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A terminal solution to close the book on our library of problems

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News that the British Library needs extensive repairs after only five years has provoked the usual hysterical response from the reading classes, most of whom cling forcefully to the belief that the solution to all architectural problems is, as Quinlan Terry once put it, 'a stout slate roof on four stone walls'. Given that the Scandinavian-esque British Library comes pretty close to that definition in any case, it does come as a bit of a shock to find that the so-called 'extensive repairs'mostly consist of upgrades to the air conditioning and lighting equipment, not to any 'stout slate roof or walls'.

Thus Labour MP Derek Wyatt, who is quoted as saying: 'This is a joke. It is unbelievable that it needs work already' - which only goes to show how little the concept of 150-year-old buildings, like the British Library or Portcullis House, was understood by those who invoked the term when demanding more money for these projects years ago.

For, of course, technological evolution, the ever-accelerating rate of change that we constantly complain about, ensures - at all levels of human endeavour - that there can be no such thing as a 150-yearold human artefact that is not endlessly maintained, altered, enlarged, modified, rendered, painted, eroded or otherwise changed over and over again. This fact - for that is what it is - is actually a component of the process of growth that is similarly universal and, as it happens, has a powerful bearing on the future prospects of the British Library and all libraries that are based upon books as their primary medium.

The reason is that book borrowing from public libraries has halved since 1984, with the number of library users declining from 390,000 in 1996 to fewer than 290,000 today.The decline in borrowing is roughly matched by the the number of books borrowed, which has fallen from more than half a million for the same period to fewer than 350,000 today, with a corresponding drop in book purchases by libraries. While library support groups blame the libraries themselves for spending too much of their budgets on salaries and administration instead of on books, there can be little doubt that the long-term multifold decline in library services traces back much further to the advent of recorded music, radio and television, photocopying and, more recently, the coming of the Internet and information technology in all its forms.

While the rate of change in the field of modern information technology is presently much more rapid than that to be found in building construction, it is only when cases like that of the British Library come to light that the historic concept of the library as a mighty cultural edifice is brought into question.

For a time in the 19th century the phrase 'university of the street corner'did suggest a more utilitarian interpretation of the library's role, but the rise of the local authority soon restored the pursuit of grandeur.Now, in an increasingly electronic environment, the central question of the correct form of the information Library - with a capital 'L' - has moved to centre stage, and perhaps its answer turns out to have been staring us in the face all the time.

For just as the British Library has its operations centre in Boston Spa in Yorkshire, far from central London, where thousands of information transactions a day come and go - as opposed to hundreds from London - so might all libraries in the future become no more than desktop digital information terminals. Not so much an encyclopedia as a library in every home.

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