Just over a hundred years ago Andrew Carnegie and John Passmore Edwards each founded a public library in Dulwich. Our Victorian benefactors probably had the impressions that libraries (from the Latin 'liber' after all) were intended primarily to contain books. A century later they would undoubtedly be happy to see that the valuable local amenities they created were still opening their doors to the public (even if in some cases for rather fewer hours in the week than they did originally), but they might be mystified by what is now going on inside them.

The Carnegie Library in Herne Hill Road celebrated its centenary in July this year, and Dulwich Library in Lordship Lane did so in November 1997. Carnegie was a Dunfermline boy who emigrated to the United States, established a major steel-mill and railway industry, sold out to US Steel and spent the rest of his life in the equally strenuous pursuit of giving away all his money. Passmore Edwards was a Cornish publisher and civil-rights campaigner, who also endowed the South London Art Gallery in Peckham. Both had a public-spirited feeling that the recently literate general population, including a new clerical army of South London Pooters, should be given free access to the delights of English literature. Crowds of them queued all night, to buy the next instalment of each novel by Dickens (as a choreographed line of children still does for the latest Harry Potter book).

A penetrating wind has recently been blowing through our public libraries, sweeping away any dusty misconception that they are just repositories for boring old books. In some of them most books have disappeared altogether. The Carnegie Library used to hold over 30,000 books but now has only 7,000. Reference libraries have been stripped out, leaving only a few shelves in main libraries to hold a restricted range of standard works that one might expect to find in a moderately good bookshop. Where there were once densely filled book stacks are now wide open spaces, in which little islands of activity appear to showcase popular CDs and DVDs, 'talking books', large print editions, reading-group choices, and 'special interest, sections addressing a selection of ethnic, language, gender and ability groups. Infants and schoolchildren are well provided for too, in separate rooms filled with colourful picture books and suitable video and audio material. There are homework help facilities and a battery of flat-screen computer terminals with access to the Internet.

This could convey an impression that local authorities now treat normal adult English literacy as a minority, possibly elitist, pursuit, but do not want to scare away any diffident newcomers to the strange world of books by confronting them with too much reading matter. With this newly created pressure on available book-space, each book evidently now has to 'compete' for its position on the shelf like any brand of washing powder in a supermarket. This makes for some real clearance bargains on the disposals shelf; of nearly-new books at knockdown prices. Meanwhile readers may be glad to know that Southwark Libraries have in stock 100 copies of the Da Vinci Code and 34 copies of the recent King Kong DVD. This is at a time when local authorities are protesting that their finances are under severe constraint, while there are commercial video-rental stores everywhere and more books are being published than ever before. What exactly is going on?

Public libraries, like English fiction, have trodden a delicate line between edifying and entertaining the public, but perhaps did not always assume such a full social service role as they know try to, or feel that they also have to compete in a new audio-visual society. Within this new regime there is a considerable contrast between the present condition of the two principal libraries in Dulwich; one in Southwark and the other in Lambeth.

Dulwich Library is by far the busiest of the four immediate local public libraries, and probably the most active of the twelve libraries in Southwark. It is one of the two 'strategic' libraries in the borough (the others are 'community libraries'), opens on six days each week, including Sundays, and has 22,000 visitors a month. It is housed in its dignified original brick building, recently refurbished, with the name of John Passmore Edwards still inscribed in its external wall. Sir Henry Irving, the Victorian actor-manager, presided when the foundation stone was laid on 24 September 1896. It now proudly proclaims itself as a destination on London buses that arrive in Lordship Lane (ever since the name of the pub which succeeded The Plough as a local landmark became just too obscure for most people to recognise).

On first inspection Dulwich Library too appears to have undergone a thorough purge of its books, but librarians assure us that this largely an illusion since most of the more serious books have been consigned to a back room. One librarian has special responsibility to ensure that 'classic' titles are retained. This does not necessarily means having to keep old and tired editions on the shelves since 'Everyman Library', for example, has brought out as good new series of many better-known English classics. It is a little dispiriting, though, to find some of these already on the disposals shelf. Dulwich Library maintains a considerable collection of sheet music for loan in the reference library upstairs, together with a good range of classical CDs. There is also a room available for local public meetings, of which this library has had a long and interesting history.

Grove Vale Library near East Dulwich Station consists of two adjoining shop premises. Half of the limited space has been converted into facilities for small children and most of the other half is occupied by audio and video material for rental. It is bright and lively and opens on four days in the week. The restricted remaining area for books still contains a few unexpected titles, evidently reflecting current local demand - for example a copy of The Ragged-Trouser Philanthropists .

Kingswood Library occupies one grandly panelled ground floor room in the house formerly owned by the Vestey family and now in the centre of the Kingswood Estate. It is an isolated, seemingly under used Southwark facility now open on only five half-days each week.

The Carnegie Library in Herne Hill Road is an attractive Grade II listed building in mellow brick with stone- mullioned windows. The Friends of Carnegie Library have successfully resisted Lambeth Council's attempts to close it down. At present it opens on just three and a half days in each week which seems to be the extent of all that Lambeth's staffing budget will allow. It has the internal appearance of having been stripped of its books fairly comprehensively. What was previously the reference library is now a completely bare room. The Friends of Carnegie Library regard this as part of a philistine Lambeth Council policy which has been spurred on by its interpretation of central government guidelines.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has produced a 10-year policy document on public libraries called Framework for the Future. Its main targets are: reading and literacy, lifelong learning, social inclusion, cultural diversity and digital citizenship. These include performance guidelines for local authorities, including an intriguing expectation that public libraries should aim to replace 15% of their stock each year. This may sound like another vigorously progressive government target, but could also have the disturbing consequence that few of the public library's remaining books are more than seven years old. Which could be interpreted as another conspiracy to obliterate our cultural memory.

The Minister of Culture has expressed himself a little sad that the Friends of Carnegie Library see it that way. They however, observe that the government has apparently discarded an earlier target, that local authorities should also retain in their libraries a minimum number of books per 1,000 head of the population. With the removal of this parallel constraint the Friends suspect that some shrewd Lambeth Council accountant has realised that the Authority can reduce the annual cost of its library budget considerably, simply by reducing the total number of books it has in stock.

Two other libraries, also in Lambeth, and on the periphery of Dulwich serve the Society's members. West Norwood Library, next to West Norwood Cemetery in Norwood High Street is a bright purpose-built civic centre and has a well-presented array of books. Upper Norwood Library in Westow Hill, is managed jointly by Lambeth and Croydon councils. It seems to have retained more of its traditional stock, possibly because it serves two boroughs as well as being near the frontiers of three other boroughs, Southwark, Bromley and Croydon.

Information Technology is undoubtedly changing the character of our libraries fundamentally and will continue to do so. There are definite advantages in being able to dispense with the whole traditional apparatus of library tickets, book slips and index cards. There are also advantages to any library user who has a personal computer with internet access. Southwark Council's website address (Southwark.gov.uk) gives access to its entire library catalogue (including the number of copies held of any item). Books can be ordered or renewed online and made for collection at any library branch in the borough. The website also gives on-line access to such reference books as the Dictionary of National Biography, Grove's Music and Art, the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Reference encyclopaedia. Not having to buy or replace hard-cover editions of such reference books produces considerable cost saving. So does keeping fewer copies of less well-known classics. Southwark libraries seem to have adopted the practice of holding just one copy of an older book, for which there is less demand, to serve all twelve of its branches.

Librarians will track down any book a reader asks for. If it is not on Southwark's computerised catalogue, they will search the records of other libraries, including the British Library is necessary. Southwark will buy in a new book, DVD or a CD if they think there will be a sufficiently large demand for it - or if librarians think it ought to be on the shelf anyway (this must account for the spectacular number bought of some popular, not to say junk, new publications or releases). Books borrowed from other libraries are subject to substantial fines if they are lost or overdue.

Librarians say that they perform a valuable service by providing free access to the internet from public libraries. This enables local residents, some of whom may still not own a computer or cannot afford to pay for broadband, to make job applications or send emails to relatives abroad. The social divide is not entirely one of cost since some older people (though fewer in recent years) still have an emotional block about using computers this, librarians stand ready to help any library users who are not computer literate. Computer instruction can be arranged for those who need it although this is not necessary encouraged by describing computer courses for older people as being for "silver surfers".

It should be accepted that public libraries, like the public they serve, must move with the times; that there are needs and tastes of a new generation to cater for, and that the best resources should be available to provide the most efficient service. Some of us might still regret losing the pleasure of having a row of books in front of us to choose from, instead of having to interrogate a machine to track down a title and then wait for days for it to be produced. Bound books are still remarkably efficient and compact source of information and the internet, like each new technological breakthrough still needs harnessing. We may still be someway short of what Professor Charles Handy (formerly of the London Business School) calls the "virtual library - a library without a library, a concept not a place", where books are just a quaint relic.

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