"Public libraries can rule the world, given the right attitudes and the right response to changing times", said Chris Batt, Director of Libraries and Museums for Croydon. Walking around the headquarters of the service and talking to Chris leaves the impression that in Croydon at least there is a strong tide under the library service and a keen entrepreneurial team determined to take full advantage of all opportunities.
Behind the Victorian facade of the town hall is a building, completed in 1993, which could typify the public library in the information age. It also offers an interesting perspective on the practical application of many of the imperatives articulated in the reports that have appeared recently.
The building itself is light, attractive and welcoming. Its character faithfully embodies the philosophy behind a modern information service, making connections with most groups in society and providing access to a seamless web of information, irrespective of form:
The public library should be a focus for a range of disciplines. Our professional skills are those of the information manager, bridging the gap between people and learning, acting as a channel and a clearing house. I prefer the phrase 'learning for life' to the commonly used 'lifelong learning'. We are helping people to improve their skills so that they do things better.
Superficially, the building still looks much like a conventional library, and this is how Chris Batt thinks it should be, so there are books on shelves and the collections on each of four levels are categorised. Technology is dispersed and accessible everywhere and the floors on all levels are raised to accommodate the services, allowing total flexibility in the positioning of equipment. The management system is Geac and is at least middle aged, but like an elderly jumbo jet it has been overhauled so often that it is in fact a new animal. It is in the use the system is put to that a difference begins to emerge. It is networked to the local further education college and there is a burgeoning relationship between providor and client. The college is ambitious and it is the intention of the library that the relationship already forged will grow with the aspirations of both partners. Is it impossible to envisage a situation where a university college contracts out its information service to a public library? The library catalogue is also networked to the branches and to some schools in the area.
Elsewhere there is ample evidence of a strong and growing student demand being met, not least by the specialist business services provided by the library. Apart from a wide range of print resources, Croydon On Line is the web based information service not only for the business community and academic users, but also for the borough in general. Web pages are rented to other organisations, and managed for them. Websites are sometimes given away to some voluntary organisations and at present the library is discussing the possibility of a health website with potential partners. On another level, Croydon is working to establish and strengthen links with developing countries, and is regularly used by the British Council as an example of good IT practice in public libraries.
Croydon's Internet home page
There is a multi media cd rom network throughout the building, and as soon as the band width is adequate this is likely to be extended to the other service points and to schools that might want it. One point which was stressed is that although the service has a strong entrepreneurial flavour it is essentially market led: it will attempt to meet a legitimate demand if it is articulated. Standard cd rom is already networked across the borough.
The Internet naturally features heavily in Croydon's operation. It is well used by students and by local business, and the system networked to local schools is a managed Research Machines version. The Open Learning network inside the library will provide information technology tuition, and machines can be hired as can email boxes if any member of the public needs an email address.
Inside the complex, as well as a cinema named after the local luminary David Lean, there is a gallery which some time ago displayed 25 Picassos and has recently hosted an Escher exhibition. In the planning stages at the moment is an event organised by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python's Flying Circus fame.
This breadth of approach is seen again in the museum. Covering the history of Croydon since about 1830, it does so through a series of interactive tableaux. Already the winner, in 1996, of the IBM Museum of the Year Multimedia Award, staff are now planning to apply internet technology to the museum displays. Also in 1996 they were winners of the Interpret Britain Best Heritage Site.
Croydon On Line is a BLRIC supported initiative. The service is also active in the PubliCA Concerted Action for Public Libraries programme of the European Union. This is a showcase for the best practice in public libraries across the member countries.
A number of outside bodies have found a congenial home within the library. The careers service is based there largely to make use of the extensive resource collection, and other community organisations are also provided with facilities.
Ted Hughes's concluding stanza in Here it Again, quoted in The People's Network, runs:
Even the most misfitting child
Who's chanced upon the library's worth,
Sits with the genius of the Earth
And turns the key to the whole world
Chris Batt put it in a slightly different way:
"We can start to conduct an orchestra. We can introduce you to lifelong learning experiences."