A report published today by the Library and Information Commission, calls for radical rejuvenation of the public library system. The report, New Library: The People's Network, argues that libraries, long seen as centres of knowledge and learning, must be repositioned as the communications backbone of the information society if the UK is to be a dynamic and competitive force into the next millennium.
The report demands a central role for libraries in the Government's lifelong learning programme; the recently announced National Grid for Learning; and the increasingly global nature of the business world. By broadening the relevance of the library, its resources can be used to underpin these increasing educational, business and research needs. The report emphasises that unless libraries evolve and become the hubs of the information community connecting everyone to the Internet, British society risks becoming a divided nation of information 'haves' and 'have-nots'.
The report suggests that funding for the initiative - £770 million over a period of seven years - comes from local and central government, private companies and the Lottery. Partnerships with bodies including educational institutions, museums and business organisations, will ensure a wealth of information is available at the touch of a button.
Libraries would offer access to a wide range of information sources via the Internet, as well as offering educational and commercial networks, videoconferenceing facilities and digital archives, all in addition to the printed book. This would provide access to business advice, educational material and specialist services, supporting learning programmes and ultimately stimulating the UK's economy. This networked access would also make sure that rural areas do not get left behind as technology increasingly becomes part of daily life.
"The technology we are talking about in the public libraries will act as a bridge from the traditional heritage of the printed word to the advantages of the electronic world. Libraries will provide that bridge in both directions," commented Matthew Evans, chairman of the Library and Information Commission and chairman of Faber and Faber. "It is important to say that although the means of delivery may change, the social values and ethos underpinning our library system won't - new technology is the modern means not the modern end".
It is also recommended that Britain's irreplaceable collection of rare books, manuscripts, paintings and historical artefacts should be turned into digital records and stored for posterity in a new technology "Domesday Book" of the nation's heritage. This would give the general public access to databases of museums, galleries, the media, public services, and agencies in the voluntary and private sector from one location - the library.
Matthew Evans added: "Access to information is a defining factor in the success of a nation and the vitality of its economy. As an existing part of local communities the library provides an ideal and central point of access for users. Fifty eight percent of the UK population owns a library card and visiting a library is the fifth most popular past-time. Harnessing each library to the 'Information Superhighway' will become critical as flexible working habits and the concept of lifelong learning become a reality."
LIC Press release 15th October 1997
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