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Tuesday 3rd May

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Libraries More Important Than Pubs

Posted at 9:30AM Thursday 27 Mar 2003

Libraries are more important to the ideal town than the local pub, but most people just want tea - this according to research commissioned for, er, the Library + information Show.

The research also implies that at least half of the books read by people each year are borrowed from libraries, and that a male librarian is better described as a 'beardy-weirdy' than 'young, professional man'.

The show's organisers claim that after schools and hospitals, libraries form the most crucial part of community life of the Great British public.

However, most libraries are failing to maximise their potential by not meeting the demands of the communities they serve. The research indicates the sorts of things people would like to be able to do in their local library. Getting a tea or coffee is the biggest priority with 84% of respondents listing this requirement. Other popular requests are 24-hour access (51%), video conferencing with someone else in a different library (30%) and putting children in a crèche (29%).

These wishes are completely in line with government plans for public libraries revealed last month by Arts Minister Tessa Blackstone who said: "Public libraries in the 21st century should be open when people want to use them, including evenings and weekends, and offer family-friendly facilities like cafes and crèches."

There are some libraries in the UK however, that are taking the lead in following this model, such as the Bow Idea Store in Tower Hamlets, which offers adult education classes, library services, events and a café all under one roof. Tower Hamlets Council is in the process of opening more Idea Stores to prepare local library and adult education services for future generations.

Another big challenge facing libraries is to ensure that people are aware of the wide range of services now available to library users. Despite the fact that over a half of respondents say that they have visited a library in the last six months, two in five people are not aware that you can research your family history at the local library or read a foreign newspaper - both services that most public libraries now offer.

Equally, if libraries are to meet the government's plan to play "a central role in helping people from all walks of life to be part of the communications revolution sweeping the world" they may need to change the impression of one in ten people that libraries are too quiet and try to position them more as internet cafes - a perception currently held by only 2% of people.

Yet, it looks as if Baroness Blackstone's aim for library users to "get access to any book, with others getting expert help on everything from basic literacy to setting up their own community websites and taking part in the ICT revolution" is well on the way to becoming a reality. The vast majority of respondents (92%) are aware that the local library is a place to access the internet, nearly half feel that libraries are best described as a valuable research tool and a quarter feel that libraries' most important purpose is in encouraging children to read.

The research also suggests that this traditional role of encouraging reading is still an important one, as whilst more than a third of people claim to read 20 books or more a year, over half only actually purchase 10 books or less - implying that at least half of the books read by people each year are borrowed.

Whilst the role of libraries in community life is clearly an important one, it emerged from the research that librarians themselves may need an image overhaul. The image of the local librarian seems stuck in the past with one third of people thinking that 'twinset and pearls' best describes the profile of their local librarian, and 'beardy-weirdy' was given as the best description by twice as many people as those who thought 'young, professional man' most appropriate. Overall, less than a quarter of respondents pictured a man as their local librarian, highlighting the fact that this is still a female-dominated profession.

The Library + information Show (LiS) 2003 takes place on 30th April + 1st May at ExCeL, London. The Show brings all sectors of the library profession together to review key industry developments and debate current issues. To pre-book for free tickets visit www.lishow.co.uk or call 01844 271478 or email lis@resourcex.co.uk




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