshops have become meeting places for people," says Mr Godfray.

Many retailers have also drastically reduced the prices of the very tomes most often borrowed from the public lending service.
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"The top bestsellers are usually discounted and consumers appreciate that and have become far more price conscious."

Mr Godfray says the need for change has not be lost on libraries.

"They have tried to get away from the Victorian institutions where you creep around and talk in whispers."

While not going as far as London mayoral wannabe Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to open bars inside libraries, Mr Godfray says he'd like to more see libraries sitting side-by-side with supermarkets and the like.

Happy ending

Both Mr Godfray and Mr Macnaught agree private and public sectors can co-exist quite happily, each increasing the public's access to books.

Mr Macnaught also dismisses the notion that the internet will ring the death knell of the bricks and mortar library.
Rudyard Kipling
Throwing off the Victorian image

"Instead of the electronic revolution doing away with libraries, it will help them serve their public. We're already developing systems which require them to never set foot on the premises."

The government has already pledged more than 170m to put the lion's share of libraries online and produce web content aimed at ticket holders.

Access to the internet via the "People's Network" is intended to be free, although local authorities are not bound by this recommendation.

"The People's Network will be an engine for community, economic and cultural development, and as significant to the information age as the steam engine was to the industrial revolution," says Chris Batt, one of the projects developers.

Peace and quiet

Laura Swaffield, a reporter for the Library Association Record, says although the technology may be different, the mission of public libraries has not changed since 1850.

"Libraries were opened to give the excluded classes something to do rather than run around the streets and rioting. In a philanthropic sense, they were also given books to open new worlds. That's not too different to now."
Shelf life: Have libraries had their day?

Ms Swaffield says libraries are a perfect vehicle for the government's professed determination to tackle "social exclusion" and desire to bring about "neighbourhood renewal".

"I can't think of another institution that could help do that. Libraries are regarded as friendly and safe places.

"They have built up enormous public affection in 150 years. They ought to be able to capitalise on that. It ought to give them a whole new lease of life."

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