Visits may be in decline, but we can boost digital literacy within our communities

You report that, according to a government review, Britain’s libraries can still flourish “if they offer free internet access, Sunday opening and a promise to provide any book in the national book collection” (Free internet proposed to save struggling libraries, 22 March).

I think this is only part of the answer. Public libraries will adapt and survive because they have a crucial role to play both in fostering reading and commitment to learning, and in delivering vital digital skills and digital inclusion in an increasingly digital Britain.

You quote culture minister Margaret Hodge, who warns that “the context in which libraries operate is changing starkly and at speed”. However, digital is not the future – it is already here, and becoming increasingly essential for activities as basic as finding out about public services or looking for a job. Yet less than half the population have access to broadband.

In fact most people have broadband access via our public library network, which has a vital role to play in fostering digital inclusion by building the online skills of users both young and old. Libraries are a safe, neutral, public space with internet access and skilled staff able to offer information and advice about getting online. They also act as a portal to a wide range of other services – particularly in these economically difficult times.

You quote the review’s assertion that “changes in the market such as mass digitisation of content by Google and others, Web 2.0 technology and ebooks are changing how people want to receive and engage with information”. This is true, and to reflect their users’ changing lifestyles, libraries need to offer longer, more flexible opening hours and a wider array of services – which should include those from higher education institutions or schools. And yes, “commercial companies such as Starbucks should be allowed to set up outlets in libraries to make them more welcoming places”.

Library access to social network sites such as Facebook, and a “big extension in the availability of ebooks” are welcome. But Facebook and ebooks are just the latest technologies, not the holy grail. It is vital that libraries take a cue from users as to what content and formats they want – and what they want from their interaction with new technologies. Libraries can foster digital literacy within their communities – skills vital for our knowledge economy.

Library visits may have been “declining over the past five years”. But usage is still massive and we should not underplay the importance of great stock and the expertise of staff in the central role libraries play in both our communities and our economy.

In our public library service we have a great infrastructure on which to build a digital Britain. Through this we can increase lifelong learning, digital literacy and digital inclusion by bridging the gap between online information and services and the millions who are currently “nonline”. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds