Blog article

What are libraries for?

Hudswell Community Pub

At the beginning of the year I wrote a blog “should we care about libraries?” suggesting that community owned libraries could be one way forward given that 450+ libraries are under threat of closure.

Recently a new report on the future of libraries has been published by councils and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council - Future Libraries: Change, options and how to get there

The report examines the findings so far from the Future Libraries Programme pilots, puts forward four ideas for helping to ensure the future survival of libraries:

1 Running libraries in partnership with the private sector, charities and other councils

2 Extending the reach and range of library services by integrating them with other community facilities like churches, shops and village halls and providing public services such as health centres and police surgeries in existing libraries

3 Sharing back office and mobile library services with neighbouring local authorities

4 Giving library users the ability to play a more active role in running library services themselves

A number of councils are investigating delivering library services with new partners or in different arrangements such as trusts, private sector providers or other council partners – as in the case of Essex County Council working with Slough Borough Council. Some are including their library services within wider delivery arrangements by including sport, leisure and/or arts to serve wider community needs in one place.

In some areas local people want to play a more active role in running libraries, and councils are working through the implications of this for their statutory duty under the Public Libraries & Museum Act 1964 to provide a comprehensive and efficient service.  There are a range of approaches already underway or being explored. These include:

  • transfer of the library asset to an existing established community development trust, voluntary body or social enterprise (see Asset Transfer Unit)
  • transfer of the library asset to a newly formed community organisation or social enterprise
  • transfer of library management to an existing or new community organisation
  • new arrangements with town or parishcouncils
  • increased use of volunteers to run libraries or to work alongside professionals to support opening hours and services.

Not surprisingly, the report has received a mixed reception suggesting that it is simply a means to cut library services and similar responses from trade unions.

This is an emotive topic and we all have a fondness for libraries.  When my kids were tiny the library was a haven providing free reading material and interactive entertainment (story telling) but perhaps most importantly saved my sanity and allowed me to meet with likeminded parents.  It also provided information on events and activities and other useful resources.

The library was a meeting point for parents but could also have provided other services such as child care, a café, a youth centre, health services – a community hub? And there are examples around the country such as in Edinburgh

Which made me think just what it the purpose and function of a library and what forms could it take.  These thoughts led me to a brilliant article by Sarah Gillinson, Nesta Innovation Unit

I have resisted reproducing article in its entirety but following extracts:

“During my time at the New York Public Library system (87 community libraries and 4 research libraries spread throughout Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx) the biggest and most challenging piece of work I led was to reinvigorate the library’s mission statement. We spoke with all library staff asking what they saw as the most distinctive and powerful elements of NYPL’s work, at its best. We also interviewed users. The response was overwhelmingly positive in many dimensions but at its core, it boiled down to three things ‘Advancing knowledge, inspiring life-long learning, strengthening our communities’. And that it was free at the point of use

Inspiring life-long learning encompasses an amazing spectrum of activities from access to information (in any form) to stimulating, stretching conversations with well-informed library staff, from providing spaces for quiet work to activities for teens to support and channel self-expression.

Strengthening our communities includes bringing community members together to learn from each other, providing support for civic activities including access to voting forms, learning about your area and providing safe spaces for people who do not have anywhere else to go. Cultural inclusion also fits here – the child who cannot afford to rent or buy the latest movie cannot participate in the conversation about it.

But do these things rely on traditional library spaces, vast local book collections and armies of librarians and clerks to make them happen? In fact, many of these functions risk being undermined by off putting, outdated buildings, intimidating search systems and over-busy staff. At NYPL, some of the best used community resources were atypical and highly focussed on local need. The high-circulating, tiny library in a shop front at a subway station for example. Or the teen room that looks nothing like a library at the amazing Bronx Library Centre, with laptops and computer games available.

Strengthening our communities seems to require a hub. A known space for civic information, advice and support, a place to meet people with similar interests. But where is this hub? Could some of this happen in the community-run post-offices that will be supported by the proposed post office mutual? At the children’s centre or school? At the popular café in the park or the community shop? Could local cinemas run free, open air viewings of popular movies?

What I hope I am illustrating is the critical importance of asking the right questions. Not – can we save our library? But can we save, build and improve on what our libraries do best? Without being constrained by how they have done it for the past 100 years.”

The author suggests a potential model for this is a trust / trust board.  Currently BBC showcasing VillageSOS programme where local communities are saving and restoring vital services and facilities including pubs, mills & cafes, arts & heritage, shop & post office and community centre.   They are all different facilities serving the needs of that community and bringing them together to meet, share, and learn – the heart of the village.  These communities had the idea and were lucky to receive funding from the BigLottery.  There are hundreds of examples around the country where the community not only had the idea, but made it happen and raised the funding from their own community (members of the enterprise bought shares and are now co-owners).  Hudswell Community Pub (George & Dragon) in Yorkshire is a community hub which also has a “mini-library” and raised over £200k from the local community.

Let’s have community hubs which provide life-long learning, information and other services.  Better still let’s make them community-owned enterprises (co-operatives).



Written by Petra Morris
Updated: 19/08/2011