Can new libraries really transform rundown cities, knit communities together and persuade young people of all races and classes to play and learn together? CABE's latest research says yes – and where better to test the theory than in race-riot-blighted Oldham?
Public libraries. The words evoke an image of well-thumbed Agatha Christie whodunnits in plastic wallets, stained carpet tiles and a view onto a bleak concrete shopping precinct. This may not be entirely fair, but whatever your idea of the local library, it probably isn't as the spearhead of a national drive to regenerate our grim inner cities. CABE, the government's architecture regulator, would beg to differ.

The perception of libraries as little more than moribund book repositories has led to a 17% drop in the public's use of them over the past decade. CABE argues that they could be reinvented as civic centres for the 21st century, with shopping centre-inspired designs that include "cafes, lounge areas with sofas and chill-out zones where young people can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on listening posts". And their role would be as much about knitting together the community as lending books and videos.

Councils seem to agree with the commission – Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool are among British cities using libraries as the centrepieces of their regeneration programmes. But the idea that these buildings can transform a racially divided, crime-ridden city centre into a buzzing, cohesive community is to face its first great test in the troubled Lancashire mill town of Oldham.

On 26 May 2001, Oldham was almost torn apart by its own citizens. A minor stand-off between two youths – one Asian, one white – outside a chip shop escalated to become the UK's worst rioting in 15 years, with both racial communities giving vent to long-held grievances.

One of the main sources of this discontent was Oldham council's use of public money. A parliamentary inquiry into the riots attacked it for distributing its single regeneration budget funds, on projects for either white or Asian communities rather than both. The Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee found there was "competition for recoveries of funds between communities, which exacerbated divisions in areas where there was a strong correlation between wards and different ethnic groups".

In response, a strategic partnership consisting of the council and community groups came up with the idea of creating a neutral space where the effectively segregated communities could come together. Phase one of the town's new cultural quarter – Gallery Oldham – opened to the public in February 2002. Now, plans for a PFI scheme for phase two, a £17m library and lifelong learning centre, have just gone out to tender.

A quiet library may not seem like the best forum for divided peoples to interact with each other, but Richard Lambert, head of libraries, information and archives at Oldham council, says that is unimportant compared with the library's unique political status. "Libraries are useful in the situation we have here, because they are seen as neutral spaces, with no political agenda. There is no bias in favour of race or gender."

The best thing is that there’s a real feeling that the buildings are owned by all the community. There’s no ‘them or us’ mentality

Mohammed Azam, Oldham councillor

Lambert adds that the CABE view, contained in its Better Public Libraries report, released last week, gives weight to this approach: "We've been planning this project for two years but there are a lot of parallels with CABE's report. It's all about creating a new way of looking at library services: the idea is to have a community centre open all hours, which local people treat as a resource."

Stephen King, CABE's head of partnerships, wants the libraries of the future to reflect the needs of their immediate surroundings, rather than just having a decent collection of the works of Dickens and ordnance survey maps. Centres in underprivileged areas with high unemployment and a lot of single-parent families will liaise with career services that provide IT training, and library staff will wander the floor meeting and greeting visitors. And the library is meant to be about getting impressionable young lads off the street – not getting them interested in Emily Brontë.

Oldham can take heart from the success of library projects in other rundown parts of the country. Ken Worpole, co-author of Better Public Libraries, points out that Tower Hamlets council, the most deprived borough in the UK, has improved library use since launching the first of seven "Idea Stores" at Bow in May 2002. That has attracted 1296 visitors a week; the two libraries it replaced attracted 300.

The Idea Stores epitomise the importance given to design in the CABE report and Oldham's planned scheme. They look more like bookshops, with bright blue surfaces, coffee bars serving proper coffee, and squishy sofas as you walk in. The design separates out these more refined areas from play areas for younger children, and the chill-out areas where teenagers can watch DVDs and use PlayStations.

"We've noticed that the centre is very popular with young people," says Lizzie Deane at the council. "They come in to use the computers, use the internet, and just hang out." Nearly one-third of the membership at Bow is under 16, and staff have noticed a particularly strong take-up of IT, and modern language classes since last year.

Long overdue: The new breed of public library

Will Alsop’s £6.5m design for the deprived south London borough of Peckham is arguably the most famous public library in the country. After opening in May 2000, visitors have risen from 168,000 a year to 536,000, with book loans up from 93,000 to 385,000. It has also become a vital email provider for residents unable to afford a computer. Stratford
The grim east London borough of Stratford opened its library in 2000, whereupon 10,000 people joined in its first 10 months – more than six times as many members as its predecessor. Its centrepiece is an audiovisual area modelled on a West End music store. The facility cost £3.3m and was designed by the Miller Bourne Partnership. Bournemouth
Building Design Partnership’s £10m glazed horseshoe opened in June 2002, replacing “the second worst library in England”. The library is already seen as a catalyst for the upgrading of the public realm in the area. Norwich
The £65m Norwich Forum was opened in July 2002 to “reinforce civic life in the city centre”. It has three libraries, a tourist office, a BBC East office and cafes. Citizens are encouraged to sit on its steps and “observe city life”. It was designed by Michael Hopkins & Partners. Blyth, Northumberland
The £14m Blyth Community College, designed by Waring & Netts opened last year. It is part school and part library, and incorporates a crèche and a state of the art IT centre. It is intended to be a focal point for the local community and has a 400-seater multipurpose auditorium.