I do not want great libraries, or great community centres, to close their doors. And I am very aware of how hard many library staff, local authority staff, and community organisation staff are working - how much they are being asked to do with much smaller budgets. But I do want us to talk about quality and relevance. I want us to look strategically at the bigger picture of what communities need and how they are being served.
The original piece was a response to the Lords debate into libraries and bookshops, in which all libraries were cited as being community hubs providing essential services alongside book-lending. While this is a role libraries can and should play, (in my opinion) not all are.
I come at the issue from quite a different angle to most, because I get to see libraries’ work alongside that of other organisations involved in literacy, adult education, community cohesion and access to key services. Good Things Foundation has worked for the last 15 years on a day-to-day basis with some wonderful community centres and libraries that form the UK online centres network. Many of these organisations, including some libraries, are suffering under austerity, and struggling to make ends meet.
So what makes a ‘community hub’? Good Things Foundation is a social and digital inclusion charity, so our interest is in seeing organisations reach out to the people most excluded in our society. We believe digital inclusion has a part to play, and that in today’s world not having the basic skills you need to function in a digital world exacerbates social disadvantages.
But digital inclusion is only a very small part of what the really great organisations in the UK online centres network do. So I thought I’d give some practical examples.
The Starting Point Partnership
Based in Stockport, this community based training and facilitation centre is also a community coffee shop. They run 11 free outreach computer clubs using Learn My Way, various craft clubs, coding clubs, volunteer training programmes, financial education for young people, and community conversation facilitation. They work really closely with local libraries, local Jobcentres, Citizens Advice, and have great links with the council’s digital and channel shift team. They’re making a massive difference to local people, and are always changing, undertaking new projects, reaching out to new audiences through new partners, and listening to what local people want.
Cumbria Libraries has a programme of digital skills courses using Learn My Way. They also do a lot of outreach work around health, wellbeing and job skills. I’ve been particularly impressed, though, with some the activity that was part of our recent Libraries Digital Inclusion Action Research project. They formed and led a three-way partnership with Copeland Occupation & Social Centre (COSC), a day care service for people with disabilities, and Lakes College. Students from the Health and Social Care course spent their placement weeks supporting library staff to deliver a digital skills programme to help COSC clients learn how to use tablets. The resulting relationships, skills, and outcomes have been pretty special.
This social enterprise runs several community library venues and community centres in Lewisham. They work closely with local GP surgeries and other health services to provide support to patients that ranges from accessing health information online or booking repeat prescriptions, through to taking part in their programme of exercise classes - from seated aerobics to tai chi, zumba and more. With a large community of people who don’t speak English as a first language, they also run ESOL lessons, as well as homework clubs, adult literacy and numeracy, and of course IT classes. There’s also coffee mornings, clubs for older people, and activities for young families. All of these cross pollinate, so if there is a digital support need this can be addressed, while other needs can be referred externally to a network of other community or council services.
There are three common themes here that I think we can draw out.
- Partnership and outreach
- Responsiveness to the community.
All of these examples have people, and not services, at the centre of their strategy. They don’t just do books, or computers, or just do craft, or job clubs, or anything else. Their priorities are all about people. And that’s the key to being a true community hub.
I hope that this kicks off a debate - not a twitter storm - but a real discussion with people who would like to think more holistically about the needs of our communities. People not just within the libraries sector, but including all those that support and are supported by it - local authorities, health services, digital inclusion organisations, social inclusion charities and many more.
We’ll talk to some partners and let you know what we think we can do to create the right kind of safe space to discuss what makes a great community hub.