Independent Libraries: Freedom, Equality, Community

Tomorrow is National Libraries Day, where we all get to celebrate the massive contribution libraries make to our lives and communities. Over 400,000 people have joined the #NLD15 ThunderClap. And for the first time, that celebration will include not just Local Authority-led libraries, but the independent community-led libraries which have been saved by armies of loyal volunteers.

From the perspective of someone who sees the power of communities and community action every day, this massive rising of volunteers to keep open some of our most local and most vital community amenities has been nothing short of amazing. Certainly it is something to be celebrated.


I do have concerns over how relevant and how sustainable some of these enterprises are.

I love libraries, but I do think they need to be reimagined for the 21st Century (that’s a link to previous blog on this point). Stagnation will kill libraries and kill their wider influence for good far more dramatically than a few branch closures.

Certainly the Society of Chief Librarians – and associated partners – no longer see themselves as only or even primarily about books. The have developed a strategy for the future based on four key areas of service which today’s users regard as integral to public libraries. The ‘Universal Offers’ include the Reading Offer, the Information Offer, the Digital Offer and the Health Offer. (Find out more here.)  It’s something we’ve strongly supported at Tinder Foundation, not least with training for frontline staff to help support the Information and Digital offers.

Volunteer-led libraries are not encumbered by the rules which govern other libraries, and that could give them the freedom, flexibility, and agility to be MORE.

I expect them to innovate. I expect them to be in, of and FOR their communities. I expect them to be enterprising. To be enterprising – even if it’s just charging for a cup of tea. To hire out their spaces for kids groups, kids parties, and evening exercise classes. To set up clubs, to invite in debt councilors, Jobcentre Plus advisors, and Citizens Advice reps. To host tenant meetings, MP surgeries and Council meetings. To give away recycled books to every child in the local primary schools. To fundraise. To think outside of the library box about their community, its needs, and how they can create a resource so valuable, so well-used and so sustainable, it will still be there in another ten to twenty years.

Our independent libraries need volunteers with business, planning and strategic expertise. Volunteers with vision. Social entrepreneurs. Community leaders.

The good news is that in some community-run libraries, we’ve got them. But while divorce from the library network may offer freedom, it also means there is no peer-to-peer support, sharing of best practice or training. It’s pockets of wonderful, amazing work, reliant on wonderful, amazing individuals. And I wonder, in turn, how we can help those individuals do more, be more, for more people? Grow and thrive wild outside the walls of the more ordered, cultivated public library garden?

If you run or work with a volunteer led library, I’d love to hear from you and about what you do. And I’d love to see what I, Tinder Foundation, and the UK online centres network can do to help you do even more than all of the wonderful stuff you’re doing. If you fancy that.


One thought on “Independent Libraries: Freedom, Equality, Community

  1. Pingback: Independent Libraries: Freedom, Equality, Community – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

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