Recently there was a House of Lords debate on the role of libraries and independent bookshops, with Lord Bird – founder of the Big Issue – 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 centres, where alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services.
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.
The thing is, that this ‘community’ role is not in fact part of libraries’ official statutory duties. Not all of them are living up to it. But all of them are taking credit for it.
Furthermore, I need to point out that knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction, are found online. I would go as far as to say that talking about bookshops in the same breath as libraries is particularly unhelpful. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community.
In my view, libraries need to work beyond books to really become the community hubs Baroness Rebuck already gives them credit for being. They should be about social inclusion, providing learning and training opportunities to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Digital skills and digital inclusion are now a vital part of that remit – and it’s a part that was curiously missing from the Lord’s debate.
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, these are the community hubs. Online, offline, on the ground, in real life.
Other libraries are not.
They are insular, don’t integrate with other community groups or services, barely integrate with the council that runs them, and have a cultural resistance to change or modification. These libraries, I believe, deserve to close. I understand that change at a micro level in isolation is very hard. But the fact is these are organisations that have now consistently failed to make the most of the considerable advantage of their position and long-term funding.
From my perspective, it’s time this long-term funding should be channeled 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.
I want to make it really clear at this point that 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 to do so 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.
During better economic times, some libraries have grown lazy. Austerity has been a shock to them. Now they really need to look beyond their doors and respond to their communities, to modernise, to think outside of the box (or book). And they have to prove that they’re doing more, for less money, for more people, and most importantly for the ones who need them the most.
That’s where I think Tinder Foundation can help. It’s our job to make good things happen in communities with digital technology. 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.
To do so they’re making use of our products and services (like our popular learning platform Learn My Way), our Management Information systems to track and prove their impact, and they’re taking part in our projects, pilots and campaigns (like this last week’s National Get Online Week) to engage with new audiences, new partners and new intermediaries. In fact 97% of our partners believe that it is only by working with other community organisations that they can become ‘community hubs’. You can read more about some of those partnerships in action in our recent Library Digital Inclusion Action Research Report.
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 unless we act to change and create the library service of the future – unless we face up to the fact not all of it is working all of the time and cut out the bits that are failing – the vision Lord Bird set out of no libraries, higher walls, more prisons and more shelters, will still come to pass.
So let’s rise together to meet the challenge we’ve all been set.