Calling England’s libraries, the time to plan for the future is now

Back in October 2015 we launched a six-month project called the Library Digital Inclusion Fund in consultation with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, funding 16 library services in our network of community partners to run innovative schemes with the aim of increasing their digital inclusion activities, thus increasing their potential and cementing their place in society. Yesterday we launched our research findings from that project, proving that libraries’ community roots and partnerships can address social and digital exclusion – but that more needs to be done.

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The library sector seems to be suffering an existential crisis. They are facing tough times. This new project has established that libraries can, with help, reach those most in need (the 12.6 million people in the UK lacking basic digital skills), helping to connect them to digital information and skills. They work from the ground up and often have the resources – free-to-use WiFi and technology, such as laptops and tablets – that learners need. This makes them an integral part of communities everywhere and to lose any one of them is a great loss. Libraries need to live up to their enormous potential before time runs out. But what can we do?

England’s libraries need a solid digital inclusion strategy

The library sector needs to look ahead and develop a plan for the future. A key element is securing investment to make sure they have the most up-to-date equipment and services. During this year’s Be Online campaign I visited Leeds Libraries and went with them on an outreach session to visit a lovely lady called Molly. It was Molly’s first day with the project – she was learning about the internet through the Libraries@Home service and borrowing an iPad with a SIM card (which was developed as part of the Libraries Digital Inclusion Fund project). Without the proper investment, services such as this will no longer exist, and those already suffering social exclusion will be worse off as a result.

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We also need to think about how libraries can plug into other services to help communities and individuals to thrive. For example libraries could work together with local social housing providers to bring their outreach services to tenants who are otherwise unable to access technology and the online world. This kind of partnership would benefit libraries in so many ways, not least by helping them to prove their worth to local authorities, funders and the wider world, in terms of social impact and economic, digital-by-default support.

Now here comes the stats bit (you knew it would be in here somewhere). We’ve done a few calculations to work out the potential savings to local and national government in the areas where the library services participating in the project are based. Based on what we know about the way our learners shift from using face-to-face and telephone services to online channels, we would expect potential cost savings of more than £800,000 per year just through the project beneficiaries alone. If similar low-scale activities to those which took place throughout the project were implemented across all 151 library services in England, a potential £7.5 million per year of cost savings could be achieved.

Utilising technology and making plans to advance their digital work shows that libraries aren’t just about books any more – it shows that they’re moving with the times and planning for the future. I believe that libraries are not out-dated and not a thing of the past; I believe that libraries are an essential part of communities all across the UK and that they all have the potential to mould themselves and adapt to the developing technological world.

Our project supported more than 1,600 people to improve their digital skills at over 200 branch libraries. Target audiences included elderly people, families in poverty, disabled people and the long term unemployed, with activities ranging from job search skills to keeping in touch; connecting with essential government services to managing long term health conditions; understanding benefits to following hobbies.

Libraries may be an old concept but they are by no means obsolete. At Tinder Foundation we believe that we can help libraries with investment and strategy and this research very much shows that. The time to start planning for the future is now – let’s do it together.

Read our Library Digital Inclusion Fund Action Research Project evaluation report here.

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