Today’s guest-writer, Leon Bolton, is a librarian from the UK, with over 25 years of experience in the library sector. He shares his thoughts, opinions and feelings on the role local libraries are playing in the lives of their communities.

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Libraries are local

Like the vast majority of people, I discovered libraries as a child. Growing up in a deprived part of Liverpool, with high levels of functional illiteracy, and few families having books at home, the library provided much needed free access to books for reading and learning.

But just as importantly; the library was local, enabling, as they do now, easy access for families, older people, teenagers, and jobseekers.

In the intervening decades reading formats might have evolved, digital services developed, and service delivery changed but access to a local library remains as important now as it has always been.

Despite the growth in digital services, which have certainly come to the forefront during the current pandemic, libraries as a local ‘physical space’ is what the public values most. Hence the drive to reopen, as safely as possible, so that communities can once again enjoy access to the library building and the range of services provided.

And that is because, beyond collections, beyond information or computer access, libraries also act as a community resource; a place where people can come together to share common experiences and create new ones. A mistaken assumption amongst policy makers is to insist that libraries become ‘community hubs’, missing the essential point that local libraries are and have always been hubs of their communities.

The community hub

Over the years public libraries have offered an increasing range of services and activities to reflect evolving societal and technological changes: 24/7 online services, a base for health initiatives, business support, cultural activities, and education programmes .

Digital inclusion and access to computers remains an essential element of service provision, particularly for those who cannot afford the internet at home. Despite the growth in ownership of mobile phones, the complexity of government information online and official forms means that access to reliable and free IT, and ongoing IT support, via the local library ensures that communities are not left disadvantaged by ‘digital by default’ agendas.

Underpinning this remains the traditional, core role of the library: the provision of free books, including e-Books and e-Magazines, to encourage reading and support learning.

Along with this wide array of services, the public also values the library as a community space: for activities such as family days, reading groups, coffee mornings, knit & natter, film clubs, creative writing courses, coding clubs, and shared cultural and national events. It’s this type of community engagement, which in turn creates social value, that’s not always obvious to non-library users and policy makers.

This is the real strength of libraries: the bringing together of people in the community that enables social cohesion and helps to alleviate the effects of isolation and loneliness for vulnerable groups. It is particularly important in small communities or areas of deprivation that might have little other social infrastructure on the doorstep.

The impact on the community

Support for libraries in the UK remains a constant. In 2010 Museums, Libraries & Archives Council research revealed that the “…public widely value public libraries as a force for good and one that should be provided free. A significant proportion described libraries as “essential” or “very important” in their lives.”

Just as in many areas of life, people’s reliance on libraries tends to vary as their circumstances change such as returning to study, becoming unemployed, having children or retiring. The report also found that people valued the convenience of having libraries within easy travelling distance. This has become increasingly important as local and national lockdowns, due to the coronavirus, have highlighted the need for services to be accessible by walking, cycling or short car/bus journeys.

Three years later Arts Council England, which had taken over responsibility for public libraries from the MLA, recognised libraries as trusted spaces open to all, and as “a safe, free, creative community space that is enjoyable and easy to use, both physically and virtually.”

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust (UK) found support still strong with the data showing that 72% of people in England thought libraries were important for their communities.

The latest data, 2018/19, revealed that there were over 226m library visits in the UK. To put that into perspective that’s more visits than to Premier League football games, A&E services, and the cinema combined!

Still standing strong

Despite ten years of downward pressure on public finances in the UK, support for libraries has remained strong. The general public continue to recognise that there is something intrinsically unique about libraries that act as a driver for inclusion, community cohesion, and social mobility.

Those responsible for reshaping library networks need to be wary that a purely financial response to restructuring services runs the risk of weakening social networks and undermining the very community resilience they are seeking to build.

During times of austerity, or economic uncertainty, during times of pandemic, local libraries have an essential role to play in providing  free access to a range of physical and digital services that underpin the resilience needed to help their communities not just survive but to eventually thrive.

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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