How can libraries do more?

25 Oct 2016

Protecting all libraries at all costs could be holding the sector back.

Local library closures have left communities, educationalists and library information professionals up in arms - and were even a subject for recent debate in the House of Lords.

Led by Lord Bird - founder of the Big Issue - the debate focussed on the role of libraries and independent bookshops, with Lord Bird warning Government that if they keep closing libraries they’ll have to build more prisons and homeless shelters. Libraries, added Baroness Rebuck, Labour peer and chair of Penguin Random House publishing group, are a bedrock of social mobility and social cohesion and should be seen as key community hubs, where alongside books people can rely on other essential life services.

Community hubs are something Good Things Foundation knows a lot about - running the 5,000 strong network of UK online centres, including organisations like community centres, voluntary, charity and faith groups, and libraries.

But it takes more than book-lending to earn the accolade of being a true ‘hub’ for the community.

Good Things Foundation’s Chief Executive, Helen Milner, explains: “I agree with the view that we must protect essential services, knowledge and education for those most disadvantaged in our communities. I agree there is a wider, long-term impact if we don’t. I don’t agree that libraries should receive an automatic ‘get out of austerity-free’ card, merely on the grounds of being libraries."

“Knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction, are found online. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community. To be community hubs, libraries need to be about social inclusion before books. And digital inclusion is part of that picture."

“Some libraries are doing an amazing job of supporting the needs of their community, using digital and other means to engage and empower excluded and vulnerable groups. They’re working closely with Jobcentres, Citizens Advice Bureaux, GPs, social and sheltered housing organisations, faith groups, community centres and charities. They’re offering digital skills, jobs clubs, hosting community workshops, mother and toddler groups, school programmes, local history exhibitions and much, much more."

“These are the community hubs. Online, offline, on the ground, in real life. Other libraries are not, and it’s time we faced that fact. In face of less and less money, we need to consider that those libraries need to close. It's time funding was channelled to the libraries - and other community organisations - really playing the role of community hubs. The organisations whose whole remit and reason for existence is about providing access to knowledge, learning, advice and other vital support services for their local communities."

“I love libraries. But I love them when they’re fulfilling their potential. When they are not, I believe they are bringing the institution down. I believe they are letting local people down. And I’m fed up of seeing them get a free pass, when other community hubs - community centres - are also at the brink of closures, and also faced with the really pointy end of the local council cuts.”

Many libraries are struggling to meet the new needs of their communities, and to prove their impact to key stakeholders and funders. On both fronts, Milner believes Good Things Foundation can support libraries to think bigger and serve local people better.

She adds: “Some of the best UK online centres in our network are libraries. They are working tirelessly to make life better for local people, and digital has become a key way in which they are connecting people to the services, skills, and opportunities they need. Good Things Foundation is providing products and services - like the Learn My Way learning platform, last week’s Get Online Week campaign, and management information and reporting tools to help libraries think and work outside of the box - and the books.

“I believe we can help libraries be better. I believe we can help libraries to be places Lord Bird, Baroness Rebuck and more importantly - local people - would be truly proud of. I believe we can make libraries so strong, so useful, and so essential that no one in their right mind would ever close another one.

“But we won’t do that by pretending all libraries are already brilliant, just by virtue of being libraries.”

Good Things Foundation has recently completed research into digital inclusion in libraries, and it’s role in community support, in the Library Digital Inclusion Action Research Report.