Public libraries used to be about providing literature to the great unwashed. But if you wanted something more stimulating, you could always go private, write PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD

Public lending libraries are among the most popular and successful features of today's borough.

All of which makes the announcement of the closure of the Totteridge and South Friern branches that much sadder. Generations of citizens have benefited from the library service which was largely a product of the years between the two world wars.

Although the subject of reading matter was to an extent controlled, for those with a predilection for lighter material such as westerns and romantic fiction, there was always the twopenny subscription' library (run by people such as Boots the Chemist and local stationery shops) to fall back on. These finished in the early 1960s.

The earliest local library of which we have read was in Friern Barnet. In 1854, John Miles, a publisher and bookseller by trade, set up a small lending library under the aegis of St James' Church in the new church school in Friern Barnet Lane.

The books were kept in a cupboard in the larger school room and were issued on Tuesday evenings. Miles provided the stock, which we may be sure was of an improving' nature. The service continued until as late as 1937 when the then headmaster Mr Yeaxley retired.

Friern Barnet had other libraries at St Peter's School from 1926 and at The Priory a large house which was demolished in 1938 to make way for the new town hall. These were replaced by a purpose-built library in 1933/4 and another at South Friern in 1963.

The accession register of the Hyde Library in Barnet provides a nice example of what the late Victorians thought the great unwashed' should be allowed to read. There were no thrillers not even Sherlock Holmes.

Hendon Central Library was built in 1929 to plans by T Wilson and is currently being rebuilt. No doubt the rebuild will confirm its position as the jewel in the crown of the borough's libraries. It was followed by Golders Green in 1935, Hartley Avenue, Mill Hill, in 1937 and Childs Hill in 1962.

Finchley opened a voluntary lending library in Seymour Terrace in the High Street in 1894 and another in Avenue House in 1933. Purpose-built libraries were built in Ravensdale Avenue, North Finchley, in 1936, East Finchley in 1938, and Church End in 1964.

Totteridge's library is a remarkable story. In the depths of the war in 1942, when Britain seemed unlikely to survive, a group of residents headed by W P Render persuaded Barnet Council to allow part of Dollis Field, a large Edwardian house, to be used as a public library. Herts County Council supplied an initial stock of 1,400 books, some of which were rotated.

By March 1943, there were more than 1,000 members of the library. Coronation year was marked by a series of public spending cuts and the library hours were reduced to six per week. Another round of spending cuts saw the library finally close its doors on April 3, 2004 but not without a lively public protest from Totteridge residents.

In recent times, the library service has been much more than just books. The loan of audio tapes and gramophone records were a more recent introduction as were provision of cassette tapes of films, plays and material of special interest to ethnic groups. The needs of disabled people have also occupied the authorities, with mobile libraries catering for more remote locations.

Above all, electronic information has transformed the scene. It is now possible for even the smallest library to match the information output of the largest of the old-style libraries. Who knows where it will all end?