Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

Free internet access planned to boost library use

Councils must retain a statutory duty to provide a universal library service

Free internet access and e-books could help reverse a decline in the number of people using libraries in England, according to a new government review.

Sunday opening and coffee shops might also boost library use, says the review by the Department of Culture.

Membership of one library should also provide access to other libraries in the review suggests.

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge said the changes would help libraries meet the "challenges of the 21st century".

The proposed changes come after figures showed visits to libraries fell in 2008/9 and adult book issues were significantly down.

As every good librarian knows, public libraries are not about sitting back and passively waiting for people to borrow your books
Culture Minister Margaret Hodge

The review calls for free internet access in all England's libraries to be provided by 2011, and says the ministers intend to impose a statutory ban on libraries charging for e-books.

E-books, the review adds, are important to help library services "remain relevant where people are using mobile devices to access information and entertainment".

Library users should also have access to networking sites like Facebook because they are "valuable communication tools and part of our cultural infrastructure".

The review says: "Changes in the market such as the mass digitisation of content by Google and others, Web 2.0 technology and the advent of e-books are changing how people want to receive and engage with information."

It also says there should be a national online book catalogue for library users, once money becomes available.

Starbucks in libraries

The review also says library opening hours need to respond to customer needs and that libraries could consider using volunteers to provide longer opening hours.

It points out some libraries already open later in the evening and on Sundays.

The review also suggests commercial companies such as Starbucks should be allowed to set up cafes in libraries - a scheme already operating in libraries run by London's Hillingdon Council.

The review insists that councils must retain a statutory duty to provide a universal library service.

In her introduction to the review Ms Hodge says: "With more branches than McDonalds or Boots, and more visits to libraries than shoppers in London's West End, the public library network is a triumph of infrastructure and branding."

But she continues: "As every good librarian knows, public libraries are not about sitting back and passively waiting for people to borrow your books - they are about active engagement with the community, making links to other public services, and responding to the policy imperatives of the day."

The review proposes a new strategic body with the power to advise the government be considered to lead and develop the library sector.

It is hoped the reforms will help to tackle a long-term decline in library use.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says loans of adults' books in England have steadily declined in the past decade.

However children's book issues have been increasing year on year for the past five years.

Unison, the public sector union, welcomed the report but warned without secure funding the future for libraries looked bleak.

General secretary Dave Prentis said libraries are the "hub of local communities".

"But libraries are set to be hit with massive cuts over the next three to five years," he added.

"This report goes some way towards safeguarding libraries, by recommending that local councils must have a statutory duty to keep providing them.

"But Unison would like it to go one-step further, setting out exactly what type of library service a local authority has to provide", he said.

The government will review the new arrangements after two years, and consider whether to incorporate them into legislation.

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